SEOUL — The 1950s Korean War, undeclared and never quite understood by the Americans who fought it, ended in a stalemate 35 years ago. Including noncombat fatalities, 54,246 Americans died and 103,284 others were wounded in what proved to be an unpopular war.
Other costs would continue: $9 billion in total U.S. military aid; $5.4 billion in U.S. economic assistance and the presence of U.S. troops--42,000 of them are still here--to stand guard on what Washington officials called a "frontier of freedom."
Americans who served in South Korea, during the war and for years afterward, saw little freedom to defend.
Despite a rich cultural heritage, South Korea was an impoverished, uneducated and authoritarian country throughout much of the period. The nation was struggling to put together its own armed forces and government leadership in the aftermath of 35 years of Japanese colonial rule that only ended in 1945.
The success of that struggle will be telecast to the United States and the rest of the world Friday night at the opening ceremonies for the 24th Olympic Games. South Korea will be offering one proud answer to the question of what the United States was doing in 1950 helping preserve a people's existence against communist invaders. Those aggressors from North Korea were trying, by war, to reunify a country divided by a post-World War II Soviet-American occupation.
At the Olympics opening, most of the Communist Bloc that once treated South Korea as an outcast will be there, prepared to compete.
A once-impoverished nation, sustained only by U.S. aid, is now at the brink of affluence, hectored by the United States for growing bilateral trade surpluses and courted for monetary assistance to relieve the U.S. military burden here.
A people once oppressed by Japanese colonial rulers, denied opportunities for education and leadership, now boasts one of the most highly educated populations in the world and one of the most highly ranked professional armed forces.
A country once ruled by its own authoritarian leaders is now flush with the hope that freedom and democracy have at last arrived. More than any single event in South Korea's often bleak 40-year history, or in the entire 5,000 years of Korean history, the Olympic Games may be the foreground spectacle to cast Koreans in a wholly favorable light.
The background is not free of problems. Peace, maintained only through a 1953 armistice agreement, remains unassured; 835,000 hostile North Korean troops are deployed as close as 26 miles north of Seoul. The deep Korean longing for national reunification remains unfulfilled, and hopes that brethren from the north would join the celebration in a display of Korean kinship have been quashed. Concern that terrorist incidents might mar the Games continues.
Yet the South Koreans have every reason to be proud. They did the work; their bootstrapping is the success story. Clearly, no amount of American help could have produced the vigor and promise South Korea possesses today.
Just as clearly, although increasingly forgotten, without more than four decades of assistance and perseverance by the United States, the South Koreans would not be hosting the world in this or any other year. Nor would a Korea reunified under the rigid, totalitarian communist rule that launched the Korean War--a regime still retaining power in Pyongyang--be hosting an Olympiad.
For Americans, too, background problems remain. The United States has made mistakes in Korea: recognizing Japan's colonization in 1905; allowing the Soviets to set up the North Korean regime of Kim Il Sung in 1945; declaring South Korea outside the U.S. defense perimeter five months before the north invaded the south in 1950, and often vacillating in its advocacy of democracy here.
Nor have American motivations always matched the interests of the South Koreans. In his memoirs, President Harry S. Truman, for example, never once mentioned a desire to reunify Korea. Halting the expansion of "international communism" was the goal.
A rising nationalistic pride among increasingly affluent Koreans has clouded memories of American sacrifices and assistance. It is now American mistakes, both real and perceived, that more and more Koreans focus upon.
Two-thirds of the South Korean population was born after the 1950-53 war ended; many of them know less about the conflict than about a secret 1905 U.S.-Japanese agreement recognizing Japan's authority over Korea in return for Tokyo accepting American control of the Philippines. Many citizens increasingly view Americans as the "new colonialists" who, in revisionist history, died here not to preserve South Korea's freedom but rather its subjugation to the United States.
"Lately, we have become overly confident . . . and very arrogant," Rhee Chong Ik wrote early this month in the Korea Times. "We forget about Korea and Koreans of the '50s and '60s"--when foreign economists considered South Korea 'a basket case.' "
Today, South Korea expects to join the ranks of the world's advanced industrialized democracies. Within a year or two, it will cast aside its status as one of the most heavily indebted nations to enter an elite circle of creditor nations.
Friday night, as the Olympics extravaganza unfolds, Americans can ignore the background frictions and applaud their Korean friends, sharing a moment of joy. They can also, if they think about it, indulge in their own moment of pride.