On the 70th anniversary of the armistice that halted the Korean War, one American received a special honor in South Korea: former President Harry S. Truman, in whose memory a new, nearly 14-foot-tall statue was unveiled on Thursday.
Although not all South Koreans were happy to see another monument for the war or a new edifice to an American leader built on their soil, conservatives wanted to celebrate Truman, who perhaps affected the fate of South Korea more than any other U.S. president. When North Korea invaded the South in 1950, Truman sent American troops and engineered a United Nations resolution to support the South with Allied forces.
South Korea celebrates the armistice anniversary as a victory for the free world that helped the nation become one of Asia’s richest economies, while North Korea remains a hunger-stricken, nuclear-armed international pariah.
“The Americans’ choice to have such a decisive leader as President Truman in the White House when North Korea invaded saved South Korea and the free world,” said Cho Gab-je, a prominent conservative journalist and publisher who led the campaign to build a Truman statue.
The statue was dedicated at a government-run memorial park at Dabu-dong, a famous Korean War battle site near Daegu in southeast South Korea. It was made by the sculptor Kim Young-won, best known for making the statue of King Sejong in central Seoul.
The Truman statue was installed as part of conservative activists’ broader effort to celebrate Washington’s decision to intervene in the Korean War as well as the resulting alliance between the United States and South Korea, which still underpins the South’s defense against North Korea even today.
When North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea on June 25, 1950, Truman was spending the weekend at home with his family in Independence, Mo.
“Korea is a small country, thousands of miles away, but what is happening there is important to every American,” he said in a radio and television address. “We know that it will take a hard, tough fight to halt the invasion and to drive the Communists back.”
He would later say that his hardest decision as president was opting to enter the Korean War. The invaders he initially called “a bunch of bandits” swept down the Korean Peninsula, pinning American and South Korean forces into its southeastern corner, known as the “Pusan Perimeter.” At Dabu-dong, the Allied forces repelled the North Koreans trying to break through the perimeter.
Then, General Douglas MacArthur’s troops outflanked them by storming Incheon, a port city west of Seoul, in an amphibious landing in September 1950 that turned the tide of the war.
The three-year war, which cost the lives of 36,500 American soldiers and millions of Koreans, ended in a truce.
Addressing the U.S. Congress in 1954, President Syngman Rhee of South Korea thanked Truman for saving South Koreans “from being driven into the sea.” When he spoke to Congress this April, President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea shared similar remarks: “Sons and daughters of America sacrificed their lives to ‘defend a country they never knew and a people they never met,’” he said, referencing a line from the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
While South Koreans have commemorated Gen. MacArthur with a statue that overlooks the shore where his troops landed 73 years ago, there was no comparable statue for Truman, who dismissed the flamboyant five-star general for insubordination during the war. (There is a much smaller and obscure Truman statue at a park near the western border with North Korea.)
A group of prominent conservative figures in South Korea wanted to fill the void by introducing a new, bigger statue for Truman. But in South Korea’s deeply polarized society, building a statue of a foreign president proved controversial, especially when the conservatives installed it alongside a statue of Mr. Rhee, calling the leaders “two heroes of the Korean War who protected the free world.”
Conservative South Koreans worship Mr. Rhee as a nation-builder who led South Korea through the war against Communists and persuaded Washington to form an alliance that they say made South Korea’s industrialization possible. But progressives detest Mr. Rhee as a dictator who was responsible for the mass killing of civilians before and during the war and who fled the country after what the South’s Constitution called a popular uprising “against injustice.”
In South Korea, conservatives and progressives have long waged “a war of history” over how to appraise the country’s past leaders, including Mr. Rhee, its founding president, and the late General Paik Sun-yup, who was listed by a government commission as a “pro-Japanese and anti-nation figure” for his role during Japanese colonial rule, but whose statue was unveiled in Dabu-dong early this month for his achievements in the war.
Although the Truman and Rhee statues were completed in 2017 with donations, they could not find a home until Gyeongsangbuk-do, a conservative province that oversees the Dabu-dong memorial, agreed to host them.
Pairing the Truman and Rhee statues looks “uninspiring and forced,” said Bang Hak-jin, an official at the Seoul-based Center for Historical Truth and Justice. On Thursday, a small group of activists rallied in Dabu-dong to protest the statues, especially that of Mr. Rhee.
“Most South Koreans consider MacArthur an American figure more symbolic of the war than President Truman, but that doesn’t mean that they are all positive about the general,” he said. Most South Koreans seem indifferent to the controversy over the statues and generally support the presence of 28,500 American troops in their country. But progressive activists have protested the MacArthur statue in recent years, calling it an unwanted symbol of military tensions in Korea and an unfinished war.
Before he died, Truman himself discouraged the building of a monument to him.
In 1967, an American Catholic priest in South Korea asked Truman for his permission to use his name in an effort to raise funds for a Truman Memorial Hospital. Truman said he preferred “not to encourage the building of any memorials or monuments to me.”
“I consider that whatever useful acts may have been performed during my administration were, in fact, the acts of the American people,” he said.