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Korean War vets' efforts to defend freedom

By Richard Pennington

One of my former professors at Stephen F. Austin State University met with some local Korean War veterans recently. Knowing that I live here and care so deeply about every aspect of Korean history and culture, he invited me to speak to them in absentia.

This is what I wrote: Hello, gentlemen. I was born in December 1952, about eight months before the armistice was signed ending the Korean War. As all of you undoubtedly know, it has sometimes been called "the forgotten war."

This is a vast overstatement, especially in Korea. Even with the passage of 70 years, it is remembered. I moved to Daegu in November 2007 and came north to Seoul in February 2009. Since then, I have traveled all over the southern half of the Korean peninsula.

I have probably been in 250 cities, big and small. In my travels, I have lost count of the Korean War memorials I have seen. I have been to Texas Street in Busan, Dongducheon, Incheon, the Iron Triangle, Imjingak, the Punchbowl, Osan and other such places. The Battle of Osan, you may recall, was the first engagement of U.S. and North Korean forces.

On July 5, 1950, Kim Il-sung's Soviet-made tanks had taken Seoul and were rumbling further south. Thousands of terrified people fled, and in response 400 poorly trained, poorly equipped American soldiers went forward to meet the enemy. It was a hopeless rearguard action. All they did was slow down the North Koreans, but they demonstrated a firm intention to stand by their allies.

The South Koreans remember. They remember the suffering and valor of their own people, both military and civilian. And they surely remember the many men (and a few women) who came to their rescue ― some would quibble with that word, but I think it is the correct one ― back in the early 1950s.

They know the difference you made. If not for the Americans, British, Canadians, Australians, Filipinos, New Zealanders, Turks, French and others, the war would have been over quickly. There can be no doubt that without their foreign friends, the South Koreans would have eventually capitulated.

The entire peninsula would have been subject to Kim's brand of socialism/communism. The southerners, like their brothers to the north, would have been under the boot heel of the so-called Great Leader who was acting with the support ― implicit or otherwise ― of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.

Nine times, I have stood at the border and pondered the differences between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea. Forgive me if I generalize, but on one side I see darkness and on the other, light; folly (I refer here not to the people themselves but to the government, which is in fact the Kim family) versus wisdom; coercion versus freedom; sorrow versus joy. I could go on and on, but I hope this adequately contrasts North and South Korea or at least my perception thereof.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to accompany a young Korean friend to Okcheon Army Base near Daejeon. He had recently finished his two-year military service and wanted to see some of his buddies. I don't think they get too many foreign visitors at that place. When he introduced me to those husky young men, I gave an impromptu speech. As my bilingual friend translated, I told them that I appreciated what they were doing to ensure a strong and viable future for South Korea.

Furthermore, I reminded them about their allies ― the Americans, most of all. I realize that some people view the United States' involvement in Korea, which began in the waning days of World War II, in geopolitical terms. This perception is cynical but understandable.

Nonetheless, the indisputable fact is that without American military support then, this place would be quite different, by which I meant worse. It was not a jingoistic spiel, and I do not wish to go all red-white-and-blue on you today. I merely told them that, in simple terms, the U.S. had saved them!

I have been asked to comment on whether your effort was worth it. We lost a lot in Korea during that conflict: Many billions of dollars, more than 36,000 dead, 92,000 wounded, 8,000 missing in action and another 7,000 prisoners of war. You guys traveled a long distance and sacrificed dearly to help the people of South Korea. My opinion counts less than yours since I did not stand in harm's way; you did. I hope you agree with me when I answer his question affirmatively.

June 25, 2020 was the 70th anniversary of the start of the war. The alliance has endured because of the rightness of our shared cause. I do believe that history has proven it to be so.

If I were there now with you, I would shake each one of you by the hand and say that, quite clearly, what you did here in Korea was of great value. On behalf of the large majority of citizens of this strongly democratic country, I thank you.


Richard Pennington (raput76@gmail.com), a native of Texas in the U.S., works as an editor at a law firm in southern Seoul. He is the author of 23 nonfiction books. The most recent is "Travels of an American-Korean, 2014-2020," published by JisikGonggam.




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