On June 28, 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrived in the United States for his first meeting with the newly-elected American president, Donald J. Trump. Shortly after landing in Washington, Moon and his wife Kim Jung-sook traveled to Quantico, Virginia to visit a newly erected memorial to those who perished during the Korean War’s fiercest set of battles, the Jangjin Lake Campaign.
The flags of both countries flapped gently in the early summer breeze as Moon laid a wreath in front of the monument. He then addressed the small crowd of veterans and their descendants who had gathered to pay tribute: “The Republic of Korea remembers your and your parents’ sacrifice and dedication. Its memory of gratitude and respect will continue forever.” Moon closed his remarks with a profound statement defining the special nature of the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea, “[The] Korea-U.S. alliance was forged in blood under the fire of war. It is not a mere promise made with a signature on a few pieces of paper.”
That alliance is nothing short of remarkable. In 1953, very few people could have imagined that the United States and South Korea, one a recently established world superpower and the other a much older but westward-looking country, would overcome the strains of war to become such great friends and essential trading partners.
But if we look at the history of the Korean War in detail, and through the eyes of those who fought in it as this project does, we realize that the seeds of such a vibrant friendship were sowed in the blood-soaked fields of the Korean peninsula. This is not to say that the friendship came easily, or that it is one free from conflict. Many Koreans, scarred by their country’s history of occupation by foreign powers, still resent the United States and its allies for occupying their country after World War II, and for dropping more than 500,000 tons of bombs, along with napalm and chemical weapons, on their villages and cities. Others look at the occupation and extensive bombing campaign as a necessary evil in a broader war to contain communism. Those perspectives are important, and understanding them allows us to better grapple with why the two Koreas are still technically at war with one another.
However, the United States and the Republic of Korea both emerged from the conflict as enduring partners, paving the way for many decades of peace, cooperation and prosperity. Many older Koreans cannot believe how the country rose literally from ashes to become such a driving global economic force. Many of them deeply appreciate all the Americans and their allies did to help South Korea achieve democracy and prosperity.
American veterans who have returned to Seoul so many decades after risking their lives to secure the city often stare at the gleaming glass skyscrapers and modern bullet trains with awe. They stroll through the bustling Gwangjang Market and contrast the lively, peaceful and prosperous scenes with what they witnessed a mere six decades earlier. In 2008, Edgar Tufts, who served in Korea from 1951 through 1953, returned to the country. While there, he was asked to describe what he thought about modern Korea and its capital city. He found himself choked up, unable to answer. Years later, still very emotional, he managed to find the words, “The total transformation of Seoul from total devastation to its magnificence now… I just couldn’t express how magnificent it was.” [Video: Edgar Tufts – “What Do You Think of Our Country Now?”] American veteran George Edwards remarked that when he returned to Korea decades after the war, it “almost seemed like 1000 years worth of progress [had occurred] in a different country.” [Video: George A. Edwards – Like a Thousand Years of Progress]
In 1953, shortly after the armistice at Panmunjom, the Republic of Korea was poorer than Guatemala and Zimbabwe. American Charles Gregg, who patrolled the DMZ in the 1960s, recalls just how poor the Korean people were, “[They were] trying to make ends meet. Their houses were dirt floors and their roofs were made out of straw from wheat and rice. They didn’t let anything go to waste. I don’t think they even had a word for trash or garbage because they used everything.” [Video: Charles Gregg – Poor Korea after Korean War] The situation was so dire that Douglas MacArthur declared, “[Korea] has no future. Th[e] country will not be restored even after one hundred years.”
Years of innovation, perseverance and investment have proven MacArthur wrong. In the years following the armistice, the South Korean government invested heavily in education. Teaching children the skills they needed to rebuild their homes, villages and cities became a major priority. The result? A highly-trained workforce that later went on to drive South Korea’s economic expansion. Today, the Republic of Korea is richer than both Spain and Greece. For sixty years, the country’s economy has grown by an average of seven percent per year (with the exception of two years), and is now the eleventh largest economy in the world. South Korea has now gone from a recipient of foreign aid to a donor, assisting hundreds of poor countries every year.
A Hairy Path to Prosperity
Beginning in the mid-1950s, Americans and others in the west became “conspicuous consumers” again. After long years of war and economic uncertainty, western nations including the United States experienced an unprecedented wave of prosperity. Many of their citizens had more disposable income than ever before, and began to buy more and more goods to suit their increasingly wealthy lifestyles. They bought new cars, furniture, household appliances and electronics, including televisions, which burst onto the scene in the early 1950s, forever altering the ways they viewed the world. Concerned and preoccupied with how their neighbors might view them, many felt as if they had to buy the latest trendy products to keep up.
People became fixated once again on what they looked like when the left their homes. This fueled major changes in fashion. Wigs, which had been seen in prior decades as unnecessary luxury items, became all the rage. Women and men, who dressed up in those days to go shopping or out to restaurants, bought the hairpieces en-masse. Many women bought wigs to avoid the often painful and time consuming process of straightening their hair, while men bought toupees to cover up their thinning scalps. In England, the National Health Service actually provided free wigs to mask hair loss. By 1968, one-third of European women owned at least one.
Wigs made out of real hair were superior to ones made out of synthetic material, but they were often prohibitively expensive. So, a market emerged for cheaper human hair. Wig manufacturers looked eastward, toward developing Asian nations… and Korea.
If you had been walking down the streets of Seoul in the late 1950s and early 1960s, you may have been approached by wig merchants asking you to sell your hair. Desperation convinced many people to trade their precious locks for American dollars, food or durable shoes. Manufacturers then took their hair to factories in Guro, a section of southwest Seoul’s manufacturing district, where poor women from all over the country washed it, sewed it, shaped it and packaged it for export.
Amazingly, by the end of the 1960s, wigs made up ten percent of South Korea’s exports. Cheap labor enabled those in the west to buy natural wigs and other clothing for a fraction of the price they could have just ten years earlier. By the late 1970s, wigs became South Korea’s third most-exported product, next to plywood and textiles.
As other consumer goods became more expensive to make in the west, South Korea stepped in to produce them inexpensively and efficiently. The 1970s also saw the beginning of South Korean investment in electronics and heavier industries including steel, coal, chemicals, machinery and shipbuilding. Now, Korea leads the world in those industries.
Korean workers supplied what western consumers demanded. The Republic of Korea established trade relationships with countries around the world that have only grown stronger over time. A wholehearted embrace of free market capitalism propelled the country’s economy toward a new century of prosperity. That prosperity helped to not only drive the South Korean economy, but to project the country’s young, vibrant culture upon the rest of the world.
Prosperous countries don’t just export their goods to the rest of the world. They export their cultures as well. Just as the United States introduced the rest of the world to McDonald’s, Disney and Coca Cola, Korean cultural exports have shaped the ways people dress, dance, play, work and live.
By the early 1990s, South Korea’s economy boomed. Young Koreans with disposable income began exploring western countries, particularly the United States and European nations, in greater numbers than ever. They tasted new and exotic foods, studied architectural and anthropological wonders, ate cheeseburgers and steak frites. They also became enamored with democracy and the freedom to make their own futures. Korea University business professor Lee Phil Sang remarked, “[South Koreans] went to the United States, saw democracy and this formed more pressure to have a better political system.” Another professor observed, “[South Koreans] have more desires. They want to be treated as equals. They want more leisure time. They want to have their children go to college. All these desires relate to the political system, and finally people demand democracy.”
Many who chose to study abroad and begin their careers at western companies. Some stayed in the west, building strong and enduring relationships and starting families. Others returned home full of ideas and hungry for opportunities in the burgeoning South Korean economy. Democracy became a buzzword, as the youth pressured the government to embrace the rhythms and philosophies of the west. As a result, the government lifted its ban on western films and art that it had deemed too controversial. Young Koreans, inspired by what they saw on the screen and listened to on the radio, began making their own films, music, dance moves and video games. Influenced in part by American hip-hop, rock, jazz and Europop music, K-pop burst onto the scene in the mid 1990s. A worldwide sensation, K-pop’s explosion climaxed in 2012 with the release of Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” The song took the world by storm, topping ITunes charts, its video garnering over 1 billion views on YouTube by the end of the year. As of July 2018, it has been viewed a stunning 3.1 billion times.
The bravery of those who fought in the Korean War paved the way for the next generation of Koreans, who supplied the exploding world economy with wigs, hats and clothing. They, in turn, opened the door for their children to share their skills and talents with the rest of the world. The Internet enabled new generations to do so in much more efficient and effective ways than ever before. If the Republic of Korea hadn’t survived past 1953, none of it would have been possible. That generational commitment to excellence, along with government investment and support from the west, propelled the Korean economy to vast heights.
By the late 1990s, South Korea’s 20-year investment in heavy industry had paid off in a big way. As people in the west became more and more familiar with Korean life and culture, they began to purchase new Korean products. Young, energetic and motivated Koreans channeled their creativity into producing some of the most sophisticated technologies in the world. Efficient factories enabled South Korean companies to distribute and market those products far and wide. Companies like LG, Samsung, Hyundai and Kia began to compete with Mitsubishi, Sony and Toyota. By 2017, Samsung had become the 6th most profitable brand on the planet, valued at $56 billion USD.
That same year, South Koreans young and old took to the streets to demand the impeachment of their corrupt president, Park Geun-hye. On February 4, 2017, hundreds of thousands gathered in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square, waving South Korean flags and lighting candles in protest. Adhering to the best democratic traditions of other world powers including the United States, Park’s supporters also rallied, largely in peace. On March 10, Park was impeached and eventually sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.
An Olympic Challenge
On February 9, 2018, the largest Winter Olympics in history opened amidst frigid weather in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Less than fifty miles from the North Korean border, athletes from all over the world marched into the opening ceremony with high spirits and open hearts. After sixty-five years of strengthening economic and cultural bonds with rest of the world, the world spotlight had finally come to Korea.
As the audience gasped with hope and cheered with abandon, the world witnessed one of the most incredible Korean political developments since 1953. Twenty-two North Korean athletes marched into the stadium alongside their South Korean counterparts under a common Korean flag. 230 beaming North Korean cheerleaders, dressed in crimson wool coats with black fur trim, accompanied the athletes. It was a coming out party of sorts for North Korea, which had isolated itself from the rest of the world for so long.
Just as people around the world could not believe their eyes when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the surreal images of North Koreans and South Koreans marching together foreshadowed a new era of cooperation and, possibly, reunification at long last. South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in remarked, “Many considered it an impossible dream to have an Olympics of peace, in which North Korea would participate and the two Koreas would form a joint team.”
Others expressed doubt that the Olympics could bridge the deep resentment the two countries have harbored for each other, especially after so many years of distrust and resentment. Certainly they have a point. Bringing Korea back together as one will require Olympic efforts on the part of both countries’ leaders with the cooperation and support of the rest of the world. However, the images of brotherhood between the two Koreas that painted television screens across the world have the same potential to usher in change as wigs, K-pop, Samsung and western-inspired democracy did in transforming South Korea. Culture is one of the most powerful forces for change on earth, and such images for all the world to see have a way of producing more powerful change than any meeting or summit between leaders possibly could.
Hope is another powerful force. American Congressman John Conyers expressed his hope that the war would, at long last, come to an end, “I know it’s very difficult… for [it] to be resolved… but I’m hoping that someday there may be reunification of the whole nation. I think that’s very important, and I’m hoping it can be accomplished.” [Video: Congressman James Conyers – Hopes for Reunification] Indeed, the world hopes that the two Koreas will come back together as one, and that the tensions that exist on the peninsula will give way to a more peaceful and productive between the two nations. If South Korea was able to go from one of the world’s poorest countries to one of the richest in just two generations, imagine what the two countries could do together, arm in arm with the rest of the world.