Korea in Context

On the peninsula’s troubled past and uncertain future.

Conservative rally. Seoul, 2018

Two massive four-way intersections converge just in front of Seoul City Hall, or city halls, as the old building lies in the shadow of the new. The Japanese left the original behind on their way out, following World War II. It was built in 1925, in the heyday of Japan’s imperial era. It’s made of dusted grey stone, 88 years older than its replacement. The new building is cresting, curved like a wave, hyper-modern and overarching, about to consume its predecessor, which has since been repurposed as Seoul’s Metropolitan Library. The new juxtaposed against the old, coexisting, something of a theme in Seoul.

Just across the way is Deoksugung Palace, the home of the royal family during the Joseon dynasty, Korea’s final dynasty. This family reigned for around five centuries, until the Korean Peninsula was annexed by Japan in 1910. For 35 years following the annexation, the whole of Korea was a subject state to the Emperor, paying homage, committing industry, and even fighting wars for the island nation across the sea. For this reason, today’s Korean sovereignty is held dear, and its democracy accountable.

Beyond the old stone walls of the palace, people gather around a large stage. A banner featuring President Donald Trump and South Korea’s former president Park Geun-hye is hung over the platform as a small man in a blue blazer walks up with a loudspeaker. He speaks sharply and the crowd roars in approval. I don’t know what he is saying, as he is speaking Korean, but it is safe to say things have gotten political.

More and more folks amass, some carrying South Korean flags sewn back to back to American flags, all sporting patriotic pins on their chests. A protest is building and the square just outside the palace grounds swells with people.

Seoul, 2018

The vast majority are older conservatives, some more right wing than others. Through our interpreter we were told that the speaker was calling for the release of Park, asserting that she should be reinstated in place of current South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

I had assumed that this demonstration was a special occasion, as it was taking place just before the 68th anniversary of the North Korean invasion of the South. This was not the case. This rally has been held every Saturday since the sentencing of Park in April. She was arrested for corruption last year and has since been ordered to serve 24 years in prison, charges which her supporters see as little less than a coup. Park, while undeniably corrupt, is still seen as a strong and decisive leader by her base, and with a budding dictator to the north, strength is considered by many to be an invaluable asset.

But the crisis on the Korean Peninsula is a delicate issue, and strength absent reason will not suffice. Back in April, President Moon met with North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un at the Demilitarized Zone. The two leaders discussed denuclearization and a potential peace, reaching for some kind of diplomacy in the face of increasingly volatile relations.

While this summit was a progressive move, many South Koreans remain reluctant to jump to any overly optimistic conclusions. They are well aware of the historically shaky politics on the peninsula, and the stakes are far too high to drop one’s guard.

Korean conservatives see President Moon’s summit with Kim as a weak and wavering move; soft talk where perhaps a big stick would serve. The notion of peace with the autocratic Kim regime is regarded by many as a massive concession, and while it may be, the grim alternative to compromise must be considered.

Just 68 years ago, the newly divided Korean Peninsula descended into civil war. American, and Soviet interests on the peninsula pulled much of the rest of the world into the conflict, and within months of the invasion of the South, dozens of other nations had gotten involved.

In three short years countless millions perished. Among South Korea and her U.N. allies, hundreds of thousands were killed, while China and North Korea suffered well over 1.5 million losses. In addition to this, the civilian death toll lay in the millions. Entire generations of Koreans wiped from the peninsula; that is what’s at stake.

Many of South Korea’s conservatives are old enough to remember these dark days, and they hold fast to that historical animus, as they should. They remember the razed cities, the mass executions, and the hunger. They have a firm understanding of how bad it can get. Those that lived through this time argue that the younger, largely liberal population can never truly understand, as they are generations removed from the struggle.

As the demonstrators begin to march their banners down the streets, another group gathers in the field just in front of the old city hall, but this is no protest. Small circles of Korean students sit and sip soju. Young families with fat babies lay out picnic blankets on the well-tended grass. As the children play, scores of Korean teens crowd around a newly erected stage. There is a K-Pop dance contest going on this afternoon and teams from all over the world have come to Seoul to compete.

Much of the audience look to be in their twenties or younger. Everyone is dressed well, very stylish in that uniquely Korean way. Many of the boys wear dangling earrings and blushing makeup, while the girls bear bright sundresses and Chuck Taylors. The show begins and the crowd dances along with the group on stage. Speakers blare popular Korean music like Big Bang and BTS, the sound overwhelming the growing protest just across the street.

2018 K-Pop Cover Dance Competition

It is easy to forget that Seoul was totally overrun just a few generations ago; its people interned or killed, the city largely leveled. 68 years later, the young dance while the old remember. This is the chasm between generations. Entire lives lived under the constant threat of war. To be born into this must warp one’s outlook, but the Korean youth seem to be optimistic. While they are well aware of their erratic neighbor to the north, they go on living their lives, because the alternative is fear, and fear defeats the purpose of freedom.

We cannot know for sure what will come of the Koreas. With Trump following Moon’s lead and holding a summit of his own with Kim Jong-un this past June, a diplomatic solution looks to be in the works; but it is naïve to think that this problem will be so easily resolved. As shameful as it is to watch world leaders mingle with a despot, we must remember what once was and what could be.

Between Japanese colonization, national division by foreign powers, and the crippling civil war that followed, the first half of the 20th century was not kind to the Korean people. History has cast the Koreas down drastically different paths, one dark and dictatorial, the other promising and free. As the years pass, the peninsula remains divided, forever entertaining the notion of of war.

But the Pyongyang summit last month offered a bit of hope. President Moon’s visit to the North Korean capitol was a significant moment for both Koreas. His address to the North Korean people was unprecedented, and the suggestion of another summit in Seoul could be a step towards something resembling peace.

While the last few months have been the most promising since the division of the peninsula 70 years ago, it is best to remain wary. It is most always wiser to opt for peace, but if the past has taught us anything, it is how slowly progress comes about, and how rapidly it unravels.

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