Memorial Day, Korea, 1974

Memorial Day, Korea, 1974

Pictured above is the memorial tablet one sees as one enters Soldier Memorial Chapel on Camp Walker in Daegu (or Taegu), Korea. It may look like just another memorial plaque, but here on this land U.S. forces made a real difference for the 50 million people now living in the Republic of Korea (ROK). If someone asks if the use or threat of armed force ever does any good, one need look no further than the Korean peninsula.

After the U.S. liberated Korea from a half-century of Japanese occupation at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union made a land-grab to gobble up as much territory as it could in the Pacific. Soviet forces entered the northern half of Korea and effectively divided the nation at the 38th parallel. Stalin trained and equipped the army of his hand-picked dictator – Kim Il Sung – to dominate the region. Unsurprisingly, in June 1950 the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) invaded the unprepared and virtually unarmed republic to its south.

Were it not for the combined efforts of the armed forces of the Republic of Korea, the United States and the fifteen other nations of the United Nations Command that defended against North Korean (and later Chinese) aggression, South Koreans would be living in the same state of starvation and virtual slavery that North Koreans endure today. The Republic of Korea has the one of the largest economies in the world, rising literally from the ashes of its post-war world. Its citizens today enjoy true freedom of expression and political association.

In its 1950 invasion, the Soviet-backed DPRK pushed ROK and US forces south in a matter of weeks. Seoul fell in a matter of days, and the entire southern half of the peninsula was in chaos. By September, UN forces were trapped in the so-called “Pusan (or Busan) Perimeter,” the small southeastern corner of the peninsula. The fighting was fierce, and ROK and US forces endured heavy casualties to buy time and slow the North Korean offensive. The UN forces finally slowed the North Koreans to a stand-still, with the perimeter anchored at Waegwan, a small town on the Nakdong river near Daegu (and now the site of Camp Carroll). The UN forces held the DPRK in the mountains north of Daegu between Waegwan and the east coast and along the Nakdong river in the west. McArthur’s amphibious landing at Incheon and the UN breakout from the Pusan Perimeter pushed the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) north. As the UN forces neared decisive victory (and the reunification of Korea), Chinese forces entered the conflict and pushed the UN south again. Once again, US forces endured terrible hardships and casualties in places like the Chosin reservoir. Here, American forces were outnumbered 4-1 and fought bravely in one of Korea’s cruelest winters.

The fighting officially ended in 1953 with an armistice – not a peace treaty. Over the years, North Korea maintained its designs on the south. It has constantly fielded one of the largest armies in the world and has remained a threat to the Republic of Korea. It has tried to undermine the Seoul government by provocation, infiltration, sabotage, kidnapping, attempted assassination, hijacking and insurrection. In the decades following the war, hundreds died along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and in small skirmishes in ROK territory.

Today, the Republic of Korea provides for nearly all of its own defense. The United States Army maintains only one ground combat brigade on the peninsula, one Army aviation brigade, one field artillery brigade and one air defense brigade. The Air Force maintains fighter wings at Osan and Kunsan. All of the rest of the approximately 25,000 U.S. forces in Korea are in a supporting role.

It is significant to me that the Protestants and Catholics of the Taegu military community erected this memorial in 1974 at the end of the Vietnam era. Soldiering was not much admired by Americans in 1974. Misguided youth that I was, I was at the height of my own anti-military phase in the mid 1970’s. Little did I know.

By 1974, most U.S forces had been withdrawn from Vietnam, but South Vietnam still retained its political autonomy. When North Vietnam invaded the south again in 1975, Congress refused to provide either military or economic aid to South Vietnam. The communists took control of the entire country, sending hundreds of thousands into political prisons (with perhaps 165,00 dying), making millions more into refugees (many of whom died on the open sea as “boat people”) and setting the stage for the fall of Laos and Cambodia to even more brutal communist forces.

In 1974, Korea’s own march toward true democracy was not yet complete, either. Anyone who knows the political history of Korea knows that his has been filled with its own bumps and detours. The 19th century introduced democratic ideals to the world, but Japan’s political and military domination of Korea prevented democracy from taking root on the Korean peninsula. When Korea was liberated from Japanese rule in 1945, it had no history of democratic government. The Confucian philosophy emphasized respect for social status and the authority of society’s leaders. The political threat of communism remained very real. Within the first few decades of Korea’s history as a republic, there were coups, assassinations, acts of political repression and acts of violence on both sides of political spectrum.

When this memorial tablet was erected in 1974, the armistice that saved South Korea was only 21 years old. At no point in South Korea’s history, however, has there been a moral equivalence between north and south. Even in its most difficult days, democracy in the south was a flower growing in rocky soil. It was a plant that needed to be nurtured and protected, not a bug that needed to be squashed. Over the last several decades that flower has truly bloomed for the people of South Korea. I suspect that the people who erected this monument recognized that the “democracy, peace and justice” for which the members of the U.S. armed forces gave their lives was neither instantaneous nor perfect. In relative terms, however, it was infinitely preferable to the alternative. And they could see what this fragile flower of democracy could become. I wonder if Americans today have that kind of patience or vision. I didn’t, in 1974.