Skipping school, Noonsong thought she could sleep until noon. The day felt like a national holiday. However, siren sounds from the television in the living room woke her up suddenly. What happened? Why was the television turned on? Running into the living room full of anger and worry, her emotions soon turn to shame. It’s June 6, national Memorial Day for the Republic of Korea. It’s a day commemorating honored past patriots. Each Memorial Day sirens ring loudly so that people remember to take one minute of silence for the honored deceased. Full of shame, Noonsong looks out the window to see Korean flags lowered to half-staff. She reminds the meaning of Memorial Day.
The Tragedy of the Korean War
Memorial Day is a day for Koreans to remember those that died in the war. Koreans console the spirit of the departed and commemorate the loyalty of the patriots. About 70 years ago, more than 400,000 South Korean soldiers died, and a million innocent citizens were killed during the Korean War. After the air of stability was formed after the armistice, the Korean government designated June 6th Memorial Day and declared it a public holiday to commemorate those lost in the war. The Memorial Day ceremony is hosted by the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affair at the National Cemetery. At the start of the event, sirens are sounded for one minute, and the entire nation pays silent tribute to the war’s fallen patriots. Public offices, companies, organizations, and families lower their Korean flags to half-staff.
On June 25, 1950, North Korean armies invaded South Korea. Prior to the invasion, Korea had become divided due to the ideological conflict in the establishment of a new one-nation government, which was influenced by the Cold War between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. The war lasted 3 years and ended with a ceasefire agreement on July 27, 1953. The war was devastating. Many people lost their lives, cultural properties were destroyed, and national infrastructures were needed to be reestablished. Especially, almost 2 million people across the Korean Peninsula were either dead or missing. The destruction of homes and the damages to infrastructures are still felt today. Those who experienced the war are still alive, and many soldiers are still talking about the days of the war.
A Forgotten War
The Korean War is the largest war since the establishment of a Korean government. The war broke out in the early hours of June 25, 1950, and soon escalated into an international war. According to statistics from the Ministry of National Defense's Institute for Military History, the number of participating nations in the Korean War is 21 countries, with about 1,957,616 veterans worldwide. Volunteer soldiers from South Korean ally nations include all 16 nations sent by the United Nations at the time, the US, the UK, Canada, Turkey, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, the Netherlands, Colombia, Greece, New Zealand, Ethiopia, Belgium, France, South Africa, and Luxembourg. Besides, namely Sweden, Denmark, India, Norway, and Italy sent medical aid support to Korea for the injured. Unfortunately, among the documented number of foreigner soldiers here in Korea, about 151,129 were either killed in battle, had life-threatening war injuries, disappeared or were captured. Like this, there have been as many victims as the size, and many sacrificed themselves for a small piece of land in Asia, regardless of nationality or abilities. However, the sacrifices of all those in the war have been forgotten in society.
Despite the largest number of volunteering foreign soldiers being from the US, the US history books refer to the Korean War as the “forgotten war”. Salvatore Scarlato, director of the Long Island branch of the Korean War Veterans Association (KWVA) said, "The Korean War (in the US) was defined as nothing more than an operation ordered by President Truman to General MacArthur, who was then commander-in-chief of the Asian region, and it was only after the passage of a U.S. Congress resolution in 1999 that officially restored its status as a war.”1) Unlike World War II and the Vietnam War, only one page is allotted to the Korean War in the US history textbooks, so many people in the US do not know exactly what took place or why the Korean War occurred. As a result, the Korean War, a war that took the lives of millions of people, has long been forgotten in the US, and those who served during the war are not being recognized for their sacrifice. In addition, the remains of countless victims are still buried on the Korean Peninsula and have not been returned to their families. In August 1954, shortly after the truce was signed, North Korea returned the remains of 4,023 UN soldiers killed in action, but later the North halted the repatriation. It only resumed the activity in 1990 and it finished in 2007.2) More recently, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has promised repatriation of all the remaining US soldiers during the 2018 June 12 DPRK-US Summit. However, returning of the veterans’ remains will not come soon because the identification of the remains will take many years.
Memory and Movement
For Koreans, the Korean War remains a bitter memory. For this reason, the war has not been forgotten in Korea, and each year, the nation pays respect to its veterans. The government of the Republic of Korea has continued to offer words of appreciation to the veterans of the Korean War. The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs annually prepares for veteran affairs projects and discussion and hosts the yearly commemoration for veterans. On November 11, the ‘Turn toward Busan’ event is hosted by the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs to commemorate fallen soldiers who sacrificed lives to protect freedom and peace throughout the world. Annually, at 11 o'clock on November 11, UN combatant nations commemorate veterans at the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan, where UN veterans are enshrined. Moreover, according to a report released by the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs in 2019, the Ministry pledges to establish a plan to reciprocate the sacrifice and contribution of UN veterans. With this goal in mind, the Ministry has announced the invitation of foreign veterans to Korea, exchange events for UN veterans, expansion of local consolations and events, invitation of UN veteran descendents to Korea, and support for descendants of veterans from low-income countries. Since the 2000s, these are some of the ways that Korea is steadily showing appreciation for UN veterans who chose to come and help defend the nation.
The movement to remember veterans is not only at the national level. Hanna Kim, a Korean American, personally visited and thanked 25 UN allied nations that fought in the Korean War. In late January 2016, Kim traveled to the UK, Ethiopia, Thailand, Colombia, New Zealand, and Canada and met as many as 200 veterans in person. For their sacrifice, she offered them these words, "I'm very grateful to those who sacrificed themselves to protect the freedom of a country that they’ve never been to at such a beautiful age."3) In addition to visiting veterans, she petitioned the US Congress in 2009 to designate 'National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day' as a day to celebrate the anniversary of the hoisting of the flag, and July 27th became the official anniversary. In addition to her effort, the Korean War Veterans' Association hosts annual events for participating nations in the Korean War that show and express gratitude for their sacrifice. The Korean Association of Nova Scotia Valley in Canada presented ‘a Medal of Hero’ to veterans that celebrated Memorial Day in Canada. "We will take this opportunity to express our sincere gratitude on behalf of the Korean government and the people, and we will never forget the noble sacrifice in the future," said Lee Yoon-hee, president of Nova Scotia Valley who prepared the event.4) These efforts show the strong connection many Koreans still have to the war and the veterans that sacrificed themselves to fight for others.
Thank You for Your Sacrifice
Sin Chae-ho, an independence activist and historian during the Japanese occupation, said, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.” The Korean War is like a “Pandora Box”. The War removed multitudes of misfortunes, but more misfortunes resulted as well. One of the greatest gifts from the box, however, was hope. Today’s generation’s memories and gratitude are revitalizing that hope. While traces of the Korean War left have faded and are mostly unnoticeable on the Korean Peninsula, memory is the key to remembering the sacrifices of people from countless countries to secure freedom for the people of the Republic of Korea. Thanks to their sacrifice, we live free, so we must always remember their help started the peace that we now enjoy on the Korean Peninsula.
1) Kim Hyunjae, “<Aging Foreign Soldiers June 25> New York Veterans in the US”, Yonhap News, March 28, 2019
2) BBC Korea, “North Korea Promises to Repatriate the Remains of US Soldiers …How about the Past?” June 26, 2018
3) Choi Jeongkyun, “Korean American Visits 24 Countries to Meet Korean War Veterans”, The Chosunilbo, May 23, 2017
4) Seo JungPil, “Presentation of 'A Medal of Hero’ to Korean War Veterans on Memorial Day in Canada”, Dongpo News, November 12, 2018
Kim Shin Hyerin / Society Section Editor
Jung Kim Hyesseung / Cub Reporter