The past is something from which we should learn valuable lessons, not something to have a grudge about or to misuse for the sake of personal vendettas. Regrettably, however, our left-wing politicians are hopelessly obsessed with past resentments, thereby preventing South Korea from soaring into the future. Consequently, they have dragged the nation’s people into the labyrinth of the past for the last few years.
In today’s South Korea, therefore, the future is nebulous and history has become a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken, just like Stephen Daedalus in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” That is why we urgently need future-oriented leaders, not past-obsessed ones. We need leaders who are well aware of the rapid and radical changes taking place in the world these days and who can present a blueprint for how our country can cope amid these challenging times and have a bright future. For example, instead of wasting time debating the legitimacy of South Korea’s founding in 1948 or witch-hunting pro-Japan people who collaborated with the Japanese colonial government in the early 20th century, our political leaders should come up with a vision for the future.
If only we try to learn from the past, it can teach us many things. For example, the Korean War edifies us that if we are not prepared, we will be vulnerable to the aggressions of the North. Not knowing North Korea’s invasion of the South was imminent, our military leaders notoriously bluffed in 1950 that they could occupy North Korea so easily that they could have lunch in Pyongyang and dinner in Sinuiju. In fact, however, South Korea did not have a tank at the time.
While reading the recently published book “The Forgotten War of 1950,” I came across some intriguing passages. One of the contributors recollected a conversation with his friends during the Korean War. One of his friends had said, “My brother told the American reporter that Koreans were truly thankful for America coming to rescue us. The CBS reporter told my brother that America came to Korea to fight the Soviet Union, to stop the spread of Communism,” he continued, “so my brother believed that America acted to pursue its own interest, not out of friendly benevolence for the Korean people.” Then the author wrote, “A silence fell upon us. I felt betrayed. My unmitigated faith in our ally, the United States, was invalidated.” However, the contributor later concluded, “Why, this American reporter was honest. He declined to accept the thanks he didn’t think his country deserved. Americans were fair after all.”
The American CBS reporter was only partially right because no matter what Washington’s intent was, it is undeniable that American soldiers came to rescue us and died for us. Indeed, at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in the National Mall of Washington, we can find the heartrending inscription “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” Thus, we should be grateful for their sacrifice for our nation.
Even today, some Koreans still argue that the US Army is in South Korea solely for the interests of America, not for South Korea. If this is true, then why did former President Donald Trump demand from the South Korean government such an astronomical amount of money for the deployment of US troops to South Korea? Perhaps the US Army in South Korea has all along served a double purpose: to stop communism from spreading to Asia and to protect her ally South Korea. Actually, the two are not separate, but interlinked.
Some of our radical politicians and people call for the withdrawal of the US Army from South Korea, wrongfully thinking that its presence hampers the peace of the Korean Peninsula by imposing a threat on North Korea. However, experts have warned us that we should learn from what happened to the countries from which US troops have withdrawn. For example, soon after US troops left South Vietnam, North Vietnam occupied the South. As for the Philippines, the once affluent, advanced country in Asia together with Japan has been suffering serious economic setbacks ever since US troops left. These days Afghanistan faces the dominance of the Taliban, as Washington has almost completed the withdrawal of US troops there. South Korea, too, should seriously consider what would happen to her if the US Army withdrew.
Many South Koreans mistakenly believe that Washington would never be able to pull US troops out of South Korea because the Korean Peninsula is so strategically important. They are wrong. To their disappointment, Washington might instead think that Japan, the Philippines or Australia could replace South Korea as a military base and pull US troops from the Korean Peninsula if it believes that the South Korean government is pro-North Korea and pro-China, rather than pro-America.
We should prepare for rapidly changing international politics. Anything can happen in the future.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.