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News ::
Korean War hero honors the truce he hates (english)
07 Jul 2003
Paik Sun Yup, Korea's highest-ranking hero, says that "Bush was right. North Korea is an axis of evil." Paik wonders how the bombing of South Korean officials in Yangon in 1983 or the bombing of a Korean Air jet over the Indian Ocean in 1987 have been so easily forgotten.
A Korean War hero honors the truce he hates
Don Kirk, International Herald Tribune, July 7, 2003

SEOUL He wanted to fight the war all the way to the Yalu and Tumen rivers and reunify the Korean Peninsula, but South Korea's most enduring, highest-ranking Korean War hero will be at Panmunjom this month observing the 50th anniversary of a truce that he abhorred.

“It wasn't American policy" to reunify the peninsula after the troops drove the Chinese and North Koreans from most of the South, the long-retired general, Paik Sun Yup, says quietly, scarcely hiding his disappointment over the U.S. refusal to do so.

Dwight Eisenhower, the victorious World War II general who campaigned to a decisive victory in the 1952 presidential election on a promise to “go to Korea" and stop the war, dashed the last hopes for more than a cease-fire.

It was, as far as Paik and other senior South Korean officers were concerned, a disappointing way to end what the Americans had entered as a “police action,” rationalized as a “limited war," and consigned to history as America's “forgotten war.”

Nonetheless, talking in Seoul's war memorial, surrounded by paintings and mementos, Paik says he has no qualms about joining in an elaborate ceremony honoring the date, July 27, 1953, on which U.S., Chinese and North Korean generals signed their names to a truce that the former South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, refused to endorse.

"We were soldiers," says Paik, who was a 29-year-old brigadier general and division commander when the war started, and a four-star general chief of staff when it ended. "We were disappointed, but it was unavoidable."

Paik, now 82, will not be the most senior Korean at the ceremony, but he will probably be the most conspicuous and most venerated.

President Roh Moo Hyun, pursuing reconciliation with North Korea, still has not said if he will attend an event that North Korean soldiers, armed with binoculars and rifles, will watch from the truce village of Panmunjom.

An officer with the Korean War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Committee, which is chaired by Paik, says he hopes that the American vice president, Dick Cheney, will attend, but there has been no word yet from Washington.

The United Nations Command, the military structure under which the United States formed a Korean War alliance that included South Korea and 18 other countries, has invited hundreds of generals and officials from all combatant forces to the ceremony.

More than 1,000 American war veterans are expected to gather in front of Freedom House, the stone, glass and concrete structure in the South. Paik, along with General Leon LaPorte, commander of the 37,000 U.S. troops in Korea, and veterans from South Korea, the United States and other countries will extol the valor of those who fought to save the South.

North Korea, while having nothing to do with a ceremony at which speakers are sure to blame the North not only for the war but for numerous incidents since then, will celebrate the anniversary in its own customary way.

Keeping up an annual tradition, North Korea is planning a "victory ceremony" in Pyongyang, at which North Korean officials will hail the day on which, they say, the United States surrendered to victorious North Korean and Chinese forces.

The North Korean claim of victory dates back to the negotiations, some of which Paik attended at Gaeseong, a former South Korean city that North Korean troops overran minutes after invading the South on June 25, 1950. The captions on North Korean propaganda still say now, as then, that the white flags on the jeeps that carried U.S. negotiators to the talks were flags of surrender.

Gaeseong, where South Korea has pledged to build an industrial park at a cost of $20 billion as part of the price of reconciliation, remained in the North's hands when the lines were frozen in place as the shooting stopped three years, one month and two days later.

The outline of the buildings in Gaeseong are visible from the prow of a hill on the South Korean side, above the bridge over which thousands of prisoners marched in the exchange agreed on in the armistice.

Paik, who served as chief of staff of the South Korean Army for seven years after the war ended, dreaming of reuniting Korea under democratic, non-Communist rule, hides his resentment over the compromise that ended the war.

"We thought we must unite Korea by our system," he says, ruminating on the advance of U.S. and South Korean troops up the map of North Korea before China entered the war in November 1950 and sent them reeling back to the South. "Unfortunately, the Chinese crossed the Yalu River."

After U.S. forces recaptured Seoul six months later, he says, "American policy" called for leaving the troops in place "at about the current military demarcation line."

Paik recalls the fighting spirit - and the disillusionment - of the South Korean troops, viewed as ineffectual at the start of the war but a strong force by the time it was over, as they accepted the reality that the fighting would stop more or less where it had begun.

"We at that time were very young," he says, almost nostalgically. "We were not politicians. President Rhee said, 'Advance North for unification.' I supported him spiritually, but we were immature. We had nothing."

He believes fervently that General Mark Clark, the commander of all U.S. and South Korean forces who put his signature on the armistice, wanted to keep fighting. "He hoped for some kind of better solution," Paik says.

Paik is more outspoken about a new generation of Koreans who, he says, do not understand the meaning of the war, the suffering of the people or the significance of U.S. and South Korean troops holding the South.

"I am quite disappointed with the younger people," says Paik, who has participated in demonstrations of old-time soldiers and conservatives, protesting the anti-Americanism that has swept university campuses in recent years.

He wonders how people could forget the lessons of the war after such incidents as the bombing that killed 18 South Korean officials in Yangon in 1983 and the bomb that exploded aboard a Korean Air plane over the Indian Ocean in 1987. "Look at the last 50 years," he says.

Paik also harked back to President George W. Bush's State of the Union address in January 2002 in which he included North Korea with Iraq and Iran in an "axis of evil."

Koreans have criticized that remark, saying that it undermined former President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of reconciliation and set the course for the sense of crisis that hangs over the peninsula.

Paik, however, says that "Bush was right." "North Korea is an axis of evil."

An irony in Paik's career is that his outlook may have been too tough for the seemingly hard-line former brigadier general, Park Chung Hee, who ruled Korea for 18 years until his assassination in 1979 by his intelligence chief.

For 10 years, from 1960 to 1970, Paik was sent abroad on diplomatic missions, a form of exile for one whose outlook was out of tune with Washington's desire for peace and Korea's focus on economic success. He served briefly as minister of transportation under Park and then as president of a chemical company. He retired at 60, never again to lead troops or even serve in an advisory capacity on defense.

Over the past three years, though, since the 50th anniversary of the opening of the war, Paik has had a renaissance as a near-celebrity. Still, he is hardly a household name.

Paik does not worry about whether Koreans know who he is - or was. It is the war, he says, that he hopes will not fade from memory.

"A lot of people say it's 'the forgotten war,'" he says, "but it's never forgotten."

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