I wonder how many Koreans remembered that last Thursday, June 25, was the anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Perhaps, except for a few government officials, not many Koreans would have remembered the fateful day that left indelible scars on our psyche and on this land. Since it was not a national holiday, everybody must have forgotten it, as they were busy with their daily routines. Even those who experienced the destructive war no longer seemed to bear the day in mind. As for the young, they could not care less.
Whenever I give a PowerPoint presentation on the Korean War in front of foreign diplomats and government officials, I am impressed and even deeply moved by their enthusiasm. Seeing the shocking photos from the Korean War, they exclaim, sigh and click their tongues continually, demonstrating their utmost concern and care. Some photos portray Korean mothers crying over their departed children and others show piles of civilian corpses that were massacred in the clash of ideologies.
To my disappointment, however, the young Korean intern helpers sitting next to them are almost always busy texting or tweeting. They seldom bother to raise their eyes and look at the screen to see what war had done to their country. Whenever I notice their indifference to the Korean War, my heart sinks. Would it not be ironic if we were uninterested in and ignorant of the Korean War, while foreigners are eager to learn more about it? Unfortunately, that is the way it is in Korea.
We proudly say that we have accomplished remarkable economic success and democratisation in the short span of 62 years since the end of the Korean War. At the same time, however, we have completely forgotten the war that devastated this land. What if we are pushed into yet another war? What would these apathetic young people do? A recent survey revealed that a majority of youngsters answered that they would run and hide instead of fighting for their country.
Recently, I met delegates from countries that had dispatched their soldiers to help South Korea during the Korean War. I expressed my heartfelt gratitude to them on behalf of the Korean people. Hearing my words of appreciation, they were very pleased and said, "At school, we learn that our country sent our young people to South Korea to fight for the freedom of the Korean people. We know many of them were killed in the Korean Peninsula and never returned. It is in our history books." They continued, "But Koreans do not seem to know about it."
Listening to those words, I felt ashamed. Regrettably, I hear that our history books do not include the names of the 16 countries that sent combat soldiers and the five nations that dispatched medical units to Korea. These foreigners came to a country that many had never heard of before and sacrificed their lives for people they hardly knew. According to CNN World News, 36,574 US soldiers were killed and 103,274 were wounded during the Korean War. As for the South Korean casualties, we had 217,000 military and around 1,000,000 civilian deaths. CNN also states, "There has never been a peace treaty, so the Korean War has technically never ended."
When I was a child, I witnessed many human bones and skeletons in mountain caves, which were the remains of those who were massacred during the war. Right after the Korean War, we sang in unison with wet eyes: "Oh, how can we forget the day/ The day when our enemies invaded our country/ The day when we had to fight back with our bare hands and our blood/ The day when we trembled with wrath and fury?" Alas! It has been only 62 years since the war, and yet we all seem to have totally forgotten it. To make matters worse, our young people immediately turn a deaf ear when we try to explain to them what happened in that dark time. But the war has not ended, not yet.
During the Korean War, refugees frequently found themselves surrounded by groups of militia who would ask them, "Which side are you on? Are you a communist or a capitalist?" Since the militia did not wear a uniform, there was no way to know their identity. A wrong answer could cost you your life. Some people escaped imminent death by a hair's breadth with a wild guess. Others were not so lucky and were instantly gunned down.
Oblivious to the nightmare we went through during the war, we still ask one another the same menacing question, "Which side are you on? Are you a Leftist or a Rightist?" I shudder whenever I hear that appalling ideological question. If we do not learn from history, we cannot be certain of a bright future. Like John Thorn says, "Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it."
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.