Tuesday marks the 68th anniversary of the armistice that ended major hostilities on the Korean peninsula. The Korean War isn't technically over. Some 30,000 U.S. forces are stationed in South Korea. About 7,500 U.S. service members from the conflict are still unaccounted for. Most of their remains are in North Korea.
Few Americans know that between 1996 and 2005 North Korean and U.S. military personnel worked side by side on more than 30 occasions with the purpose of finding the remains of Americans killed in the Korean War. Why the missions ended is a complicated question, but President George W. Bush's labeling of North Korea as a spoke on an "axis of evil" didn't help--not because it wasn't true but because it was unnecessarily confrontational.
When President Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un met in Singapore in 2018, they agreed to "commit to recovering POW/MIA remains." Unfortunately, that line of communication with North Korea has since gone cold.
Hundreds of Arkansans still don't know what happened to their brothers, uncles, fathers or grandfathers in Korea. Willie Lee Brown was reported missing on Nov. 30, 1950--soon after Chinese forces entered the struggle. Around the same time, Dewain Douglas was wounded and seen in a vehicle attempting to escape from the swarming enemy. Both Willie and Dewain disappeared.
In March 1951, Merle Edwin White went down with 11 others aboard a B-29 on a mission from Okinawa heading toward North Korea.
The next month, Charles Leon Gilliland was killed in combat as his unit was withdrawing under fire. When the ground where he died was re-taken, his remains weren't found.
Some 95 other Arkansans from the Korean conflict are still unaccounted for.
Sandwiched between the Second World War and Vietnam, the struggle in Korea is sometimes called "the forgotten war." But it's a struggle worth paying attention to. Yes, there was horror and, yes, there are things to regret in an episode that unleashed armed young men of multiple nations against one another in a deadly clash.
Recent conversations with Korean War veterans in Fayetteville reminded me of this. One recalled setting a fellow Marine's stretcher on the ground and watching as a helmet tumbled off with half a head inside. Another said that, since the war, he has found it hard to trust anyone.
As in all wars there were atrocities--primarily at North Korean hands, but no side walked away clean. And there is a connection between the obliteration North Korea experienced in the war and its knee-jerk hostility today.
Yet something remarkable sprang from the darkness. Just now I Googled "livestream Seoul, South Korea." As I write, I see real-time video of a city street at 8:30 a.m.--busy, orderly, clean, safe, a little part of the world's 12th strongest economy.
After the veteran I spoke with told me about the head in the helmet, I asked if he had ever returned to South Korea. He said he hadn't. I asked if he knew that American war veterans who visit there are treated like royalty.
He told me a story. "I was at Noah's Ark up in Kentucky and I had my Korean War veteran cap on. And this family from Korea was there. And they couldn't hug me enough."
I asked, "What impact did that have on you?" He said, "I was proud."
War is hell, but people who say nothing good ever comes of it are mistaken. As we make our way through the 68th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, it's worth recalling what Japan had become by December 1941, what Germany was before D-Day, and what North Korea and Vietnam could have been in the absence of tyranny dressed up as utopian idealism.
Wealth and ease have a way of making people cynical and self-destructive. I hope South Korea resists these things.
For now and among us, the people who fought to make possible what South Korea is today deserve remembrance and admiration.
Preston Jones lives in Siloam Springs and oversees the website "War & Life: Discussions with Veterans" (warandlifediscussions.weebly.com). If you have wartime photos or letters you are willing to share, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.