Remember the Korean Armistice

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Remember the Korean Armistice

by: Sun "Sunny" Park | .
Osan Air Base AFRC | .
published: July 03, 2014

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- July in Korea--the typically hot and humid summer month in the middle of monsoon season was unusually dry and pleasant in 1953. I was a first grade schoolboy living amidst the rubble and devastation left in Seoul. I was also still overwhelmed by the loss of both parents just 3 years earlier, during the beginning of the so-called, "Forgotten War."

I had been watching frequent protests and rallies in and around Tapgol Park, an area near my school that historically was known as the national protest site. The slogans and outcries to continue the war and stop the ceasefire agreement between the United Nations and North Korean forces came from various groups. Protesters screamed that the ceasefire would create a divided Korea and political instability on the peninsula. I clearly remember watching protesters bite the ends of their fingers to draw blood in order to write these protests in Hangul and Hanja on cloth banner sheets. The emotional crowd chanted, "We oppose the ceasefire, we need to unite the peninsula at all costs." The demonstrations occurred for several weeks before the signing of the ceasefire agreement. These anti-communist protesters had predicted what was to come for the next 60 years.

On July 27, 1953, exactly 61 years ago, a ceasefire or armistice is what happened. The United Nations, China, and North Korea delegates signed the document, thus creating the armistice in that moment. South Korea was not one of the signatories. South Korean President Syngman Rhee refused to participate for the same reason the protesters claimed that it would create a permanent division. I learned later that General Clark's official translator was one of my deceased brothers who was a ROK Army Officer.

As I look back, I realize that nearly 37,000 Americans and more than a million Koreans, including my parents, died in a period of 3 years. I wonder how many more would have been killed if the ceasefire had not been declared. As a Korean-American, my heart goes out to those brave Americans who traveled thousands of miles away from their loved ones, and perished in a strange land called, "The Land of the Morning Calm." On behalf of all Koreans, I want to assure those honorable men of the United States Armed Forces that their sacrifices did not end in vain. Their selfless dedication and loyal service to protect Freedom and Democracy are appreciated more than they realize.

During the war, many battles were fought in places such as Osan City Taejon, Chipyongni, Pusan Perimeter, Inchon, Seoul, Heartbreak Ridge, Bloody Ridge, Punch Bowl, White Horse, Chorwon Valley, Kumwha and Iron Triangle. One other event occurred that I remember well, but was not unaware of its significance. During truce talks, the two sides agreed to exchange Prisoners of War in two operations--one before the Armistice and one after the ceasefire took hold. US Army Sikorsky CH-19 Chickasaw helicopters ferried many POWs from Panmumjom to a landing site smack in the middle of a Seoul schoolyard. I have learned later that this was called Operation Little Switch, the return of sick and wounded POWs. This schoolyard was only a half-mile from where I lived with my grandparents. After the cloud of dust settled, I could see astronaut-like pilots who flew these strange creatures, and they fascinated me to no end. I looked for these funny-looking flying machines with intense curiosity whenever I had the chance.

Many years later, as fate turns out, I was to immigrate to the United States with the help of foster parents and the international Pen-Pal Club family sponsorship. I soon made my dream come true and became a US Army Helicopter Pilot, returning to my motherland twice, flying VIPs to historical and military sites such as numerous DMZ landing zones including Observation Post Ouellette, Camp Kitty Hawk (name later changed to Camp Bonifas) and Task Force Smith helipad which is not far away from Osan AB. I also was involved in coordinating the Exercise Team Spirit war games and its helicopter operations. In December 1969, I had the pleasure of flying Bob Hope and his entourage in a UH-1 Huey helicopter from Yongsan helipad to Osan AB for his annual Christmas USO tour.

In my second tour (1976 to 1977), I flew CH-47 Chinook helicopters out of Camp Humphreys, and almost observed a second Korean War. While trimming a tree which was to clear the view between checkpoints, two fellow US Army Officers, Capt. Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett, were brutally beaten and hacked to death by North Koreans at Panmumjom on 18 August 1976. It was known as the "Axe Murder Incident." We went to the highest Defense Condition and my unit's helicopters were to extract the US, Korean and third country VIPs at pre-selected landing sites--again, smack in the middle of Seoul. I had brought my wife and first child (who was born in Germany) to Pyongtaek as noncommand sponsored dependents. I told my wife to grab the Noncombatant Evacuation Operation packet, head for Osan AB, and that another real "McCoy" Korean War was about to break out. Our troops retaliated with Operation Paul Bunyan. UNC engineers (most were actually disguised South Korean Special Forces Commandos, all martial arts experts) were flanked by a company of tough US Army grunts (infantrymen commonly known as 11Bs in the Army by their MOS/AFSC) and protected by AH-1 Cobra helicopters, M-60 tanks, heavy artillery, and numerous high performance Air Force jets circling overhead. Under this heavy protection, we went back to the site, and cut down the tree instead of trimming it. North Koreans stayed back understanding that we meant business, and we were combat ready. They didn't dare to counter at all. They only seem to understand the "force." It was a very close call to another Korean War. They will strike us again when we are least prepared or start to slack off. A couple of examples were displayed in 2010 when a North Korean submarine torpedo attacked and sunk Cheonan ROK navy ship and shelled Yeonpyeong Island.

On my previous assignment to Osan Air Base (1995 - 2000), as a DOD Civilian employee, I escorted the Secretary of the Air Force, the Honorable Mr. Whit Peters, on his first visit to Korea in 1998. I was his cultural tour guide around Seoul, and shared my war experience with him. He was particularly interested in my account of the devastation in Seoul through the eyes of a child. Even today, when I walk by a construction site where old buildings are being demolished, it produces a certain dust odor and sometimes has a hypnotic effect, taking me back to that very part of memory lane 60 years ago. I was invited to speak to the cadets of the US Air Force Academy in 2008 to share the similar personal account of the war from a child's perspective.

Increasingly known and unknown North Korean defectors are coming to South Korea via third countries. I had thought a reunification was in sight when North and South Korean firms engaged in joint commercial ventures at Gaeseong Industrial Complex near the North Korean city of Gaeseong in 2005 and when New York Philharmonic's concert was arranged in Pyongyang in 2008--both were unprecedented events. They even played the US Stars and Stripes anthem in Pyongyang's concert hall! I cannot say it's the same, but this situation is certainly similar to the events and the subsequent fall of the East German Communist government which preceded Germany's Reunification in 1989. I hope Korea will follow in Germany's footsteps. I believe, and I want to believe, that the reunification of Korea is a matter of time, and will occur peacefully, without any casualties, unlike the events that had occurred more than six decades ago.

My wife and I traveled to China twice as US citizen tourists. When we drove along the northern shores of the Yalu and Tumen Rivers by the North Korean border, we felt like we were driving along the border road just north of the Rio Grande River between Texas and Mexico. We wanted to be convinced that someday soon we would be able to drive to North Korea just like we can now to cross the US/Mexican border.

But just in case events turn otherwise, the men and women of today's Seventh Air Force and the Eighth Army are ever vigilant for the worst-case scenario, and will defend the Freedoms Frontier.

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