One battle, two interpretations
The Third Battalion of the 23rd Regiment of the Korean Army broke through the military demarcation line in Yangyang County, Gangwon, on Oct. 1, 1950. It occurred one week before Gen. Douglas MacArthur approved the military operation north of the military demarcation line. The first operation of breaking through the line by South Korean troops was conducted on the eastern front in the course of chasing the retreating North Korean Army, who suffered a crushing defeat after the Incheon landing initiated half a month before.
The government of the Republic of Korea decided on Sept. 4, 1956 to celebrate Armed Forces Day on Oct. 1 every year, as prescribed by Presidential Decree No. 1117, in commemoration of when its forces broke through the 38th parallel for the first time. They also set up a memorial monument for the Third Battalion.
The war was turned in favor of the South by the Incheon landing, and the UN allied forces fought their way into the northern part of the 38th parallel and reached the Yalu River. It has been long remembered as a legend in the minds of South Korean troops, because it was a golden opportunity to reunite the country.
However, the same event is understood completely differently in the United States. According to the official account of the Korean War published by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States, breaking through the 38th parallel brought a “calamity” upon the United States. It insisted that General MacArthur acted recklessly in breaking through the 38th parallel and did not consider what political costs such actions may have led to. They connected his actions directly to China’s decision to enter the war. The Chinese forces’ participation in the Korean War resulted in casualties for the armies of the United States and the United Nations, and forced the U.S. to make more sacrifices during the Cold War by waging a decisive battle with China.
The same event was a terrible calamity to MacArthur. He made explicit his objection to the Far East policy of the U.S. after China entered the Korean War, and insisted that military actions, including air attacks and blockades, should be taken on the mainland of China. President Truman fired MacArthur, saying that he could no longer stand the general’s insubordination toward him as president and commander-in-chief. In addition, some American historians still argue that the Korean War was a result of the United States’ intervention in the wrong place at the wrong time.
History will never change. However, the conflicting memories and interpretations of Korea and the United States, who fought together under the same flag of the United Nations, provide us with an opportunity to look back at history once again.
Are we too self-centered to consider other people’s positions?
The writer is a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University.
By Park Tae-gyun