The North Koreans in Seoul now engaged in methodical hunts for able-bodied men to be impressed into their various "volunteer" units. I moved nine times from relatives' houses to friends' places to stay a step ahead of the occupation soldiers--who were spreading their dragnets ever wider. We heard rumors about "kangaroo courts" held at city squares where any "reactionaries" were bludgeoned to death. I was undoubtedly a "reactionary" by their definition. For the first time I knew fear and hunger, as food was extremely scarce. This was the darkest and most helpless period in my life. I was convinced that all the shocking events were caused by the communist aggression. Along with some schoolmates, I decided to do my part in defending my homeland.
When Seoul was freed by the U.S. Marines in late September, I was in a makeshift officer candidate school in Taegu. There was no compulsion of any kind needed for me to volunteer. (In hindsight, my decision and similar acts by numerous other South Koreans made a fundamental difference between South Korea and South Vietnam.) After brief but intensive training, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant and a public information/troop information and education officer.
Just before the graduation ceremony, I learned that I ranked at the top among my fellow graduates in November 1950. When an American officer, who was not accompanied by an interpreter, wished to make some brief remarks at the graduation ceremony, there were a few awkward moments as there was no one volunteering to interpret. I knew that I had studied English since entering middle school in 1943, so I raised my hand. I was surprised that I could translate quickly what were simple congratulatory remarks. Little did I realize that the events of the day would have such lasting impact on my life.
The Korean army had a policy of assigning the top graduate of each class to the army headquarters, instead of sending the "consumable commodity" (as a second lieutenant was dubbed) to the front lines, where many a second lieutenant did not survive the first month of combat. I was assigned to the army Public Information Office, where one of my tasks was to read leading American newspapers and report briefly to the weekly general staff meeting at the Ministry of National Defense. It was a challenging assignment for a young lieutenant, but I became known to some top-ranking officers of the South Korean military.
Shortly after the Korean armistice negotiations moved from Kaesong to Panmunjom in October 1951, I was dispatched suddenly to Panmunjom as one of three South Koreans with the United Nations Command delegation—a general as the Korean delegate, a colonel as the liaison officer, and myself, then a first lieutenant. I was promoted to captain before the signing of the armistice in July 1953. I was sent to the "Press Train," a stationary train at Munsan-ni depot that lodged war correspondents. My responsibility was to attend the daily negotiations at Panmunjom and brief South Korean journalists. I was in a delicate position of serving with the U.N. (in fact, U.S.) Command delegation that was trying to end the war, particularly after the election of President Dwight Eisenhower, but was at the same time an army officer of South Korea whose commander-in-chief, President Syngman Rhee, was bitterly opposed to any truce agreement that would leave the country divided. When the armistice was signed, the three South Korean officers were forbidden to attend the ceremony.
On the day of the signing of the truce document, I applied for my discharge from the Korean army to continue my education. I had a scholarship from Marquette University, thanks to an International News Service correspondent, John J. Casserly, a Marquette journalism graduate whom I met at Panmunjom. I was at Marquette by February 1954 and subsequently did my graduate work at Columbia and Georgetown Universities. Just when I was completing my Ph.D. in international relations at Georgetown, a military coup d'Etat took place in South Korea. I was offered a position with the military junta, but it was my judgment as a political scientist that the junta would turn dictatorial as had so many other military regimes in the world, and I declined the position. I thought that the military rule in Korea would endure for about 10 years—it lasted for 32. The coup of 1961 would not have occurred had it not been for the expansion of the military due to the Korean War. That war had changed the direction of my life.
Dr. Oh is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America.