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The statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Incheon, South Korea, on Nov. 27, 2021.

The statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Incheon, South Korea, on Nov. 27, 2021. (Andrew Jeong/The Washington Post)

INCHEON, South Korea — During the Korean War, Ahn Hag-sub was a devoted 22-year-old communist serving in a North Korean militia unit. Seven decades later, he still hates the Americans, and their wartime leader, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

At age 91, he says his last act of resistance against MacArthur will be lighting on fire a statue of the general that has stood in Incheon since 1957.

“MacArthur is the enemy of our people,” Ahn said in an interview at his home near Incheon, a South Korean port city located an hour’s drive west of Seoul. Ahn has lived there since the late 1990s, when he was released from a South Korean prison on humanitarian grounds, after spending 40 years behind bars. “I will resist for as long as I can,” he added, tightening his lips.

In South Korea, declaring loyalty to North Korea — as Ahn did, something he still refuses to rescind — is a serious national security crime that can land violators in prison for life.

As a free man, Ahn joined a small but dedicated far-left nationalist group calling itself the Peace Treaty Movement. (It’s with several younger colleagues in that group that Ahn said he’d set alight the MacArthur statue.) The movement’s dislike of MacArthur, who died in 1964, reflects a minority opinion in South Korea, but a heated one.

At a time when the statues of historical figures are being reexamined (and in some cases removed) in the United States and Britain, they are trying to bring attention to a debate over this pivotal — and foreign — figure in modern South Korea’s history.

South Koreans with similar views to Ahn’s see MacArthur as a ruthless commander whose forces killed Korean civilians. MacArthur’s statue should be removed, they say, and sent to the war museum in Seoul. Or, better, it should be dismantled.

They also blame MacArthur for installing pro-Japan collaborators in positions of power in the early days of South Korea after World War II, instead of punishing them. That stance was aired last summer by Lee Jae-myung, a left-leaning South Korean candidate running in the country’s presidential elections on March 9, who was criticized for his remarks. But very few have sought action against the statue, or other monuments marking U.S. contributions to South Korea.

Many South Koreans view MacArthur as a godsend who saved their country twice: first from Japan, which ruled Korea until 1945, and then from North Korea, which invaded the South in 1950 and was repelled by allied forces led by the American general. To them, MacArthur’s statue is a symbol of patriotism that should be left alone.

In the summer of 1950, U.S. and allied forces were cornered and outnumbered by more experienced North Korean troops on the southeastern edge of the Korean Peninsula, on the brink of defeat.

Then MacArthur launched a successful surprise amphibious attack on Incheon, which was at the time behind the North Korean front line. His victory cut off North Korean supply lines and forced their retreat.

Although MacArthur has become a symbol of “rampant American imperialism” to his Korean critics, the Incheon landing was a brilliant tactical maneuver that turned the tide of the Korean War, said Jean H. Lee, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Unlike Ahn, most Incheon residents appear to have a fondness for MacArthur and the 36,000 Americans who died while serving in Korea.

The city has a museum solely dedicated to MacArthur’s 1950 victory. A portside street, several restaurants and at least one advertising firm in the city are named after him. Jamie Romak, a Canadian who played for Incheon’s pro baseball team, the Landers, dressed up as MacArthur for the 2019 KBO League All-Star Game, earning himself a warm ovation from local fans.

And then, of course, there is the statue of the general, which has stood overlooking the Yellow Sea since 1957 from a hilltop park next to Incheon’s harbor, just several hundred feet from the beaches where American and allied troops landed 72 years ago.

In addition to protesting the MacArthur statue, Ahn’s Peace Treaty Movement advocates the removal of the 28,500 American troops who are still stationed in South Korea to help deter a North Korean attack — something the Kim regime has also demanded for decades, even as Pyongyang enhances its nuclear arsenal.

The movement’s leader, Lee Mahn-jeok, is a self-proclaimed Christian preacher who was jailed for pouring fuel on the MacArthur statue and setting it ablaze in 2018, leaving burn marks on it. (Ahn says he couldn’t participate then because of poor health.)

Lee, who lives just a few doors away from Ahn’s home, has helped take care of Ahn since his release from jail 27 years ago. Lee and Ahn both say they know the bronze MacArthur statue cannot be burned down. Its removal seems unlikely, too.

“But we want the burning to serve as a symbol of our struggle,” Lee said. “There’s no need to keep the statue there.”

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