A bronze statue of Douglas MacArthur looks over South Korea's bustling Inchon harbor, a reminder of the American general's role in driving back North Korean forces in 1950. These days, however, the statue has become a touchstone for an intergenerational conflict about the role of America in modern-day South Korea.
Young radical leftists have led assaults on the 15-foot-tall statue, meeting resistance from South Korean military veterans - some of whom show up wearing military uniforms or civilian garb with medals, ribbons, and old unit insignia. The protest has been building for more than a year and is likely to intensify around Sept. 15, the 55th anniversary of the Inchon landing. At a typical demonstration last month, hundreds of Korean riot police were there both to protect the statue and defend the leftists against the veterans, who threatened to beat them.
The struggle reflects in microcosm a gulf between older-generation Korean conservatives, who remember MacArthur as a hero who saved the South from communism, and younger Koreans pushing for reconciliation with the North.
"An anti-American sense has developed," says Yoon Young Mo of the Korean Labor and Society Institute, affiliated with labor unions whose leaders have led protests against the US military presence in Korea.
The fact that US forces now number just 32,500, down from 37,000 a year ago, appears irrelevant to leftist protesters who want them all gone.
Against this view, veterans at rallies charge that the protesters are "communists," working for the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and have organized to defend the statue in an atmosphere of rising concern about the future of the Korean-American alliance.
"I fought against the communists in the Korean War," says Oh Young Chan, a former Korean army sergeant. "I will stop any attempt to tear [the statue] down."
As for the demonstrators, he says, "We have to drag them back to North Korea."
But the complaints of the antistatue activists show how deeply many Koreans resent the presence of US troops.
"General MacArthur is a maniac for war," says one professor, Kang Jeong Ku, whose comments are handed out in fliers at demonstrations.
A complaint filed with the quasi-governmental National Human Rights Commission, which is reviewing the statue controversy, condemns MacArthur as "a war criminal who massacred numerous civilians." The complaint adds, "To induce or force children to respect such a person by erecting a statue of him and teaching them that he is a great figure is a national disgrace and greatly injures the dignity of our people." [Editor's note: The original version mistakenly had the MacArthur quote coming from the commission instead of from a complaint filed with the commission.]
The question is whether the view of the commission reflects the outlook of the government of President Roh Moo Hyun, whose soft-line policy on North Korea has often conflicted with the relatively tough line of the Bush administration.
Leftists deny disloyalty to South Korean leaders as the South pursues reconciliation with the North. In fact, they say the protest against the statue supports government policy - and view it as a symbol of much more strenuous demands for US troops to leave South Korea altogether.
Neither Roh nor local authorities have publicly opposed the campaign against the statue, but policemen guard it round the clock with reinforcements ready to rush in when protests get unruly.
Inchon's mayor, Ahn Sang Soo, who recently visited North Korea promoting Incheon's role as a regional hub serving both Koreas, prefers not to speak out, but a spokesman says, "We're going to keep the statue as it has historical meaning."
Kim Ju Yong, a young woman working in an office responsible for expanding Inchon's enormous special economic zone, sees the demonstrations against the statue as marginal. "Young people don't mind the statue," she says. "The demonstrations are small."
Mr. Yoon argues that popular sentiment among young people is dormant, beneath a surface appearance of concern about jobs and education.
For Korean War veterans, any affront to the statue is a national disgrace, stirring the passions of patriotism that match the leftist convictions in intensity. Retired General Paik Sun Yup, who rallied, organized and led fledgling South Korean troops in some of the toughest fighting of the Korean War, talks about MacArthur's legacy as a hero in his own time and an example for the future.
"We have to preserve the statue for peace in our country," he says, reminding veterans that the statue was erected in 1957 with funds collected by a Korean committee. "Many people in the United States and our country were worried about the Inchon landing. The tide was very severe, and the landing seemed impossible, but General MacArthur made one of the greatest decisions in world history. As communism was in danger of taking our country, he rescued us."