Opinion

Newt Gingrich: The Korean Miracle | Opinion

Callista and I spent last weekend in Seoul, South Korea on a whirlwind trip from Rome.

The experience reminded me what a miracle modern South Korea is.

I spoke to the Washington Times-sponsored Universal Peace Federation’s World Summit. The conference itself was fascinating, having drawn more than 2,000 people including current and former heads of state. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and I talked at the opening plenary session. Former Congressman Dan Burton, who also attended, is playing a leadership role in developing an international parliamentary group dedicated to finding ways to improve the prospects for peace.

Even more impressive than the conference was the city of Seoul itself. The Seoul metropolitan area has more than 25,600,000 people—about half the population of South Korea. Based on GDP, it is the fourth largest urban economy in the world. It is also just over 35 miles from North Korea.

The modern skyscrapers, fancy cars, and world class hotels and restaurants all exist within artillery range of the Korean People’s Army (what North Korea calls its military.) This closeness makes it vitally important to avoid war on the Korean Peninsula. The human cost of the first hour of conflict in Seoul—even during a conventional war—would be horrendous. The sheer number of North Korean artillery and rockets located within easy range of this enormous concentration of people and wealth is sobering.

I always feel a little emotional visiting Seoul because my father fought here in the Army in 1953 and served again in the late 1960s to help defend the country. One of the souvenirs he brought home from his second tour was a carving of a farmer in traditional Korean clothing. The farmer is leading an ox pulling a honey wagon. In Korea, human wastes were collected in honey buckets, and this kind of wagon would go from house to house gathering up the buckets of excrement. The waste collectors would then sell their gathered product to farmers to use for natural fertilizer. People had used human waste as fertilizer for centuries, and in the mid-20th century it was still a part of life in some areas of South Korea.

Every time I visit Seoul, I wonder what my dad would have thought of this economic and political miracle that his generation helped launch through their courage and sacrifice.

Callista and I had an opportunity to visit Camp Bonifas next to the Demilitarized Zone. The camp houses the actual table the negotiators sat at to sign the Korean War Armistice on July 27, 1953. It felt like we were witnesses to history when they allowed us to sit at that table as they briefed us on the Demilitarized Zone and the Korean War which preceded it.

The war had begun on June 25, 1950, when the Communists in North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea. This attack had been approved by both Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong in Communist China. The North Korean dictator at the time, Kim Il-sung, was convinced that the South Korean military was too weak to resist his Soviet-equipped and trained professional army and that the conflict would be over so quickly that the Americans wouldn’t be able to intervene.

President Harry Truman had served in the U.S. Army in World War I and had become president during World War II. He was instantly convinced that doing nothing would send a signal of weakness, which might lead to further communist aggression in Europe and elsewhere. He ordered American forces to intervene just two days after the attack began.

GettyImages-3135131 17th March 1954: American soldiers leaping from an armoured personnel carrier during exercises in Korea. Three Lions/Getty Images

Truman was prepared to fight alone, but he knew it would be better to have a coalition under the United Nations. In a grandly ironic moment, the Soviets were boycotting the UN Security Council meetings because the Chinese Nationalists in Taiwan still represented China. The Soviet Union argued that the Communists had won the civil war, now occupied all the mainland and should have the Chinese seat on the Security Council (the PRC Communists would ultimately replace the ROC Nationalists in 1971.) If the Soviets had been attending the Security Council meetings, they could have vetoed the resolution to defend South Korea. Yet, they were absent, so the United Nations Command was formed.

It took three long, painful years of combat to fight the North Koreans and then the Chinese Communists to exhaustion. The Chinese had come in because they saw North Korea as a key buffer zone to defend their own country. As many as 5 million people may have been killed during the war, more than half of these were Korean civilians. Civilian casualties were largely caused by the fighting, starvation, and the cold. It was a horrible and brutal war. U.S. forces lost 33,651 people in battle and another 3,262 to illness, accident, and other causes in the Korean War.

We concluded that it was not worth the cost. The Chinese later discovered that they could not drive the American-led UN forces out of Korea. Armistice talks began as early as July 10, 1951. Yet, the fighting and dying continued for two more years. A long, bitter stalemate led to the Armistice signing a little more than two years after the negotiations began.

One of the miracles of South Korea is that, with American support, the armistice has lasted 66 years. No one involved in the fighting and the negotiations in the 1950s would have thought it likely that the peninsula could live in relative peace for two generations.

Another South Korean miracle is its emergence as a world-class technological and economic power.

Callista and I had the opportunity to visit Samsung and see just how advanced South Korea has become in communications.

Already, South Korea has far more—and better—broadband access than we do in the United States. This spring, Samsung is going to roll out 5G technology in Korea. By the end of the year, 100 percent of South Korea’s area will be covered by high-speed internet infrastructure (I will write more about this in the future.)

As a functioning democracy, a world leader in technology, and an industrial powerhouse, South Korea is a tribute to both the Korean people and the American people who have been their allies and helped shield them from the dangers of attack.

It was a truly inspiring weekend in Seoul.

Newt Gingrich is former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a best-selling author and host of the upcoming Newt's World podcast.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

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