Sharing a timeless song with the Filipino heroes of the Korean War

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Lee Sang-Hwa - The Philippine Star

“I do not know the dignity of his birth, but I do know the glory of his death.” These are the words inscribed at the gate of the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery), leading to the Korean War Memorial Pylon. This was the first place I visited on the day of my arrival in this country as Korean ambassador. Paying tribute to the fallen heroes was a solemn reminder of the deep-seated gratefulness of the Korean people for our Filipino friends during the darkest moment of our modern history.

For those who do not know the background, the inscription was uttered by General Douglas MacArthur who left an indelible mark in both our nations’ history. The arrival of Gen. MacArthur in Leyte in 1944 signaled the beginning of Philippine liberation during World War II. Gen. MacArthur’s Incheon Landing in 1950 was a Korean version of the Leyte Landing. The amphibious landing of UN forces in Incheon under his command reversed the tide of the Korean War by repelling the invading North Korean army.

The stories of this war hero represent a shared history between our two countries. However, what is more meaningful is the glory of those unsung heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom and peace. As demonstrated during the Oct. 20 celebration of the Leyte Landing, it is our responsibility to remember and preserve the heroism of war veterans.

In Korea, such valor is honored in Busan in an annual event known as the “Turn Toward Busan International Memorial Ceremony.” Every year, a one-minute alarm is sounded on Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. to serve as a moment of silence to reflect on the sacrifices of UN soldiers during the Korean War. The UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan, Korea is the only UN memorial cemetery in the world. Upon the siren call of the United Nations in 1950, more than 7,000 soldiers of the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea (PEFTOK) were dispatched to join the UN forces.

Recently, I met a 96-year-old Filipino veteran of the Korean War. During his homecoming visit to the Philippines from L.A., United States, I welcomed him and his family members at the Korean embassy. His recollection was touching, so much so that it served as a moment to reflect on the value of freedom, peace and human rights, particularly as we mark the 70th year of the armistice of the Korean War this year.

The PEFTOK veteran whom I met was proud to serve under the command of the platoon leader, 2nd Lieutenant Fidel Ramos, who later became president of the Philippines. He cherishes the memory of marching to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. For him, it was an ode to joy against all the odds at the time – the arduous treks amidst freezing mid-winter cold, hunger and homesickness. He still remembers the Korean traditional folk song he listened to during the war – Arirang. When I played Arirang at our meeting, the old veteran stood up and danced to its rhythm. Arirang embraces the themes of sorrow, separation, reunion and, most importantly, boundless love for one’s family and the motherland. In a sense, its sentiment can be likened to the Philippine folk song Anak.

The visit of this Korean War hero at our embassy was as meaningful to him as it was to me. For him, the Korea he remembers from the 1950s and the Korea as it stands now – a vibrant democracy with a flourishing economy – constitutes no less than a sea change.

While my meeting with the old veteran enabled me to reflect on the precious lessons from the past, the dire security environment facing Korea and the Philippines is another commonality. As the Philippines is committed to defending the archipelago from emerging threats amid the evolving security landscape, so is Korea in the face of North Korea’s provocative and reckless behavior.

One of the most impoverished and repressive regimes in the world, North Korea stands on the wrong side of history. A picture speaks a thousand words. Nighttime photos from space depict an almost completely dark North Korea beside its brightly lit neighbor in the south. I remember during my days working at the Executive Office of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former US President Barack Obama, in his UN General Assembly speech, deplored that the “stark contrast between the success of the Republic of Korea and the wasteland of North Korea shows that central, planned control of the economy is a dead end.”

The Republic of Korea will serve in the UN Security Council in 2024-2025. It is particularly meaningful that Korea, Japan and the US will sit on the Council together next year. As evidenced by the trilateral summit in Camp David last August, the partnership among the three countries is stronger than ever. Korea will do its utmost in deterring North Korea’s anachronistic nuclear ambition. In doing so, we continue to count on the unwavering support of our friends and partners, including the Philippines.

The fundamental difference between North and South Korea lies in respect for freedom and human dignity. My conversation with the Korean War veteran cemented my conviction about our journey toward the complete denuclearization of North Korea and enduring peace on the Korean peninsula.

As we approach the 75th anniversary of Korea-Philippines bilateral relations next year, let us remember that every little progress our countries have achieved in the past seven decades began with the sacrifices and heroism of those who fought in the Korean War, including the brave Filipino soldiers. The bond between our two nations, forged in the crucible of war, remains unbreakable.

Let me conclude by reciting the words engraved on the Washington D.C. Korean War Veterans Memorial: “Freedom is Not Free.”

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Lee Sang-hwa is the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Philippines.

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