The Naval Academy has agreed to temporarily return a Korean flag captured by Marines in an obscure 1871 battle, in response to requests from a South Korean cultural delegation that visited Annapolis this year.
"It will mean a great deal to Koreans when they see this flag come back," Thomas Duvernay, a professor of English and Korean history at Handong Global University in Pohang, South Korea, said in a telephone interview. "This flag is like Old Glory or the Liberty Bell."
The giant banner is scheduled to reach Seoul on Oct. 19, he said, and three days later it will be unveiled at a news conference before being displayed in the city's National Palace Museum.
Naval Academy officials confirmed yesterday that the flag will be returned for an initial two-year period after representatives from South Korea's Cultural Heritage Administration visit next week to examine it.
Initially, it wasn't clear that the flag could be returned because of U.S. laws ordering that "colors" taken in battle from adversaries be displayed at the Naval Academy, where more than 200 such banners are held from battles dating back centuries. Returning it on a loan is a way to circumvent those rules, officials said.
Widely distributed official news reports Tuesday in Korea said the initial agreement would cover 10 years.
"We have sought the perpetual handover of the flag from the U.S. Naval Academy, but the academy has declined to do so due to related laws and procedural matters and has instead come up with ways to lease it," said an unnamed administration official, according to an article on South Korea's major newswire.
Longtime advocates for the move, such as Duvernay, celebrated yesterday and held out hope that the lease would become permanent. Some were skeptical that the flag would ever come back to the Naval Academy, believing the United States would face staunch opposition in South Korea if it ever sought to get it back.
A grass-roots movement seeking the flag's return has recently materialized in Korea as people there came to see the band of soldiers, peasants and "tiger hunters" who were routed by Marines more than a century ago as heroes similar to those who fought and died at the Alamo, Duvernay and Sterner said.
Historians believe the 1871 skirmish broke out from a misunderstanding while U.S. officials sought to open what was then Corea to trade in an age of rising American influence abroad.
Five American ships went to Corea with the U.S. minister to China and began exploring the country's coasts after a brief meeting with a low-level delegation. When American ships reached Kanghwa Island west of Seoul, they were fired upon from several forts and returned fire. Commanders waited for an apology and, receiving none, launched an amphibious assault and sacked a Korean citadel.
Despite being overpowered by Marines, the Koreans - whose country Americans called "The Hermit Kingdom" - fought fiercely, finally resorting to throwing rocks and dirt when they were unable to reload their muskets. They lost 350 men, compared with three Americans, although the incident did prompt U.S. forces to leave the country a short time later.
For Korea, the hard-fought battle has come to symbolize a great victory, an example of a small group of warriors who died repelling a foreign power.
In the United States, it has long been registered as an early example of military might just six years after the Civil War, a time when the United States was seeking mainly to protect its citizens abroad, many of them in the whaling industry. Fifteen U.S. service members who fought were awarded the Medal of Honor.
The flag, a yellow and blue banner that opens to about 15 square feet, has always been stored at the Naval Academy because of an 1849 executive order signed by President James K. Polk that states that "all flags, standards, and colors" seized by the Navy in wartime should be sent to Annapolis "for preservation and display."
Marked with a Chinese character that stands for "commanding general," it was the standard of Gen. Uh Je-yeon, who died in the battle. It was displayed for nearly a century in the academy's halls after a careful and expensive 1913 preservation job. Now it is neatly folded in a glass display case at the Naval Academy museum.
Officials from South Korea's state-run cultural agency visited the academy in April after Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican, drew international attention by proposing that the flag be used as a bartering tool to secure the return of the USS Pueblo, which North Korea's military captured in 1968 after officials said it drifted into territorial waters. Today, the spy ship - the only Navy vessel seized in more than a century - is a tourist attraction in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
A spokesman for Allard called the return "a positive development," and Doug Sterner, an amateur historian from Pueblo, Colo., who has worked for several years to have the flag sent back to Korea, said he hoped the warming relations between North and South Korea would eventually lead to the Pueblo's return.
"We're 50 percent there, and I think that it speaks well for both the South Koreans and for us," he said. "They rallied behind this cause and said it is a part of their heritage. And the U.S., despite laws and procedures that look prohibitive, was creative enough to find a way to do the right thing. We as a nation ought to learn something from them, and say, 'This [the Pueblo] is something that belongs to us, and we want it back.'"