Where best to honor an ‘old soldier?’There is a palpable tension between the police officers and casual observers who surround an actor standing on a plastic pedestal like a mannequin, not moving a muscle.
He is dressed in the uniform of an army officer, standing just a few steps away from the statue of a familiar face, the American general Douglas MacArthur, in Incheon’s Freedom Park.
Two men emerge from the crowd to remove the actor from the pedestal and slowly drag him away.
This “performance” is part of a demonstration on Dec. 5 organized by a civic group, the Incheon Solidarity for Peace, which seeks the removal of the general’s statue from its current site.
The performance ends, but the protest continues for another hour, with members of the civic group holding signs saying, “I want to live in the city of peace” and “Give the citizens’ park [back] to its citizens.”
Freedom Park is Korea’s first Western-style park, built by a Russian civil engineer in 1888 in the port city, which has become a major hub of international trade since the area was designated a free economic zone last year. The park mainly attracts a mixed crowd of Chinese tourists and local citizens.
The bronze statue presents the image of a confident leader. It stands on a concrete pedestal about five meters (16 feet) tall, looking out over Incheon Harbor, where the general led 80,000 UN troops in a landing behind enemy lines during the Korean War, foiling the North’s invasion.
The debate over the statue began in earnest two years ago, when a growing wave of anti-American sentiment was fueled by the death of two local girls who were run over by a U.S. armored vehicle on a narrow country road north of Seoul.
After the U.S. servicemen involved in the accident were acquitted in a court martial, angry citizens rallied around the statue as a sign of protest against the country that had stationed 37,000 troops here.
The Incheon Metropolitan Police Agency, which has dispatched eight policemen to guard the statue 24 hours a day since 2002, says the memorial has become a constant target of the public’s anger whenever anti-American sentiment heightens in the country.
“Just after the war began in Iraq, a number of pro-North Korean student groups held anti-U.S demonstrations here,” says Han Seung-won, an official in the security department of the police agency. “There have been a number of cases where angry citizens threw eggs and paint at the statue.”
Officials from the civic group, however, have a different view.
So Seong-ho, 36, a director of Incheon Solidarity, complains that local police are wasting manpower in protecting a memorial to an alien war hero. He says the statue should be moved to a war museum in Songdo, also in Incheon; it should not be in a park where people are constantly disturbed by the protesters.
“The citizens of Incheon are fed up with their city being constantly remembered through the history of war,” he says. “The idea just doesn’t fit into the modern context.”
Yet other residents, such as Hong Sun-baek, who runs a car repair shop, disagree.
“It’s true that our city is embossed with the history of war,” he says. “But none of us is really aware of the fact in our daily lives, nor does it disturb us to see the statue while we stroll in the park with our family.”
The civic group, however, is more concerned about what the statue suggests symbolically.
“Incheon is the gateway to this country,” Mr. So says. “It means something that we have the statue of General MacArthur looking down on Incheon Harbor in the middle of the city’s biggest park. It suggests that the U.S.-Korea alliance is as refracted and unequal as at the time of the war.”
He adds that the statue could be a symbolic barrier to promoting friendlier relations with North Korea, which is just 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from the park.
Those who lived through the war, however, think that is why the statue should be kept in the park, to serve as a reminder of the Cold War and the triumph of democracy.
“Some people just don’t understand that this country was saved from the critical danger of being unified by North Korean forces 50 years ago,” says Yu Cheong-young, a representative of Hwanghae Dominhoe, a conservative group of former residents of Hwanghae Province in the North, who moved south during the war.
“Whether they accept it or not, we would have all ended up like the North Koreans now, starving and defecting to developed countries, if MacArthur had failed in his operation,” Mr. Yu adds. “He is our hero, and what he did was a historic military operation that deserves our remembrance.”
As part of the generational differences in Korea, however, perceptions of political issues, including the debate over the statue of MacArthur, tend to differ dramatically between those who have experienced the war and those who haven’t.
Some also question the physical design of the memorial, which has a base so high that a person of average height cannot get a full view of the statue.
While it’s true that most statues are deliberately set above the viewer’s eye level to create a sense of respect, the concrete pedestal is so high that it is rather uncomfortable to view the site.
“It’s an example of a complete failure as an architectural memorial as well,” says Mr. So of Incheon Solidarity. “It just doesn’t reflect modern ideals.”
The city’s park management team says it has no plans to move the statue from its current site or to remove the police guards, explaining that vandalism of the statue could harm U.S.-South Korea relations.
No damage occurred during the recent protest, although there are small scratches and nicks on the monument, where passages of the victory speech given by the war hero are inscribed in Korean and English.
Mr. Yu says tourists would not even bother coming to the park if the city decides to remove the statue. “It’s almost become a memorial park over the years because of the history of Incheon Harbor,” he says. “The highlight of park tourism is for people to see the statue and take snapshots.”
Mr. Hong, the Incheon resident, doesn’t see the point of the debate.
“It makes no difference where the statue of MacArthur is located,” he says. “Most citizens here I know simply don’t care.
“The event seems like another worthless confrontation between the civic group and the authorities. To be frank, the regional economy is so bad these days that most of us don’t even have the luxury of visiting the park,” he says.
by Park Soo-mee