Old soldiers do indeed fade awayThe JoongAng Daily today presents the final installment of a four-part series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War on July 27, 1953. Today’s article focuses on the shifting attitudes of South Koreans toward the North, particularly noting the differences in views between the younger and older generations.
Previous articles in the series presented the experiences of anti-Communist soldiers in the North Korean Army who were held prisoner on Geoje island, the remembrances of South Korean war veterans as well as civilians, and a close-up look at the Demilitarized Zone.
Order of Series
1. North Korean Army prisoners on Geoje Island
2. Remembrances of war veterans
3. A look at the DMZ
4. Shifting attitudes among South Koreans
In the middle of Freedom Park overlooking Incheon harbor is a life-size bronze statue of General Douglas MacArthur of the United States. He stands elevated, commanding a view of the very site where his great naval feat took place: the landing at Incheon on Sept. 15, 1950.
Colorful but gaudy flags line the path leading to the statue, and neatly-trimmed flowerbeds and shrubbery are symmetrically laid out. The area surrounding the monument exudes an aura of devotion to keeping the grounds well groomed.
The MacArthur monument, situated in the oldest Western-style park in Korea dating to 1888, offers tribute to a man revered by Koreans as a hero who saved the nation from the throes of communism.
Erected in 1957, the MacArthur monument is a reminder of the vestiges of the Korean War, a symbol of the United Nations’ intervention under the general’s command, and the emblem of a fading figure in the minds of most Koreans today.
On a recent afternoon, the park was full of old men idling away their hours. Kang Ji-ho, 80, an Incheon native who was present when the general landed with UN forces more than five decades ago, says he honors the man.
“If it weren’t for MacArthur, we would have ended up as a Communist nation. Kim Il-sung would have swallowed us all,” Mr. Kang says, his wife by his side. “That horrible Truman,” he continues, referring to U.S. President Harry Truman. “If only he didn’t recall the general back to the United States, the forces would have progressed all the way to Pyeongyang and we would have been unified then and there.”
He shakes his head as if to suggest that by sheer misfortune the nation’s destiny had come to tragic circumstances because of a poor judgment call by Mr. Truman. “I’m just glad we kept this park clean for him,” he says, glancing at the statue of MacArthur.
In front of the monument two bouquets of roses, one real and one artificial, lie side by side. The park is mostly the domain of elderly people by day, while at night it is a prowling ground for the young and the restless, according to a shopkeeper near the monument. “Young people don’t come here to pay homage to the general,” she says. “They come to hang out at night with their friends. These days, many Chinese tourists come here, almost two buses per day filled with Chinese people. Americans come usually in June, for the Korean war commemoration.” Souvenirs, as well as drinks and sweets, are sold from her small shop near the MacArthur monument.
A short walk from the MacArthur memorial is the Korea USA Centennial monument, a bronze, triangular, spiked slab erected in 1982 to mark the 100th anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the United States.
Lee Won-seon, 77, has come to the monument, also in Freedom Park, on a picnic with two friends from Bucheon. Referring to MacArthur, Mr. Lee says, “If we had carried out the war his way, we would be a unified nation. We should’ve pushed the Chinese out to the Tumen River.”
After a short pause he says, “Young people these days don’t know what the Korean War was. They don’t realize that what they are enjoying today is the result of those who fought for our freedom. If MacArthur came one week later than he did, then we would have become a Communist nation. Young people don’t know that.”
Fifty years after formal fighting ended on the peninsula, the war is becoming a distant memory for the majority of Koreans, particularly to the generation in their 20s. A recent survey conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo at an elementary school in Seoul found that over 10 percent of fourth-to-sixth graders thought the Korean War began with an invasion by the Japanese. That result would have been unheard of through the late 1980s, when anti-Communist propaganda was prevalent. The lack of knowledge by contemporary schoolchildren or the mitigation of perceptions about North Korea can be attributed partly to changes in the national education curriculum in 1995. That curriculum, established during the Kim Young-sam administration, shifted its North Korea education focus from “security” to “unification,” resulting in a reduction of anti-North propaganda.
But MacArthur is also remembered as the one who divided the peninsula, the fiend who separated the nation. “MacArthur is not a hero nor a warmonger,” Hong Ka-ram, a 27-year old college student, says. “I don’t think he deserves to be given the same status as George Washington. There’s nothing redeeming about him in terms of character. He was just doing his job and deserves credit for being a great military strategist.”
Han Jeong-ho, 29, a banker, says his image of MacArthur is of “a tall man wearing sunglasses with a pipe in his mouth.” Even though that image is ingrained in his mind, Mr. Han says his perception changed as he became older. While he was growing up, Mr. Han says, “MacArthur was portrayed as a liberator of our nation, but come to think of it, the fact is he was a general who was just doing his job. He wanted to carry out an extensive war, but circumstances turned out otherwise. Who knows, that strategy may have caused more bloodshed or it could have unified Korea. He means less now than he did when I was growing up.
“These days, people in our generation or those in their teens are more focused on practical, material, and selfish matters, “ he adds. “The younger the generation, the more likely we shun politics, idealism.”
The difference in attitudes between those in their 20s and 30s and the generation over 50 is disparate, particularly with regard to their views on North Korea and the United States. According to a JoongAng Ilbo survey, 55 percent of respondents of all ages said that North Korea was an equal, cooperative partner to the South while 31 percent said it was a nation that we must help. Only 13 percent said the North was an enemy.
More than 72 percent of those in their 20s said that North Korea was an equal nation as opposed to 45 percent of those over 50 years of age. Regarding the Bush administration’s strong stance against North Korea, 63 percent of those in their 20s opposed it while 65 percent of those over 50 favored the U.S. position. Regarding views on the United States, 25 percent responded positively while 28 percent responded negatively and 47 percent were neutral. Among those who described their views on the United States as negative, 39 percent were in their 20s while only 11 percent were in their 50s.
In a special survey carried out last year by the JoongAng Ilbo, more than 43 percent said the nation they most disliked was Japan, followed by United States with 23 percent and North Korea with 15 percent. Thirty-two percent of those in their 20s dislike the United States while only 9 percent of those in their 50s and over express that view. The yearning for unification was a little stronger for the older generation, with 77 percent saying that unification is a must while only 65 percent of the younger generation said they agreed with that view.
Such figures demonstrate that times are indeed changing. Mr. MacArthur was always mentioned with much admiration and reverence in schools until the 1980s, but nowadays not many know who he is. Jang Soo-keun, chief of public relations at the right-wing Korea Freedom League, says, “To the post-war generation, the tragedy of the Korean War is not going to have the same feeling as to the wartime generation. There is less of a sense of tragedy in our divided state, but we must remember that we are living in a period of temporary peace. The armistice means war is temporarily suspended and there is no real peace in our country. It is regrettable that people are becoming more and more oblivious to this fact as time goes by.”
“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” These were the words spoken by Mr. MacArthur during his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on April 19, 1951, shortly after being recalled to the United States by President Harry Truman. Those words still ring true on the peninsula, where the general and the UN forces under his command fought against the Communists five decades ago.
by Choi Jie-ho