70 years ago today, on June 25, 1950, our destiny as Korean Americans began to take form. On that day, the so-called Forgotten War for the soul of Korea commenced when communists from the North flooded the South in their bid to unify under Kim Il Sung’s rule.
My first consciousness of its impact was in 1966. The hillsides outside Seoul were still largely barren but for the scrubs of underbrush and young pines the height of boys. The once verdant landscape of a forest-loving people had been stripped bare by the war, and the city’s streets were more dirt than asphalt.
It was in that year, and on one such hillside, that I encountered the archers. My older cousins and I were up early and roaming freely in the heights above the city, such as it was. They were three men, standing there in shabby clothes who seemed old to me, and yet ennobled in my memory because of what they carried. They each held short but heavy bows, and the fiercely striped fletching on their arrows bristled from their quivers. They stood quietly side by side facing an opposite hillside, taking turns shooting calmly at a target they had affixed there. They were three friends for whom this had become a morning ritual, honoring the ancient love of our people.
They had ignored us as we watched them from a distance but when finished one of them approached me as I stood there idly pulling at the needles of a pine. He seemed a giant, with scraggly gray whiskers springing indiscriminately on his broad and leathery face. Suddenly, he took hold of a strand of my hair and yanked it out. I protested with a yelp, scowling at him.
“That’s how the tree feels. Let it grow.” He commanded, before moving on.
Decades on and I still remember that desolate hillside overlooking a squalid city, where the people and trees slowly rose from the devastation of war. I remember his scolding and realize that he must have been a survivor of the war. I imagine that, before he endured or committed acts of bloody cruelty, he once wandered alone under the canopy of tall forest trees, bow in hand. And that he saw the young pines taking root as the fragile return of beauty to one corner of his hard life.
Just 16 years before, he had witnessed a war commence that left millions dead. Millions dead. Men, women, children, either killed instantly by explosive machinery invented for mass casualty, or hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye in brutal violence. Countless, unrecounted moments when sentient and hopeful humans expired, whose last thought was of terror and despair.
Our entire homeland is but the size of a small State in America, and yet it was cut in half as our people, backed by the global giants (then and now) waged a cataclysmic battle for ideological dominance. Communism or democracy. Karl Marx or Adam Smith; Lenin/Mao or FDR/Eisenhower.
What had any of this foreign ideology or global economic ambitions to do with the lives of the countless Koreans (North or South) who worked to carve out a small space for themselves day to day, in pursuit of a living, some dignity and, most importantly, happiness for their children?
Yet they had locked themselves in a mindless, eye-gouging death struggle with their brothers, to kill or die trying. And this among people who prize “jeong” roughly translated to mean generosity and warmth. I think of that and reach the limits of comprehension. How painful to think of such youths killing each other for ideas of governance conceived by foreign men.
Grainy black and white pictures from that time depict another kind of pain: massive displacement of people fleeing from the centers of battle. Millions of people with their essentials on their backs, or on a cart for those fortunate enough to have a wheeled device, as far as the eye can see, snaking through squalor toward nothing more than just survival. Countless children orphaned when their parents died in the unforgiving winters or just lost amidst the crowd of surging masses.
And the millions dead were not just Koreans, though the vast majority were. 140,000 were young Americans who were killed or wounded on this foreign shore; thousands more from 15 other nations that sent their young people to fight for the South, and countless more dead among the Chinese who fought for the North. What did their mothers and fathers know about the causes of this “conflict” that, to this day, is not officially recognized as a “war”? When they received word of the death of their beautiful sons, on battlefields of a land they had never even heard of, did they know this struggle would be called the Forgotten War? And when they learned that three years of slaughter had ended with a stalemate, the boundary line not much moved from the point when Kim Il Sung’s troops invaded the South on June 25, could they reconcile their loss with their faith in God?
Having left that nation as a boy and made my home here in the United States, I have a personal answer for those countless dead and their mothers and fathers, long-since gone, an answer I fervently wish they each found before they passed. For Korean Americans, this was far from a Forgotten War. It was the war for liberty of an entire nation. Its progenitor is the American Revolutionary War, waged 175 years before it on the other side of the world. We are the beneficiaries of those dual, bloody struggles for a democratic form of government, both physically and ideologically. Physically, because neither we nor our parents could have become American citizens or residents but for the war. And ideologically because, but for the sacrifices of the combatants, we would be part of a failed communist regime, our pathways predestined, movements constrained and our very thoughts monitored.
Accustomed to a culture of liberty, Korean Americans comprise one of the most independent and successful groups of ethnic Americans, economically, artistically and professionally. We count among our number exceptional artists like the authors Min Jin Lee and Chang-Rae Lee; world leaders like Jim Yong Kim, former head of the World Bank; pre-eminent academics like Harold Koh, the Dean of Yale Law School; leaders in the legal field like Don Liu the General Counsel of iconic Xerox and then Target Corp., as well as Joon Kim, acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. I miss recognizing far more than I list. And these are among the many who have contributed to the strength of the United States in so many ways. All of this was achieved within just two generations. Our children will do even more.
The war, of course, was not waged just to afford Koreans the freedom to leave the country and succeed elsewhere. Blood was shed so that it could finally be great. With its autonomy returned after a half-century, Koreans found themselves richly deserving of the privileges and responsibilities of a democratic republic. Coupling their ambition with a seemingly limitless capacity for work and creativity, the people of this tiny country willed their nation into one of the great economies of the world.
Not a year goes by when I return to Korea that I don’t see some new and remarkable advance. It has already been some years since Seoul was globally recognized as the most technologically connected city in the world. Name the field, and you find a South Korean standout; engineering, science, sports, medicine, law, arts and entertainment. Most recently, there is no greater subject of justified pride for Koreans than the multiple Oscar-award recipient Bong Joon-Ho and his team of extraordinary artists who offered an exquisite indictment of social inequality in all its many forms. And when a pandemic threatened to engulf the nation, South Koreans displayed for the world a model of preparation, cooperation and science-based administration.
Just a few decades ago, these are the people whose parents or grandparents were desperately scavenging for food on roadsides. My mother will still point to the weeds that grow along U.S. highways and discuss their health and culinary benefits when prepared properly. The roots, seaweed, beans, rice and fermented lettuce we love to eat are a diet born of desperation. It is their legacy and it still evokes a melancholy because of the women who taught us to enjoy them.
There is one other thing I notice each time I return to Korea. The trees are everywhere. The hillsides towering over Seoul is carpeted by them. Evergreen, deciduous, every variety suited for the temperate zone, thrive in Korea. The largest of them about 60-some years old and tall enough to shade the wanderings of a grizzled archer.