The Marmot's Hole Blogger
6/19/2003
 
Selective Memory

Yuh Moon-hwan, a a senior research associate at the National Strategy Institute, contributed a rather thoughtful op-ed piece to the Korea Times ("History and Memory in June") that discusses the ways in which South Korean society seeks to "reinvent" the events of its recent past. June is, after all, a rather significant month for Koreans - the start of the Korean War, the pro-democracy demonstrations that brought down Chun Doo Hwan in 1987, the North-South Joint Declaration, and the tragic deaths of Shin Hyo-sun and Shim Mi-seon all took place during this tumultuous month. Writes Mr. Yuh:

June in Korea is complex - how war and the past are remembered has changed with the change in the social and political context. Why do people reinvent the way they view the past? They would like to revive the meaning of events such as the Korean War and World Cup. It also provides lessons that can be used to prevent national tragedy or promote national honor. Furthermore, people get a sense of belonging within the nation through public rituals.

During the Cold War, June in Korea was characterized by hatred toward North Korea. Why remember the start of the war? One Korean scholar argues that the final day of the Korean War, July 27, would be more meaningful for national peace discourse. Now that the Cold War is over, people remember the past century of war in a completely new way. South Korea is changing hatred into compassion towards North Korea. Peace movements and anti-war campaigns are rapidly expanding nationwide. These are good signs for creating ``new memories of the past and will contribute to diminishing cultural and social differences between South and North Korea. At the same time, however, South Koreans are ``forgetting the hundreds of thousands who were killed or wounded in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. They might even forget North Korea has not changed at all.

History and memory have recreated the meaning of national events. People would not remember or forget the past voluntarily without the effects of political and social context, so the government should organize and lead official remembrance ceremonies. Many national holidays have come and gone, including UN Day, Armed Forces Day and Hangul Day. The complexity and contradictions in national identity surrounding June can be abated somewhat by reorganizing some of the events, especially Memorial Day. The government should seek national consensus on what the people wish to be remembered and forgotten in the month of June.

I find something very disturbing about this all, however. As Yuh points out earlier in his piece, public Memorial Day ceremonies are on the decline in Korea because "hostility towards North Korea has shifted to a desire for peace and harmony between the two Koreas. This is evident in the changing attitude of students away from the Cold War view of North Korea as a monster." Yet one has to wonder why there has been this sudden shift in collective memory - why the events of June 25, 1950 have been transformed from a naked act of Communist aggression into the tragic consequence of America's unjust division of the Korean peninsula? It's because just as the hate generated against the North (not that the Northern regime isn't worthy of hate) was the product of a South Korean education system that bred it and a state-controlled media that perpetuated it, the current feelings of sympathy and compassion towards the people of the North (and the glossing over of the root causes of their suffering) are also state-generated. If school teachers now prefer to emphasize North Korea's ethnic and cultural purity rather than its politically-manufactured famine and its WMD programs, it's because the Blue House has "encouraged" them to do so (not that young teachers, straight out of the communes that are South Korea's universities, needed much encouragement). The Kim and Noh administrations have sought, quite successfully, to keep unsavory stories about the North out of the news, the NIS (National Intelligence Service) seems to be spending more time silencing North Korean defectors than it does protecting national security, and the state uses the media and NGOs to fan the flames of ethnic nationalism by playing to some of the basest passions of Korean society. Peace movements and anti-war demonstrations, in the contemporary Korean context, are not "good signs for creating 'new memories of the past and will contribute to diminishing cultural and social differences between South and North Korea' ." They are new manifestations of an old problem - the state's manipulation of history and public feeling to further its own political goals.
 
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