After seeing the film 'Taeguki'
One of the first things I remember learning at my elementary school in Seoul - just after getting back from London, long before I learnt what the Korean War was about - was how bad communists are.
"Remember Seong Bok Lee, the child who dared to say 'No' to communists!" the teachers trumpeted every June, around the 25th (the day the Korean War begun in 1950). Seong Bok was a young child in the Fifties when he was shot dead by invading communists after he screamed at them that he hated communists. We had posters in the school corridors telling us to be vigilant anti-communists. There were all the anti-communist children's cartoons the broadcasting stations showed throughout the day, some of them depicting the hungry life of North Koreans, some of them showing crazed Kim Il-Sung ordering soldiers to destroy South Korea and its imperialist ally, the U.S. There were the government reports showing North Korean efforts to build a dam to flood the South (I vaguely recall we had to donate money so that we could build 'a dam for peace'). But really, I wanted to hear about the Korean War right out of the horse's mouth.
"Did you see any communists?" I asked my grandmother.
"No," my grandmother said. "What makes you think I'd be alive if I saw any?"
I pondered this fact.
"Did you have to evacuate?" I asked.
"Yes," my grandmother said. "We all had to. Even if it meant losing children on the road. You just had to abandon them if they couldn't walk any further, you couldn't take them with you. And it was just so cold in the mountains."
"Did you have to fight in the Korean war?" I asked my grandfather.
"Of course!" He slapped his knee. "Everyone had to fight! It was a war!"
"Did you get really close to a communist?" I asked him.
"Once, we were in the mountain foraging for food," he said. "We stumbled upon a bunch of them surveying the local area. We hid behind the bushes, but they were so close, I could smell the cigarette one of them was smoking."
I held my breath. "And then? What did you do?" I asked.
"We waited for them to leave and we ran for our lives, of course," my grandfather said.
Towards the late Eighties, the public way of remembering the Korean War changed somewhat. The posters at school focused on preventing wildfires (how that was relevant to a school in the middle of a city was somewhat debatable). There was still the big military parade, but the broadcasting stations stopped showing the ghastly anti-communist cartoons depicting bloody trauma. Instead, on 6.25 day, lots of black and white documentaries about how everyone suffered so much from hunger were shown. I suppose it was a way of showing how Korea had become more democratic - it was more publicly acceptable to focus on the suffering of the average Korean during the war than talk about the conflict of ideology.
"Did you really have to grind up grass and strip tree bark for food?" I asked my grandmother. She shook her head, not to deny, but in distaste.
"What do you think we had to eat? There was nothing! People died of hunger all the time. The poor souls on the roads...I was so worried about your grandfather."
My grandfather was just about animatedly starting on an anecdote when my father stopped him.
"Dad, we've heard it all so many times before! You always talk about the past so much," he said.
Finally the day came when the government announced 6.25 would no longer be a public holiday. It was time to lay the beast to rest, apparently. No one talked about anti-communism anymore, apart from my grandfather. The Red Cross made several appeals to the international community to deal with the famine-stricken North Korea. Kim Il-Sung died, only to be replaced by his son, Kim Jong-Il, but nothing really changed. I doubt my little sister had a similar experience of school to mine. We took off to London again, and I didn't think about the Korean War for a very long time.
The heritage of the Korean War is something that we have to deal with, even if we try to forget. The Koreas are still divided, without a peace armistice signed between them (which is why any soldier that falls in the allegedly De-Militarized Zone - the most fortified DMZ ever - still counts as a war casualty). I hear one South Korean telephone company is using a North Korean actor to film an advertisement emphasising the strength of communication between the two Koreas, and it makes no sense to me because I have just read that North Korea issued a statement on June 3, 2005, that it will not allow U.S. forensics experts to return to its territory to recover the remains of 8,000 U.S. soldiers from the Korean War. It seems as though there are two time lines of reality: one where the gruesome past is somehow wiped away enough for a collaborative twenty-second slot on prime time television, another in which hearts broken more than fifty years ago are still not allowed to be mended.