By Donald P. Gregg

The U.S.-Korea Review, May-August 1999


[Editorís Note:Donald Gregg was the President and Chairman of the Board, The Korea Society, at the time of this writing.]



In mid-June, at the Mansfield Center of the University of Montana in Missoula, my wife and I took part in a unique effort to explore the Korean War and its continuing influence.The format was a conference-cum-dialogue involving Koreans and Americans who had fought in the war, as well as those who had written about its impact on individuals and families, in fiction, non-fiction and poetry.The conference in effect brought together some of those who had ordered the attacks, fired the mortars and driven the tanks and those upon whom violence and its after-shocks had been inflicted.What I heard was fascinating and profoundly informative.

††† The memories of the retired soldiers were vivid and in some cases inspiring.What came through clearly from the recollections of the American fighting men was that they had no idea whatsoever of why they were in Korea, or of what the war might be accomplishing in a broader sense.They only knew that Korea was an awful, dangerous place they had never heard of and that the sooner they went home, the better.The possibility that the Korean War could become the keystone for winning the Cold War was beyond their comprehension.

††† Korean military recollections, eloquently voiced by General Paik Sun Yup, contained strong elements of satisfaction that South Korea had been preserved, tinged with deep regret that the peninsula was to remain tragically divided.General Paikís presentations were particularly stirring, embodying his courage as a soldier, his wisdom as a commander, and his gratitude to America for its intervention.

††† The Korean writers present, with the marked exception of Richard Kim, struck very different notes as they focused on personal tragedies inflicted upon them and their families by the war.North Koreans were seldom if ever blamed, and Americans were rarely if ever praised.War was the villain, and in a variety of ways the war was depicted as having been the fault of the Americans, either because we stupidly divided the country in 1945, or because we intervened in a civil war that, had we not intervened, would have long since been settled, with Korea re-united one way or the other.

††† As I listened to these fine writers, and read what they had submitted, I thought: "We Americans think of ourselves as firemen who bravely kept the Korean house from burning to the ground, and here are the Koreans complaining about water damage from our hoses."The Korean counterpoint to that thought is contained in an excerpt from Hong Sung-wonís magnum opus South and North.In it a Korean becomes angry as he hears an American complaining about primitive conditions in wartime Korea.The Korean berates the American for his complaints, saying that the only reason that America intervened in Korea is that Korea has great strategic importance for the Americans.The Korean then says, "You are like a hunter who has killed a tiger for its skin and then complains because the meat tastes bad."

††† This experience in Missoula helped me understand why, when I was American ambassador to Korea, I was never able to make a previously announced visit to a major university campus.I was often invited, but threatened riots by student groups would cause the invitations to be withdrawn.I was resented as the representative of a foreign presence that was seen my students and intellectuals as being deeply disruptive to Korea, and to the process of being Korean.

††† The Korea Society has already embarked on a long-range effort to put the Korean War into a clearer perspective for Americans; the veterans who fought there, and their grandchildren now in school.I now realize that the war is not clearly understood or appreciated in its broader context by many Koreans.The war kept South Korea free.Today, thanks to the efforts of its people, South Korea can become the hub of Northeast Asia, and the center of regional development.That is worth celebrating, but for that celebration to take place, and for the U.S.-Korea relationship to fully mature, both people need to take a fresh look at the war they fought together so gallantly.The Missoula conference was a significant step in the right direction.