July 20, 2024

Several surviving U.S. veterans and families of soldiers who fought in the 1950-53 Korean War have visited South Korea to remember their compatriots and loved ones who died in the war, as the two nations further strengthen their alliance in the face of North Korea’s threats.

According to the Patriots and Veterans Affairs Ministry of South Korea, there were more than 380,000 Korean civilians and soldiers and about 38,000 U.N. soldiers killed. Even 70 years after the end of the war, the two Koreas remain technically in a state of war as the conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Some 28,500 U.S. military personnel are stationed in South Korea to counter the growing threats posed by the North, which launched missiles on a record 37 occasions last year.

In June, 43 Americans visited South Korea on a tour for Korean War veterans and their relatives, as well as family members of U.S. soldiers who were killed or went missing in action, hosted by a South Korean church. Among the tour participants was Paul Blissenbach, whose father’s fate remains unaccounted for.

U.S. veterans, families of those who fought, and fallen soldiers’ relatives from the 1950-53 Korean War pay tribute at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul on June 21, 2023. (Kyodo)

Blissenbach, 72, is a career U.S. Army officer himself who served near the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas from 1974 to 1995. His son also had a stint in South Korea, serving in the army for a year from 2021 to 2022.

Despite his son’s desire to stay in South Korea, Blissenbach asked him to return home, given the continuous threat posed by North Korea’s missile launches.

“I mean, we’ve already left one Blissenbach here,” Blissenbach, referring to his father, said in a quavering voice.

Blissenbach, six veterans and others on the tour were invited by the Saeeden Church in Yongin, 40 kilometers south of Seoul. The church has organized the annual invitation tour for war veterans from overseas for 17 years to honor their sacrifices made in the Korean War.

The tour all started when Saeeden Church’s head pastor So Gang Seok, while traveling in the United States in 2007, encountered an elderly U.S. veteran who told him he wished to see how much South Korea has recovered from the war in which he fought.

“He showed me a bullet scar on his left lower back and sobbed, saying, ‘I really wanted to go to Korea after the Korean War, but I can’t because no one has invited me and I can’t afford it,'” So said.

“Upon hearing that, I promised to invite him and said that he could also bring his comrades,” he said, recounting how his 17-year-long invitation project began.

A U.S. veteran of the 1950-53 Korean War transcribes the name of a fallen comrade onto a paper at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul on June 21, 2023. (Kyodo)

The pastor admitted the project has required a lot of money, a large number of volunteers and thorough planning.

“However, I had a strong belief that inviting the overseas veterans to repay their sacrifices during the Korean War could help South Koreans, especially our future generations, to remember the painful part of our national history,” he said.

Lee Jong Min, a pastor of the church who has been in charge of organizing the event, agreed with So and said that it would be meaningful to show the veterans the transformation Seoul has undergone since they left Korea in the 1950s.

The Korean War started on June 25, 1950, with North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, prompting the United States and 15 other nations to join the U.N. forces in support of the South, while China and the Soviet Union backed North Korea.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, about 37,000 Americans lost their lives during the Korean War and over 92,000 were wounded and 8,000 went missing.

Paul Cunningham, a 93-year-old veteran who joined the church-hosted tour, said it was the love and respect that South Korea showed toward the war veterans that motivated him to fly 14 hours to South Korea.

“If I get any way to represent my comrades, I would do it, even if it took 28 hours,” he said at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul, looking at the names of the fallen soldiers that his wife copied onto a paper off the cenotaph. According to the Patriots and Veterans Affairs Ministry of South Korea, the name list covers most of the 37,902 U.N. troops who died in the war.

Family members of U.S. soldiers who fell in the 1950-53 Korean War hold photographs of their loved ones at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul on June 21, 2023. (Kyodo)

Cunningham called the combination of the U.S. and South Korean forces “invincible” after visiting military bases on the tour. But he called the current stalemate that resulted in loss of life “reprehensible,” saying that a major roadblock to peace on the Korean Peninsula still exists.

“As long as the DPRK insists on imposing its will over the ROK, I see no chance of a peace treaty,” he said, using acronyms for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and for that of South Korea, the Republic of Korea.

“To make any concessions in this regard would be to break faith with the brave fighting men who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of a free people,” he said.

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