An armistice brought it to an uneasy halt 65 years ago on Friday, but for many veterans of the Korean conflict, the “Forgotten War” is anything but: war traumas endure and near-daily news bulletins remind them that Korea remains the world’s longest-running unresolved conflict.
Now a young Korean-American woman has embarked on an odyssey to visit Korean War memorials and veterans in every state and country that deployed troops, in an effort to bring closure to them, and to advocate for a peaceful end to the conflict.
Most veterans are approaching, or are already in, their nineties, but Hannah Y. Kim is only 35. “I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t answer the call to fight for a country they didn’t know and a people they never met,” Kim said.
In 2008, then-graduate student Kim lobbied Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel – himself a Korean War veteran – for legislation to declare July 27 “National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day” in the US. He subsequently hired her. After Rangel retired in January 2017, Kim also left Congress and focused her efforts on the organization she founded, “Remember 727.” “727” recalls the date the Korean War armistice was signed: July 27, 1953.
Journey of remembrance
Under the Remember 727 banner. she has embarked on a digitally recorded journey to thank Korean War veterans for their service, honor those who died and raise funds for the “Korean War Wall of Remembrance” – a wall to be erected in Washington, etched with the names of the 36,574 Americans killed in the war. Above all, she seeks to ensure that veterans are not forgotten.
Kim – whose Christian faith was deepened by a near-fatal car accident – has clocked up more than 100,000 miles on six continents. Nations visited include the countries that fought on the communist side: China, Russia and North Korea. Of her visit to the Korean War cemetery in Pyongyang, she wrote: “I was at a loss for words … I writhed in pain. I saw first-hand the grave realities of war.”
Of the 5.7 million Americans who served during the Korean War, there are thought to be 1.7 million survivors. Almost 37,000 of their comrades perished during the war; more than 8,000 were prisoners of war (POWs) or declared missing in action (MIAs).
“I’m just a messenger to thank them on behalf of grateful Americans and Koreans and to let them know they will never be forgotten,” Kim said of her self-appointed mission. “And we just never give up hope until all our POWs and MIAs are returned home.”
With a small, all-volunteer support staff and most of her expenses funded by private donations, she posts exclusive interviews with veterans on her personal Facebook Page – which are eventually archived on her website, www.remember727.org.
The videos and interviews, shot entirely on smartphone, are unscripted and live-streamed. Raw emotion flows from the veterans, who Kim, in Korean style, calls “grandpas.”
In one post from a 2017 visit to Seoul, South Korea, Kim thanked the “grandpas” and “angels,” her supporters. She shared stories that day of her experiences on both sides of the DMZ at Panmunjom Truce Village – which she has viewed from both North and South. One traumatized South Korean veteran wept at the thought of a peaceful end to the Korean War. “I think maybe now my PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] will be gone,” he said.
Kim makes it a point to lay a flower and pray at each monument, hug and thank each veteran and give them a personal memento – a heart-shaped American flag lapel pin. “They’re a token of appreciation for their patriotism,” Kim said. “It represents my love for them and their love for the flag.”
Following the first, four-month global leg of her trip, Kim returned home to California, then ventured to India for intensive yogic training. She also did intensive labor at charitable centers established by her childhood hero, Mother Theresa.
But she fell ill. Returning home to begin her 2018 US mission, she was both weak and unprepared. But given the age of the veterans, the promising climate of détente on the peninsula and the 65th anniversary, she decided to proceed. “I knew with everything going on politically, that this was the year to make this journey,” Kim said.
During her cross-America trip, she suffered a minor concussion and endured long, hot drives in the rugged US southwest. And at many points, Kim had to pull over to coordinate logistics and event details, field communications or just search for a place to rest for the evening.
On her US tour, she visited more than 70 memorial sites and interviewed countless veterans. “I would visit the memorials even if nobody else could make it,” Kim said. “Every time I felt tired or overwhelmed, I prayed to God and reminisced about things my ‘grandpas’ have said. It gave me the strength to continue.”
The empowering nature of her work could be seen during an emotive Indianapolis, Indiana, visit where Kim played Amazing Grace on the piano while Korea War veteran and musician Everett Greene sang.
After they finished their performance at the Indianapolis Korean Presbyterian church, Kim asked Greene: “What do you remember from the war?”
“Well, I remember some scary times … I was in an air-naval gunfire unit during the negotiations,” he said. But the overall experience was positive. “It gave me respect for what we [Americans] do in this world and why we do it,” Greene said. “No regrets! I’m glad that I was able to be a part of it.”
To the finish line
Today, Kim thanks those who prayed for her. “It got me here so far and will carry me through the finish line on 7.27,” she said.
But what is the finish line? And what does giving closure to Korean War veterans look like?
During a June 7 memorial site visit to Little Rock, Arkansas – the birthplace of General Douglas MacArthur, who led the United Nations Command during the first 11 months of the Korean War – Kim interviewed Walter Rhodes, one of the state’s most decorated veterans.
Rhodes received a battlefield commission, a Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star with “V” device for valor, Bronze Star and Purple Heart while serving as a forward observer with 37th Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, from 1950 to 1951. Rhodes’ division was in the thick of it. His experiences spanned the early, desperate fighting at the “Pusan Perimeter,” to combat along the appropriately named “Heartbreak Ridge.”
Only days before the June 12 Singapore Summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, Kim asked Rhodes: “What does it mean to you that the current peace talks may lead to some kind of closure”? “This is what we were all fighting for,” Rhodes replied. “Peace in Korea, as a whole.”
Still, one of Kim’s greatest hopes looks set to go unfulfilled today. “It was my dream that there would be a Peace Treaty signed on the 65th anniversary of the 1953 Armistice Agreement – July 27, 2018,” she said.
In the absence of that, she does not know what the future holds for herself or for the peninsula. But she pledges to continue her journey because she says – quoting a famed etching on the wall at the Korean War Memorial in Washington – “Freedom is Not Free.”