On June 25, 1950, the Korean War commenced. On September 15, United States led the 21 nation-Allied Forces in valiant efforts to help South Koreans repel the Chinese-based communist troops allied with the North Korean troops invading from the North. Nearly 38,000 U.N. troops, most of them from the U.S., died during the conflict. The war resulted in a truce, yet the peninsula remains divided to this day.
For South Koreans and Americans, we have familiarized ourselves with this version of the Korean War. However, many of us fail to recognize the most crucial part of the story. Thus, as an intern at Meridian International Center in Washington, DC and a South Korean, I yearn to help raise awareness of our story.
A few weeks ago, on June 25th, the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation hosted the annual ceremony commemorating the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) soldiers at the Korean War Veterans Memorial at the nation’s capital. As first-time tourists in Washington, my family and I unintentionally stumbled upon a walkway with a long black wall on our side. Expecting to find a peaceful garden in full bloom, we continued down the path. Instead, we heard were two distinctive voices calling out Korean names in English and Korean pronunciations. Drawn in further, we realized the wall looked magnificent with faces of soldiers chiseled onto the surface.
In front of us was a Korean lady dressed in hanbok, the traditional Korean dress embroidered beautifully. She inquired with a gracious smile, “Are you Korean?” A sheepish grin crept on my face at the familiarity of my mother tongue. Knowing that another Korean was here in a place bustling of American citizens commemorating the KATUSA soldiers triggered a sense of security. As I looked around, I was taken aback by how great of a legacy the Korean soldiers left behind that was being reflected upon on this day, 63 years later, at the center of the nation’s capital.
As a Korean who has had the opportunity to live in Singapore, Manila, and New Jersey, I simply cannot express my gratitude for the KATUSA soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the liberty of future generations of Koreans. Because of their bravery and will to stand alongside U.S. troops stationed in Korea, South Korea became the country it is today, with leading corporations, a fast-growing economy, and leaders that influence the world globally. Not only did Korean soldiers fight for these reasons, but more importantly to provide strong support to the U.S. troops. The KATUSA’s deaths could have easily been the deaths of other American soldiers.
When I first walked into the memorial, my mind, always rapidly attempting to make sense out of things, formed a simple conclusion that the intent behind this ceremony was to commemorate the American soldiers who fought bravely on South Korea’s behalf during the Korean War. But upon reflection, I realized that the ceremony meant much more to me. If it were not for General McArthur and his troops, South Korea would have been obliterated by the heavily amassed North Korean and Chinese army. However, it is crucial to raise awareness of the KATUSA soldiers to the American public, which was the goal of the ceremony. The US troops were not fighting alone.
There are many proposed ways in expressing our gratitude and spreading awareness of KATUSA soldiers’ bravery. Hence, I am grateful to have worked at Meridian, an international organization that advocates public policy on foreign affairs, such as the U.S.- Korean bilateral relationship.
This year’s U.S. Congress – Republic of Korea National Assembly Exchange Program started on the 7th of July. This unique program has been running for nearly 36 years and is funded by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and is sponsored by the U.S. Congress and Republic of Korea National Assembly. The program has been implemented by the Meridian International Center for nearly 20 years.
A delegation of 10 Americans nominated by U.S. congressional members and a delegation of 10 Koreans nominated by National Assembly members are currently spending eight days together in Washington, D.C., during which the Korean delegates had an opportunity to experience a day-long internship at Capitol Hill. Other highlights include, but not limited to, attending professional meetings at organizations and think tanks addressing such issues as socioeconomic policy, U.S. – Korean trade, and North Korean refugee issues. The Korean delegates will then travel to Little Rock, AR and Chicago and Geneseo, IL to explore topics such as state and local government, history of the Civil Rights Movement, and volunteerism in the United States, and to participate in a homestay experience. The U.S. delegates will simultaneously travel to Seoul and Busan, South Korea. Special features of the U.S. delegates’ trip to South Korea will include visiting the Committee of Foreign Affairs of the National Assembly and the Korea International Cooperation Agency.
I believe that this program will bring many delegates a deeper cultural understanding and awareness of the historical and current events that have shaped the U.S.-Korea bilateral relationship. The delegates will form long-lasting relationships with their counterparts, as well as the rest of the participants through this program, that will prove to be essential as they go on to take influential and meaningful jobs in the future.
My internship at Meridian was much more than just sitting at my desk. I met amazing mentors like Emma Finkelstein, Amy Selco, and fellow interns who continuously cultivated me to take the initiative of learning and to strive to become an empathetic individual. I felt the vibrancy of the nation’s capital at every tourist site, cafe, or museum I visited. Of all of my experiences, my visit to the Memorial was the most indispensible. I was able to discover my gratitude to the veterans of the Korean War, as well as the founders of the Memorial. I realized that rather than being bitter about the deaths of Americans soldiers fighting in a land unknown to them–thousands of miles away– we should all embrace a more positive perspective.
Without the decision made by Harry Truman and the United Nations, the poor, devastated country would not have become the inspirational story it is today. South Korea is now a country vibrant of a unique culture that many are fascinated with, while leading in innovation, business and technology. I encourage you to shine a new light on the stark war of 1950s. Start off with visiting the Korean War Veterans Memorial or the Korean Cultural Center. If you’re not in Washington, DC, watch a documentary or read a book on the war, being open and receptive all the while.
To America’s and our troops, I thank you.