Learning lessons from the past

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Learning lessons from the past

Kathleen Stephens

The author was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C.

June and July contain dates in modern Korean history that are important not only to Korea or to Korean-American relations: They reshaped the post-World War II geopolitical landscape.

One is June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces launched a devastating surprise attack across the 38th parallel. In his 1953 farewell address, American President Harry Truman cited his decision to defend the fledgling Republic of Korea as the most important of his presidency, but 69 years later there are few Americans aware of the significance of that date.

I happened to be in Seoul this year on June 25, and enjoyed a walk through Gwanghwamun on a warm Saturday. There were flags, banners, loudspeakers, and gatherings to mark the anniversary, but the mostly older participants were outnumbered by weekend wanderers who evinced little interest in the commemorations. For the older generation, the simple utterance of “6/25” evokes unimaginable devastation and painful loss. Younger Koreans, I’ve noticed, tend to refer, as do Americans, to the Korean War with a sense of distance and detachment.

July 27, the date the Armistice was signed, receives relatively more attention in the United States. Certainly that was the case this year when the Korean War Veterans Memorial was reopened and rededicated, with the addition of a Wall of Remembrance that records on massive granite slabs the names of all the American military members and the embedded Korean augmentation forces (Katusa) killed during the conflict.

I felt some ambivalence when I first learned several years ago of the plans to renovate the Korean memorial in Washington. I thought the original memorial, dedicated in 1995, was a deeply moving, brilliantly conceived tribute to the international coalition of countries, including the United States, who came together to defend the Republic of Korea, and to those who sacrificed their lives. Why disturb this great monument?

I understood why last week after joining those attending the July 27 dedication of the Wall of Remembrance. In the hot morning sun on the Washington Mall, I sat among family members of those whose names had been inscribed on the wall. I struck up a conversation with Julie, a tall woman in her 50s, who sat down next to me cradling a large, sepia-colored photograph of a handsome young man in uniform. She told me this was her grandfather, Master Sergeant Edward Mares, who had been killed in action on July 16, 1950 as his unit was retreating across the Gum River. He had been caught “on the wrong side of the river.” Julie never knew her grandfather — her father was born after Edward’s death in Korea, but she was proud of the strong family resemblance visible in the photo, and regaled me with family stories about her grandparents and much more.

Julie lives in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she works at Rock’n’Bowl, a bowling alley with music unique to New Orleans. She had never been to Washington, and the Amtrak train from New Orleans had taken more than 30 hours, so she had missed the families-only preview visit to the wall the day before. We walked together to the Wall of Remembrance to find her grandfather’s name. She had seen a photo of his name engraved on a similar wall in Korea, and she was grateful for that and to see his name inscribed on America’s National Mall.

I looked and found the name of Private Ronald Parker — a 20-year-old Montana private killed just two weeks after Master Sergeant Mares just a bit further south in that deadly summer retreat — and we talked with others as they found names, exchanged photos, laid flowers, and made rubbings of the engraved names.

Julie told me of her grandmother’s life after the Korean War, of how she raised her son and rebuilt her life. It made me think of the many women I knew in Korea over the years and how they too, in vastly more trying circumstances, raised their families and reconstructed not only their own lives but their communities, and Korea itself. This too deserves a monument.

General Mark Clark, upon signing the Armistice as United Nations Commander in 1953, said, “I cannot find it in me to exult in this hour.” But the blossoming of South Korea as an economic, democratic and cultural powerhouse is a cause for celebration, as is the ever-broadening partnership between Koreans and Americans.

In a more profound sense, though, June 25 and July 27 remain somber days, anniversaries for reflection and remembrance. There is unfinished business on the Korean Peninsula. The war in Ukraine evokes challenges similar in some respects to those faced in the last century in Korea. Climate change must be addressed globally. If there are lessons of history to learn, we need them now.
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