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[Kim Seong-kon] ’Where have all the soldiers gone?’

The 72nd anniversary of the Korean War is just around the corner, meaning that those born in the unforgettable year of 1950 are now 72 years old. It also means that few people in Korea will remember the war that utterly devastated the Korean Peninsula for three years or those who died in wartime. Americans call the Korean War the “forgotten war” because few people seem to remember it. For the Korean people, however, the Korean War must not be forgotten.

Embarrassingly, we do not seem to remember or honor those who served and sacrificed for their country. Finding a memorial cemetery for veterans who died for freedom during the Korean War is not easy. The National Cemetery in Seoul is an exception, but only a few soldiers who died during the Korean War were buried there. It shows that we do not pay homage properly to those who sacrificed themselves while serving their homeland.

In other nations, people always remember and appreciate the sacrifice of soldiers who died for the country. For instance, in the US, you can easily find memorial cemeteries for soldiers killed in war. In the small rural town in New Hampshire where I live, for example, there is a huge memorial cemetery for the 308 veterans from the town who died in World War II. On a big signboard inscribed “Honor Roll,” there are the names of World War II veterans who could not return to their hometown. The cemetery is located next to an elementary school, presumably for educational purposes, so young students remember those who died and can be grateful for their sacrifice.

In the park downtown, there also stands a monument dedicated to “all the men and women” from the town “who served their country in times of need to keep alight the fires of freedom.” In Korea, I have never seen a town with a monument commemorating the local soldiers who died in the Korean War.

A memorial monument decorated with flowers greets people in front of the Hartford Town Hall in Vermont. It says, “Dedicated to all veterans of the Town of Hartford who have served their country in all wars.” I could see similar memorial cemeteries or monuments for the soldiers killed in action wherever I have lived in the US, whether in small college towns or thriving cities.

In Korea, however, we fail to honor the soldiers who died in the Korean War and other battles with North Korea.

In 2002, for example, six South Korean Navy soldiers died, and 19 were wounded during the Battle of Yeonpyeong. How many of us remember those who sacrificed for their country in that battle?

In 2010, the ROKS Cheonan sank by a North Korean torpedo, killing 46 South Koreans. Embarrassingly, many people have desecrated the Navy soldiers’ deaths for the country and mocked survivors by taking the side of North Korea. 

Even some of our presidents, too, ignored their sacrifices by not attending the memorial ceremonies for those patriotic soldiers.

The problem is that if we do not remember and honor those who died for us, no one will be willing to fight to the death for our country when war breaks out in the future. Indeed, who would want to risk their lives to protect a country if the people of that country do not respect their sacrifice? We should be grateful to those soldiers who died for us on battlefields. We cannot take it for granted.

“Where have all the flowers gone?” is a famous anti-war song sung by the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez and a host of others. The lyrics are slightly different depending on who sings it, but it goes like this: “Where have all the flowers gone?/ Young girls picked them, every one/ Where have all the young girls gone?/ Gone to young men, every one.”

Then it continues, “Where have all the young men gone? / Gone to soldiers, every one / Where have all the soldiers gone? / Gone to graveyards, every one / Where have all the graveyards gone? / Gone to flowers, every on e/ When will they ever learn? / When will they ever learn?”

As the song laments, humans are stupid enough to start wars that always end in tragedy. As US Army Gen. William Westmoreland pointed out, “The military don’t start wars. Politicians start wars.” Currently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine worries us, as we are witnessing heavy casualties. We should remember those who served and sacrificed for their country.

On the 72nd anniversary of the Korean War, we should be determined to defend our nation against the trigger-happy North, which has armed itself with nuclear weapons. We should also remember and honor those soldiers who died during the Korean War, in the Battle of Yeonpyeong, and in the sinking of ROKS Cheonan. 


Kim Seong-kon
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.
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