Local Korean War vets offer perspective on US tensions with N. Korea

DOVER — They wish it had ended 64 years ago.

Delaware’s Korean War veterans watch today’s news and it feels like 1953 all over again.

Continuing tension with North Korea penetrates their hearts deeply.

That’s apparent in Oak Orchard, where the 48-member Chapter 13 of the Korean War Veterans Association meets the second Thursday of each month.

There should be more fodder during President Trump’s 12-day trip to Asia that includes a stop in South Korea.

“Yes, there has been an increase in chatter about the Korean situation, Chapter President Jack McGinley Jr. said this week. “There has always been an underlying uneasiness among the men and women that have been there.”

The association has 260 members listed from Delaware, not all of them active.

Alas, from the veterans perspective, an armistice established a demilitarized zone and left countries with unresolved issues and conflicting ideals.

The way decorated veteran Walt Koopman sees it, the United States and its United Nations allies should have settled the conflict six decades ago.

“We should have gone further,” he said. “We were so far north that there was no North Korea.”

While saying he “doesn’t follow it too closely,” Army Third Infantry veteran Tom Woods of Long Neck knows the issue is ongoing and “as far as I’m concerned the North is out of whack.

“They were beaten once so I don’t know why it’s still going on.”

Also, Mr. Woods said with a sigh when noting he reached the Chinese border during hostilities, “There’s not much I could do about it now.”

Here in 2017 and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is openly touting his country’s nuclear weapon arsenal through test launches and fiery rhetoric hinting at possible holocaust.

Far from reticent, President Trump (scheduled to arrive in Japan today) unleashed his own muscular verbal salvos toward the leader he dubbed “Little Rocket Man.”

The president has been called a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” by Kim.

‘I told you so’

Nothing is settled, despite local veterans efforts so many years ago. The danger to the United States and its allies regarding North Korea remains.

“There’s a lot of ‘I told you so’ feeling right now as history repeats itself,” said Mr. Koopman, an 83-year-old Milton resident who served as a sharpshooting Army combat infantryman who earned a Bronze Star during the conflict.

Since the United States elected a new president in November 2016, tension between North and South Korea and United States and its allies has steadily ratcheted up.

“The last eight years we didn’t hear anything much about North Korea and now all of a sudden we have a president who’s a no-nonsense guy and they’re afraid of him a bit so the kid has to show that he has some power.

“From our side there has to be the message that if you screw with us you could or will be annihilated.”

With four brothers and a sister living in South Korea, Dr. Young S. Kwak professes to significant stress these days.

Delaware State University’s Interim Chair and Director of the College of Business International Programs Department of Accounting, Economics and Finance arrived in the United States in 1980 for his studies and became a citizen, but homeland ties remain strong.

“Since childhood the tension has been there, this is kind of a part of daily life for Koreans but these days I feel a lot more insecure when I hear the back and forth,” Dr. Kwak said.

The academic visits family every two years and senses a feeling of acceptance to the way things are.

“They have heard so many threats and harsh words it seems like they just don’t care,” Dr. Kwak said. “They are strangely calm.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that Dr. Kwak isn’t immensely concerned.

“I’m worried about their existence,” Dr. Kwak said. “If war breaks out a million or more people will just disappear.”

‘Worse than the father’

In Mr. Koopman’s view, the North Korean dictator who inherited control from his late father Kim Jong-il in 2011 is beyond reason.

“The ‘Rocket Man,’ the son, is worse than the father,” Mr. Koopman said. “The kid is, so to speak, a head case of power. If you don’t do what he says you get put away forever.”

Until the current head of the North Korean state is no more, Mr. Koopman believes some sort of military action is inevitable.

“He’s a dictator and there’s no negotiating with a dictator,” he said. “It’s his way or no way, so there’s going to be some sort of scrimmage.

“I just hope its not nuclear.”

President Trump needs to take the approach of a diplomat instead of businessman, Dr. Kwak said.

“I hope he is bringing a message of keeping peace in the region so he can get true allies who can pressure North Korea to come to the table,” he said.

According to Mr. McGinley, stationed in South Korea for 13 months in 1963-64, “My personal feelings are that the world is paying for many mistakes made early in the 20th century, most of which were the fact that Korea was an afterthought.

“Much more attention was paid to Europe, China and Japan. Many people couldn’t point out the Korean peninsula on a map.

“With the escalation of tensions almost daily, I feel there is going to be some sort of military action, hopefully not nuclear.

“Politically, Kim Jong Un must be removed from power and some sort of sanity has to be restored. Only China, Russia and the U.S. can achieve some sort of peacefulness to the area.

“God help the Korean people, both North and South.”

Though North Korea indicates otherwise, Mr. Koopman doesn’t believe the nation possesses weaponry that can reach the United States mainland.

“I don’t think they have the right stuff to do any damage to us long range,” Mr. Koopman said. “I don’t think there’s a danger of anything splashing down in the waves of the Frisco Bay.”

Avoiding armed conflict

That doesn’t mean U.S. citizens and troops stationed in allied South Korea and Japan aren’t at daily risk of being in range of dropping bombs, Mr. Koopman acknowledged.

“I think we’re going to have to do something that gets us in there and allows us to take him out,” Mr. Koopman believes about finalizing issues with Un.
Armed military conflict should be avoided at all costs, Dr. Kwak maintains.

“We should never have war on the Korean peninsula,” he said. “It would destroy both sides. I hope this ends with a war of words and a peaceful resolution.

“There should be no regime change in North Korea and both governments should acknowledge each other as legitimate governments.

“We should at least show mutual respect and come to the table and harsh words are not going to help the situation.”

Concentrating resources on the military at the expense of its citizenry may eventually have severe consequences, Dr. Kwak said.

“From my point of view, the North Korean regime can not sustain itself as it stands now by spending so much on the military and treating the military people so much better than the ordinary citizens,” he said.

“North Korea has to change their strategy and boost its economy because if that tanks even further it may push them to the edge of a cliff that leaves it only with the option of going to war.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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