Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Statue of Brothers, Korean War Museum

Not many outside of Korea realize that the Korean War, known in South Korea as the 'June 25 War' and which exists in ideology to this day, was caused by the fall of the Japanese Empire and the spread of the Cold War. Japan ruled the Korean peninsula as a colony from 1910 to 1945 but was disempowered at the end of World War II. Ironically though, Japan did not pay a great price for its aggressive actions in inciting war through loss of any of its own country but instead its colonies paid that price. The Korean peninsula, a colony of Japan for 35 years, was divided up roughly at the 39th parallel with Russia, who had entered World War II only a week before the war terminated, occupying North Korea and the US staying on as protectorate until 1948 of South Korea. At first the 39th parallel was rather porous but as Russian rule intensified in its escalating communistic doctrines, more and more people fled across the dividing parallel until by 1949, escaping North Korea had become nearly impossible.

Shortly after the Korean peninsula ('Joseon' according to the Koreans themselves) was severed, North Korea called itself the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) - Yes, ironically referring to itself as democratic for that was the nationwide demand at the time so the promises and the nomenclature did seem favorable. Another irony is that South Korea called itself the Republic of Korea (ROK), but the ROK and not the DPRK was the country that was organized and had a constitution drawn up based on democracy. The triple irony is that neither ever were democracies in name or action as communism in the North was exacting and incompatible with democracy, self-gain and individualism while in the South, in loathing communism and desiring to purge that ideology from the land, another form of dictatorship was created. So based on the ideologies of the Cold War and countries that occupied the Korean peninsula and separating it as an outcome of World War II in which the Koreans played no role, the Joseon people were divided: father from son, husband from wife, and brother from brother.

When the Korean War started on June 25, 1950, South Korea was unprepared. In the Korean War Museum, film clippage shows couples dancing nonchalantly, citizens going about their daily business, and even large numbers of soldiers had been released from the front so they could help their families plant the precious staple of the land, rice. The North Koreans in stealth invaded and due to radios, TVs and other means of telecommunication being virtually non-existent, for many weeks even the North Korean citizens did not know their country had invaded South Korea as they were informed via word-of-mouth that South Korea had invaded the North. When they did find out that their government had been the aggressors, they were already bound in the spirit of national defense, defense of the homeland and of their families around them. It was an ugly war of family members fighting separated family members. And it is still an ugly war of family members unnecessarily separated across a narrow 4km boundary due to differing governmental ideologies.

Kim Dae Jung, South Korean president from 1998-2003, worked to garner a more amicable relationship with North Korea through his Sunshine Policy for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (2000). The Sunshine Policy had intermittent gleams of success in improving North-South Korean relations but when Lee Myung Bak, present president of South Korea, took office in 2008, the kindled interactions were extinguished.

The Statue of Brothers
And yet, South Korea dreams on for the reuniting of the nation. Outside the Korea War Museum is the Statue of Brothers, depicting an older brother as a ROK officer meeting his younger brother as a DPRK soldier and reconciling in love and forgiveness on the divided (notice the crack) battleground. [I find the status and ages projected on the two soldiers rather ideocentric, especially since status and age determined seniority and thus wisdom and who should protect whom. Prior to the Korean War, South Korea was the weaker of the two counties: it was comprised mostly of agricultural land, had very few factories and power generators, and virtually no industries or means of organized production as well as no natural resources. And so to project itself as the older brother and as a officer suggests a kind of ideocentric, perhaps even ethnocentric, superiority over the brother-country. I'm not sure when this statue was built but until, I believe, the early 1970s North Korea had the superior economy until suddenly the Miracle of the Han River, South Korea's rapidly expanding economy, shot past the North Korean economy and North Korea ceased to announce its economic world standing.]

Comments on South Koreans' thoughts for reunification
Since the late 1990s I have heard less and less about South Korean citizens wanting reunification. This change in attitude I think is most specifically related to the financial crisis in 1997, which South Koreans term the "IMF Crisis", a term implying blame on the IMF (International Monetary Fund) which was a bailout for South Korea but was a "loss of face" to the South Koreans on an international scale for needing outside assistance for their internal financial problems. By 2002 the South Korean economy had recovered, but even though President Kim Dae Jung was glorying in his Nobel Prize for the Sunshine Policy, fewer and fewer Korean citizens were actually talking about reunification. They were satisfied with their economic status, and North Korea, known as one of the poorest countries in the world, would drag down their economy again. [The economies of East and West Germany before reunification canNOT be compared as East Germany was the wealthiest country of the eastern block countries, so subsuming it into the West German economy was financially draining but not inconceivable. North Korea, on the other hand, has been considered one of the poorest countries in the world so for South Korea to economically "assist" North Korea would be financially exhausting.]

Families have been separated for more than 60 years now and relationships and brotherhood sentiments are mellowed through extended family distance. And now, fewer and fewer elderly members are being reunited at Gaesung, just over the border in North Korea. Mix the distance of time and the again burgeoning economy with politics and you will realize that democracy which was finally instated in the 1988 presidential elections (on paper) but which had to be won through street fights, demonstrations and violence is now being taken for granted by the younger generation (if fast-dropping voting rates are an indicator). The younger generations who were first estranged before birth from family links and further estranged by the development of political freedom seem simply content with their economic comforts and self-advancement.

Now when South Korea talks about reunification with North Korea (most obviously at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)), talk is about (1) expansionism into North Korea where there is more land and where it can be developed, and (2) the DMZ can be created into a giant, symbolic peace park. At the DMZ South Korea shows pictures of how it could be landscaped into a giant garden with walkways and trees (rather commercialized in my opinion) ... but I am curious what plans North Korea would have for that DMZ land, and if their plans are compatible with South Korea's idea for a Peace Park. They have been informed of South Korea's intention but does the North Korean ideology and value system regard a vast park for tourism as the suitable future boundary defining a former Communistic country and a Capitalistic one?

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