[Viewpoint] Martyrs cry out to be rememberedThe Korean War, which broke out on June 25, 1950, has been a forgotten war for a long time. Who remembers the war? Is there anybody who can remember the song we sang with resolute determination beginning, “How can we forget that tragic day?” Although we have forgotten the song about the Korean War, it is a matter of no importance. It is not a karaoke song, and elementary school students no longer learn how to sing it. What is there left to do? Forgetting the war would be just as irrational as forgetting who we are.
The JoongAng Ilbo is encouraging people to remember the forgotten war. This is a truly welcome event. The newspaper is releasing its series of interviews with Gen. Paik Sun-yup - a vivid, well-written memoir of the tragic war - as its New Year’s special. The Korean War was definitely a national tragedy. Scars left by the war are still visible everywhere in this nation, though left unattended. Take a close look at the horrible situation facing South Korean prisoners of war detained in North Korea. They grew old working in underground coal mines. Some went through hell to escape. However, there are still others who shed their blood and sweat in the North’s “valley of tears.”
How can we forget those unknown but brave soldiers who, like sparkling dewdrops, shone with the dawn and then disappeared without a trace? Among them were volunteers who fought as student soldiers in the Korean War. Those boys who put down their pens and slung guns over their shoulders for the sake of a nation in imminent peril numbered nearly 50,000. Seven thousand were killed in battle, but approximately 1,000 are still alive.
As they were student soldiers, they had neither official rank nor military serial numbers like the regular army. Yet they sacrificed their precious youth and fought, risking their lives in a precarious position as civilians, just like the armies raised in the cause of justice during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) did. In fact, in all the countries of the world, there is no precedent for students to volunteer for military service to protect their nation from external aggression. Nevertheless, they became forgotten heroes of the war without adequate compensation because they were civilians.
The poet Simonides wrote odes to the Spartan King Leonidas and the 300 warriors who sacrificed their lives in the Battle of Thermopylae during the Persian War: “Stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their words.”
The veterans from the Korean War are the spitting image of the Spartans who died heroic deaths while fighting the Persians. They are still ceaselessly shouting aloud, “We obeyed the nation on all occasions and fought for freedom,” whether buried in the National Cemetery, living an exhausting life in the frozen wastes of North Korea or dying forgotten in the homeland they fought to protect without receiving the honor they are due.
The Christian Bible tells us, “There is no greater love than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.” So it is evident what it would say about those who sacrificed their lives for the nation’s sake.
Is there anybody who had a more ardent love for our country than them? We are enjoying freedom and prosperity at the cost of their lives. Nevertheless, we must still ask whether or not we are remembering their sacrifices appropriately. Take a look at the fact that the memorial hall built in commemoration of the Korean War located in Yongsan, Seoul is still called “The War Memorial of Korea.” This is the wrong name. In order to honor and pay tribute to the sacrifice of those fallen heroes from our hearts, we should reject the neutral title “War Memorial of Korea” and call it “the Fatherland Defense Memorial,” in commemoration of the heroes that honored the country.
We may forgive the unpardonable atrocities committed by the North Korean communists who stormed across the 38th parallel into South Korea and slaughtered their families and friends. However, there is no reason to forget the war. The war occurred not due to the conflicting lusts for power of the leadership of South and North Korea. The war was a confrontation where the South stood against the forces of evil with a determined attitude, to prevent a barbarian community from swallowing up a civilized one.
What we risked our lives to fight against was not the expression of an aggressive attitude to win against enemy troops in the North, but the expression of free will: that we will never accept the anti-humanitarian regime of a dictator or slave master. Our staunch refusal of North Korean communism served as the backbone for the values of free democracy in the Republic of Korea. Thus it is reasonable to change the current title “War Memorial of Korea” to “Fatherland Defense Memorial,” in commemoration of the heroes that honored the country. It is the least we can do to show gratitude to those student soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the nation.
The writer is a professor of ethics education at Seoul National University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Park Hyo-chong