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Dr. Jongwoo Han will discuss the significance of the relationship between South Korea and the United States during event 

COURTESY PHOTO - Jongwoo Han

For Dr. Jongwoo Han, a former Syracuse University political science professor who has dedicated much of the last decade to preserving the history of the Korean War, the relationship between the United States and South Korea continues to be of utmost importance within the geopolitical landscape.

And that bond started with the Korean War in the 1950s, when the United States military helped set South Korea on a path from comparative impoverishment to one of the biggest economic success stories of the last century.

"If you look at the whole history of relations between the two countries, you will realize how radically different from each other they are. The US is Christian, white, (has) liberalism and capitalism from the 19th century to the 20th. Korea was a Confucian civilization, collectivized socially and (in terms of) agriculture," Han said. "But now they are the strongest allies to each other."

Han will discuss the relationship between the two countries then and now, as well as his book "The Metamorphosis of the U.S. Korea Relations: The Korean Question Revisited" and other topics related to the Korean War, during an event at 6:15 p.m. Monday, June 27, at the Wilsonville Community Center.

As a professor, Han lectured about the political economy of South Korea — including how it managed to achieve rapid economic development and democratization in the second half of the 20th century. South Korea was primarily an agricultural economy in 1960 and now has modernized to become the tenth-largest economy in the world.

Han said South Korea's transformation began while under a military dictatorship led by General Park Chung-hee, who helped the country begin to aggressively export products. However, citizens pushed for democratic reforms and the country became a democracy by the 1980s.

"Also, the Korean people expect the state to do strong leadership because they want to get out of poverty. They expect the government to do something. They expect the government to intervene in the economy to catch up with Western countries fast," Han said.

While Korea became an early proxy battle for global supremacy between communism (North Korea was supported by the Soviet Union and China) and capitalism in the mid-20th century, today it continues to be an important pivot point in the escalating rivalry between the United States and China, Han said. He noted that South Korea was the first Asian country President Joe Biden visited after taking the Oval Office. South Korea is also America's sixth-largest trading partner.

"Biden is trying to consolidate the alliance with South Korea to restructure the global supply chain to combat the China challenge," he said, adding that South Korea has become one of the world's largest producers in the increasingly important chip—manufacturing sector.

But the country would not have become what it is today, Han said, without the assistance of the United States military in helping stave off an invasion by North Korea in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 and the sacrifice of over 36,000 Americans who died. Han believes this war is too often forgotten and not emphasized enough in school curriculum. Through his nonprofit organization, the Korean War Legacy Foundation, he interviews hundreds of Korean War veterans from across the world and develops a curriculum based on those interviews that is used in schools.

"It's one of the most important areas for the national interest of the United States. That's why it has a special place in world history, but still, we don't teach about this. That's what I want to challenge," he said.

In terms of what he has taken away from interviewing so many veterans, he said many didn't know that South Korea was a country when they enlisted for military service and were alarmed by the poverty and stench (Koreans used human waste as fertilizer) when they arrived. Han also interviewed a veteran recently who noted the determination of the Korean population in the wake of extreme devastation.

"That's how he sees the Korean people — resilient, strong and aggressive about the reality they were facing," Han said. He added that veterans who visit Korea after departing the country decades prior feel strong emotions.

"They begin to cry because they never imagined Korea would be like what it is today," he said.


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