Memories of a Forgotten War

“There was no victor in the Korean War, but by any metric, South Korea has clearly won over North Korea. Through the gains it has made economically, socially, politically, and through gaining freedom and peace, South Korea comes out on top.”

In the newly-released Korean translation of his book, “To the Last Round,” author Andrew Salmon gives an account of a bloody battle along the Imjin River between the British 29th Infantry Brigade and the “human wave” attacks of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

“To appreciate how great the successes of South Korea are, it is important to understand how horrific the time of war was,” Salmon said, explaining the purpose behind his well-researched book.

Andrew Salmon has lived in South Korea for twelve years, covering the two Koreas for Forbes and British daily The Times. The Daily NK sat down with Salmon last week for an interview about this, his latest book.

“The Korean War has already been written about in the context of the Cold War,” Salmon explained, “Aside from any ideology, I wanted to capture the experiences of the people who were actually in battle.”

Salmon indeed successfully portrays such experiences, painting a detailed picture of bravery and kindness amidst gunfire.

For example, while the fate of their own lives remained uncertain, British soldiers looked after children orphaned by the war, giving them military uniforms to wear and dressing up as Santa Claus to hand out gifts. Soldiers also shared their treasured rum with each other, soothing pangs of homesickness as cannon fire rang out around them. Through these scenes the reader’s eyes are opened to the true nature of war.

In order to write To the Last Round, Salmon spent years researching and compiling the oral testimony of veterans who fought at the Imjin River. In interviews with fifty such veterans, Salmon is able to accurately depict the intensity and brutality of the battle.

The Korean War, the “forgotten” War, the Cold War’s first “hot war”

[imText1]It was April 22, 1951 when Britain’s 29th Infantry Brigade was pitted against China’s entire 63rd Army on the banks of the Imjin River. The fighting lasted for four days. The 29th eventually received orders to withdraw, but the path of retreat was cut off for the 750 men of the Gloster Battalion. Only fifty soldiers made it out alive.

Salmon explains in the book that the Imjin River battle was the bloodiest battle fought by British soldiers since World War II, but in the interview he revealed that “in Britain there is generally very little interest in or knowledge of the Korean War. People don’t realize that more British men were lost in this three-night battle than were lost during nine years of fighting in Afghanistan.”

Not only has the Imjin River battle been lost from the collective memory of the British people, the Korean War as a whole remains known as “the Forgotten War.” This, despite the Korean War being the first UN war and the Cold War’s first hot war, and that the UN forces suffered more than 500,000 casualties, as Salmon points out.

Salmon attributes this partially to the timing of the Korean War, immediately following World War II. “People had had enough of war,” said Salmon, “and it was not obvious who or what we were fighting for.” Whereas Stalin and Hitler were very recognizable enemies, Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung were not.

Indeed, the Korean War even remains largely forgotten to South Koreans, who suffered the destruction of those three years personally.

Salmon thinks the right-wing dictatorships that ruled South Korea for nearly thirty years may have played a part in the Korean people forgetting about the war. “There were certain elements of propaganda in the way that South Koreans were taught to view the war during that time, I think the generations who struggled for democracy against the military governments probably don’t realize just how much worse things were during war.”

Salmon also recalls the political atmosphere in South Korea during the Roh Moo-hyun years, when anti-Japanese sentiment was stronger than that against North Korea. “During those years it was clear that a lot of South Koreans would almost have been happy to go to war with Japan rather than North Korea,” Salmon asserts, “But Japan has changed since World War II, while North Korea has the exact same government as it had in the Korean War. If anything, North Korea has become more militant, more paranoid than it was in 1950. The irony is that modern South Koreans, in terms of values, lifestyle and life experience, have probably got much more in common with modern Japanese than they have with North Koreans.”

In any case, Salmon finds it hard to understand the apathy toward North Korea felt by the majority of South Koreans.

Although Salmon agrees that North Korea is an intractable problem without an easy solution, he admits, “the complete disinterest many South Koreans have for North Korea makes me a little bit sad. You’ve got one of the richest countries in the world right next to one of the poorest countries in the world, and yet it’s the same country.” Salmon was moved by “Crossing,” a film about human rights abuses in North Korea, and characterized it as North Korea’s “The Killing Fields,” but laments the fact that even this could not capture the interest of South Koreans.

“Memories of the Korean War must be recorded for future generations”

The trauma that veterans suffer after fighting in a war is enduring, and the former soldiers Salmon interviewed for his book are no exception. Even sixty years on, many are plagued with nightmares or visions. Some veterans, however, have found a degree of comfort in watching South Korea’s startlingly rapid rise from the ashes of war.

Among Korean War veterans, there are some who say, “Korea was a brutal, horrible, violent place and I don’t ever want to see that again,” Salmon explained. “But there are others who are amazed at what has happened, and all of the ones I spoke to who came back (to South Korea) have said, ‘Looking back on it now, it was worth fighting, it was worth losing our lives for.’”

But the lack of interest remains. “Many books about the Korean War are written by Americans or British, but really, the story of the Korean War should be told by other Koreans, because they were the ones that suffered the most.”

As part of that, Salmon believes there is an urgent need to capture the experiences of Korean War veterans before it is too late. “Universities, museums, and local governments could easily sponsor these efforts, but no one is doing it. It is important to record these stories for future generations, and I believe at least a portion of that should be the story of those the British soldiers who fought at the Imjin River.”

In closing, Salmon said that South Koreans should reflect upon their development and success as the 60th anniversary of the start of the war approaches. “If you ask the average Korean who the greatest generation of Koreans was, many may answer the Koreans of the Shilla dynasty. Personally, I think the greatest generation of Koreans is those of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s who built their country from nothing.”