Return of the Sujagi

On June 11, 1871, United States forces fought a short but heated battle with Korean troops on Kanghwa Island, in the Sondolmok Fortress. In the end, U.S. forces lost three KIA, while the Koreans lost around 350, including their commanding general, Uh Je-yeon. Upon the general's death, the U.S. captured his flag, a 4mx4m banner known in Korea as the Sujagi--literally, "Chinese character Su [commanding general] flag." Along with other war prizes, it was taken to the United States and put on display; it now resides at the United States Naval Academy Museum, in Annapolis, Maryland. While the United States inadvertently did Korea a favor by taking it (it is the only one of its kind left, as far as I know), it is time for it to come home.

I have researched the Shinmiyangyo for more than a decade and have been campaigning for the return of the flag ever since near the beginning, but I have only run into obstacles the entire way. Now, however, there is a new push on to get the flag back to Korea. With the help of Mr. Doug Sterner of the Home of Heroes website, I have been pursuing many avenues towards getting the flag returned. Our best and most recent opportunity came with the help of Senator Wayne Allard (R-Colorado), who has been pushing North Korea for the return of the U.S. ship U.S.S. Pueblo that was captured by the North back in 1968. With the media coverage about the Pueblo, the flag was also brought into the spotlight. Now is the best time to work on getting the flag back. Here is a recent article Doug had with a local newspaper.

Here are excerpts, in English, from an interview I recently had with a Korean Christian website (Newsmission.com Article--in Korean):

Interviewer: Id like to know about your work that connected you with the Sujagi in the last 12 years.

Duvernay: Back in 1993, I started practicing Korean traditional archery and became very involved with it, including researching its history. I produced two videos on the subject and was looking for more material. I was interested in finding the last time the bow was used militarily in Korea; I guessed it might have been during a military action (Shinmiyangyo), as I had heard a little about the action that happened in 1871. I incorrectly guessed that the bow and arrow might have played a role in that action. However, when I read United States government records about the Shinmiyangyo, I became fascinated with the conflict itself. I started researching the conflict more and more, from whatever sources I could find. Unfortunately, there were very few sources in Korean available, so most of my material at that time came from United States sources, including photos from 1871. There was one photo in particular that caught my attention; it was one with two United States Marines standing in front of a large flag with a large Chinese character on it--it was the Sujagi. I wondered what the flag was and, after I researched it and found out, I was fascinated to know its whereabouts. I found that it had been taken back to the United States following the Shinmiyangyo and was put on display at the United States Naval Academy's museum. I have tried for the past dozen years to get the flag returned to Korea, but without success. The return of the Sujagi is not a simple matter, unfortunately. After it was captured by United States forces in 1871, it was designated United States property by an Act of Congress. The only way it can ever be returned to Korea is by another Act of Congress. In order for that to happen, a bill would need to be passed by the United States Congress and signed by the President of the United States. Before any of that could ever happen, Congress would have to be interested in it. At this point, as few people even know about the flag, there is no interest. So, first interest would need to be shown by both the people of Korea and their government. Then, it could possibly become an issue of interest in the United States. Also, during that time, I came into contact with descendants of three important figures from the Shinmiyangyo. They were two Americans and one Korean. The Americans included the great-great nephew of Lieutenant Hugh McKee (United States Navy), who was killed in the action, and also the grandson of Private Hugh Purvis (United States Marines), who was credited with the capture of the Sujagi. The Korean was Mr. Uh Yoon-won, the grandson of General Uh Je-yeon, who was the commander of Korean forces during the Shinmiyangyo, and was killed in the action. Lieutenant McKee's great-great nephew, Mr. James Wardrop, visited Korea several years ago, at my invitation, and met with Mr. Uh Yoon-won; they became immediate friends.

Interviewer: Why do you think that the U.S.A. should give the Sujagi back to Korea?

Duvernay: Very simply, the flag belongs to the people of Korea and it is a national treasure of this country, so it should be returned. Ironically, the capture of the flag by the United States probably saved it from destruction. One thing that was very impressive was the way the flag was preserved by the United States; in order to keep the old, fragile cloth from falling apart, the entire back of the flag was stitched together. As far as I know, no other flags of that type still exist; this Sujagi would have probably met a similar fate to that of other flags if it had not been taken as a war prize. However, now that such a destruction has been averted, it is time that the flag be returned. Korea and the United States are friends and it is unimaginable to me that one friend would keep the property of another. At a time when the United States and Korea have made great strides in relations, especially those dealing with trade, a gesture by the United States of returning the flag would most certainly be appreciated by the people of Korea. The United States returned the island of Iwo Jima, a place where thousands of Americans lost their lives sixty-two years ago, back to Japan in 1968. Why not return the Sujagi, a 4m x 4m old piece of cloth, taken during a relatively unknown battle where four Americans lost their lives 136 years ago, back to Korea?

Interviewer: If the Sujagi is returned, what would be a hopeful future prospect? (especially Korean-American relations)

Duvernay: In the past few years, there has been some strain in relations although, as mentioned before, progress has been made. The return of the flag by the United States, as a gesture of friendship, could do much to restore a sense of goodwill that was lost over the years. That, in turn, could encourage a new feeling of friendliness in Korea toward Korean-American relations.

Interviewer: What things, connected with the Sujagi, do you want to tell to Koreans ?

Duvernay: Most Koreans and Americans have no idea that the Sujagi even exists; many of those who do really do not understand its importance. Today, it sits rolled up on the bottom shelf of a display case at the United States Naval Academy's museum in Annapolis, Maryland. Although it is well cared for, you cannot even tell what it is unless you go up close and look at the label that is placed on it. They don't display it because there is really no room in their museum. I am sure that if it is returned to Korea, it would probably have at least a display case of its own, if not a whole room, at either the Korea Naval Academy or Korea Military Academy.


The Sujagi, as it looks today, in the United States Naval Academy Museum

Copyright © 2007 Thomas Duvernay