REPUBLIC OF KOREA WAR SERVICE
Many of the medals awarded by the government of the United States have interesting back stories, but none can rival that of the Republic of Korea (RoK) War Service Medal, also called the Korean War Service Medal or Korean War Medal. Originally offered to the Armed Forces of the United States by the Republic of Korea’s Minister of Defense on November 15, 1951, it was not approved for acceptance and wear until August 20, 1999.
But that 47-year gap is just one of many twists and turns in the story of this decoration.
The medal’s provenance actually dates to October 24, 1950 and Presidential Decree No. 390 authorizing a medal officially for South Korean troops who took part in the initial counterattacks against the North Korean invasion launched in June of that year. The medal’s official title was the 6.25 Incident Participation Medal, with “6.25” being a numerical reference to the date the that troops of the Korean People’s Army—i.e., the North Korean Army—launched attacks on the South all along the 38th parallel.
On November 15, 1951, the RoK’s Minister of Defense Yi Ki-poong (sometimes Anglicized as Ki-Poong Lee) wrote a letter to the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations with a subject line of “Award of Korean War Medal.” Some have mistakenly interpreted the letter as authorizing the U.N. Commander-in-Chief to award the medal to “the brave and valiant members of the United Nations Command” who had fought and were still fighting in Korea at the time. Instead, the letter asks CIC to “delegate authority to commanders of forces of the nations fighting in Korea to award the Korean War Ribbon to members of their command.” Attached to the letter is a certificate of award of the “Korean War Service Medal” signed by RoK President Syngman Rhee and stating it was being issued in accordance with Presidential Decree No. 390.
But U.S. military regulations in effect at that time prevented members of the Armed Forces of the United States from accepting and wearing decorations and medals awarded by foreign governments. Congress changed the law on May 8, 1954, specifically authorizing troops who had fought in Korea “to accept from the governments of foreign nations whose personnel are participating with or under the United Nations Command in Korea such decorations, orders, and emblems as may be tendered them, and which are conferred by such governments upon members of their own military forces.”
This should have cleared things up, but the RoK had routed its original request through the United Nations, and the law Congress passed stated that the medals had to come from “governments of foreign nations”—and whatever else you might say about the U.N., it is not a foreign nation. Thankfully for the veterans who had rightfully earned the award nearly five decades earlier, the South Korean government in 1999 began a push to have the medal reactivated and issued retroactively to both Korean and United Nations veterans who served during the war. Those efforts culminated in the Army’s approval of the acceptance and wear of the medal on August 20, 1999.
It would be nice to say that is the end of the saga of a medal that goes by four different titles, but of course even the closing stanzas have inconsistencies. At the Naval History and Heritage Command Web site, we read that the approval of the medal was made by Francis M. Rush, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army, on August 20—1998. The Army’s Institute of Heraldry, on the other hand, fails to attach a name to the approving authority, instead listing it as Assistant Secretary of Defense (Force Management Policy), and sets the year as 1999.