When the Forgotten War Wasn’t So Forgotten

Sometimes, when I sit down to write a #historyfriday post, my *own* history collides with it.

On March 26, 2010, a Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy vessel, the Cheonan, was allegedly sunk by a North Korean torpedo near Baengnyeong Island in the Yellow Sea. A rescue operation recovered 58 survivors but 46 sailors were killed. Despite overwhelming evidence, North Korea denied involvement. On the peninsula, anger and tension ran high; whispers of war were rampant.

And I was there.

From 2009-2011, I lived in South Korean city of Osan, about 30 miles from the capital city of Seoul. My husband was part of the USFK, working with his ROK counterparts to ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula.

And then the Cheonan was sunk.

For a few tense days, we lived moment by moment, waiting for a war declaration (for him) or an evacuation order (for me). Our eyes were on the sky, on the sea, and on the news. He spent most of his time at the squadron, awaiting further instruction; I spent most of my mine nervously pacing, gas mask and suitcase packed.

The lingering effects of history had never been so real. A conflict over fifty years in the past was now pressing up against my present and possibly my future. “The Forgotten War” was forgotten no longer, and the tragedy of Korea came once again–or for the first time–to the forefront of the world’s conscious.

During the early 20th century, the Korean peninsula struggled to maintain its autonomy, being first heavily controlled by Chinese influences and, later, by the Empire of Japan, first as its protectorate and later being fully annexed by the Japan-Korea Annexation of 1910. During this time, many Koreans fled; those who stayed behind were soon subjected to a brutal Japanese occupation, which only intensified during World War II.

After the war’s end in 1945, the victorious powers were faced with the task of dividing up the enemy’s spoils. Although the USSR was already occupying northern Korea, the United States was unwilling to commit the entire peninsula into their hands; seeds of distrust had already been sown between America and her communist “allies.” As a compromise, a boundary line was drawn by Americans at the 38th Parallel, just over halfway up the land mass (because the U.S. wanted to make sure the Korean capital of Seoul was included on their side of the line). The Republic of Korea (South Korea) was officially created on August 15, 1948, backed by the Americans with Syngman Rhee as its leader; in the north, the communist dictator Kim Il Sung thrived with the support of the Soviets.

The Allies may have been satisfied, but the Korean people were not. They’d been hoping for a free, independent, united Korea; instead, they were now at the forefront of a war of ideologies erupting across the globe, the camaraderie of a shared victory quickly forgotten as the United States and the Soviet Union began a long, secretive, chess game known as the Cold War.

Communist uprisings began in the south as early as 1948, buoyed by North Korea insurgents and sympathizers, as well as multiple attacks along the 38th Parallel led by the North Korean army. Nearly 10,000 soldiers and even more Korean civilians were killed before the war officially began in June 1950, when North Korean troops crossed the 38th Parallel in a barrage of artillery fire. Fearing this was the first step in a communist campaign to take over the world, the United States quickly joined the fighting.

The war was exceptionally hard and bloody. Seoul fell to the communists within three days, and ROK forces and their American counterparts were pushed back to the so-called “Pusan Perimeter” in the far southeastern corner of the peninsula. It wasn’t until September and the amphibious landing at Inchon, the port city outside Seoul, that the tide began to turn in the ROK’s favor. They pushed deep into North Korean territory….only to be pushed back when China entered the fray on the side of the North. A savage back and forth ensued for over two more years.

The conflict was never officially won by either side; instead, it ended in a ceasefire and armistice on July 27, 1953. By this time, nearly 5 million people had died. More than half of these–about 10 percent of Korea’s pre-war population–were civilians. Almost 40,000 Americans died in action in Korea, and more than 100,000 were wounded.

Despite all of this, Korea is still divided. A two-mile wide demilitarized zone runs along the 38th Parallel and remains one of the most heavily fortified places on earth. Skirmishes continued well into the later half of the 20th and even into the 21st century.

DMZ from the South Korean side, looking into North Korea, taken by the author in 2009

Including the sinking of the Cheonan during my time on the ROK.

Thankfully, the incident in the Yellow Sea did not result in a full-out war. But there have been countless other incidents–both before and after–that have cost hundreds of lives. For the people of Korea, the conflict is not over. For the US military members stationed there, still working to maintain peace, the battle is not won. A free, independent, united Korea remains the goal, all these years later, despite the lingering stalemate and nuclear tensions. Even though I am now back on U.S. soil, I remember well my time on the peninsula–the beauty of the land and the warmness of the people. I pray for the peaceful resolution of this never-ending war, for the safety of all who live there, and for the Korean dream to someday be realized.

Unification Bell near the DMZ, to be rung upon the unification of the two Koreas, taken by the author in 2009

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