Monday, August 15, 2016

inauspicious holiday

August 15 is Liberation Day in Korea, where it's known locally as Gwangbok-jeol (光復節, 광복절: light-healing-day*). President Park Geun-hye apparently gave a speech in which she laid out terms for getting along better with North Korea; commentators are describing her speech as "blasting" the North, but I don't see it that way. You don't have to speak in an incendiary manner to offend the oversensitive, easily angered North; I found Park's words to be fairly mild, but South Korean media, which often see things from the North's point of view, thought Park was being provocative.

Absent from the speech, as usual, was any mention of America and other nations' role in liberating the peninsula, which was released from Japanese subjugation at the end of World War II, in 1945. This is a shame, but I've gotten used to—as John McCrarey once described it—quietly saying You're welcome to the peninsula on this day. I strongly suspect that Korean children from the 1990s onward have been implicitly taught that Korea somehow liberated itself; the idea that Korea was liberated by a foreign power is meant to be quietly tucked away and not referred to publicly. Ideally, it should be shut out and forgotten.

A person I follow on Twitter recently tweeted a pic of a poem titled "Liberation is a Cruel Hoax." The poem reads in part:

But this otherwise glorious and joyous date still mocks our dreams
and aspirations as one people.
We cry out for our unrequited liberation from our unacceptable fate.
It doesn't matter where we live. We are all exiles from our memory
of the Land of Morning Calm, once in one piece even under the
brute force of a savage neighbor.

So the poet seems to be saying, "Under the Japanese, at least, we were united," which is, I suppose, a reference to how the peninsula was split into North and South by other global powers. The poem expresses a wish for reunification. I agree that the North-South split is a bad and painful thing, but is the poet, perhaps by extension, wishing for a return to the bad old days of Japanese occupation? I'm no longer a cheerleader for reunification. Germany has made it work, sort of, but I don't think Koreans are psychologically in the same place as Germany. Koreans in general have a much more pronounced grievance culture that prevents them from moving forward in certain areas, and an inability to let go of the past doesn't bode well for any sort of future sociocultural progress.

I don't think of Liberation Day as an auspicious holiday for South Korea. The day is an uncomfortable reminder that Korea was liberated by foreign powers; it did not gain freedom on its own. That's a sore fact—one that Koreans these days try their damnedest to ignore, but in ignoring that fact, they simply turn it into the unspoken elephant in the room. If Koreans are, as I suspect, rewriting history to make it seem as if they somehow liberated themselves, then what separates Koreans, morally speaking, from Japanese textbook writers who have been whitewashing Japan's role in World War II?

Believe me, I love South Korea, and I want to see it happy and prosperous. But I also want to see it being honest about its past, and being grateful—just once a year—to the people who fought and died to help make current prosperity a reality, not a cruel hoax. It is indeed tragic that a South Korean-style economy and a South Korean-style political system are not regnant across the entire peninsula, but 50 million people have taken the reins of their country's fate and made their land into a global power; meanwhile, above the DMZ, 23 million people have chosen fatalism instead of throwing off the shackles of oppression. That's the fault of those people, not the fault of the powers that divided Korea into North and South.**

*Gwang is the Sino-Korean word for "light." Bok refers to healing or recovery, as in the verb hwaebok-hada, i.e., "to heal." The word jeol normally refers to a season (as in gyejeol, which refers to the four annual seasons), but can mean a particular measure of time—a period, a point, a day, etc.

**But if the Japanese occupation is any indication, North Koreans may be constitutionally incapable of throwing off the yoke of oppression and must instead wait passively for foreign intervention to liberate them. Self-liberation could be too much to expect.


John Mac said...

Well done.

I couldn't resist poking my commie friend who hates the U.S. Army when she did a Liberation Day post on FB. I commented "It is great to remember the day the Japanese packed up and left Korea voluntarily...who needs the American army anyway!"

She responded that she has her reasons for hating the Army (primarily THAAD). So I ended the exchange with this:

And it is a wonderful thing to have the freedom to hate the people who defend the freedom that allows you to hate them. Happy Liberation Day!

King Baeksu said...

I wrote the following back in 2009, in an essay on the (anti-American) mad-cow protests of 2008:

"Consider Korea’s liberation from Japan: If North Korean propaganda prefers to boldly rewrite this history, in the South we note a widespread tendency to radically underwrite this same history in the interest of patriotic mythology. Despite the overwhelming role that the U.S. military played in defeating Japan during the Pacific War (a brutal, nearly 4-year island-hopping campaign in which some 8 million American service members fought and over a hundred thousand were killed in action), a survey of half a dozen contemporary, state-approved middle-school and high-school history textbooks finds that the U.S.-led Allied victory over Japan is either minimized, glossed over or ignored to such an extent that it becomes a mere footnote to the larger narrative of Korean Independence Movement-inspired "liberation" – thereby standing history on its head and reducing it to an effect or byproduct of triumphant Korean nationalism (thus, a middle-school textbook tells us, "국내외에서 꾸준히 전개한 독립 운동은 광복의 밑거름이 되었다," while another high-school textbook declares, "궁극적으로 광복은 우리 민족이 국내외에서 줄기차게 일제와 싸워 온 독립 투쟁의 결실이었다."). More noticeably, it almost seems taboo among the South Korean media and national political leaders to even mention how Korea was actually liberated whenever Liberation Day rolls around each year on Aug. 15th, as all manner of circumlocutions are used to avoid giving credit where credit is due (President Lee Myung-bak’s 2008 address on the 63rd Anniversary of National Liberation follows this pattern perfectly, eschewing any reference to the U.S. or Allied forces entirely during his celebration of "the liberation of the nation"); in this way, the primary cause of Korean liberation becomes a kind of "absent presence," which closely parallels North Korean propaganda more than many here in the South may realize or care to admit."

It appeared in Korean in my book "더 발칙한 한국학," which oddly enough the Korean media largely ignored (unlike my previous three Korean-language books, which were all bestsellers.) Gee, I wonder why?


Kevin Kim said...

All good points. I got into a brief exchange with a pro-Korean fruit loop who insists that celebrating Liberation Day is about celebrating liberation itself, without any reference to causes or circumstances. It's entirely a context-free thing, according to him. He compared Korea's situation to how Americans don't go out of their way to thank France on July 4th, despite (according to him) the colonies' absolute dependence on the French to win the war. I think his analogy is an utter disanalogy, but there's no point in discussing something with people who are not amenable to either reason or evidence.

King Baeksu said...

"MacArthur Is Back in the Heat of Battle"
September 15, 2005 | Barbara Demick

"Gen. Douglas MacArthur can't be seen around these parts without his bodyguards.

"For nearly half a century, a 16-foot bronze likeness of the late war hero has dominated a park near the shores where thousands of U.S. troops under his command landed Sept. 15, 1950, to expel North Korean forces. It is considered one of the decisive battles of the Korean War, one that many here credit for the eventual success of the prosperous, free-market nation that is South Korea.

"But not all. A movement to tear down the statue has been gaining momentum recently among some younger South Koreans, who call it a symbol of U.S. occupation and oppression.

"On Sunday, more than 4,000 anti-MacArthur demonstrators armed with bamboo sticks clashed with an almost equal number of riot police. From the sidelines, nearly 1,000 conservative defenders of the statue, many of them Korean War veterans, threw eggs and garbage at the protesters. Some blocked an ambulance carrying away injured protesters, screaming that communists didn't deserve to be rescued, witnesses said."


Kevin Kim said...

I have nothing but praise and admiration for the Korean veterans who defended the statue. Their generation isn't the one I'm criticizing, to be sure. It's the ungrateful, ignorant younger generation that deserves a good paddling.

Kevin Kim said...

Charles emails:

"Oh, and more on 復: I was thinking about this after I got on the bus last night, but a better definition for 복귀 would be a "return" or "comeback." It's often used when returning to a job after an absence, etc. Probably a more common example of the use of 復 is in 반복, and believe it or not but 부활 (lit: "return to life") also uses the 復 character, but with a different pronunciation."

So... "(Day of the) Return of the Light"?

Charles said...

Works for me. Has a "Return of the King" vibe to it.

(Although I should point out to other readers of this comment thread that the email quoted above is the endpoint of a conversation that contained a lot more discussion on 復. Just in case it seems a little in medias res.)