The Day the Korean War ended was the New Beginning
A few minutes passed ten on Thursday morning on July 27, 1953, our father came to our "study-room" and said solemnly to us six children aged between 11 to 17, "Finally, we are free, Children. You don't have to demonstrate against Americans anymore. The truce was finally signed." We cheered. Since the peace talk began between the US and Chinese leaders almost two years ago, in October 1951, and until our president Syngman Rhee finally agreed to go along with the Peace-negotiators a few days earlier, we the school kids of all ages in Pusan had been forced to demonstrate, shouting "Move out Americans! We want reunification!" Often, the grownups―religious leaders, teachers associations, laborer Unions and even women's organizations— joined us, each holding their signs.
As a seventh grader, I didn't fully understand why we had been asking the Americans to move out of our country when the war was still going on, both sides killing one another, but our president had been adamant about not letting the UN leaders and those of Chinese to end the war.
"Dear citizens, if the war ends now, our country Korea will never become one nation again," he said several times daily through the radio. "Do not forget, we have been one nation for 5,000 years; we sustained our Korean culture and value in spite of Mongolian invasions in the 13th century, and during 40 years of Japanese occupation, too, that ended only five years ago, in 1945. We can't be divided forever! American and Chinese leaders are not concerned about it, because Korea isn't their country...!"
Life Magazine's June 22, 1953, issue reads, "After about 35 months of bloodshed and 23 months of haggling, the combatants of Korea at last achieved every essential of a truce, except the agreement of one supremely stubborn old man. South Korea's 78-year-old President Syngman Rhee cried that truce between the UN and the Communists means death to his country and threatened to fight on alone to expel the Chinese Reds, and take the entire Korea. "If you have to leave us, we're sorry to see you go," he said. Meanwhile, the United Nations gravely faced the fact that, if Rhee's threats were carried out, he might very well wreck the truce beyond repair."
Now, as an American senior citizen for more than a half century, I can't remember how many times we school kids had been mobilized to different parts of our town to protest the Peace-Talk, but I do remember it was always late spring or summer, and each time, we walked for a long hour, forming a long line, escorted by a teacher or two.
Once, we marched to a fenced-in U.S. military base known as Somyon and found a large crowd waiting for the action to begin. When we snaked through the older kids in school uniforms and positioned ourselves before two solemn faced American soldiers in an "Attention posture", their feet firmly planted, and each holding a rifle, I was afraid that they might shoot us at any given moment. Time moved awfully slow when we were dripping with sweat under the hot summer sun, and the tension between Koreans shouting anti American slogans and the Americans staring at us was intolerable. And why did the Korean man wearing a white armband on a platform talk forever through a speaker? I wished we could at least sit down but there were no space for such a luxury. After the rally ended, everyone rushed to drink-vendors to buy "Ice water," though everyone knew that it was "melted ice" from the Han River that had been stored somewhere for months. (It was long before Americans built water-purifying systems in our country.) But as thirsty as we were, drinking any kind of water seemed better than the thought of dying from scorching heat.
We sometimes demonstrated in the pouring rain, too. And what else did our president do to stop the peace-negotiation?
One night in mid June, our family was awakened by a loud banging on the door, followed by a Korean man announcing, "Please open the door! I have a special order from our president!" Our father went out to meet the intruder, telling our mom and us kids not to make any noise. In the dark, we heard men's voices coming through the paper-screen door, followed by footsteps moving toward the storage room in the back. More voices and moving footsteps later, we heard our father saying, "Goodbye, sir. We'll do our best to make our guests comfortable," and the door closing.
Father returned to us. "Don't tell anyone about what I'm about to say, okay?" Father said. We held our breath.
"Our president has done something he shouldn't have. A policeman just delivered us two North Korean prisoners of war, saying that I should hide them. I said, 'What is this all about?' The police said the same thing; He's delivering our president's order and that I should hide them. So I put them in our storage room for now. Only God knows how the Korean policemen got them out of American MPs' hands at the POW camp. If the Americans find them here, in our house, we're in serious trouble."
Early the next morning, the radioman announced that our president had indeed ordered ROK guards to release the prisoners-of-war who didn't want to repatriate to North Korea, not only a few hundreds, but 27,000 men, and that they were everywhere in Pusan. "If they cause harms," the radiomen said, "please notify the police."
Our father clacked his tongue and said, "Our president is playing a dangerous game with the world leaders."
That day, I saw our "guests" with my very own eyes. They were washing their faces in the well area at the same time as we were, and they tried to smile at us. Up close, they were not much older than my oldest brother who was 15 years old at the time, and they didn't look scary at all; in fact, they looked too thin and sickly to harm us, even if they tried. As soon as they washed themselves, they moved back to the storage room.
Our father stayed with them in the storage room after lunch. When he came out in the afternoon, he and Mom talked, and Mom immediately got busy packing our Father's clothing, food, and money in two old satchels for the two North Koreans. That night, I heard my father talking to them in the dark, near our bedroom, and thought he was releasing the North Koreans. I hoped that American Military police wouldn't find them as they'd run for their lives. Then came another thought: what about their families waiting for them in the North? Wouldn't the communist regime punish the families of the prisoners who settled in the South?
In spite of our demonstrations and of our president's defiance efforts to stop the peace-negotiators, the truce was signed by the U.S. military leaders and those of Chinese, and the war was officially ended. Father explained that the U.S. government offered the Rhee administration a significant amount of American dollars to repair the bomb-damages and promised further financial aid, and Rhee accepted it at the last moment.
A few weeks after the truce was signed at place known as "Panmunjom" along the 38th Parallel, the prisoners from both sides were exchanged at the "Bridge of No Return." In early September, we heard through the radio that the U.S. troops were leaving our town of Pusan on such-such day and that all citizens should show their appreciation to the departing "American friends" by showing up on the Main street. When our family got there, a large crowd of school children and adults had gathered on both sides of the Main streets, like three years earlier when the first American troops had arrived. But this time, instead of fear-stricken faces, there was a sense of festivity; A band was playing the American anthem over and over, and several airplanes were cruising overhead, each dragging a long white foamy tail.
Then, suddenly a long line of American military trucks approached us, and people shouted, "Thank you, Americans! Have a safe trip home!" Or "We'll never forget you, GI Joe! You're our heroes."
I had mixed feelings about seeing American troops leave our country for good. A part of me was sad because I had shouted unkind words at them, though our president had ordered us to, but another part of me was glad because the Americans were now returning to their beloved America, and soon would be reunited with their family members.
The following spring, our family moved to Seoul, because in Father's opinion, "Seoul is where all the good things will happen." He was right. American engineers, scientists, missionaries, professors of all kinds, and world class entertainers and concert musicians poured into our country. The bomb damaged buildings and bridges were repaired, and new buildings were built. Shortly, our parents bought our first refrigerator marked "Sears" in the market selling American stuff left behind by the American troops. It was about that time I owned my first cello that had been played by an American army orchestra. In 1959, I entered Seoul National University-School of Music. After graduation, thanks to our parents, I left for Paris to further study cello.
As I reflect on the day the war ended 66 years ago, my heart swells with gratitude toward all American veterans once more, for saving my motherland South Korea from the Communist North.