“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 as long as I can,” he added, pursing his lips.

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

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

At a time when statues of historical figures are being re-examined (and in some cases removed) in the United States and Britain, they attempt to draw attention to a debate over this essential – and alien – figure of the modern history of South Korea.

South Koreans with similar views to Ahn 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, you have to dismantle it.

They also blame MacArthur for installing pro-Japanese aides in positions of power in South Korea’s early days after World War II, instead of punishing them. That stance was aired last summer by Lee Jae-myung, a left-wing South Korean candidate in the March 9 presidential election, who has come under fire for his remarks. But very few have called for action against the statue or other monuments marking American contributions to South Korea.

Many South Koreans see MacArthur as a boon who saved their country twice: first from Japan, which ruled Korea until 1945, then from North Korea, which invaded the South in 1950 and was repulsed by Allied forces led by the American general. For them, the MacArthur statue is a symbol of patriotism that should be left alone.

In the summer of 1950, American 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 at the time was 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 “creeping American imperialism” for his Korean critics, the Incheon landings were a brilliant tactical maneuver that turned the tide of the Korean War, said researcher Jean H. Lee. principal at the Wilson Center in Washington.

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

And then, of course, there’s the general’s statue, which has overlooked the Yellow Sea since 1957 from a hilltop park next to Incheon Port, a few hundred meters from the beaches where American troops and Allies landed 72 years ago.

In addition to protesting the MacArthur statue, Ahn’s peace treaty movement is advocating the withdrawal of the 28,500 US troops who are still stationed in South Korea to help deter a North Korean attack – something the regime Kim’s has also been asking for decades, even as Pyongyang builds up its nuclear arsenal.

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

Lee, who lives a few doors down from Ahn’s house, has helped care for Ahn since his release from prison 27 years ago. Both Lee and Ahn say they know the bronze statue of MacArthur cannot be set on fire. His withdrawal also seems unlikely.

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