60 years ago
Sunday, South Korea announced it will give $7.3 million in humanitarian aid to North Korea and, coincidentally, called for “one last round” of talks on restarting a jointly operated industrial complex that the North Koreans recently shut down.
That the South Koreans would be so willing to donate so much money to their northern neighbors — and bitter political rivals — tells us who won that long-ago war, even though it was widely regarded as ending in a stalemate. In terms of territory gained and lost, it was indeed a stalemate, but the fortunes of the two sides since the armistice tell a different story.
But that was 60 years ago, and many of us weren’t even born at the time of that costly (in money and lives) conflict. So there’s a tendency to either ignore it or forget it, and that’s why on Saturday President Obama called on Americans to remember the sacrifices made by our nation’s troops in halting North Korea’s attempt to conquer the entire Korean peninsula and impose its communist beliefs on its neighbors.
“Unlike the Second World War, Korea did not galvanize our country,” Obama observed in a speech at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. “These veterans did not return to parades.”
Furthermore, he said, unlike the later fighting in Vietnam “Korea did not tear at our country … these veterans didn’t return to protests.” For many Americans, who were still tired of war so soon after World War II, there seemed to be a desire to forget, to simply move on, the president added.
The Korean War veterans “deserve better” Obama argued, adding that on this anniversary “perhaps the highest tribute we can offer our veterans of Korea is to do what should have been done the day you came home.” The president then asked Americans to pause and “let these veterans carry us back to the days of their youth and let us be awed. We will make it our mission to give them the respect and the care and the opportunities that they have earned.”
Instead of thinking of Korea as the “forgotten war” Americans would be wiser, Obama suggested, to regard it as the “forgotten victory.” He also argued that “die for a tie” — an expression often heard in the war’s bitter aftermath — is inaccurate.
He described Korea’s cruel winter weather, the decisions made by troops to protect each other, and even the mementoes of their families that some of the soldiers had carried. For example, the president mentioned a pair of baby booties that had dangled from a young lieutenant’s rifle barrel. That lieutenant. Richard Shank, now 84, lives in Gainesville, Fla.; the son the baby booties represented is also a father now.
“Here today we can say with confidence that war was no tie,” Obama said, contrasting the North’s poverty and repression to the South’s economic dynamism and democracy.
“That is a victory,” he said. “And that is your legacy.”
And his argument was bolstered with Sunday’s announcement by the South Koreans. Had the war actually ended in a tie, the two sides would presumably be approximately equal in terms of their economies and the personal freedom of their citizens, but that’s obviously not the case.
More than a quarter of North Korean children under age 5 suffer chronic malnourishment, according to various surveys. Also, statistics suggest the North’s infant mortality rates in recent years have been several times higher than those in the South.
Obama’s right. Our side won this war. Let’s remember that.