Do We Remember the Lessons of the Korean War?

      June 25, 2020 13:07

      Thursday marks the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, which was triggered by North Korea's invasion of South Korea. The surprise attack at dawn by Kim Il-sung's forces led to the death or injury of 630,000 South Korean soldiers and 150,000 UN forces. There are no accurate figures when it comes to the number of civilian casualties. The Korean War was among the worst tragedies to afflict the Korean people, and the bloodshed left an indelible wound in the nation's psyche.

      South Korea was able to emerge from the ashes of the war and achieve phenomenal economic growth that has been described as the "miracle on the Han River." South Korea's GDP stood at a mere US$1.3 billion in 1953 but surged more than 1,000 times to $1.6 trillion last year. Per-capita income also rose from $67 to $30,000, which is nearly on a par with advanced countries. From one of the world's poorest countries, South Korea has grown in status to be invited to join the G7 nations. The rapid industrialization and eventual democratization it achieved turned the Korean War from an obscure conflict between two backwater dictatorships into a resounding victory in the struggle for freedom. Surviving Korean War veterans, most of whom are nonagenarians now, are surprised by what they achieved by putting their lives on the line. If South Korea had been defeated, the miracle on the Han River would not have been possible, and South Koreans might even now be living under the tyranny and oppression of the North Korean regime.

      We must never forget the fact that 54,000 American soldiers perished in the war to protect a country many of them had never heard of. Thanks to their sacrifices, our country was able to prosper. Yet today, protesters chant anti-American slogans and climb over the wall of the U.S. ambassador's residence as police stand idly by. A war hero who pushed back even when 90 percent of our territory had been overtaken by communist forces is now being labeled a pro-Japanese sympathizer and may not even be buried at the National Cemetery. In contrast, another independence fighter during the Japanese colonial period who sided with Kim Il-sung during the war and even received medals from the communist invaders is now lauded as a founder of our military. Surveys show that only 44 percent of South Koreans in their 20s blame North Korea for causing the Korean War.

      The tragedy of the Korean War was caused by misjudgment and carelessness. Top brass let their guard down even though they were briefed that a massive North Korean military formation had gathered along the demilitarized zone. Almost half of our troops were given weekend leave, while even frontline commanders were attending a party at Army headquarters. The Army chief of staff even boasted that he intends to "have breakfast in Kaesong, lunch in Pyongyang and dinner in Sinuiju" if a war broke out. But once it did, it took just four days for Seoul to fall into enemy hands.

      Are circumstances really so different today? North Korea has scores of nuclear warheads and continues to tinker with long-range missiles capable of delivering those deadly payloads across South Korea. It regularly vows to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire." But our government and military are not worried. The three major joint military exercises with the U.S. have been halted, as have aerial surveillance missions over the demilitarized zone. Our government and military believe the president's photo-ops with the North Korean leader are enough to guarantee peace on the Korean Peninsula. The Korea Defense Daily even says peace is achieved "not by military strength, but through dialogue." Are we really sure that the tragedy that took place 70 years ago cannot be repeated?

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