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Generations in South Korea Clash Over Statue Honoring MacArthur

  • Kurt Achin

Thursday marks the 55th anniversary of General Douglas MacArthur's landing of U.S. forces at Incheon during the Korean War. Grateful South Koreans erected a statue honoring the American general just a few years after the 1953 armistice that halted the fighting. Now, some members of the younger, more left-leaning generation want the statue torn down. VOA's Kurt Achin in Seoul takes a look at the clash between those who see MacArthur as Korea's rescuer, and those who view him as its divider.

Riot police surround a bronze statue of General Douglas MacArthur, who stares out across Freedom Park in the South Korean city of Incheon. Their job: to keep order between young leftists crying for the statue's destruction, and aged Korean War veterans who have sworn to protect it.

This scene has played itself out several times since July, culminating in a riot last Sunday that left several people injured.

The North invaded South Korea in June of 1950, and rapidly overran the South's capital, Seoul. The North Koreans had captured almost the entire peninsula by the time MacArthur made his surprise landing at Incheon on September 15.

U.S. military historian Richard Frank says MacArthur's landing on Incheon's muddy and treacherous terrain marked the main turning point of the war.

"Absolutely jaw-dropping in its daring. The very improbability, the very seeming impossibility of conducting the operation, assured for absolutely stunning surprise," he said.

But some South Koreans, such as protester Han Sang-ryul, have a much less heroic conception of MacArthur.

Mr. Han tells South Korea's YTN network the Incheon statue of MacArthur is a symbol of war, and should be removed.

Kang Jeong-koo, a Dongguk University sociology professor, published similar statements in July. Professor Kang described MacArthur as a "war fanatic" who was primarily to blame for four million Korean deaths during the three-year war.

South Korean musician Park Seong-hwan expresses sympathy for that view in his latest recording.

Mr. Park's refrain calls for the statue of MacArthur to be pulled down, while an earlier verse accuses the general of dividing Korea with guns and swords.

After Allied forces liberated the Korean peninsula from Japanese colonization in 1945, it was divided into a northern state under Soviet Union communist influence and a southern state allied with the United States.

The current struggle over the MacArthur statue reflects a broader difference of opinion about North Korea and its 1950 attempt to reunify the peninsula by force. Some South Korean leftists are becoming increasingly vocal about their view that reunification should have been allowed to occur under the North Korean banner. They say the peninsula would not still be divided had the United States not intervened for reasons they describe as imperialist.

On the other side of the debate, Baik Sun-yup, one of South Korea's most decorated generals, recalls MacArthur, and the United States, as a rescuer from an act of aggression by a repressive government.

"I'm just shocked. You know, General MacArthur, he helped this people, this Korea," he said.

Conservatives such as General Baik point out that the Korean peninsula was also briefly unified under United States control, until China entered the war and drove U.S. forces back to the current North and South Korean border at the 38th parallel.

The United States may be an easier target for South Korean anger because of its sheer presence. About 32,000 U.S. military forces remain in South Korea to help deter another North Korean invasion.

Andrei Lankov, a historian at Seoul's Kookmin University, points out that young South Koreans do not recall the massive economic and humanitarian aid the United States funneled into South Korea in the 1950s and '60s. As older generations pass away, he says, the emotional connection to the United States is fading among the young.

"Basically they don't see a place for Americans [in] their new world view," he said.

President Roh Moo-hyun's Uri party is promoting an increasingly independent foreign policy and greater political distance between South Korea and the United States. This has led to friction between the two long-time allies.

Nevertheless, President Roh weighed into on the controversy this week on the side of the status quo.

Mr. Roh says the MacArthur statue is part of South Korea's history, and he does not believe pulling it down is a proper way to address the changing relationship between the United States and South Korea.

Whether the statue stands or not, South Korea's internal dialogue is likely go to on for many years - as it seeks to redefine its relationships with Washington, and its northern brother, in a changing world.

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