President, Korean War Legacy Foundation
Korean Peninsula Affairs Center (KPAC)
The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs
The Korean War fundamentally transformed the destiny of the Korean nation. What awaited Koreans, liberated after 35 years of the most atrocious form of colonial rule by Japan in 1945, were roads that had never been taken by them before: the road of capitalistic democracy with the United States for Koreans in the South and the road of communism with the U.S.S.R. for Koreans in the North. Tracing back through the histories of American foreign policymakers, few were at all concerned with the state of Korea before or during WWII. After the Truman administration abandoned the peninsula by demobilizing troops overseas, it was only following the North Koreans’ attack across the 38th parallel that the U.S. decided to return.
Political entanglement in future Asian conflicts, however, was not totally unwanted by American foreign policymakers. While avoiding the Korean Peninsula was part of their aims to provide relief to the American people post-WWII, it was a long-term goal to maintain some involvement in Asia as a way to stifle the spread of Soviet ideology.
Immediately following the end of WWII, U.S. foreign policy in relation to the Korean Peninsula was highly inconsistent and mismanaged. Nevertheless, an invaluable, lasting commitment was eventually made by the American people. The troops sent to the peninsula were young, innocent, American men and women who risked their lives to save a people they never met, a culture they did not understand, in a place they could not even locate on the map until their ships docked at the ports of Pusan and Inchon. The contemporary bilateral relationship between South Korea and the U.S. sprang out of the anomaly of international politics following WWII, but the lasting bond forged between them exists because of these veterans. Without them, South Korea’s success as the most vibrant economy and democracy in Asia would have been impossible.
From this perspective, to simply reference the Korean War as a "turning point" in American history would be an understatement. The events that took place on the Korean Peninsula immediately after 1945 defined an era of global interaction, and led to the bifurcation of the world into two spheres. If one really considers the scale and impact of the Korean War, calling it simply the “Korean Conflict” is not only a misnomer, but an insult to those who lost their lives on the Korean Peninsula during that time.
We diminish the struggles of the veterans and civilians who perished in the war’s wake by refusing to recall history accurately. The Korean War was one of the most vicious, dreadful wars fought in the 20th century. For example, compared to American conduct in the Pacific theater during WWII, more napalm was dropped on the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War than on Japan—a country that attacked U.S. soil—during World War II. There are other examples that could be given as well, but from this fact alone it is clear that American military action on the Korea Peninsula was not limited.
The Korean War Veterans Digital Memorial (KWVDM) strives to remember the Korean War the most authentic way possible: by interviewing, archiving, and recording the first-hand experiences, original artifacts, and personal memories of Korean War Veterans (KWVs). The KWVDM is both a memorial and a limitless museum for Korean War Veterans to share their personal stories and experiences uncensored with the world. The database is completely searchable, meaning it is easy for new users to access specific artifacts or interviews by searching keywords. Beginning with the Korean War Veterans Association Central New York Chapter #105, Inc., the KWVDM has already collected 37 interviews (32 KWVs, 4 spouses, 1 civilian) and 1,262 metadated artifacts from the same 32 KWVs and their families. The KWVDM is already growing nationally, and aspires to spread internationally (seeking out veterans from UN member states that committed troops) if possible.
The ultimate goal of the KWVDM, however, is not just to digitalize the past, but to engage the younger generation and prevent the Korean War from becoming a truly forgotten war. Taking advantage of the fact that there are still more than 2 million KWVs left in the U.S., the KWVDM will host a Youth Program and Internship program for middle school through college level students that will connect them with a veteran in their area. Through this program, veterans will mentor students about the war and lessons they took away from their experience—which students will put to use for projects during their program—and students will utilize the KWVDM to upload more of their veteran’s information or artifacts online.
We must preserve this part of history because it is by no means merely a blip on the radar screen of the Cold War, but an important part of our contemporary history. From 1950-1953, the Korean Peninsula saw more than 2.5 million civilians perished, 54,000 American soldiers sacrificed, up to 500,000 opposition forces lost, and more than 3 million Koreans turned into refugees. By the war’s end, territory gained by the U.S. and South Korea was minimal and the ceasefire treaty holding the 38th parallel remains today. Koreans, veterans, and Americans are left asking, how much longer must the North and South tread down their two predestined roads before they can meet again? For Koreans and Americans on the peninsula, the war continues.
I want to thank all members of the Korean War Veterans Association Central New York Chapter #105, Inc., for their enthusiastic support and participation in this pilot project, and thanks to my project team members for their dedication to collect, arrange, manage, and present historical data of KWVs, as well as construct the website—with a special thanks to my colleague, Professor Yoo Seong-joon of Sejong University for his leadership.
Finally, I want to especially recognize the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs of Republic of Korea for its decision to support this pilot project financially. Also, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude toward CEO Park Byeong Yeop of Pantech Co., Ltd for his gracious donation to the Korean Peninsula Affairs Center of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, which has been an important contribution to the completion of this digital memorial.
In next 5 years, the KWVDM will be enriched with more interviews and artifacts from KWVs in other states and countries, and I am confident that this will be the best way to honor our past, to preserve historical data, and to educate our future generations with the lessons learned from the Korean War.