South Korea's Northern Stories

E. Tammy Kim

I arrived in Seoul from New York on January 30, having lost half a day somewhere over the Pacific. On the airport shuttle bus, a flat-screen TV played and replayed the Naro satellite launch: South Korea's encore attempt to put its first in orbit. The news spliced in footage of a cheering crowd, gaze heavenward, waving small Taegeugki flags outside the space center.  It was like watching a dated Space Race reel.

Two weeks later, as I was leaving Seoul, I again rode the airport shuttle. This time, the dashboard broadcast was much more grave. A red-backed news ticker announced North Korea's suspected nuclear test, nearly confirmed by seismic measurements. The images were again of mid-century intensity: mushroom clouds and infrared surveillance, menacing portraits of a Mao-suited dictator. This news, I gathered from cuts to president Obama, had gone international.

My trip was thus bookended by hot actions on a Cold War peninsula—a divided nation still technically at war. Politics, including the recent election of a hawkish, first-ever woman president, were in the air, though I'd gone to Korea for personal reasons.

Lee Seok-ja, my paternal grandmother, was born in 1920 and died on January 28. She survived the Japanese occupation, World War II, and the Korean War, and is now survived by six children, a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the 20th century’s lasting trauma. Through five days of funereal rites, then the ancestral grave rituals of lunar new year, our scattered, transnational tribe was reunited, and stories became our glue.

For the first time, I really, carefully listened to what I once derided as “old Korea tales.” In the heart of Seoul, an uber-wired megacity of 10.5 million, family members and friends as young as 45 and 50 relayed stories of war, violence, and extreme poverty. A refrain emerged: “It hasn't been long that Koreans have lived well.”

Uncle Keun-hwae recalled fleeing his childhood home, gaping at white and black soldiers atop American tanks, and fashioning ice-skate blades from oil drums abandoned by the U.S. Army. We drove past the snowy, barbed-wire camp where Uncle Seung-hui performed three compulsory years of Korean military service.

Mrs. Lee told us that her mother, an ailing Alzheimer's patient, now reverts to Japanese, the imposed tongue of her childhood in colonial Korea. I learned that my father's cousin, a hard-drinking widower, did two ugly stints in Vietnam as part of America's mercenary corps. “That blood money built our country,” an uncle explained.

For Koreans of a certain age, this is the narrative backdrop to contemporary politics and the “North Korean problem.” In contrast to the West's ahistorical, black-and-white approach to the North, the average South Korean view is long, complicated, and decidedly mixed. The Korean conflict is tinged with nostalgia and seen through the conceptual lens of sadaejooeui: a small nation's inevitable, flunkeyist submission to a larger, more powerful one.

Over the last century, Korea was colonized by then liberated from Japan, only to face a napalm-grade civil war and occupation by the United States—which continues today in the form of numerous military bases and political patronage. North Korea's ethnic mythology of juche “self-reliance” can thus be understood as a knee-jerk reaction to sadaejooeui. And though little good has come from the DPRK's isolationist, dictatorial policies, ordinary South Koreans regard the North with grudging admiration and longing as much as sadness and fear. They hope for reunification and peaceful collapse of the Kim regime but feel increasingly pessimistic. As for the government itself, South Korea maintains a Ministry of Unification that preaches unity and self-defense in equal measure.

When I landed at JFK, the State of the Union was on TV. North Korea's nuclear test had incited a line in his domestic-oriented speech: the president vowed to halt global nuclearization, without giving up America's weapons program, and promised “firm action in response” to a misbehaving DPRK. On Valentine's Day, newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry and the Korean head of the U.N., Ban Ki-moon, urged “strong,” “appropriate measures” against Pyongyang. South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye concurred, though she has no power to act unilaterally.

Their simplistic rhetoric—and refrain of sanctions and demonization—made me long for the ambiguity in my relatives' old Korea tales. I thought about my grandmother and all she had witnessed, and the regional Cold War she never saw end. I worried that, with her generation's passing, the lived nuances of popular politics will disappear. Our diplomacy with the North would be entirely different if we could relinquish our Cold War view of East Asia, admit to the colonial abuses of the Korean War, and embrace the goal of Korean reunification. What this would mean, to begin with, is an official peace treaty between North and South, retreat of standing U.S. military forces from Korea and Japan, and an end to Western hypocrisy over nuclear weapons. The North Korean conflict demands a hard, piercing gaze, and no one can see so clearly as those who have lived through the dark.

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