Did any of us think it would happen while we were still here? War outlived so many of us and became the backdrop for our lives and our families, the ways we understood ourselves, the ways we loved, our rites of passage, our imaginations and our dreams.
I first became politicized because of the legacy of intergenerational domestic violence in my family. As a young person, it was what drew me towards activism and organizing, and much of my participation back then was motivated by trying to make sense of my life and my family somehow. I knew that so much of the bleakness and rage of my family life had interconnected reasons and stories that were beyond just us as individuals. I had more questions than I knew what to do with, two languages to ask them in, and yet no words with which to begin those conversations.
When I went to Korea as an adult for the first time, I was twenty and it was the beginning of a hot, humid summer. One of my best friends and I had spent that spring compiling a zine of queer Korean stories; one of our first attempts to crack through the isolation we felt. I loved the cover of that zine: Sam had drawn a thick outline of the Korean peninsula, and within it were a few faces with soft, intimate expressions, words like genderqueer and han resting above them in block letters. I had packed a few of these zines into my suitcase, which my mother found while going through my things.
“What are these?”
I froze briefly, then swiftly tugged them out of her hands and shoved them out of her view, panicked that she’d seen too much. It was not yet the time for that conversation.
“What were those? You need to be careful what you take into Korea! You can get in trouble so you have to be careful. Korea’s not like the United States, you know.” I deflected and tried to change the subject, playing it cool, until she eventually dropped it. I was relieved when she left the room, and relieved when she didn’t bring it up again.
In retrospect, I think all she had time to glimpse that day was that bold, thick outline of the unified Korean peninsula. I was nervous that she’d interrogate me about my queerness, but now I wonder now if our suspicions about each other from that day were completely different. I didn’t yet know much of Korea’s reunification and democratization movements, and was still unaware of her visceral fear that I’d become an activist, radicalized by “pro-North” and anti-government views.
My last visit was in October. It was towards the tail end of Trump’s first year in office, and my friends and I had spent a large part of the year feeling completely overwhelmed and battered by not just the overall political conditions, but also by the undeniable escalation towards war. At that point, the favorite phrases of the Trump administration and media in regards to Korea included “preemptive strike,” “majority backs military action,” “North Korea will be destroyed,” “take them out,” and “bloody nose strategy”. Many of us were quietly terrified. We noted the eerie parallels between the buildup to the Iraq War and the ramping up of social and political hostility towards North Korea. And in late night conversations, when it was easier to be vulnerable with each other, we admitted that we were afraid.
It felt hard to tell what was real and what wasn’t. The news about everything was constantly disorienting. It was impossible to know what would happen, and so it felt impossible to know how to prepare. The US news media was at a fever pitch on the Korea issue, churning out take after catastrophic take about how war may be unavoidable. War could be the only option. We have the weapons and public approval to do it. Just take them out. A million dead there is better than a thousand dead here. South Korean news media, in contrast, was generally even-toned and measured. The difference was illustrative of both governments’ orientations towards war, and the US media consistently demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, its own hunger to write this war into existence.
I worried obsessively about the future, about the lives of my friends and family in Korea, and about what to do if war broke out. It got worse as my trip drew closer, and this fog didn’t lift until I landed in Seoul, where we got to see our friends and loved ones, grasp their hands and hear their voices, break bread and celebrate being together. It was a relief to be there and not be keeping vigil from all the way across the Pacific. In the language and rhythms of everyday Korean life, war seemed so much further away. War was in the US, not in this place, in spite of location, and even in spite of the many American military bases occupying the country. It seemed simple and matter of fact in Korea: Koreans didn’t want war, so there wouldn’t be war. It was baffling how different it felt, and as a result I spoke of the anxieties I’d had to only one or two close friends there. It felt too dissonant otherwise.
In 2013, my mother pieced together that one of the trips I went on to Korea was related to the Jeju anti naval base struggle. She panicked, simultaneously interrogating me and admonishing me to mind my own business while breaking her own self-imposed silence on Korean politics.
“You live in America now, so why get involved in these things? We didn’t come here to go back to that. Who is getting you into all of this? You need to be careful. They are probably brainwashing you. You could get into a lot of trouble. South Korean politics are dirty. Don’t get involved... something very bad could happen do you. It’s dangerous. Stay out of it and be careful. You’ll get hurt. You live in America. Live your life here.”
She repeated the lines about “danger” and “they could hurt you” again and again, and when I interrupted her, pushing back and demanding to know who exactly I was being threatened by, she went quiet. After a long moment’s silence, she responded, “I don’t want to say over the phone. The Korean government can always be listening. Just stop and be careful. Okay?”
My mother hadn’t yet told me her own politicization story. She had always been the black sheep of the family, and in the Park Chung Hee era, she became involved in a church that often gave sanctuary to protestors fleeing from tear gas, beatings and arrest. With other members of her prayer group, she would help them and visit people in jail. The Catholic Church, she said, was one of the few entities that could more safely speak about things like the 1980 Gwangju Uprising (and ensuing massacre) because of its connections to the West. “I always felt so sorry to the people of Gwangju,” she quietly told me one night. “The whole country was silent as they were killed.”
The government had made it impossible to speak openly about Gwangju for almost a decade. Jeju Island, where I had stayed that month working as an interpreter, was marked by a similar tragedy that had disappeared a tenth of its population. On Jeju, in a sleepy village called Gangjeong, construction of a massive US/South Korean naval base was well underway. Gangjeong villagers fiercely opposed this base, connecting it to the militarized brutality they had suffered under 4.3. Both 5.18 and 4.3 began as uprisings against police violence and torture by South Korean military police. Both were met with brutal repression, rape and murder. Both massacres transpired with the active direction or approval the United States. Both uprisings were crushed and silenced by the government, with the justification that they were taking out Reds. Communists. North Korean sympathizers.
“Did you know,” my mother once said to me, “When I was younger, in the Park Chung Hee years, they’d play songs and announcements on the radio or over loudspeakers in the streets for us? The government was telling us to work hard and make Korea succeed. And they were also telling us that the North Koreans were monsters. They even said sometimes that they had horns growing out of their heads, like beasts. Can you believe that?”
Korea was divided. Korea was divided and this was no natural parting of ways. Korea was divided, post-WWII and post-Japanese occupation, by Americans. Two mid-level American officers were tasked with figuring out an appropriate border for occupation in Korea, and carved out a line on a National Geographic map that would let the US have Seoul. Since then, the “Demilitarized Zone”, or DMZ, has become one of the most militarized places in the world. However, division wasn’t only physical. Within South Korean borders, it was used to justify horrific levels of political repression and economic exploitation. Red-baiting and anti-North discourse were enforced through terror, and were used to consolidate political power for right-wing dictators. The National Security Law, a colonial holdover from Japan that evolved to criminalize being “pro-North” or “pro-Communist” legalized governmental impunity. The consequences for dissenting once included imprisonment, torture, death and the targeting of your entire family.
My mother was born right as the war ended, the youngest of six, into a landless, displaced and impoverished family that had sought refuge in the mountains during the war. Like many, they hid in caves to survive. “Once,” my mother told me, “Your uncle almost crawled out of the cave, and your keun-imo (eldest aunt) had to run and get him back inside because your grandmother was too scared to move! Everyone was afraid but her.” In classic Korean fashion, she laughed about it.
After the war, my grandmother helped feed her six children by selling food on the street, while my grandfather was too depressed and traumatized to work. She died when my mother was still a very young child, and my mom used to tell me that she believed that she had died of hardship. My mother would tell me her stories late at night as we drifted off to sleep. “I missed my mom so much, and even though I had a lot of siblings, I felt so alone. At night, I’d listen to the cicadas and frogs until I fell asleep to feel less sad… not having a mom is really lonely, you know. There’s no one to protect you or look out for you. You should know that having a mom is one of the best, most important things in the world… you can have a good life, with so much that I didn’t have. You’re my lovely daughter, my kind daughter, so you must live well. You will live well.”
I called her the day after the summit. I waited until my emotions settled a bit; until I had moved from confusion and overwhelm into a more manageable state of confusion and overwhelm.
“Eomma, you heard the news, right? They said they’ll end the war? What do you think?”
“Of course I heard! I watched it all and stayed up all night online looking at everything! Eomma is so happy she could die. Moon Jae-in did so wonderfully, and so did Kim Jong-un—he did so well, too! This is such good news… I’m so happy.”
“It is! It was so unreal to watch; I can’t believe it happened. And when they stepped over into both sides of Korea—”
“Koreans, we have been so brainwashed about each other for such a long time. All of us, we were told that the other side was the enemy even though we are the same people. Kim Jong-un, too, look at how they’ve talked about him. They made him out to be such a monster. You know, it’s not right and it’s finally time to end it. And for all of us to be better and come back to each other.”
I witnessed my mother’s joy, and I celebrated with her.
I witnessed my queer feminist friends’ reactions of feeling both deeply moved and painfully reminded of a place that doesn’t want them, war or no war. And I remembered how they were condemned by the entire South Korean left for demanding that Moon address his homophobia.
I also thought of friends and elders in Gangjeong village who spent the last ten years of their lives resisting the Jeju naval base, feeling now that their bodies and hearts had been wasted away in the trauma of that struggle. I am reminded of their sorrow and rage as I wonder what will happen next: if they, elders, farmers and haenyeo women, will see their village and sea returned to them in their lifetime.
Ending the war is a basic and necessary step towards healing and building lasting peace. It must be also followed with true demilitarization and an end to US occupation, from Jeju to Pyeongtaek to Soseong-ri. And this must happen also with the active uplift of conditions for queer and trans people, disabled people, women, and migrant workers, who continue to bear the brunt of societal and interpersonal violence even in this historic moment.
For the past seven decades, the logic of South Korean/North Korean, good Korean/bad Korean Korean, calcified into something as heavy and familiar as bone. It was used to determine, in many ways, who deserves to belong and who deserves to be excised or punished. It was also accompanied by the logics of misogyny, violence against queer/trans people, capitalism, ableism, exploitation and racism/xenophobia, all of which also often determine one’s worth as a Korean and thus, one’s level of exposure to violence and harm. I believe that peace should mean freedom from war and occupation as well as dignity and freedom from abuse and discrimination. So in other words, I believe that this is less of an end and more of a beginning.
When the war ends, what will we grow in its place?
War and division cost us too much, normalized all the worst impulses of humanity, and for South Koreans, created a world in which silence, political repression, exploitation and violence were the costs of “safety”. What we have now came at the cost of so many lives, and entire worlds of possibility. Watching Moon and Kim cross over this arbitrary, absurd thing called a border so easily made my heart constrict with emotion, thinking of all the senseless violence, pain and suffering that led us to this point, seven decades later. It doesn’t undo everything, and it’s still important. It doesn’t undo everything, and maybe that’s what hurts. I think of Han Kang’s poem in Human Acts, a retelling of the Gwangju Uprising from both ghosts and survivors, and as I let myself feel hopeful, I also allow myself the humanity of memory and grief.
After you died I could not hold a funeral,
And so my life became a funeral.
Oh, return to me.
Oh, return to me when I call your name.
Do not delay any longer. Return to me now.
After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral.
So these eyes that once beheld you became a shrine.
These ears that once heard your voice became a shrine.
These lungs that once inhaled your breath became a shrine.
The flowers that bloom in the spring, the willows, the raindrops and snowflakes become shrines.
The mornings ushering in each day, the evenings that daily darken, became shrines.