Situated between World War II and the Vietnam War, and overshadowed by the Cold War, the Korean War has inadvertently become the “Forgotten War.” Strangely, people have kept silent about the war and seem to have forgotten it completely. Whenever I see the epigraph “The Forgotten War” at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, I am as heartbroken as I can be because we should remember the Korean War forever.
The Korean War was much more than a civil war. Rather, it was like a world war, in which 24 countries participated. In the Korean War, 22 anti-communist countries fought against two communist countries, North Korea and China. Over the course of three years, from 1950 to 1953, millions of lives were lost, both soldiers and civilians. How, then, can we forget the Korean War?
If we forget the Korean War, then we have committed an unpardonable sin against the soldiers who were killed or wounded for the freedom of the Korean people as well as the civilians who were massacred amid the whirlpool of ideological conflict. If we forget the Korean War and do not learn its precious lessons, we might end up suffering a second Korean War on the peninsula someday, perhaps even sometime soon, given that belligerent, trigger-happy North Korea is once again building up its nuclear arsenal and targeting the South.
On June 22, 2020, the US military newspaper “Stars and Stripes” carried an article on the Korean War titled “It may be called the ‘Forgotten War,’ but the Korean conflict set the stage for decades of tensions.” In this insightful and intriguing article, Kim Gamel reminds us that “the legacy of the stalemated Cold War-era war looms large over the divided peninsula, setting the stage for decades of tensions as North Korea builds up its nuclear arsenal while the United States and China vie for influence in the region.” Is it not conceivable that one day those tensions might result in another war on the Korean Peninsula?
To learn from the Korean War, we should teach our children how it happened and why. The facts are these: North Korea started the war by invading the South on June 25, 1950, with the approval of the Soviet Union to build a unified communist country on the Korean Peninsula. Our history books must record those facts faithfully and our history teachers, too, should teach their students the truth about the Korean War, not willfully ignore it because it may challenge their own ideological stance or pose complications in the contemporary political climate.
If our history books are ambiguous about the origin of the Korean War and if our “radical” teachers teach their students only a biased or distorted account, then our youngsters will not learn any precious lessons from the Korean War and will forget it eventually. In order not to forget the Korean War, we should also treat war heroes with the utmost respect and honor. It would be wrong, therefore, if we refused to bury them in the National Cemetery simply because they allegedly had pro-Japan sympathies during the Japanese occupation. Those heroes proved that they were true patriots when they saved our country during the Korean War.
Meanwhile, we should disregard political propaganda based on false information. Pablo Picasso’s 1951 painting “Massacre in Korea” is a good example: History tells us that the massacre in Sinchon, North Korea, which inspired Picasso, occurred between North Korean communists and right-wing Korean Christians, and was not the work of US troops. Yet North Korea and its sympathizers take advantage of Picasso’s painting for their anti-American propaganda. Jean-Paul Sartre was another example. He, too, naively criticized America’s intervention in the Korean War and took the side of China. Right after World War II, it was fashionable for European intellectuals and artists to subscribe to communism.
Recently, Korean newspaper articles shed light on the forgotten Battle of Gapyeong during the Korean War, in which 600 US soldiers defeated 4,000 Chinese troops. In order not to forget the Korea War, we should keep excavating the sites of heroic incidents like the Battle of Gapyeong and be thankful to those foreign soldiers who defended our nation at the risk of their lives.
We should also collect and publish recollections on the Korean War before the war generation dies out. Otherwise, no one will remember. On that note, “The Forgotten War: Recollections of Korean Adolescence, 1950-1953,” which will come out on Amazon Kindle this week, edited by the late Dr. Choi Yearn-hong, is particularly meaningful. A Korean translation will follow soon.
At the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington is the heartrending inscription “Freedom is not free.” Indeed, the freedom we now enjoy is not free. It cost so many precious lives. We cannot take it for granted. We should be eternally grateful for their sacrifice.
This year marks the 71st anniversary of the “Forgotten War.” Now, it is high time that we called the Korean War the “Unforgotten War.”
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.