Korea and the United States: Postwar Perceptions
Anniversaries of major historical events produce opportunities for reflection. In the case of the Korean War, the sixtieth anniversary of the beginning of the war in 2010 prompted historians and journalists to ask new questions about what went right, what went wrong, and what “might have been.” After all, unlike World War II before it, the Korean War did not produce decisive victory on either side. It resulted in a sixty-five year stalemate that endures to this day. Was it worth it?
Recent developments give cause for optimism, including North Korea’s and South Korea’s joint participation in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. However, the two countries are still in a de-facto state of war and it is unclear if or when it will end. The situation continues to destabilize the entire East Asian region and poses a serious threat to world peace.
In addition to the horrors endured by American and Korean soldiers on both sides, Korean civilians, especially women and children, bore the brunt of the war. Veteran Charles Fowler recalled, “The most horrible thing was when our planes began to shoot napalm. People that it hit would be just dead, burnt, dead. One time, our airstrikes hit [one of our units] and destroyed almost half of them by mistake.” [Video: Charles Fowler – Horrible Napalm] In his important book published in 2010 titled The Korean War: A History. Bruce Cumings argued that the war was not worth the amount of civilian blood spilled. Between 1950 and 1953, the United States dropped more bombs in Korea than they had during the entire Pacific Theater during World War II. 32,557 tons of napalm lit villages aflame and burned alive soldiers and civilians alike. [Video: Keith Fannon – Napalm]
When napalm hit the South Korean village of Danyang, families who had escaped other attacks were clustered together in a cave. Eom-han Won who was fifteen at the time recalls, “When the napalm hit the entrance, the blast and smoke knocked out kerosene and castor-oil lamps we had in the cave. It was a pitch-black chaos – people shouting for each other, stampeding, choking. Some said we should crawl in deeper, covering our faces with wet cloth. Some said we should rush through the blaze. Those who were not burned to death suffocated.”
Because each side endured so much pain, suffering and death, it is natural that many Koreans harbor deep resentment toward Americans, and that many Americans view their North Korean and Chinese foes as cruel and subhuman. But the war did accomplish something remarkable that many historians overlook. It allowed Americans to better understand Korea’s culture, people and history, while prompting many South Koreans to appreciate American efforts to defend them against communist aggressors. Though the war ended in a stalemate, and though the peninsula did not reunite as one unified country, South Korea emerged with its own democratic government and an alliance with the United States. That alliance only became stronger over the years and endures to this day. Amazingly, Korea has risen from the ashes to become the world’s 11th largest economy, and expects to become the seventh by 2030.
For three years, Americans, United Nations forces and South Koreans fought side-by-side to preserve the Republic of Korea. Together, they suffered 150,000 casualties. The American military found new respect for their fellow South Korean soldiers, who made up over 70 percent of the front line units in the UN command. South Korea’s army also suffered more than three and a half times the number of battlefield deaths as US troops⎯a reality that was not lost on American commanders.
After the war, South Koreans realized that even though the presence of a foreign power was not ideal, the American military could protect the country against further invasions from the north and allow the country’s economy to recover. Indeed, shortly after the war’s end, the United States and South Korea signed a mutual defense treaty that declares that if either country is attacked, the other country will step in to defend its ally.
As a result, some South Koreans began to view the United States as an “elder brother” or a “far away but good friend” after the war. Veterans Bruce Ackerman and Kenneth Dillard recall how that relationship strengthened over time. [Video: Bruce Ackerman – Relationship Strengthened] [Video: Kenneth Dillard – Relationship Strengthened] Doris Porpiglia describes why she considers the Korean people such good friends, “I have met many Koreans. They are very giving people, the most giving people I think I have ever seen, because they’re thankful… and we’re glad they’re [still] here.” [Video: Doris Porpiglia – They Are Very Giving People] Such a friendship was unimaginable before the war. And for their part, Americans began to view the young Republic of Korea as an important new ally. In the years since, South Korea has become one of America’s most important trading partners; currently its seventh largest.
This newfound mutual respect became one of the most important of the Korean War’s unintended consequences. Out of the most hellish conditions imaginable came a partnership that continues to benefit and enrich both countries to this day.