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[Editorial] Compensating war dead

It was an utterly senseless act for the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs to deliver 5,000 won to the sister of a soldier killed in the Korean War as “compensation” for war dead.

Officials came down to the amount, not enough to buy a bowl of noodles, by quoting the fixed 50,000-whan government compensation for the war dead released after the end of the 1950-53 war (before a 10 to 1 redenomination). Belatedly, leaders of the ministry went to the home of the applicant and apologized to her for their “mistake,” but we do not know yet how they will make amends.

Politicians are at the top of their voices to point out the absurdity of the amount, blaming the MPVA as well as the Ministry of National Defense. But it was the National Assembly that failed to act on legislation proposed by a Grand National Party member to provide more realistic compensation for the families of recently confirmed war dead.

Now, many lawmakers are calling for the same level of compensation for the dead in the Korean War as that for the military personnel killed in the recent naval clashes with North Korea, applying provisions of the Military Personnel Pension Law. But, before taking concrete steps by changing laws and regulations to prevent the regrettable 5,000-won compensation, all concerned should reflect on what this can do for the honor of those who died six decades ago.

About 200,000 South Korean military personnel were killed in the war, more were maimed in the three years of battle; an estimated 1 million civilians died in the war and nearly 40,000 U.S. and other foreign personnel lost their lives in fighting communist forces on this land. Widespread death and destruction are what the wars are about. Postwar governments try to compensate the loss of life and property with their limited physical resources, but no efforts can heal the tragedies and traumas.

Decades have passed, and the nation has taken part in other wars, in Vietnam, the Gulf, Afghanistan, and again in Iraq, where the members of our armed forces were killed and wounded. In the meantime, those guarding the Demilitarized Zone and the East and West Seas have suffered casualties in occasional battles with North Korean forces. As time changes, compensation for military casualties could change, possibly reflecting the economic resources presently available. It is just unreasonable to insist on applying the current compensation system for cases of the Korean War.

The nation needs to have generous rules on the treatment of military personnel on their active service, retirement, injuries and deaths in order to keep their morale high. But to say that such provisions are essential for generating strong patriotism among our young soldiers is an affront to their honor. We hear some deplore, “Would any soldier sacrifice himself for a country with such a poor system (of war-dead compensation)?” But no soldier exhibits bravery in combat in expectation of a medal or compensation if he dies.

For those who call for extending the current compensation scheme to cases of new discovery of the dead in the Korean War, we would like to suggest them to read again Mo Yun-suk’s poem, “Dead Solider Speaks.” It reads in part: “For the nation, my people and the girl I love, I am dying for your happiness. … I decline even a small tomb, a small casket to keep my body. … I only want to become a handful of soil in this valley in my land.”
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