Thursday, June 24, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Day 5: Worst History Lesson...Ever

On my last full day in South Korea, after traveling north to hear about the struggles against the expansion of the Mugeon-ri training areas, I had a few hours to myself, to do whatever I wanted with. After five days of tightly scheduled trips, visits, meals and transportation adventure, I really appreciated being able to explore on my own for a bit, the area I was staying in Seoul.

I did not know my way around Seoul at the start of the trip and I still don’t know much about its geography, except for the little area near downtown that I was staying in. In my little area I could tell you where almost anything was (so long as its signage contained some English letters or images which indicated what was inside). I could tell you how many Dunkin Donuts were in the area and lead you to all of them, and could show you were the three music stores that I had found were, and even the chick place, which has a sign where a friendly looking chicken invites you to come in and partake of the flesh of his comrades.

There was one part of this area which I had wanted to get a closer look at, but hadn’t been able to because of our delegation’s busy schedule. I had passed by a smaller park earlier on the way to the SPARK Sit-In, and I had glanced in it to see a photo exhibit of the Korean War, complete with a flag display of almost every nation on earth. One of the things that was keeping many of the people I met in South Korea on edge was that an important anniversary, one which was part of the reason that Rightist, conservatives and militaristic interests in the country seemed to be gaining strength and boldness as of late. That anniversary was June 25th and the start of the Korean War.

As that anniversary approached I saw, as I traveled, more and more slogans of remembrance, thanks, aggression towards North Korea and devotion to the United States. The US embassy which was close-by the exhibit had a massive towering banner which featured a surprisingly ambivalent looking South Korean soldier with flowers growing out of his battle helmet, with English and Korean words towering over him, which shouted into the void of the world and history, that “We Remember…The 60th Anniversary of 6.25.” From my own research and study I knew that these sorts of exhibits could often unintentionally reveal a lot of the ideological or discursive tendencies in contemporary South Korea. That an exhibit like this, which no doubt leaks a sort of ideological certainty, an overwhelming rightness to this Rightist position, will in that certitude leave itself wide open. It will make clear the gaps in its rhetoric and reveal the weakness of its own position.
The exhibit featured more than a hundred large archival pictures from the 1940’s and 1950’s as well as a few from more recent years. Each large picture sported a different flag of a country from around the world. At first, the flags bewildered me, because I had no idea if they were chosen randomly or if the flags of specific countries were meant to accompany certain images. One of the things which immediately jumped out at me was the attempt by the creators of the exhibit to portray the Korean War as a war of “the world” against the North Koreans and the Chinese. Great pains were made to show that 15 troops came and served from this random country, and a squad came from this other country, and that all along the way, the United Nations was shepherding the process along, and protecting freedom and democracy against tyranny. The flags were an effort to reinforce that logic, but the message was a bit muddling along the way.

For instance, then flags of the most supportive nations of South Korea during the war, were given the prime location at the exhibit’s diegetic starting point. But scattered through the exhibit were also the flags of current and past communist states, or in other words current enemies of the United States and its allies around the world, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. (I later learned that these current enemies in the past had provided some material aid to South Korea during the war).
The narrative of the exhibit was tireless in its support for the brains, the tactical genius and the valor of the United States, UN and South Korean forces, while equally merciless in its portrayal of North Korean and Chinese forces, which were only portrayed as captives or retreating forces. The reason why I titled this post “Worst History Lesson…Ever” is because frankly this exhibit was a horrible history lesson. At the start of the exhibit it indicates that the Korean War lasted from June 25, 1950 – July 27, 1953. The vast majority of the images which I saw took place in either 1950 or 1951 and chronicle the run-up to the US and Allied forces invasion of South Korea and them pushing back the North Koreans. I could not find a single image which told about the Korean War in either 1952 or 1953 or which mentioned how after the UN and US forces invade North Korean territory, they are then pushed back by North Korean and Chinese forces.

This sort of ideological glass house appears to be clear and obvious from a particular set of perspectives, but if you step out of that position the holes in the narrative are obvious. The expectation from the creators of this exhibit is that you follow the flow of their argument and that you fill in the holes based on the almost oppressive forms of evidence they offer. First the historical and contemporary idea of North Korea and China vs. the world. Second, the idea of America as being a military genius and powerful nation who liberates and helps the suffering South Koreas, victimized and torn apart by communism and war. Third, the story of this war becomes one of triumph and victory, and not the eventual tragic stalemate that it became.

You are meant to fill the gap with your own insecurities about war, hatred towards North Korea and communism and also a gratefulness and love towards the South Korean government and the US military. You don’t need to learn the rest of the history, because we’ve given you what is important and most importantly what you can use to judge the present and the relationship between the two Koreas. The choice is thus clear, no to the reunification or dialogue with North Korea, yes to more military and whatever plans the US has for the country. But, if you resist this temptation even slightly, the holes in the story are clear as day. The gaps in the narrative don't lead to certainty, but rather gut-wrenching questions about what is missing from this history lesson and why is it not there?

One of the most haunting aspects about this terrible history lesson, was the way its sinthomatic phrase was not hidden away somewhere waiting to be teased out, but blazoned around for all the world to see and memorize. The title of this exhibit and the thread which gave it meaning and a political message was that “Thanks Runs Forever.” Most countries would be fearful of making such a blatant case for eternally subverting yourself to the control of another country, but from this extreme Right position, that is the reason for Korea’s existence today and the point of it as well. Without that which this exhibit thanks, the historical and contemporary intervention that this exhibit chronicles, South Korea would not exist as it does today. For those of you who believe in dialectics, then this notion of “Thanks Running Forever” is literally hell. It is a place of being stuck in a relation and never moving to the next level, but of always cowering in fear that to take this relationship, to question it, challenge it, or even just change it, might reveal some malicious trap door in the floor and drop you into oblivion. It is for that reason that this idea that “Thanks Runs Forever” is an ultimate manifestation of conservatism. It is this fear to move on, to admit that thanks cannot run forever, to be stuck in a place of timeless fear and desperation. When I would ask about what sorts of ideas and images drive Rightist discourse in South Korea, I heard a number of different answers from those I spoke to. One image however was regularly cited as one reason why some conservatives in the country could be so viciously and almost unthinkingly pro-American. People described typical scenes of war desolation; cities and villages wiped out, the earth so scorched that people would rather forget it exists than touch it and attempt to grow anything on it. American and UN forces would appear and supply these villages with food, water, materials for building, and for so many South Koreans it was like you had been saved from living in Hades, that someone had given you the freedom from a hell that you didn’t ask for and didn’t know how you had been condemned to. That was the place in which that sort of conservatism could easily be born and bred. That was the place where the smallest gift, appeared like mana from heaven, and where a cigarette, a chocolate bar, a can of Spam, or a bottle of Coca-Cola or Pepsi could be the evidence that one would need to feel like my thanks for this should be eternal.


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