For veterans, the Korean War is an open wound, where memories keep flooding back with every act of tension or violence in the divided eastern Asia peninsula.
And recent war threats by nuclear wannabe North Korea are just the latest, and perhaps most serious, salvo in a standoff that has lasted since the Korean War ended with an armistice in July 1953.
“I think something will happen, because they’ve had over a hundred incidents over the past 60 years,” said retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Malcom, who graduated from North Georgia College in Dahlonega in 1950. “They’re going to fire off some of those missiles.”
Malcom, a highly decorated veteran and Fayetteville resident who led secret missions behind enemy lines during the war, returned Wednesday to his alma mater, now known as University of North Georgia-Dahlonega, to talk about his wartime experiences and give his thoughts on the current crisis.
North Korea “would like to take over South Korea, but they don’t stand a chance,” he said in a phone interview following that session. “We know where all their missiles and nuclear facilities are located. I’ve got a big map that shows all those locations.”
Korea’s split dates to World War II, when Japanese control was replaced by Soviet occupation of northern Korea. At the Potsdam Conference toward the end of the war, the Allies unilaterally decided to divide Korea at the 38th parallel.
War broke out on June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded the South, claiming the action as a counterattack.
In August 1950, the U.S. responded by appropriating billions of dollars to pay for military expenses. The first significant American engagement of the Korean War took place in July 1950 at the Battle of Osan.
The Korean War, marked by early North Korean successes, then escalated, resulting in territorial pushbacks on both sides and drawing in Chinese and Russian influences.
U.S. soldiers braved horrific weather conditions, particularly at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, otherwise known as the Frozen Chosin. By war’s end, the conflict had killed more than 36,000 Americans.
The Hall County-based Korean War Veterans of Georgia dedicated a memorial last fall at Rock Creek Veterans Park in Gainesville in honor of 11 men from Hall County who died while serving in the war.
“It was a long time coming,” Korean War veteran Charles Sexton said at the ceremony.
Some area veterans hesitate to talk about their service in Korea. Several declined to talk about their experience or how they view current events in that part of the world.
“When the Korean War started, I had never heard of Korea,” said retired Gainesville lawyer Joe Sartain, who confesses to fudging his age to enter the service, common among young men of that era.
He served at a Royal Air Force base in England during the war, operating heavy equipment in the extension of runways.
“On today’s tensions, I think they’re serious, but I think the primary factor is this young (North Korean leader Kim Jong Un) wanting recognition. And I think also they’re bleeding the United States ... for money, food and supplies. They’ve done it before.”
Like Malcom, Sartain believes the 30-year-old Kim “might send some rockets up” but none that would threaten the U.S. or South Korea.
“But I think (the situation) is serious enough that we have got to pay attention to it, and I think we are doing a good job of preparing for it,” he said.
Sartain added: “I pray that nothing happens, because the last thing we need is a war with North Korea. At the same time, I’m not in favor of appeasing them by giving them millions of dollars to shut up.”
Veteran Jack Carey of Gainesville also didn’t set boots on Korean soil during the war. But airplanes in the Strategic Air Command, where he served out of March Air Force Base in California, dropped bombs on the peninsula.
He said he is not surprised by today’s tensions.
“This conflict really never ended — they just stopped fighting,” Carey said.
Like Sartain, he has little regard for Kim, whom he believes “is just puffing around and blowing smoke, mouthing off, primarily.”
Jun Kwon, a South Korean native and assistant professor in Political Science & International Affairs at UNG, said he believes “the No. 1 message North Korea (is sending the U.S. is it) has willingness and capability to retaliate against a possible U.S. attack.”
But underlying that, North Korea also believes “it’s about time to ease tensions” on the Korean peninsula, Kwon said.
He does believe Kim’s overtures don’t signify something internal to North Korea. Kim has solidified power in the country and is in full control of its military and communist party, he said.
He also believes North Korea will launch a missile, “but the important thing is that missile launch is a test, not an attack or provocation.”
“I think we need to pay attention to it, but I think the most dangerous thing would be any misjudgment or miscalculation about the intentions between the U.S. and North Korea,” Kwon said.
“Situations are very tense and anything could be escalated into a bigger conflict. I think the most important step would be engaging in dialogue — that’s the only option for easing tensions.”
Just how things play out is a question mark for Malcom, who believes something might occur Monday. That’s when North Korea celebrates the birthday of Kim’s grandfather, the late Kim Il-Sung, founder and first leader of the communist nation.
“That’s one of the things we’re following right now, but we just don’t know,” Malcom said. “That’s such an unstable country and always has been.”