ON THE KOREAN WAR

On The Korean War

As I was reading The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam, I was 

overwhelmed with many what-ifs. Here, the conjecture and accompanying feelings are rather personal 

and real as our family went through it all. The words representing of my emotion may include: laments, 

regrets, resentment, sadness, lying, excuses, agony, hunger, stupidity, ego, and least of all, an anger. 

Must be also included is the eternal gratitude towards fallen soldiers from not only America but also 

other 15 U.N. allies. Without their sacrifice, I may not be here to tell this story.

Regurgitation of the War now in 2020 is a sentimental journey in a truest sense. My own 

predominating perception of pre-War Korea is how unfairly Korean affairs were handled in a seemingly 

nonchalant way by the U.S. and Soviet Union. It was the U.S. State Department who first proposed to 

Russia in the latter part of 1945 that the Korean Peninsula should be divided into two pieces along the 

38th parallel and that Russia keeps the upper half and the U.S. will take care of the bottom half. Our 

land was nothing but a fish on a chopping block and they were holding a cleaver. This was purely an act 

of old imperialism. They did not ask Koreans for any inputs. Admittedly, Koreans did not have one 

unified, strong voice when Japan surrendered. But still, I wonder. 

As the Second World War was winding down, all parties involved wanted to have a unified Korea. 

And yet now, 75 years later, the chance seems to as bleak as ever. Why would the two Koreas are still 

fighting in spite of their “common” goal? Quoting Wikipedia, “the Korean War was among the most 

destructive conflicts of the modern era, with approximately three million war fatalities and a larger 

proportional civilian death toll than World War II or the Vietnam War.” Now, after all of these casualties, 

we are left with these mundane questions, “What was it all about?” “What did we achieve in the end?” 

A generic question is lingering: “How can we justify a war, or any war for that matter?”

Ugly Koreans

Personification of the Korean population as a whole depicts a person of insecurity. This person is so full 

of self-doubt that (s)he always needs to lean on somebody to be part of a herd. Once factions are 

established, they start bickering. Here, the cause-and-effect is blurred: they may form a cohort to be 

able to attack others with more power or squabbling may lead to factions as part of a defense 

mechanism. Once two or more factions are established, be it political parties or the North and the South 

Koreas, each wants to lean further on others or nations for extra security. When Korea was relatively 

independent, as in Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), internal fragmentation eventually led to the demise of 

the kingdom. If there is one thing Koreans are good at, it is factional division. 

In an unconscious effort of identifying themselves to be a genuine member of a herd, Koreans 

have been enthusiastically importing anything fashionable from the honcho of the heard without much 

filtration: historically from China, Japan, Europe, and America. Like a thermodynamic law defining 

entropy, the cultural flow was almost one directional. As a teenager growing up in Korea, I was familiar 

with such names as Beetles, Cassius Clay, Frank Sinatra, Eisenhower, Elvis Presley, John Steinbeck, 

Hemingway, and even Mickey Mantle. As I look back now, I wonder how many Americans at that time 

knew anything about Korea besides the Korean War. 

For lack of a better word, the two Koreas have been a “running dog” of China and U.S. in recent 

years, perhaps more so with the South to America. This wishy-washy stand on a pair of wobbly legs is 

not because Koreans are inherently weak. Rather, it is the lack of a collective will power to become truly 

independent. Unlike physical ugliness, which can be somewhat remedied by cosmetic surgeries, an ugly 

mass cannot be helped with ease. It is because such ugliness is tied with ignorance, quite often via 

practicing active ignorance and disseminating fake news. One may call it prejudice but I disdain less- 

educated, not necessarily less-schooled, people with a bean-size brain and a wooden heart.

The U.S. Foreign Policy

In one word, failure: one after another. It has failed because the guiding principle is misplaced. Policy 

makers do not seem to be interested in people they are to serve, not only Americans but more 

importantly the people of other nations. The sole purpose of diplomacy appears to be on the interest of 

the U.S. only, an outright arrogance in itself. As a convenient justification, it is right underneath the 

banner of freedom offered by democracy. Here are two instances where American diplomacy failed 

because it forgot in policy development to incorporate people of the nation they were dealing with. For 

further reference, read the 1958 novel, The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer that 

depicts the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. 

In the late 19th century, Persia (current Iran) considered the U.S. less a threat than British. And 

yet, in 1953, the Iranian government was overthrown by a coup sponsored by the U.S. CIA and the 

British MI6. The last King of Iran Mohammad Reza Shah had enjoyed a great deal of support from the 

U.S. till the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The strong anti-American sentiment since then is primarily 

attributed to the U.S. support of Shah’s regime of iron fist and corruptions. In short, Mohammad Reza 

lost support from the Islamic clergy of Iran and their working class. The U.S. was with a wrong leader. It 

was a lost opportunity of historic significance. 

In China, the Nationalists and the Communists engaged in a civil war after the Second World 

War ended. President Truman dispatched General Marshall to China to mediate. Even with all his 

success in post-War Europe, Marshall was unsuccessful mainly because the Communists firmly believed 

that they were winning. You cannot bring two parties on a negotiation table when one side is quite 

confident. Early in 1948, Marshall testified to Congress that he had realized from the start that the 

Nationalists could never defeat the Communists in the field. He clearly understood that the U.S. had 

backed a wrong side again. 

Concluding Remark

History changes with not only its inscriber but also time and place. The Americans used to refer to 

Korean War as “Forgotten War” pretty much till 1995 when the Korean War Veterans Memorial was 

erected in Washington, DC. MacArthur’s popularity has steadily fallen with time since his famous adieu 

at the U.S. Congress in 1951. The way he and his family fled Bataan in 1942, leaving his men behind at 

the mercy of Japanese army, has been now viewed as the behavior of a captain abandoning a sinking 

ship before anybody else. His pretentious showmanship is also portrayed as his desire of being viewed 

as “American Caesar.” (Remember his open-neck shirt, titled cap, sunglasses, and the perpetual briar 

pipe?) Among Koreans, however, he was and still remains a hero. Had his recommendation to expand 

the War to mainland China been followed by the Truman administration, we might have had a unified 

Korea by now. This favorable Korean view of MacArthur may also change with time. 

Likewise, the sad acknowledgment that a war is a necessary evil in the scheme of world peace 

has been also challenged during the Vietnam War, although Tom Brokaw later wrote, “It was a right 

thing to do” as to the participation of the Great Generation in the Second World War. Then, here is a 

different confession: “We were sent to die for the emperor and imperial nation, and everyone acted like 

we believed in it. But when the soldiers were dying, the young ones called out to their mothers and 

older ones called out their children’s names. I never heard anyone calling the emperor and nation.” (N. 

Nishizaki, a Japanese veteran, from the May, 2020 issue of National Geographic) 

Throughout my long life I have been struggling with the question on patriotism as related to a 

war. How is the participation in a war a measure of patriotism? In the end, we ought ask ourselves what 

the Korean War has achieved at the cost of unprecedented mass destruction. Was it just a political 

decoy for displaying a nation’s military power, or controlling citizens under a common enemy? For a 

record, I am already against the next war, no matter where it may take place.

Concluding Remark

History changes with not only its inscriber but also time and place. The Americans used to refer to 

Korean War as “Forgotten War” pretty much till 1995 when the Korean War Veterans Memorial was 

erected in Washington, DC. MacArthur’s popularity has steadily fallen with time since his famous adieu 

at the U.S. Congress in 1951. The way he and his family fled Bataan in 1942, leaving his men behind at 

the mercy of Japanese army, has been now viewed as the behavior of a captain abandoning a sinking 

ship before anybody else. His pretentious showmanship is also portrayed as his desire of being viewed 

as “American Caesar.” (Remember his open-neck shirt, titled cap, sunglasses, and the perpetual briar 

pipe?) Among Koreans, however, he was and still remains a hero. Had his recommendation to expand 

the War to mainland China been followed by the Truman administration, we might have had a unified 

Korea by now. This favorable Korean view of MacArthur may also change with time. 

Likewise, the sad acknowledgment that a war is a necessary evil in the scheme of world peace 

has been also challenged during the Vietnam War, although Tom Brokaw later wrote, “It was a right 

thing to do” as to the participation of the Great Generation in the Second World War. Then, here is a 

different confession: “We were sent to die for the emperor and imperial nation, and everyone acted like 

we believed in it. But when the soldiers were dying, the young ones called out to their mothers and 

older ones called out their children’s names. I never heard anyone calling the emperor and nation.” (N. 

Nishizaki, a Japanese veteran, from the May, 2020 issue of National Geographic) 

Throughout my long life I have been struggling with the question on patriotism as related to a 

war. How is the participation in a war a measure of patriotism? In the end, we ought ask ourselves what 

the Korean War has achieved at the cost of unprecedented mass destruction. Was it just a political 

decoy for displaying a nation’s military power, or controlling citizens under a common enemy? For a 

record, I am already against the next war, no matter where it may take place.

References

  • Korea: 1945 – 1975 by Asia PR Center, Seoul, Korea (1975) 
  • Truman by David McCullough, American Caesar by William Manchester(1992) 
  • The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam (2007) 

The General vs. the President by H.W. Brands (2016)

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