How does a war end with an armistice? Do two enemies suddenly decide to stop killing, apologize to one another with friendly handshakes, and part?
Saturday will mark the 60th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War.
Though the actual signing of the documents to ensure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed forces on the peninsula took only a couple of hours, the preparation took nearly two years, during which time the delegates of both sides met 1,076 times, and the soldiers of both sides kept on fighting, with real weapons shooting at real people. Some of the battles during these two years are recorded in history books as Battle of Bloody Ridge, Battle of Heartbreak Ridge, Battle of Triangle Hill and the Siege of Outpost Harry, to mention only a few. More than 60 percent of combat deaths occurred while the peace talks went on.
In April 1951, President Harry Truman had removed Gen. Douglas MacArthur as the U.S. Supreme Commander of the Far East. This infuriated 78-year-old Korean President Syngman Rhee, a Princeton graduate, who had hoped that MacArthur would drive the communists out of the peninsula and hand him all of Korea to rule. As a protest to the United Nations leaders’ intention to end the war without his consent, he ordered every organization to rally against the peace talks — school children, labor unions, religious groups, educators and even women’s groups.
I can’t remember how many times we kids demonstrated between May 1951 and July 1953 — sometimes at town squares, sometimes in front of the U.S. military base, and other times on the street. Hundreds of grownups were there, too, and we all behaved like mindless puppets, yelling, “Move out Americans; we want reunification! We’ll fight on until the last man!”
It was confusing. Only the year before we had welcomed the Americans on military trucks passing us, shouting gleefully, “Victory U.S.A.!” What had they done to deserve our angry words now?
Life magazine’s June 22, 1953, issue reported that “After about 35 months of bloodshed and 23 months of haggling … South Korea’s 78-year-old president Syngman Rhee cried that truce between the U.N. and the Communists means death to his country and threatened to fight on alone to expel the Chinese Reds, and take the entire Korea.” “If you have to leave us, we’re sorry to see you go,” he said. Meanwhile, the U.N. gravely faced the fact that, if Rhee’s threats were carried out, he might very well wreck the truce beyond repair.
As the peace talks made progress despite his threats, Rhee secretly released 25,000 North Korean prisoners who refused to be repatriated to North Korea at any cost, weakening the U.N.’s power at the bargaining table. Where did the Korean government hide the 25,000 communists? Mostly in private homes.
Our family sheltered two communists who were delivered by the secret police at night, with the message that our president wanted to give them a chance in the South and that we must keep them safe until further notice. My parents made beds for the two strangers in our grain storage shack, and the next morning I saw them at the deep well, cleaning themselves. To an 11-year-old, they looked no different than men in our neighborhood, except that their heads were shaven and they looked malnourished.
The secret police never showed up. After two or three days of hiding them, my father gave them money and food and showed them a safe route to the mountain where they could hide without fear of being noticed by the patrolmen, who often were Americans.
The armistice was announced through our Zenith radio, along with the news that prisoners had been exchanged at the Bridge of No Return along the 38th Parallel. Today, the 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide patch along the 38th Parallel is called No Man’s Land, and is considered the most heavily armed border anywhere in the world, with land mines and checkpoints. Two tiny villages exist there, one immediately north of the 38th Parallel and the other on the south side. The one on the north side is called Freedom Village, which the North Korean government uses strictly for propaganda purposes, but one on the south is called The Place Under a Big Star, and the South Korean government maintains it to watch their mischievous northern neighbors.
Sixty years later, as a U.S. citizen, I’m sad to see that my native country is still divided and the two Koreas are still enemies. But I am glad Americans taught South Koreans what democracy is and what they stand for. In March 1960, when President Rhee won election again by rigged votes and policemen behaved like his hunting dogs, arresting everyone who spoke against the president, college students rallied, crying, “Liberty and justice for all Korean people” and forced him to resign. It was a symbolic gesture of the new generation that South Korea has been reborn as a democratic nation, for which American troops had paid a high price.
Though the Korean War was called the Forgotten War, American troops taught us most unforgettable lessons for generations to come.