I have been reading a lot recently about Korean history since the end of the Korean war and yet a lingering question remains. How is the legacy of American involvement in the Korean war seen in Korea? Is America seen as a savior from communism or an imperialist divider who engineered the conflict?
Brian M. W.
First, let us make sure we have all the facts of American involvement in Korean War lined up. Korea was liberated from Imperial Japan in 1945, at the conclusion of World War II. Shortly before the end of the war in 1945 (after Nazi Germany surrendered but Imperial Japan was yet to surrender,) United States, United Kingdom and Soviet Union -- i.e., the Allies -- held a conference at Potsdam to discuss the world order after the end of the war. Here, United States and Soviet Union agreed to divide Korea into North and South. Once Japan surrendered and left Korea, Korea was divided along the 38th parallel.
The southern part of Korean peninsula was to be governed initially by the U.S., and the northern part by the U.S.S.R. By 1948, both Koreas established their own government, although heavily influenced by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. respectively. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Within two days, U.S. influenced the United Nations to issue a resolution in favor of South Korea, and sent military aid to repel the invasion. Eventually, the war ended in a truce, with the Armistice Line dividing the peninsula nearly the same way the 38th parallel did.
The Korean explained this history first because there are competing perspectives in Korea with respect to how to evaluate the American involvement in Korean War. Allow the Korean to stress what should be a fairly obvious point: Korea is a democracy with 48 million people who carry a wide spectrum of opinions, especially with respect to politics. There are many topics where there is no such thing as "Korean opinion in general," and this topic is certainly one of them.
That would be like talking about "What Americans in general think"
based on what goes on at a Glenn Beck rally. (Source)
Korean people's opinion on American involvement in Korean War is mostly divided along the politics of Korea. Korean political landscape is largely divided into two camps -- conservatives and progressives. Keep in mind that these are very broad categories that often becomes meaningless when applied in certain context. For example, one can fairly say that American political landscape is largely divided into conservatives and liberals, but the "conservative" Republican Party often has "liberal" moments like favoring big governments, while the "liberal" Democratic Party often has "conservative" moments like being against gay marriage. But that does not mean that such labels are utterly useless, because they still provide some mental guidance as to how to look at the complex world. Visit any paint store, and you will find hundreds of different colors that may be fairly categorized as "white" -- but that does not mean that the term "white" is useless. You just have to know when to use that term.
Keeping this mind, let us move forward. Conservatives in Korea tend to be older generation of Koreans -- Koreans over age 50 tend to show a pretty clear tendency toward being conservative. Naturally, conservatives in Korea tend to have a clearer memory of Korean War. To the most hardcore conservatives, Kim Il-Sung and the communists of North Korea are the highest form of evil that started the war that ended up killing millions of soldiers and civilians in the process. This enabled Korean conservatives to tolerate -- and sometimes, even support -- the series of dictatorship governments in South Korea, because at least the dictators were not communist. And the far end of the non-communist spectrum was the United States. Because America prevented South Korea from falling into the communist rule, Americans are angels who walk upon the earth, the noble saints who selflessly sacrificed their youth to secure the freedom in Korean Peninsula in the eyes of Korean conservatives.
American soldier hands out chocolate to children. Those children are now in their 60s-70s.
One can pretty easily understand why the older Korean folks would consider Americans
as angels who walk upon the earth. (Source)
Progressives tend to be younger generation of Koreans, who were born into a situation in which the greatest threat to their freedom was not necessarily North Korea, but the military dictatorship of their own country. As Korean progressives formed their political views as they battled the military dictatorships of Korea (which had an implicit backing from the United States,) they naturally developed a view on America that is different from conservatives. Progressives are more likely to point to the fact that U.S. is one of the parties at the Potsdam Conference that divided Korea without any input from Korean people in the first place. They also note that U.S. was acting in its own interest in protecting its market share of the world, and was hardly the angels who walk upon the earth. The most hardcore progressives (some of whom, albeit in rare cases, are real deal communists who receive orders from North Korea) take this logic to the extreme and place the United States as the cardinal culprit of Korean War, claiming that America created the circumstances in which Korean War was all but inevitable.
An interesting flash point between the most hardcore progressives and the most hardcore conservatives happened in 2005, in Incheon. In Freedom Park in Incheon, there is a bronze statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, erected in the park in 1957 to commemorate his leadership in the Battle of Incheon that turned the tide of Korean War. In 2005, several hardcore progressive organizations protested and demanded that the city of Incheon destroy the statue, claiming that MacArthur led the efforts in America's colonization of Korea by getting involved in Korean War. (It was later revealed that some of these groups directly received orders from North Korea to engage in this campaign.)
Protesting against the MacArthur statue
Seeing this, the ultra-conservatives groups rallied and physically surrounded the statue to protect it from harm. And plenty of yelling and shoving ensued, as it tends to happen in Korean protests.
The progressives tend to be louder in media and on the Internet, so their view seem more prevalent than reality. But upon actual speaking with people, right now it appears that Korean people are converging into the sensible middle -- while America acted in its own interest in getting involved in Korean War, America's involvement was crucial toward securing freedom in South Korea that laid the foundation for prosperity and democracy.
Regardless of the political landscape, officially Korean government never omits thanking the countries that fought in the war. In the most recent war anniversary -- June 25 -- President Lee Myung-Bak of South Korea sent a message of appreciation that was carried on the Washington Times and the Times of London. Korean War veterans are also invited to visit Korea to attend official appreciation ceremonies every year.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.