1871 Battle Echoes

South Korea seeks return of flag, on display at Naval Academy, that Marines seized after their victory

May 09, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN REPORTER

The battle rates as barely a footnote in history, but the U.S. military had scored a decisive victory that would become a part of Marine Corps lore.

The proof: a giant yellow and blue flag, used to rally a band of soldiers, "tiger hunters" and peasants in a futile effort to repel a powerful American force that sacked a Korean citadel in 1871.

The flag has been on display for decades at the Naval Academy, one of more than 100 seized from conflicts large and small.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on Page 1A yesterday incorrectly described a resolution sponsored by Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican. While Allard has publicly suggested bartering the return of a 19th-century Korean battle flag at the U.S. Naval Academy for a U.S. ship seized by North Korea in 1968, the resolution simply demanded the return of the USS Pueblo from North Korea.

But now South Korea, which venerates the heroism of the battle's defenders much as Americans do the defenders of the Alamo, has asked for the flag back. A delegation from the country's cultural heritage administration visited the Annapolis campus last month to make its case.

Such booty is protected by U.S. law, and returning the flag would require an act of Congress, something that appears unlikely. South Korean officials had held out hope that the academy could get around the law by providing the flag on permanent loan.

A Defense Department source familiar with last month's meetings, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the museum has no plans to provide the flag.

Reached this week by phone, two officials at the South Korean Embassy in Washington said they were unfamiliar with the details of the delegation's visit and could not comment on the discussions with the academy.

Naval Academy officials declined to discuss last month's meetings, but they appear to be well within their rights and tradition to retain the standard.

A number of laws and executive orders dating to 1814 require that any flags seized by the Navy in combat be displayed at the academy.

Such prizes are the spoils of war, often held by many countries that have long since become allies. The British are known to hold a U.S. flag dating to the American Revolution, said Jack Greene, a spokesman for the Naval Historical Center.

A 1907 Hague Convention established the international right of any country to seize from an enemy assets that will help prosecute war, Greene said.

Nevertheless, Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican who has for years tried to secure North Korea's release of a surveillance vessel seized in 1968 after that nation's officials said it had strayed in their territorial waters, recently drafted a resolution suggesting that the flag could be returned as a bargaining chip to secure the USS Pueblo.

"This is the only commissioned ship that another foreign power holds," Allard said, adding that he had suggested the barter with North Korea at the behest of activists in Pueblo, Colo., the city for which the ship is named. "It could give [the Koreans] the opportunity to save face while they return the ship."

State Department officials have told Allard that there is "little near-term prospect of negotiating the return of the USS Pueblo," and a department spokesman said the United States has not "been directly contacted" by Korean authorities.

In recent years in South Korea, a grassroots movement has emerged that seeks to have the 15-by-15-foot banner returned.

History buffs compare it in significance to the flag, displayed at the Smithsonian, that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"Here's an object that would be of great value here in Korea, and South Korea is probably the United States' best friend in Asia, and yet the United States is holding a war prize. I just thought that really, truly belongs here in Korea," Thomas Duvernay, a professor of English and Korean history at Handong Global University in Pohang, South Korea, said in a telephone interview.

He has been a leading advocate for the flag's return.

For Korea, the hard-fought battle - during which the nation lost 350 men, compared with three American sailors and Marines - has come to symbolize a great victory, an example of a outmanned group of warriors who gave their lives, not unlike the small band of Texas fighters at the Alamo.

Despite taking the citadel, the Navy and Marine forces left Corea, as the nation was then known in English, a short time later, having failed in their mission to establish diplomatic relations with the country.

In official U.S. histories, the battle was described as an early example of military might during which Marines launched a successful amphibious assault to reassert American power six years after the devastating Civil War.

Five U.S. ships had gone to Corea seeking to open the nation to trade. At the time, the dominant U.S. interest abroad was to protect its citizens, many of them in the whaling industry.

Met by a low-level delegation, the U.S. minister to China, Frederick Ferdinand Low, asked to speak with higher-ranking diplomats with negotiating power and stated the intention of the United States to explore the coasts. He was met with silence from the Koreans.

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