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The True Meaning of the Korean War

Posted June. 25, 2010 13:05,   


Sixty years ago, on the evening of Saturday, June 24, 1950, the top brass of the South Korean Army, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chae Byong-duk, threw a party to celebrate the opening of an officers` club by inviting frontline division commanders in Seoul’s Yongsan district. They drank and danced into the wee hours of the morning. A third of South Korean soldiers were on leave or stayed out overnight at the time. When drunk South Korean Army leaders were half conscious, North Korean soldiers led by Soviet-made T-34 tanks crossed the 38th parallel and captured Seoul in just three days. After the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula, unprepared South Korean forces retreated to the Nakdong River. The fate of a free Republic of Korea was like that of a flickering candle. Had it not been for the U.N. Security Council’s immediate denunciation of the North’s act of aggression, the decision to deploy U.N. forces, troop deployment by 21 countries -- 16 for combat troops and five for medical assistance -- and the Incheon landing led by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the head of the U.N. Command, South Koreans would have been doomed to a harsh existence over the past 60 years under a communist regime.

One million to 1.3 million South Korean soldiers and about two million foreign troops fought in the Korean War. The death toll was 152,000 South Korean soldiers and 37,000 U.N. forces, including 33,000 U.S. soldiers. The 50 million people in the Republic of Korea owe their liberty and prosperity to those who gave their lives in the war. Without courageous soldiers who defended liberty and the nation, South Korea would never have achieved its remarkable economic growth and its youths could not have cried “Dae~hanminguk (Republic of Korea)” on the streets to cheer on their national soccer team in the World Cup.

Many youths, however, remain unaware of when the war broke out and who started it. Left-leaning youths with a poor understanding of the conflict say the war was an attempt to unify or liberate the Korean Peninsula. The late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung claimed that South Korea triggered the war, and left-leaning South Korean scholars argued that the war broke out amid inter-Korean skirmishes. These claims lost ground after diplomatic documents of the Soviet Union were declassified in the 1990s. The documents clearly showed that North Korea started the war with Soviet backing. Seoul must understand that teaching the younger generation the true meaning of the Korean War is directly linked to the establishment of national identity.

The Korean War and the March 26 sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan have something in common: lapse of national security readiness. When Pyongyang frequently launched military provocations to check Seoul’s preparedness in the early 1950s, South Korea put its military on alert three times. When the North completed preparation for an invasion of the South Wednesday, however, the South Korean military made a lax judgment, citing no abnormal signs and lowering their guard. The Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul ordered the South Korean Navy to prepare for retaliation last year by the North after an inter-Korean naval clash in the Yellow Sea in November. The Navy ignored the order and the Joint Chiefs of Staff never checked, however. Though the Cheonan was notified of the disappearance of three North Korean submarines from a North Korean submarine base two or three days before its sinking, the vessel took no action.

The North has never abandoned its goal of communizing the entire Korean Peninsula since the Korean War. Pyongyang will welcome the transfer of wartime operational command from Washington to Seoul scheduled for April 17, 2012. Fortunately, the U.S. and South Korea are discussing a delay of the transfer.

The South Korea-U.S. alliance is based on the operational command that President Rhee Syngman transferred to Gen. Douglas MacArthur shortly after the war’s outbreak in July 1950; the South Korea-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty signed in October 1953; and the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command that President Park Chung-hee established. The concept of a U.S.-dependent defense is likely to change after 2020. South Korea is facing the huge challenges of national defense, preparation for a sudden change in North Korea, and reunification.

The Korean War was a battle to protect free democracy. So the Korean Peninsula should be reunified based on free democracy and market economy instead of on communism that the North sought through the invasion. Leftists in South Korea have recently stressed peace in dealing with North Korea. They, however, have replaced the slogan “between the same nation” with peace because the former no longer appeals to the people. Nobody will refuse peace, but without a strong and ready national defense, peace cannot be maintained.

Seoul and the people alike should do whatever is necessary to live up to the noble sacrifices of the fallen soldiers in the Korean War and take care of the wounded and their families. In addition, the South should never give up fighting for the return of more than 500 South Korean POWs believed to be in North Korea. The Republic of Korea’s mission is to end the Kim Jong Il dictatorship that starves its people to death and threatens peace on the Korean Peninsula and the world, and reunify the Korean Peninsula.

Time can heal scars and ebb the memory of painful events. South Koreans, however, must not let the Korean War vanish from memory at a time when North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and launch military provocations.