[Viewpoint] Remembering the ‘men of merit’I was born at the height of the Korean War. While I do not have any memory of the terror and cruelty of the conflict, the war has left me with another kind of haunting image. In the 1960s, I often ran into the wounded soldiers in worn-out military uniforms, either with prosthetic limbs or on crutches.
They used to hang around in groups, and they looked dreadful. These disabled veterans were beggars. They were the strange men who were loud and misbehaved instead of being embarrassed. They gave you a hard time and snatched food from local vendors. I was scared they might harass me and I walked fast to avoid them. As a young boy, I had no idea why they were behaving so outrageously.
When these injured war veterans were acting like and treated as beggars and thugs, the Republic of Korea was oblivious to what it fundamentally meant to be a nation. The nation did not treat them fairly and did not offer appropriate compensation.
Sure, the government could claim that the more urgent task was to escape from the devastation of the war and poverty. Nevertheless, the nation should have made a priority of respecting and protecting those who had responded to the call of duty and sacrificed themselves and the well-being of their families to help a nation in need. I was too young to understand that national leaders, not the veterans, were neglecting their duties.
Once, I gave a lecture to newly hired public servants. Selected from a very competitive pool, the new hires were in their early and mid-20s, a generation that has simultaneously enjoyed peace, liberty and prosperity. I wrote on the blackboard “Disabled Veterans” and asked them to write what the phrase reminded them of. They seemed puzzled at first and proposed various words. The most mentioned term was “men of merit.” To their credit, the young Koreans see the wounded veterans as those who had sacrificed themselves for the nation.
That day, I began to see Korea differently. The veterans who were treated like beggars and thugs were finally being recognized as men of merit in the 2000s. It took over 40 years for them to get the recognition that they deserved. I thought of the many men of merit who passed away before they could enjoy the changed reputation. If they were still alive today, what would they think?
Currently, the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs exercises over 2 trillion won ($1.6 billion) in budget, about 1 percent of the national budget. About 90 percent of the ministry budget is devoted to assisted living expenses, maintenance of dignity and medical care for veterans and their surviving families. However, because of the number of recipients, each veteran isn’t provided with sufficient assistance. The nation has to make a greater effort with policies that allow men of merit to maintain the minimum of dignity and receive proper treatment.
The government needs to be prudent in selecting the men of merit and providing sufficient compensation. Strict standards should determine who deserves that classification.
If a uniform with medals and decorations could think, what would it say? Perhaps it’d call for sufficient compensation for veterans to keep their honor with compensation.
I recently came across a news brief about the returned remains of a fallen war hero, which inspired me to write the following story: “A young soldier has returned to his family after 60 years. His wife, who was a newlywed bride when the soldier left home during the war, never locked her home’s front door, believing that one day her husband would someday walk through it. Now that the remains of the soldier have come home, the bride can hold her husband in her arms. Before, she could never have a good night’s sleep. Now she whispers that she’s waited so long for this moment. Finally, she can lock her front door.”
Recently, remains of Korean War dead have been excavated and returned to surviving families. While some might complain about the delay, the duty of a nation is to give life to the belief that the country will never forget those who died for the country and will make sure they return home. Only then can citizens defend the country with all their hearts.
*The writer is a professor of public administration at Kookmin University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Mok Jin-hyu