Bond formed on battle lines

SUN JOURNAL

Korea: Soldiers' reunion is evidence of how the South's relationship with the United States was forged in three conflicts -- including the Vietnam War -- over five decades.

October 28, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

PANMUNJOM, South Korea -- Han Kwang Duc was particularly worried this autumn day, when the sunlight appeared muted along the grim demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.

Han, a retired South Korean general and former military college president, was visiting the world's most heavily fortified border, where 2 million troops, including 35,000 American soldiers, face each other along the 38th Parallel.

Its centerpiece is the "Truce Village," a surreal headquarters along the 151-mile-long no man's land of mines, barbed wire, watch towers and surveillance equipment, all a product of the uneasy truce that followed the Korean War a half-century ago.

Guards glare at one another across the demarcation line. Soldiers on the southern side wear army-issue sunglasses, while the North Koreans have erected 30-foot-high speakers that blare either propaganda or Britney Spears, depending on the tastes of the North Korean disc jockey. American forces respond with amplified rap.

On the day of Han's visit, the United States made known North Korea's admission that it has continued to develop nuclear weapons despite a 1994 agreement to cease work on weapons of mass destruction. And for Han and other Koreans who have lived next door to one of the most unpredictable regimes in the world, the news was simply the latest evidence that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was not to be trusted.

Perhaps just as alarming to the older generation of South Koreans, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has relaxed security measures, including disbanding a counterintelligence force that hunted infiltrators from the North.

"I am very fearful our government has let its guard down," says Han. "While my country has become very successful economically, I worry the younger Koreans have forgotten all the blood that was spilled over 50 years to ensure their precious freedoms.

"People call the police, the government, because they hear digging under Seoul city. But nothing happens."

The week that North Korea's nuclear program became known, Han, 61, was leading a weeklong tour of Koreans who were combat veterans of the Vietnam War. They in turn were hosts for two former U.S. soldiers who served with them in Vietnam, including this writer.

The reunion was symbolic of the bond between South Korea and the United States since 1950, when the United States helped defend South Korea from an invasion by the North and later by China.

In a relatively little-known chapter of the Vietnam War, South Korea paid back that debt by sending 320,000 troops to Vietnam, more than any other U.S. ally. Five thousand South Koreans were killed in the fighting and 10,000 were wounded.

The appreciation of many South Koreans for past American help runs deep.

"If the U.S. did not come to our aid when we were attacked in 1950, we would not have a country today," said Jae S. Chung, a businessman who is a Vietnam veteran. "We cannot, and will not, ever forget that. But I am afraid not everyone in Korea, especially the young, thinks that way."

Han served in Vietnam as a young second lieutenant. On Oct. 6, 1966, near Duc Co, a forward base near the Cambodian border, Han's infantry company was attacked by two battalions of North Vietnamese. Han's captain was killed in the first minutes of the attack, and Han, with just two weeks' experience in Vietnam, assumed command.

The battle at Duc Co raged all night. At dawn, when the North Vietnamese slipped back into Cambodia, 17 South Koreans lay dead. Around the camp's perimeter, the bodies of 189 North Vietnamese were strewn around the barbed wire.

"I was lucky, that's it," Han says now.

North Korea's economy is at a standstill. But thanks to its long-range missiles, North Korea has leverage for either genuine reunification talks or to threaten military action.

"That's been the rationale behind Kim's `sunshine' policy: try to lure the North in with economic leverage, to link both sides with railroads and power grids, and you got them," says James R. Lilley, former ambassador to South Korea and China. "But to many Koreans in the South, that has not been a popular move."

Lilley began working in Korea in 1952 as a CIA operative running agents into China. To him, the bond forged between Americans and Koreans is strong. But while many older, conservative Koreans who were children during the North's invasion cherish the Americans, other, younger, Koreans wish the Americans would leave.

"The Koreans are very stubborn people because they have been bullied, pillaged and raped by the big powers around them for most of their history," Lilley says. "There are lots of Koreans who look at America as being responsible for the division of the peninsula. The younger Koreans go into college, get radicalized, say U.S. troops should leave Korea. Then they graduate, get a job and forget all about it.

"But the bond between our countries is powerful and written in the blood of many brave people to stop communism," he says. "Weapons are pointed at the South today and young Americans are standing tall up there on the DMZ, just like 50 years ago."

On the last night of the reunion, at a restaurant in downtown Seoul, Han sat with his former soldiers and their two American guests. Sliced beef sizzled over open grills in the middle of the table, dishes of peppered and pickled vegetables were eaten with chopsticks and many toasts were made with soju, the potent Korean rice wine.

Toward the end of the evening, Han handed his empty glass to an American sitting next to him. Han poured soju into the small glass and invited the visitor to drink.

This writer, moved by the gesture, lifted the glass and looked at the faces around the table. A heartfelt toast was made, certainly not to war, but to the qualities of honor, love and the powerful spirit of our surviving souls.

And most of all, to peace.

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