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An element leader of the Republic of Korea Honor Guard stands at attention during a change of command ceremony at Yongsun, Korea, Feb. 2, 2006. Defense Dept. photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen, U.S. Air Force
Progress was at a cost. In the 1960s and 1970s, Korean military leaders imposed a dictatorship on the South that strangled free speech and tortured dissidents. But as the republic emerged as an economic powerhouse, citizens demanded more say and greater freedom. They wanted a true democracy. And they got it.
Today, the Republic of Korea is a wealthy democratic state that engages with other nations as an equal.
At the heart of all Korean foreign policy is the danger of the North. Tunnels under the DMZ, small vessels and submarines landing in the south, armed incursions across the DMZ, all have been done and more. In 1968, the North seized an American ship, the USS Pueblo, and held its crew captive for more than a year.
In 1994, the North signed the U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework. North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program in return for the delivery of heavy-fuel oil and two 1,000-megawatt light-water nuclear reactors.
It is now known that North Korea had no intention of honoring the agreement and almost immediately began pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Also, North Korea experimented with delivery systems modifying the Scud missile to carry larger warheads farther and seeking to develop a longer-range weapon system.
In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush referred to North Korea as a member of the “Axis of Evil.” North Korea is more than just a rogue state; it is a criminal enterprise that engages in counterfeiting, the drug trade, human trafficking and other crimes.
North Korea will sell anything for a profit, and that is what scares other countries. In 2004, North Korean leaders announced they had atomic weapons. That same year, it became public that North Korea had sold nuclear technology to Pakistan. The fear is that the North will sell the technology, the atomic materiel itself or actual weapons to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.
But whatever revenue the North Korean government generates never makes it to the country’s people. Officials estimate that between 2 million and 3 million North Korean people have starved to death in recent years, and cases of cannibalism have been reported.
A nighttime satellite photo of the Korean peninsula that illustrates the difference between North and South at a glance hangs in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s office. In the South, lights glow with Seoul – now one of the world’s largest cities – radiating like the sun. In the North, only a small pinprick of light is visible around Pyongyang. The rest of the country is cold and dark.
SEOUL, South Korea, Feb. 2, 2006 — It’s called the "Land of the Morning Calm," but the Republic of Korea is anything but calm at the beginning of the 21st century.
South Korea is a modern, plugged-in country with one of the world’s most robust and diverse economies. Shopping areas throb with vitality, and South Korean entrepreneurs are welcome the world over.
It is a country that has moved from being the so-called Hermit Kingdom in the 19th century to a player on the world stage.
That the country has moved so far is a tribute to the Koreans themselves and also to the millions of Americans who served – in war and peace – to protect and build the nation.
Before World War II, Korea was occupied by a militaristic Japan. It was illegal for Koreans to speak their own language, and the Japanese made Koreans take Japanese names. Korean men were drafted into Japan’s army during the war, and the Japanese forced thousands of Korean women into prostitution for their troops.
Near the end of the war, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Korea along the 38th parallel, with the Soviets occupying the north and America occupying the south.
Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union increased. It was in Korea where the Cold War first turned hot.
In June 1950, communist-trained North Korean troops poured over the 38th parallel and routed what was in essence a constabulary. The United Nations – which the Soviet Union was boycotting – quickly voted to defend South Korea. The U.S. Air Force and Navy soon launched strikes against the invaders, but it was quickly apparent that ground troops would be needed, and U.S. Army and Marine Corps units were tasked with the mission.
The North Koreans almost succeeded in taking South Korea. A courageous defense in Pusan halted the invaders, and the marine landing at Inchon broke their back. By September 1950, U.S. forces liberated Seoul and U.N. forces pushed into North Korea. The U.S. commander – General of the Army Douglas MacArthur – predicted that U.N. forces would be home by Christmas, leaving behind a reunited Korean peninsula.
That, of course, did not happen. The People’s Republic of China sent millions of soldiers to help their communist allies, and the war dragged on until the two sides signed an uneasy truce in 1953. The Korean peninsula was again divided along the 38th parallel. Millions of Koreans had died, and the major cities destroyed.
More than a million American servicemembers served in the Korean War. The United States led a coalition of 20 nations that showed the Soviets that the Western democracies had teeth. A total of 33,629 American troops died in the war, and another 105,785 were wounded.
Since the truce, millions of Americans have served in Korea maintaining peace, because an armistice is not a peace treaty and the North still threatens the South. The demilitarized zone that separates the two countries is still a flashpoint. The American presence – as part of the larger United Nations presence – has been the peninsula’s guarantor of peace.
Without the American commitment, the South Korean economic and political miracle would not have been possible.
Behind this U.N. shield, South Korea did rebuild. Security brought stability, investment and employment.