Volunteers bring hope after Cheonan

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Volunteers bring hope after Cheonan

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I have wanted to visit Baengnyeong Island, the northernmost island in the Yellow Sea, since the naval vessel Cheonan sank close to there four years ago. Finally, last weekend, I was able to go there. After I arrived, following a four-hour boat ride from Incheon Harbor, I first went to the Memorial Tower for the 46 Warriors of Cheonan on the western tip of the island. The soldiers were cleaning the faces engraved on the tower for the approaching anniversary on March 26. I set up 47 glasses in front of the tower and dedicated a drink to each soldier. “I will never forget your service,” I mourned for the 46 crew members and for Navy Warrant Officer Han Ju-ho, the legendary underwater demolitions expert who died during the rescue mission. After a moment of silence, I gazed at the sea. The site of the sinking was 2.5 kilometers, or 1.5 miles, away from the memorial tower, and the water was calm.

Four years after the sinking of the Cheonan, not much has changed on the Korean Peninsula. During my two-day stay on the island, a series of news stories about North Korea’s rocket launches was reported. They never apologized or repented. Internal discord has not improved. We have learned nothing.

But a young Marine I met during the trip gave me a glimpse of hope. Shin Tae-su is a 22-year-old, second-generation overseas Korean. He was born in England, grew up in Japan and completed high school in the United Kingdom. He is a foreign residency holder, and his father, who was a researcher in the United Kingdom, is now a university professor in Japan. In his case, according to the Military Service Law that was revised in 2004, he would have been exempt from military duty when he turned 38. He was admitted to a college in the United Kingdom, but he chose to study politics and foreign relations at Korea University “to find his identity as a Korean.” Then the Cheonan was sunk during his first year in college. “The incident made me look at the solemn security reality on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “That was the main reason I wanted to volunteer for the Marines.”

According to the Ministry of Defense, more than 1,440 overseas Koreans who were exempt from military duty voluntarily joined the armed forces since 2004. Of those, 1,300 were in active service and 140 were social service personnel. Every year, more and more young Koreans find their identities as Korean citizens by defending the nation, especially since the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010.

“I want to defend my family and my country from the most challenging site,” said Shin. He assured me that the future of Korea is promising. From the northern coast of Baengnyeong Island, I could see Hwanghae Province. “Solid security” is the best way to remember the crew of the Cheonan.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 25, Page 31

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

BY CHAE IN-TAEK


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