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June 22, 2000

KOREA: Remembering the forgotten war

As North and South Korean leaders held historic reconciliation talks last week, military historians from across North America joined local academicians and Korean War veterans at Pitt for a "History of the Korean War" conference.

Presenters discussed the war's origins and legacy, forgotten participants in the "forgotten war" such as Turkish troops, wartime relations between military authorities and the press, and myths that have arisen in the 47 years since the armistice. (The war hasn't formally ended yet, and 37,000 U.S. troops remain stationed in South Korea — a token force that serves as a "trip wire" against invasion but could not itself fight off a North Korean onslaught, presenters said.) The emotional high point of the June 15 & 16 conference came on the second afternoon, with an address by Washington state Sen. Paull H. Shin, an alumnus of Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Shin was a 15-year-old orphan, begging food to stay alive. "I had never had a home-cooked meal. I had never gone to school," he recalled. Shin fled Seoul when the Communists invaded, but returned after Gen. MacArthur landed at Inchon and reoccupied the southern capital.

For a while, Shin survived on handouts from American GIs passing by in truck convoys. "One day, I went out as usual, asking for handouts," Shin said. "One of the soldiers, who was unknown to me, raised his hand to me. I thought he was giving me candy. But instead, when I reached my hand to him, he grabbed me and lifted me up in his truck.

"Little did I know, he would later become my saviour."

Shin got a job as a houseboy for GIs in the front lines. "I would watch them head out every morning. Some of them wouldn't come back. Some came back missing arms or legs. At night, I used to hear them crying, praying for safety."

Seasonal conditions ranged from mud to choking dust to subzero cold, with the spectre of violent death never far away, Shin said. Conditions were even crueler for Allied prisoners of war, as Shin learned in later years by interviewing surviving POWs for a book he's writing. Because of the Allies' overwhelming air supremacy, Chinese and North Korean forces maintained only the most makeshift POW camps; in any case, they did not honor the Geneva conventions on humane treatment of POWs. Prisoners were marched from place to place, with many dying of exhaustion, exposure and, all too often, friendly fire from U.S. bombers, Shin said.

Shin himself was lucky. The GI who had lifted him into his truck in 1951 — a Mr. Paull — adopted Shin and brought him to the United States after the war. Shin took the man's surname as his own first name.

At age 18, Shin enrolled in school for the first time in his life. "I began by learning my ABCs. Then, I got my G.E.D. Finally, I got my Ph.D."

Addressing the white-haired Korean War veterans in the audience — some of them still with straight-backed, military postures, a few stooped and frail-looking — the bespectacled Shin, now a grandfather, fought back tears to say: "I was a little boy. I watched you folks come to my country as young men, even to sacrifice your own lives. Because of what you did, look what happened to so many of us today.

"Thank you."

Shin retired after a 31-year college teaching career to enter politics. He was elected to Washington's House and then to its Senate, making him the highest-ranking U.S. elected official of Korean descent. The South Korean government invited him back to his native country two years ago to celebrate the accomplishment.

"When I arrived at the [Seoul] airport, I was met by the prime minister, Congresspersons, radio and TV reporters," Shin recalled.

"Toward the end of the meeting, the press asked me, 'Dr. Shin, in your district, are the constituents mostly Asians?' I said, 'No.' "They said, 'Who are they?' I said, 'About 96 percent are white Americans and 4 percent are minorities.' The reporters said, 'And they voted for you? How could they vote for you?' "I said, 'That's a living testimony that American democracy really works.'"

— Bruce Steele

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