The picture of the smiling Kim Jong Un and Moon Jai-in stepping across the line dividing North and South Korea does tend to stretch one’s credulity. Six weeks ago we were treated on the evening news to a barrage of missiles capable of hitting the west coast and the terrible threats from Trump about “fire and fury the like of which the world has never seen.” Setting aside how this current spate of pleasantness may have come about, we can hope that it is real.
Sixty-eight years ago in June 1950 when North Korea invaded the south, we had a rude awakening. As high school students most of us would have been hard pressed to find Korea on the classroom globe, let alone understand the import of what was happening. There was one group in our school, to whom the “Police Action” as the Korean War is still officially known, was a shattering reality. To put it kindly, about thirty of our classmates who were not academically inclined and highly interested in beer drinking and girls found themselves in uniform and on the way to Korea in the fall of that year.
With their parents’ permission, they had joined a reserve unit of the Marines. It seemed like a fun thing; all you had to do was go to camp one weekend a month, play with real rifles and weapons and you got paid to do it. Not in their worst nightmare had they realized that going to war was even a remote possibility. But it was. We were stunned as this group of 17 year-olds left on a train that morning while we were sitting in our classrooms struggling with algebra. Some of their girlfriends were allowed to skip school to see them leave. They were largely a fun-loving bunch of football players about to enter combat on the other side of the world.
Even without the benefit of nightly television which puts every living room in the midst of war we soon learned the horror of what our friends were facing. The worst of it came at the Chosin Reservoir in December of 1950 when the Chinese entered the war. Trapped in the brutality of the Korean winter some of the Marines from our high school died on that God-forsaken site.
The war dragged on to an indecisive end in 1953 and when the fall semester opened at our high school, our friends who had survived were back in algebra class. It took those of us who had not had the misfortune to be in the Marine Reserves about ten minutes to realize that this was a group of men who were quite different from the carefree bunch that had left for the war. They were a serious, no nonsense group who had seen things were could not imagine.
The Korean War never ended. An Armistice was established and soon we were embroiled in Vietnam. The “Police Action” became the forgotten war . . . except for those who were there. In the ensuing decades, tensions have waxed and waned on that peninsula but in the past six months it seemed that we were on the brink of a threat unequaled since the Cuban missile crisis of November 1963.
How the transition to the recent rapprochement came about is far from clear. We are skeptical that these gestures have good will behind them but certainly we hope this will lead to denuclearization, a word that was not even in the lexicon when our classmates did what they had to do and laid the lives on the line for a threat they barely understood. In honor of their service and sacrifice and the hope for our world, let’s pray this is the beginning of a rationality that, absent for 68 years, seemed so remote only a few months ago.