Barbara Demick: South Koreans Clash Over A 1957 Statue Of McArthur

Roundup: Talking About History

Gen. Douglas MacArthur can't be seen around these parts without his bodyguards.

The old soldier stands high on a bluff here looking out to sea, binoculars slung around his neck and an officer's cap perched jauntily on his head. In a cordon in front of him are several burly riot policemen, their shields raised in defensive posture. At least a dozen other officers, some in plainclothes with wires dangling in their ears, are fanned out around the flowerbeds, on the lookout for trouble.

For nearly half a century, a 16-foot bronze likeness of the late war hero has dominated a park near the shores where thousands of U.S. troops under his command landed Sept. 15, 1950, to expel North Korean forces. It is considered one of the decisive battles of the Korean War, one that many here credit for the eventual success of the prosperous, free-market nation that is South Korea.

But not all. A movement to tear down the statue has been gaining momentum recently among some younger South Koreans, who call it a symbol of U.S. occupation and oppression.

MacArthur, remembered for his quote that "old soldiers never die, they just fade away," has hardly faded when it comes to the controversy surrounding his life and legacy.

On Sunday, more than 4,000 anti-MacArthur demonstrators armed with bamboo sticks clashed with an almost equal number of riot police. From the sidelines, nearly 1,000 conservative defenders of the statue, many of them Korean War veterans, threw eggs and garbage at the protesters. Some blocked an ambulance carrying away injured protesters, screaming that communists didn't deserve to be rescued, witnesses said.

"We've had demonstrations here before, but this is the first they've turned violent," said Kim Kyeong Ho, a police official surveying the site Wednesday. "There is a real clash of values going on. People consider him either a savior or a war criminal."

The protesters are led by a coalition of student and labor groups, including the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union. Their argument, boiled down, is that the U.S. effort in the Korean War was not so much an altruistic defense of South Korea's freedom as an attempt to gain hegemony over the region, and that it needlessly caused the division of the peninsula.

"It is time to reappraise MacArthur's role in history. If it were not for him, our country would not have been colonized and divided as it was," said Kim Guk Rae, a 40-year-old activist from Inchon who is one of the leaders of the movement.

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