It has been called the “Forgotten War,” but it remains important to remember what happened when the Cold War turned hot. It’s also important to look at what has happened since.
In the summer of 1950, North Korean troops poured across the 38th parallel that divided communist North Korea from pro-Western South Korea. For three terrible years, through sweltering summers and frigid winters, the battles raged.
Fighting was fierce. In The World-Herald’s book “At War/At Home: The Cold War,” Ted Minard of Council Bluffs recalled the intensity of the fighting that day in August 1950 when he was wounded. “We were given one day’s ammunition,” he said. “That was gone in an hour.”
About 150,000 Nebraskans and Iowans were among the 1.8 million Americans who fought in Korea. The war claimed 33,739 American soldiers, including 331 Nebraskans and 532 Iowans.
On July 27, 1953, an armistice halted the war, although no formal peace treaty was signed. The Korean peninsula remains divided, and about 28,500 U.S. troops continue to serve in the South.
That soldiers still face off across the border is one indication of how large the stakes were in the Korean War. A gratifying aspect of the war is that the sacrifices by U.S. troops have made a tremendous, enduring difference for the people of South Korea.
Because Americans and those of other U.N. nations put their lives at risk in places such as the Pusan Perimeter, the Chosin Reservoir area and such hilltop battlefields as Pork Chop Hill and Old Baldy, generations of South Korean men, women and children have lived in freedom and economic prosperity.
Contrast that with North Korea. There, the governing elite chokes off people’s freedom and keeps the country locked in rigid isolation. It encourages paranoia about the outside world and needlessly provokes tensions with regional neighbors. Most outrageously, the economic mismanagement and hoarding of resources by the country’s rulers have produced malnutrition and starvation on a horrific scale.
South Korea, kept free as a result of the war, has moved in the opposite direction. The South has thrived, first of all, because it has been willing to change — a key contrast with the North.
South Korea’s government was long an autocratic one, but for decades now the country has been a vigorous democracy. With its economy, South Korea once relied on high tariff walls and other protections. But when that model proved a failure, the country freed up its economy and opened itself to the world. The result is an extraordinary example of economic progress.
Communist countries like North Korea claim that their central aim is the liberation of the people, but that claim rings hollow. A dynamic democracy like South Korea’s shows what the genuine liberation of a people looks like — citizens freed to pursue their economic interests and dreams, and to voice their political beliefs.
Put the two countries’ conditions side by side, and the contrast is dramatic.
South Korea is an economic powerhouse. As one of the G-20 economies, it boasts internationally known companies like Samsung, Hyundai Kia and LG.
North Korea, governed by a family of tyrants, is impoverished and nearly friendless in the world. Its people face repression and starvation. Economic sanctions hurt, but the North brought those on by failing to act as a responsible member of the world community.
Statistics illustrate the point dramatically. Gross domestic product per capita in the North is $1,800; in the South, $32,400. Infant mortality per 1,000 live births in the North is 26.21; in the South, 4.08.
South Korea has twice the population of North Korea (48 million, compared with 24 million), 10 years’ greater average life expectancy (79.3, compared with 69.2) and dramatically higher Internet usage (81 Internet users per 100 people in the South, less than 0.1 in the North).
North Korea exports about $4.7 billion worth of goods a year, mainly to China. The total for South Korea’s export sales worldwide? More than $552 billion.
Gordon Greene of Lincoln, who served as a Marine rifleman in Korea in 1950 and 1951, spoke for many of his comrades in a 1990 World-Herald interview, saying the effort and sacrifice were justified. “I feel good about it, yes,” he said of his service. “Just look at what South Korea has done. We saved them from communism, no doubt about it.”
Sixty years later, that’s important to remember.