How war can heal in peaceThe Reverend Won Seung-jae says Koreans have fought two major wars. The first, which ended 50 years ago, took as many as 4 million lives and left the nation in a stygian state of ruin. The second, according to Mr. Won, scarred an untold number of people, creating a social chaos that still lingers despite outward signs of normalcy.
Wars in which the main players are combatants trying to kill each other are surreal, taking on an other-worldliness that exculpates victims of any sense of guilt for their misfortune. Financial duress, on the other hand, is a very personal affair, causing one on whom impecuniousness is visited to question his own virtue. The latter was characteristic of the financial crisis that struck Korea in 1997, a period during which many people confused their net worth with their worth as human beings.
For Mr. Won, minister of So Mang Evangelical Church in Busan, a personal journey that winds through discovery, good deeds and healing begins during the economic downturn that upended all of Asia. The minister was holding a Korean War photo exhibition in Busan in the autumn of 1997, when, he says, “A British war veteran, who was visiting Korea, came up to me and said the pictures reminded him of his youth when he had fought the communists for the cause of freedom.”
“He told me stories of his days in the war and said he had buried a lot of friends and comrades on Korean soil. Then he told me that through that experience he had learned that hope and courage could be found in any bad situation.
“It became clear to me that the financial crisis was the second Korean War, where the entire country suffered and people had to fight to survive.” Mr. Won says. “I knew that [Korean War veterans] had seen total chaos and despair, but they survived the war.”
It was then, he says, that he realized that lessons from the war could help ease the pain of the economic downturn that was ravishing the economy. “Every day there were reports of 30 or 40 suicides and I remember that 1,200 to 1,300 manufacturers had shut down,” Mr. Won says. “People were losing their jobs and families were breaking up; there was little hope in the eyes of the people I saw on the street.”
In 1998, Mr. Won helped a group of 20 Korean War veterans from 12 countries to visit Korea. In their experiences he saw a way to strengthen the people of a nation, economically and spiritually. He asked that they bring along four items: a personal anecdote of the war, a stone from their country, their national anthem and a picture of them during the war.
The first stop on the tour was the War Memorial in Seoul, where the group stacked their stones and prayed for peace. Later they visited veterans at a military hospital.
“The men, although they could not communicate verbally, shared a common memory of the war,” Mr. Won says.
Next the group of veterans visited Incheon, where U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur led an amphibious landing behind North Korean lines that turned the tide of the war in favor of the allies.
Then they moved on to Busan, where Mr. Won organized an exhibition of 1,500 Korean War photographs in a public square. On the day of the exhibition, he indulged in a bit of symbolism, distributing potatoes, which sustained the people during the war, and cups of soju, a rice-based liquor, to the homeless and unemployed men lingering in the square.
In the square the war veterans shared their pictures with passersby and told of their personal experiences in the war. They talked about how they had overcome hardships to survive the war while Mr. Won translated.
“Well, I haven’t been in touch with any of the jobless people in the square that day, but I’m certain that they were very moved by the stories,” Mr. Won says. “Many of them shed tears while hugging the veterans. I hope we really made a difference in their lives.”
The trip for the 20 veterans cost Mr. Won around 100 million won ($84,800), which came from his own pocket and donations made by his congregation. “It’s not important how much was spent,” Mr. Won says. “It’s important to appreciate the veterans who sacrificed their lives and youth for us and then returned to give us hope again.”
The group also told the same stories to high school and middle school students at a lecture hall in Busan.
The trip lasted two weeks and Mr. Won says the friendships he found with the veterans continue.
Since the first gathering he has guided similar tours off and on for about 300 Korean War veterans from 25 countries.
This year Mr. Won traveled to the United States where he visited 12 American veterans of the war and their families in New Jersey. Upon meeting the veterans Mr. Won bowed to show his gratitude for their service.
It may seem odd that a minister is so committed to remembering a war that many South Koreans would like to forget. But Mr. Won says that because such darkness must never be repeated, South Koreans must remember.
When he was six years old Mr. Won says he witnessed first-hand the cruelty of the communist forces when a North Korean patrol entered his village, Hongseong, South Chungcheong province.
“To save bullets the communists executed the village people who were against their ideology with bamboo spears,” he recalls. “They were cold blooded.”
Mr. Won’s father was on the communists’ wanted list, but slipped away and survived the war. After the war ended the family moved to Seoul where they lived off the food they found in trash cans at allied military bases.
“We had to take out cigarette butts and other trash from the food we collected near the allied bases,” he says. “But we survived.
“It was the sacrifices that those men made, in a faraway foreign country, that helped South Koreans achieve what we have today. It’s sad how young people do not appreciate that sacrifice.” Mr. Won adds.
Albert J. Gonzales, who served in the U.S. 1st Marine Division from 1951 to 1952 in Korea, said in a telephone interview that he met Mr. Won during the minister’s visit to New Jersey and listened to what he had gone through during the war.
“I could relate; I was there,” Mr. Gonzales said. The American veteran said when Mr. Won gave him one of his “peace stones” it brought back a lot of memories. Mr. Gonzales said he regrets that more of the veterans in his area could not have met Mr. Won.
Mr. Won says his last wish is to walk the main streets of downtown Seoul and Pyeongyang one day, holding hands with veterans from the allied force that fought on the South Korean side and the Russians and Chinese who fought on the North Korean side.
Mr. Gonzales says he would proudly make that walk with Mr. Won and veterans of the allied forces, but not with Russians and Chinese.
“It would be a dishonor to the men who sacrificed their lives during the Korean War,” says Mr. Gonzales.
by Lee Ho-jeong