Little did I know in 1950, when I went to Korea for the first time as a combat infantryman, that I would be welcoming the distinguished South Korean President Park Geun-hye during her visit to our nation’s capital to confer with our president concerning the global community and the U.S.-Korea alliance.
I fought in the Korean War as a member of the 503rd Battalion, an all-black artillery unit, in the 2nd Infantry Division. In late November 1950, my unit was engaged in heavy fighting in North Korea and in the Battle of Kunu-ri, and I was part of a vehicle column that was trapped and attacked by the Chinese army.
During the attack, I was injured in the back by shrapnel from a Chinese shell. I was able to lead approximately 40 men from my unit out of the Chinese encirclement, enduring three days of freezing temperatures. It was by the grace of God that we were spared because we later learned that nearly half of our battalion was killed in the overall battle. Since Kunu-ri — and I mean it with all my heart — I have never, ever had a bad day.
When I left the Korean Peninsula, wounded, it was a nightmare, and I thought I would never want to go back. So I could not be more proud to witness the rise of Korea from the ashes of war into becoming our nation’s seventh-largest trading partner and an international giant. Ms. Park’s historic ascendency to the presidency reflects the tremendous leaps that the Republic of Korea has made to become a shining example of one of the most successful democracies in the world.
The relationship between our two countries is precious. The Republic of Korea is among our nation’s closest allies, having contributed troops in support of U.S. operations during the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, while also supporting numerous United Nations peacekeeping missions. We must remain committed to solidifying our alliance to help safeguard stability and prosperity in the region.
The global impact made by the Korean people at the highest levels of leadership, such as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, as well as Seoul’s skyscrapers, booming businesses and rising apartment buildings, are a testament to the determination of the people of South Korea to become successful and give back to the world. All across America, Koreans have inspired us with their entrepreneurialism and perseverance toward strengthening the fabric of our nation.
It has been a particularly significant moment in history this year as Korea commemorates its 70th anniversary of independence, which also reminds us of the subsequent division of the Korean Peninsula. I strongly support Ms. Park’s vision of a peaceful unification and her tireless efforts to reunite families that have been separated by war for more than six decades.
I would have never imagined 65 years ago that I would return to the war-torn country I left behind as a U.S. congressman. I am grateful to Ms. Park for the generous hospitality shown to me by her countrymen during my recent trip to Korea, where I enjoyed meaningful conversations with different Cabinet members and heads of various organizations to discuss the U.S.-South Korean alliance, the implementation of the free trade agreement between our countries and the peace-building process on the peninsula and the region.
To see this country now, to see what out of the ashes it has become, to see from a very poor country what a great democracy it has become, to see the leadership of this great president, to see what a friend we have in that region during this critical time in the economy and in peace and war, that this country always has our back, the great contributions Korea has made to our country, those who have become citizens, makes me proud to be an American.
More than 50,000 American soldiers did not make it back home after three brutal years of fighting in Korea from 1950 to 1953; 100,000 came back wounded, and 8,000 are unaccounted for. I could not be more pleased that my bills, the Korean War Veterans Recognition Act, as well as the resolution to encourage peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula, passed in honor of the sacrifices and contributions the Korean War veterans have made to the great American legacy.
Korea will always have a place in my heart as I continue to work on bringing our two countries closer while promoting peace between the two Koreas, in hopes that the divided peninsula will be reunified in my lifetime.
• Mr. Rangel, a decorated Korean War veteran with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal, has served in Congress since 1971. A Democrat, he represents New York’s 13th Congressional District.