MacArthur Is Back in the Heat of Battle

Times Staff Writer

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.

Getting in on the act, a popular radical performer, Park Seong Hwan, whose song with an obscene reference to the U.S. was the ballad of demonstrators during a string of anti-American protests in 2002, came out last week with a piece calling for the removal of the statue.

“Tear it down, tear it down,” is the refrain of the song, in which MacArthur is accused of massacring civilians during the war.

The drive to remove the statue has inspired a determined backlash. On Park’s Web page, furious veterans have denounced the singer as an “ungrateful commie” and suggested that he move to North Korea. Defenders of the statue are planning a major demonstration today to mark the 55th anniversary of the Inchon landing, and police are girding for another brawl.

Even before the dispute over his legacy, MacArthur was a controversial figure in this country and at home.

He was removed from his command by President Truman for insubordination in 1951 after he pressed to expand the war across the border into China, and some historians believe he needlessly prolonged the war.

Regardless of their feelings about MacArthur, many South Koreans seem to be deeply embarrassed by the clash on Sunday, which was Sept. 11.

The wave of anti-American demonstrations in 2002, sparked by the accidental death of two schoolgirls hit by a U.S. military vehicle, damaged South Korea’s relations with the United States and its image abroad. Anti-Americanism is believed to be bad for business here, and many fear that a brouhaha over MacArthur will play badly with American conservatives.

“We should leave the statue as it is and respect it for its place in history,” South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said Tuesday during a meeting with Korean Americans in New York, where he was attending a gathering of world leaders.

Other South Korean leaders, from a wide political spectrum, have spoken up in recent days in defense of MacArthur. Nonetheless, the dispute reflects a reassessment by South Koreans of the American role on the peninsula. In a poll taken last week, 53% of respondents listed the U.S. as the country most responsible for the division of Korea.

The imposing statue was erected in 1957 in Freedom Park atop a pedestal with the inscription “A man to hold eternally in honored memory.”

Freedom Park is not a usual venue for protests; it is a place where retirees play mah-jongg and toddlers chase pigeons.

“These protesters are just stupid kids who don’t know what happened during the Korean War. Because of them, our park is full of riot police,” said a 51-year-old hairdresser, Lee Jong Sun, who wandered off muttering under her breath: “Crazy! Idiots!”

Jeon Gap Su, a 72-year-old retired military officer, recalled being among the onlookers on Sept. 15, 1957, when the statue was dedicated.

“Back then, if anybody had protested they would have been shot instantly. It would have been clean and easy,” Jeon said. “It was clean and easy in those days.”