Monday, July 16, 2012

The Coldest Winter

Gilbert Gallegos at the North Korean side of the DMZ
Gilbert Gallegos on the South Korean side of the DMZ

Last month marked the 62nd anniversary of the start of the Korean War, when North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded the South. One of the most astounding pieces of propaganda I was exposed to when I first visited North Korea in 2007 was the myth that every North Korean citizen is fed from childhood: They believe the United States invaded the North to start the war, and that the mighty military under Kim Il-Sung drove the Americans and South Koreans back to the Southern half of the Peninsula.

The truth is the communist North invaded the South and nearly drove its weaker military into the sea, despite the presence of American troops. But American reinforcements and tactical victories drove the North Koreans back. Once they gained an offensive advantage, the Americans under General Douglas MacArthur fought all the way to the northern border with China, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers were prepared to join the battle on the side of the North. The battles that ensued in the mountains of North Korea were horrendous. The Chinese pushed the Americans and South Koreans back down to the 38th Parallel, where the Americans were able to defend the capitol of Seoul. The war, officially called a “conflict,” unofficially ended with the signing of an armistice agreement, or cease-fire.  But officially, the war never ended.

I’ve written about my Grandpa Carlos and his brothers’ heroic fighting in World War II. It’s natural, I suppose, for me to view their participation in the Great War as heroic for a number of reasons, including the public perception that the world war was great and just. My Grandpa had two younger brothers, Bennie and Arthur Gallegos, who also fought in the Korean War. Aside from the fact that they served in the Navy, I don’t know any other details of their roles in what some have called “The Forgotten War.” I know they both survived and lived out their lives in California. I’ve done some looking, without success, for their war records. But I’ll keep trying.

In the meantime, I continue to digest everything I can read about the Korean Peninsula and its tragic history. My fascination with North Korea, in particular, started with my involvement with former Governor Bill Richardson, who has a long history of diplomacy with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK. And it was during my first trip to North Korea that I opened my eyes and my mind to the history of the Korean War.

North Korean soldiers marching in 2007 in front of the Foreign Ministry Building
Our mission in 2007 was two-fold. The formal mission was to negotiate and take possession of the remains of several American soldiers who perished during the war, six decades ago. Our unofficial mission was to discuss the international stalemate over the DPRK’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The talks about nuclear weapons were intriguing, to be sure, and involved representatives from the Bush White House and Department of Defense who joined us on the trip. I am currently reading a book written by that White House official, Victor Cha, who served as the Director of Asian Affairs with the National Security Council, which describes that 2007 mission from his point of view, along with an excellent analysis of the history of bad decisions by the DPRK. I traveled a second time to North Korea in 2010, also to discuss the nuclear issue, and to explore ways to ease tensions that had escalated to renewed threats of war between the North and South – while we were guests in Pyongyang.

Programme showing U.S. delegation, which car we were to use and our room number at Paekhwawon, North Korea's Official State Guesthouse

While I could go on about the intrigue and drama surrounding those issues, the most compelling thing that left a lasting impression on me was the remains of the American soldiers who fought in the Korean War.

During the three-year war, 33,692 Americans were killed. As many as 2.7 million Koreans and 800,000 Chinese were killed, according to statistics that Cha used in his book, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future.

In 2007, our delegation sat across a table from a North Korean delegation known as the Panmunjom Mission of the Korean People’s Army, led by General Ri Chan Bok, North Korea’s Commanding General at the Demilitarized Zone. It was an interesting and oftentimes very tense discussion with the North Koreans agreeing with Governor Richardson that the issue of recovering and returning soldiers’ remains should not be political; yet at the same time, both the North Koreans and American governments have used the issue as a political football in negotiations over nuclear and other issues. The U.S. stopped participating in a joint effort to locate remains several years ago, and President Obama only recently offered to re-join the effort. But that participation is once again on hold as a result of North Korea’s most recent missile test.

Despite the high-state politics, I’ll never forget hearing General Ri, through a translator, as he read the names of American soldiers whose remains they found in the Unsan region. At the time, I had no idea of the significance of the Unsan region, in the far northwest region near the Chinese border, in the Korean War. Not until I returned home and read the book, The Coldest Winter, by the late, Pulitzer-Prizer winning author David Halberstam, did I truly understand what those soldiers must have went through as they were surprised by tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers at the Battle of Unsan. Many consider that battle to be the worst U.S. losses of the war.
North Korean Officers looking black boxes containing the remains of American soldiers who died in the Korean War

At the conclusion of our mission, we drove the 83 miles from Pyonyang south to the DMZ, where we saw for the first time the six black boxes that contained the soldiers’ remains. Images of that encounter were beamed around the world, but it was truly amazing to stand there and think about the soldiers who left home as young men nearly 60 years earlier, finally to return to American soil in those impersonal black boxes. We walked across the DMZ and were warmly greeted by the military leaders from the United Nations, United States and the South Korean Army. We flew in a Blackhawk to the military base near Seoul to have dinner with troops from New Mexico. The next day, we flew in a U.S. military jet from Seoul to Honolulu where we were met by a formal Arrival Honor Guard Ceremony to mark the transfer of the remains to U.S. territory. The remains were to be DNA tested at the base in Honolulu.

The experience was unforgettable, for sure. But it was much more profound after reading The Coldest Winter, which Halberstam reportedly considered his greatest work.

Now, every time I find, read or write something about my own ancestors who served our country in war, I have a very different perspective.

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