The Korean War is less and less “forgotten.” You don’t hear people calling it “the Forgotten War” nearly as much as we did years ago. For elevating awareness of the worst calamity ever to befall the Korean Peninsula, we can thank North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, who has done his best to alert the world to the dangers of a second Korean War by staging missile tests and threatening nuclear annihilation.
Now an elaborate memorial to the war is finally about to stage its second opening in Washington. The memorial opened for the first time on July 27, 1995, 42 years after the Korea War truce was signed at Panmunjom. On the next anniversary, the 69th, the memorial is to be rededicated with one remarkable enhancement ― a “Wall of Remembrance,” including the names of all those who died in the war as members of U.S. military units.
No, they weren’t all in U.S. units. More than 7,600 of them were members of the Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army. Having been under U.S. command, fighting with the Americans, they are listed along with 36,164 U.S. soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen who died in the war. On the wall are 43,769 names, listed alphabetically. Korean family names, Kims and Lees and Parks and Changs and Choes and so many others, fill many columns.
The KATUSAs received the recognition they deserve at an elaborate ceremony that I attended at which General Vincent Brooks, the retired commander of U.S. Forces Korea, the U.N. Command and the Combined Forces Command, said, “We served together” and “we honor the memory of those who served.”
The wall, and the entire memorial, including statues of soldiers in combat gear on patrol, honors all those who have defended Korea, but by listing the names of the KATUSAs who died, it pays special tribute to the Koreans. The first Korean soldiers were placed in U.S. Army units on Aug. 15, 1950, less than two months after Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, ordered the invasion of the South on June 25, 1950. The acronym KATUSA may sound a little awkward, but it has stuck ever since, so much so that it is part of the vocabulary of modern Korea, a word that many in Korea will know without realizing what those initials mean. By now, 300,000 Koreans have been KATUSAs, including about 2,400 on active duty now.
A galaxy of retired generals attended the ceremony, at which Brooks received a $50,000 check from the KATUSA Korean Veterans Association for the Korean Memorial Foundation. General John Tilelli, another former U.S. commander in Korea, showing me around the memorial, happily noted that the Korean government was paying the entire bill of about $22 million for establishing the Wall of Remembrance and sprucing up the rest of the memorial. “This started as a dream of Korean War veterans,” he said.
By the time the job is done three months from now, the Korean War Memorial will be just as impressive as the Vietnam War Memorial, maybe more so, but why was the memorial for the Korean War envisioned so many years later? The answer lies partly in the sad reality that the Vietnam War was a failure in which more than 58,000 U.S. troops were killed, and listing the names of all of them seemed like a way to remember their service and sacrifice even though they had died in vain for a losing cause.
The Korean War “was no tie ― Korea was a victory,” said President Barack Obama at a ceremony that I attended at the memorial on July 27, 2013, 60th anniversary of the Panmunjom truce. By “no tie,” he meant that the South, after turning back the North Koreans and their Chinese allies, had far surpassed the North as a thriving nation. “When 50 million South Koreans live in freedom ― a vibrant democracy, one of the world’s most dynamic economies, in stark contrast to the repression and poverty of the North,” he said, “that’s a victory; that’s your legacy.”
For Korea, the war was far more devastating than imaginable from viewing the Wall of Remembrance. Besides the 7,600 KATUSAs, an additional 100,000 South Korean soldiers and nearly 1 million South Korean civilians died. About 1.5 million North Korean and Chinese soldiers were killed, plus another 1.5 million North Korean civilians.
The Korean War Memorial and the Wall of Remembrance remind us, belatedly, of the horrors of the bloodiest single war in Asian history.