Area veterans weigh in on North Korea crisis

Kim Jong-un, the bellicose supreme leader of North Korea, is saying or doing something almost daily to ratchet up tensions with South Korea and the United States.

Some people worry, but Korean War veterans – the guys who have been there and done that – seem more annoyed than worried.

Interviews with several veterans in West Virginia indicate that they don’t think much of the young dictator and most favor tightening the screws to make him abandon development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

  • “We cannot be bullied by a small, backward nation,” said David B. Frame, 81, of Sophia in Raleigh County. “I think his (Kim’s) threats are kind of foolish. Threats are ‘old guard.’ I hope our leaders will confer with the leaders in that part of the world and take some sort of action to end his rhetoric.” Frame added, “I hope their allies (China and Russia) will tell them they’re flirting with disaster.”
  • “I think North Korea thinks we’re scared of them,” said Loren Jackson, 77, of Fairmont. “They think we’ll back down because we’ve backed down so many times before.” He added, “We should have taken them a long time ago. We wait too long to do stuff. His dad made threats same as he’s doing, but not quite as bad. If they attack, I’d put the bomb to them. “
  • “When the country you’re negotiating with has no integrity, it’s hard to negotiate,” said Frank Goff, 80, of St. Albans, president of Korean War Veterans, West Virginia, for 17 years. He said he doesn’t know how the situation should be handled, but noted, “We’ve got to slow North Korea down.” If the relationship continues to deteriorate, “I think in my heart that it (North Korea) will eventually invade the South.” If that happens, he said, we would need to intervene and do “whatever it takes.”
  • “I don’t like war I don’t want to see a war, but I think we ought to call their bluff this time,” said Arnold Kovach, 87, of Elkins. He doesn’t think the United States has done a good job of handling the North Korean problem, and he doesn’t think the United States should tolerate threats. “They (North Korea) are not doing their own people any good. All they want is something from us. I don’t think China would help them this time, like in the Korean War. They’re not in a position to do that.”
  • “He’s probably not dry behind the ears. He’s likely to be brash and rash,” said Jim L. Sibray, 83, of Beckley. He says he’s not surprised by Kim’s sabre-rattling, and he wonders whether Kim’s generals have enough sense to avoid war.

Frame was only 19 when he went into combat in July 1950. He was a forward observer in an Army infantry battalion. It was a tough job, and he was shot twice, once in the left elbow and once in the mouth. He has two purple hearts, three major battle ribbons, a U.N. ribbon and a South Korean defense ribbon.

He says the North’s sabre-rattling is bringing back a lot of memories.

The Korean War ended in an armistice (an agreement to stop fighting, but not to end the war), and looking back, Frame said, “I guess I accepted the way it ended.” But he has mixed feelings, too.

He recalled that Gen. Douglas MacArthur didn’t want to stop at the 38th Parallel; he wanted to keep going north. “And somehow, in the back of my mind, I think he was right, although at the time, the stakes were pretty high. It could have led to worldwide war. I have mixed emotions. It was barbaric at the time.”

Now, 60 years later, he believes we should be pursuing two objectives in North Korea – nuclear nonproliferation (making sure the North doesn’t export its expertise and materials) and nuclear disarmament.

He hesitates to comment on U.S. policies, but he doesn’t like the fact that the economic sanctions hurt the civilian population (“the top dogs are going to eat”). On the other hand, he believes that we would be at war with the North if sanctions weren’t in place.

He doesn’t think we’ve responded appropriately to past provocations from the North. In 2010, for example, when the North sank a South Korean naval vessel and shelled a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, we could have at least taken out the North’s artillery battery, he says.

Jackson was 17 years old “and mean as hell,” he says, when he landed in Korea in 1952. He was an Army “ground pounder,” and he carried an M1. He was a corporal.

He has misgivings about the war and how it ended. He doesn’t think we should have gotten involved in it in the first place (“it cost too many lives,” he said), and he doesn’t like the fact that it ended in an armistice. He would have followed MacArthur – “a great general” – and continued north of the 38th Parallel.

Regarding the situation today, Jackson says he doesn’t think economic sanctions against the North are working, and he would support tougher action such as parking a U.S. carrier off the cost of North Korea, blockading the country’s busiest ports, and redesignating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Those are steps suggested by a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

If the North invaded the South again? The United States should “put the bomb to them (the North) like we did in Japan. That would stop the little fella (Kim).”

Goff, a retired minister, enlisted in the Army immediately after high school. He went to Ft. Knox, Ky., for basic training and then on to Japan. He arrived in Korea two weeks after the North invaded. By war’s end, he was a staff sergeant.

He was assigned to a self-propelled automatic weapons battalion, and he was on the front lines for 15 months. He was awarded a purple heart when he was wounded by shrapnel, and he has a silver star for gallantry in action and two bronze starts for valor in combat. He also has six oak leaf clusters, one for each of the six major campaigns of the war.

His unit’s casualty rate was over 90 percent, and he’s one of only five men in his original unit to not be killed or seriously wounded.

Looking back 63 years, he said, “I think it was good that we did go in” and help the South Koreans. If the United States had not confronted the communists on the Korean Peninsula, the communists would have gone other places. He thinks the Philippines might have been next.

That said, he believes the combined forces won the Korean War in 90 days, and we should have stopped once we pushed the North back to the 38th Parallel. But MacArthur wanted to move farther north. Intelligence reports said the Chinese would join with the North if we advanced, but the general didn’t think the Chinese were capable. The troops went north, and the fighting continued for two years.

“MacArthur should have heeded the intelligence. Several thousand GIs would be alive today.” It was MacArthur’s “one big mistake.”

In looking at the situation in North Korea today, Goff says he’d like to see China tighten its sanctions against the North. He also would favor additional U.S. action such as suggested by the AEI.

If the North does not capitulate, he believes, it will lash out, perhaps by invading the South. And if that happens, the United States will need to get involved again. He’d prefer that we limit our involvement to bombing runs, but he says we should do whatever it takes, including putting more troops on the ground.

Kovach was a Marine tank commander. He served in World War II, and when he returned home, he joined a reserve unit in Akron, Ohio. In 1950, when the North invaded the South, his entire unit was activated. After a month of conditioning in California, they shipped out, first for Japan and then for Korea. He says he “spent a lot of time in North Korea” as a tank commander.

“Going to war was the right thing to do,” he said. “War is hell, but to keep our principles and the way we want to live, we certainly don’t want to give in.” He added, “We did the right thing. That’s why I joined in the first place. I enlisted in the Marine Corps in’43. I did it to fight for my country.”

He now regrets that the U.N. command didn’t “finish the job” in Korea. “I don’t think the North Korean people are bad, but the government is bad. I would have preferred we keep fighting and take all of Korea.” But that may not have been possible, he adds, because the United States had cut its armed forces so much after World War II. It was “pathetic.”

Kovach doesn’t think we’ve done a good job of handling the North Korean problem, and he’d like to see tougher sanctions to achieve nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament in North Korea. He also favors tougher steps such as the AIE suggestions.

“In the last four or five years, we’ve not done enough to set them down. I want to get tough.”

He doubts North Korea would start a war, but if it does, “I think we ought to whip them once and for all.”

Sibray was a sergeant in the 1st Field Artillery Observation Battalion during the Korean War.

He’s comfortable now with United Nations actions against North Korea, but he added that he doesn’t think economic sanctions will necessarily stop the North. “I don’t think they (North Korea’s leaders) mind starving their own people.”

He also doesn’t know whether the Chinese can control Kim.

“I think we have to be very much on guard and if an attack on us is imminent, we need to hit them first and destroy their ability to hurt us.”