|Protest in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images |
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We call ourselves the post-Korean War generation. The word “Post” reflects, among other things, a different attitude toward the United States and its involvement in the Korean Peninsula. Our grandfather and father’s generations, who experienced the war and witnessed how U.S. soldiers came to our land and sacrificed their lives for our freedom, feel the deepest sense of gratitude toward the United States. On the other hand, the post-Korean War generation knows we should be thankful to U.S. troops, but we find it difficult to feel that thankfulness in our hearts.
Sadly, the longer the peacetime in Korea has lasted, the more the importance of U.S. troops in South Korea has been diminished in Koreans’ minds. “It is sometimes viewed as more of a burden than a benefit, considering the shared cost of keeping troops stationed in Korea.” And in recent years, there have been accusations of theft, rape, and violence committed by U.S. troops. Many troops have not been held accountable because of the protection afforded by the status of forces agreement (SOFA).
In one particular incident in 2002, an armored vehicle traveling to U.S. Army base Camp Red Wood crushed two young Korean girls, inflicting injuries so severe that their 14 year-old bodies could hardly be identified. This happened despite a radioed warning from the lead vehicle to proceed with caution. As news of the incident broke, outrage quickly spread, leading to a demonstration of nearly one hundred thousand Koreans in downtown Seoul which embodied anger felt throughout South Korean society.
Still, the United States has protected South Korea for over 50 years, and isolated incidents do not compare to the huge benefits South Korea gains from its strategic relationship with United States. So why do so many South Koreans have a daring, unappreciative attitude toward the United States?
My Change of Heart
Before beginning my internship with ROA here in the United States, I worked as an intern at Camp Walker, a U.S. Army base in Taegu, South Korea. One day my boss, Mr. Nho Won-hyun asked me to translate a letter sent to him by an old friend. The contents of the letter stick with me to this day.
When the friend was four years old, he lost his entire family in the war. He was orphaned and left to be raised by his neighbors on his home island of Kyodong. At age five, while playing alone with empty cartridges, bullets, and hand grenades that littered the ground, a cartridge exploded in his hands. He instantly lost his right arm and his eyesight. He laid there among the strewn refuse of war, dying, with no way to save his life.
A medevac helicopter from the U.S. army base in Kimpo came to his rescue, and transported him to the base hospital, where he received stabilizing treatment and rehabilitation for the next several months.
Once stable, and despite his injuries, he started playing the piano, ultimately finding both a passion and gift for the instrument. Commenting on his new-found talents, he said, “I believe God sent me angels to save my life, and God taught me how to feel the piano instead of looking at it. He also taught me how to make beautiful sounds with my left hand.”
The friend went on to earn a teaching certificate and serve as a piano instructor at his local middle school. For 30 years, he taught his students a passion for music and a sense of defiance against hardships. Over those years he helped students find their way towards inspiration and meaning in their own lives, just as he believed God had done for him when he was rescued from what seemed certain death.
After his retirement in February 2009, he sent a letter to President Obama, in the hopes that he could play a concert for U.S. veterans at the 60th Anniversary of the Korean War ceremony. I was there at the United States Capitol for the ceremony, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of this friend and his inspiring letter.
I and my generation of young Koreans have grown up in a very developed, abundant, and stable society. We only learn of the war from a few pages in our school textbooks. Many of us do not feel the constant threat of North Korea, nor do we realize the protection the United States provides us. But translating the friend’s letter depicting the life-changing help he received from U.S. soldiers, and being touched by his story, has changed my life as well. I sincerely hope that my fellow young Koreans may have a similar experience, too.