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It’s time to remember the civilian survivors of the unresolved Korean War

By Ji-Yeon Yuh | July 27, 2022 | Originally published in the Chicago Tribune

The Wall of Remembrance at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Few Americans know that the Korean War, often referred to in the United States as the “forgotten war,” never officially ended. Although the United States and North Korea stopped military battles when they signed the armistice on July 27, 1953, they never negotiated a peace agreement to formally end hostilities.

Korea remains divided, separated by one of the most militarized borders on earth, with South Korea and the U.S. on one side and North Korea on the other. Because there is no peace agreement, military attacks from either side can resume at any time.

For our own future as Americans, we need stable, lasting peace in Korea. The United States can take the lead by negotiating a peace agreement and normalizing relations with North Korea. Once military attacks are no longer a constant threat, America, North Korea and South Korea can focus on the essential business of strengthening ties for mutual nuclear deterrence and economic prosperity.

On July 27, the 69th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice, I will be among the hundreds of people traveling to Washington to attend the dedication ceremony of the new Korean War Veterans Memorial Wall of Remembrance. The remembrance wall honors the more than 36,000 Americans and 7,100 supporting Korean soldiers who died during the war.

While I salute them, I am also remembering the millions of Korean civilians who survived the war, the estimated 3 million who died during the war, and the hundreds of thousands of separated family members. Memorializing them would go a long way toward helping to heal the wounds of this decades-old conflict that remains unresolved.

Recognizing civilian survivors in our midst — people like my parents — would also help everyone move toward the restorative closure necessary for peace to last. My parents emigrated from Korea to Chicago in 1970, and unlike so many of their generation, they talked about the war. I grew up hearing stories about their experiences was part of our daily family life. As an adult, I came to understand that telling me these stories was a form of therapy and a way to preserve family history.

When the war broke out, my father hid for days in a hole in the ground by the outhouses, listening to B-52s strafe his beloved hometown and surrounding farmland. He eventually fled the north with his parents, brother and sister. They left behind many family members, including my father’s two brothers and their families, his aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents.

His family was placed in a refugee camp, but he promptly left, seeking work that would help him feed them. He was only 15.

He found work in a soldiers’ lounge and survived for weeks eating the sugar that fell off their doughnuts. Doughnuts had to be accounted for, sugar did not. He also scrounged for odd jobs, doing laundry for the soldiers, fetching water and running errands, earning sometimes coins and sometimes food. After a few months, he returned to his family with a huge sack of American packaged goods: Kraft cheese, Vienna sausages, Spam.

He is 87 now, a retired Presbyterian minister, and still longing for his hometown, now in North Korea.

My mother and her family were among the many Koreans who fled Seoul and headed south for Busan. They walked most of the way. There, she nearly lost her mother, and it was pure luck that they ran into each other on the street.

After they returned to Seoul, shrapnel hit my mother’s arm, gouging out a long chunk of flesh. That gouge is still there, the scar white, sunken and puckered. Now 85, she is a retired pediatrician.

One of the most tragic consequences of the ongoing Korean War and national division is the separation of families. Like my family, most Korean families have some connection to someone in the northern half of Korea. While North and South Korea have held reunions between separated families, the United States has never participated.

The ban on U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea imposed by the State Department in 2017 has obstructed Korean Americans like me and my parents from visiting family members on their own. With normalized relations and peace, Korean Americans can reunite with their long-lost loved ones.

In a hopeful sign, there has been increasing recognition of the need to end the Korean War once and for all. H.R.3446, the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act, calls for formally ending the Korean War and replacing the armistice with a peace agreement and is supported by 42 co-sponsors, including Illinois Reps. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Jan Schakowsky and Bobby Rush.

As we commemorate the sacrifice of soldiers, both U.S. soldiers and the minority of ROK South Korean soldiers who augmented U.S. troops, let us also remember the civilians, those who survived, those who died, and those who still mourn for families left behind. And let us prove that their sacrifice was not in vain by finally bringing an end to America’s longest war, the Korean War.

Ji-Yeon Yuh is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and an executive board member of the Korea Policy Institute.


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