Korean War Traumas
Heonik Kwon teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics and is an Asia-Pacific Journal associate. He is the author of the prize-winning After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai and Ghosts of War in Vietnam. This article originally appeared in the Asia-Pacific Journal. It appears here with the kind permission of that organization.
Soi dau is a familiar expression for people of the war generation in the southern and central regions of Vietnam (the regions that comprised South Vietnam before 1975). The term soi dau refers to the Vietnamese ceremonial delicacy made of white rice flour and black beans. Used as a metaphor, it also conveys how people of this region experienced the Vietnam War (1961-1975). In the latter context, soi dau refers to the turbulent conditions of communal life during the war, when the rural inhabitants were confronted with successive occupations by conflicting political and military forces: at night the village was under the control of the revolutionary forces and in daytime opposition forces took control. Life in these villages oscillated between two different political worlds governed by means of two hostile military forces. The people had to cope with their separate yet total assertions for absolute loyalty and with the world changing politically day and night, over many days and nights, to the extent that this anomalous world sometimes appeared to be almost normal….
The histories of the Vietnam War and the Korean War are closely interrelated in the historiography of the Cold War. The lived realities of these wars, likewise, had many common features. Members of the war generation of Koreans are aware of many expressions similar in meaning to soi dau, although these may not necessarily take the metaphor of food and ingestion as is the case in Vietnam. In her story, In the Realm of Buddha, the eminent South Korean novelist Park Wan-suh speaks of a woman’s enduring, troubling memory of the Korean War as if this was an alien object stuck in her throat which she is neither able to swallow nor spit out. Kim Song-chil, a history professor, kept a diary of occupied Seoul from June 28 to September 28, 1950. Among the many amazing things his diary tells us, we learn how confused the historian felt when he had to change the flag on the door of his house; from the South Korean to the North Korean national flag and later back to the South Korean one. We also learn how the war and occupation distorted intimate human relations of trust. One of Kim’s neighbors joined the occupying authority and was active in the town’s People’s Committee. The neighbor’s wife and Kim’s wife were close to each other, having had a long relationship of neighborly intimacy and mutual support. The neighbor’s wife was worried about her husband’s pro-North activity and what would happen to her family if the world changed again. She confided her worries in the historian’s wife, the one person in her neighborhood she genuinely trusted. Kim’s wife wished to comfort her but couldn’t say much, however, knowing that if she said the wrong things to her neighbor, and if the woman’s husband heard about what she had said, that might bring calamity to her own family….
These were traumatic experiences. They were not the same as the classical shell-shock familiar to the history of World War I; they were, nonetheless, no less destructive. These civil war traumas were different from the post-traumatic syndromes caused by the trench warfare in terms of their loci. The growing biographical, literary, and ethnographic accounts of the grassroots Korean War experience which have been made available in South Korea recently, make it abundantly clear that this war was a traumatic experience not only for the combatants but also for the many more unarmed civilians and people who had no professional role in the conflict. The traumas experienced by the civilian population were social traumas—both in distinction to combat traumas and, more importantly, because these were the traumas experienced by social persons and relational beings rather than necessarily by isolated individuals and their separate bodies. Indeed, “relation” or “relational trauma” appear to be key words in the recent literature about Korea’s civil war experience, as testified forcefully by the moving stories of Hyun Gil-on’s Gwangye (“relations” or “webs of relations”), an eminent contemporary South Korean writer of Jeju origin. The relational trauma refers to the fact that the Korean War’s physical and political violence induced its brutal and enduring effects primarily into the milieu of intimate communal and family relations. It also testifies to the fact that the main thrust of the Korean War’s political violence actually targeted not merely the enemy soldiers’ physical bodies and their collective morale but also the morality and spirituality of intimate human communal ties.
The South Korean state committed preemptive violence in the early days of the war against hypothetical collaborators with the enemy (including numerous members of the Alliance of Converts), and this set in motion a vicious cycle of violence against civilians in the ensuing chaos of war: it radicalized the punitive actions perpetrated under North Korean occupation against the individuals and families who were classified as supporters of the southern regime, which in turn escalated the intensity of retaliatory violence directed against the so-called collaborators with the communist occupiers when the tide of war changed. When the North Korean forces left their briefly occupied territory in the South, they did the same thing as the South had done before and committed numerous atrocities of preemptive violence against people whom they considered to be potential collaborators with the South.
The reality of the…war against civilians became a subject of taboo after the war was over. South Koreans were not able to recall this reality publicly until recently, while living in a self-consciously anticommunist political society; the story of this war remains untold among North Koreans who, living in a self-consciously revolutionary political society, are obliged to follow the singular official narrative of war, a victorious war of liberation against American imperialism. But the stories of the Korean War’s other war existed throughout the postwar years in numerous communities and families: in whispered conversations among family and village elders; quiet talk among trusted relatives during family ancestral death-day ceremonies; in the silent agonies of parents who couldn’t tell their children the true stories of how their grandparents died during the war…These stories make up only a tiny fragment of the gigantic iceberg of the Korean War human dramas existing and still unfolding in Korea. Today, some of these dramas also involve courageous and innovative communal efforts to confront the Korean War’s enduring pains and wounds.
The year 2010 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. In traditional Korean custom, the sixtieth anniversary is an occasion of considerable cultural and moral import. It is when the community celebrates the longevity of sixty years, retraces the past years of intimate relationship, and gives blessings to prosperous future relations. It is also when Koreans believe, like other peoples of northeast Asia, that a new spirit of historical time emerges to replace the old. In the lunar calendar, 1950 was the year of the White Tiger, a time that comes once in every sixty years and which Koreans associate with the eruption of a historical event that may have great significance for peoples and communities. The war in the White Tiger year of 1950 was indeed a great historical event not only for Korea but also globally, although the greatness of this event was primarily destructive in nature. The year 2013 will mark the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Korean War. In this traditional sensibility, moreover, the period between the two sixtieth anniversaries, 2010 and 2013, makes a vital time of commemoration and reflection. How people choose to commemorate the destruction of the Korean War during this period and how, accordingly, the history of destruction comes to take on new meanings, hopefully constructive and generative meanings, will surely have great relevance for the security and prosperity of the northeast Asian region and much beyond, not to mention the future of the two Koreas….
comments powered by Disqus