[VIEWPOINT]Let bygones be bygonesWhen the Vietnam War was approaching its last phase in the early 1970s, I was participating in the war. At that time, my battalion commander was a really stylish man. Even in the sight of man, he looked wonderful, wearing black sunglasses, holding a baton, and walking slowly with a straight back. I was a sergeant then, but he was a battalion commander with a doctoral degree.
In October of that year, the atmosphere in the unit became suddenly unusual. News arrived from afar that the National Assembly was dissolved in our homeland. The governing party was taking measures to legislate the Yushin (Revitalizing Reform) Constitution to pave the way for long-term rule. After many brainwashings, a referendum was held even in Vietnam to decide on the legislation of the Yushin Constitution. On the morning of the voting day, we, soldiers, were astonished to see the outrageous scene, the instant we entered the polling place in line. Seated at the booth, a company commander himself was voting on behalf of us, calling our names loudly as we entered the booth and saying, “Your vote is done.” This was a shock to all of us. This was happening in the land we lived on. All soldiers seemed to be resigned because it occurred in a community that demanded absolute obedience and in the battlefield in a foreign land.
Finally, it was my turn. I didn’t want to cause trouble because my life was tough as well. I wished to rationalize that I could not help it if the captain did the same to me as to others. But surprisingly, when I stood before him, he handed out a ballot to me, saying, “You vote, yourself.” For a moment, I was at a loss. But then I calmly filled in the ballot, marking the box with a letter “opposition.” Instantly, the company commander blurted out curses at me, calling me a “son of . . . .” And then, I was called to the battalion commander’s office. Many officers were gathered there. The stylish commander asked me gravely, “Why did you vote against it?” For the first time in my life, I replied shortly about democracy, the division of power, and the national tragedy that the Yushin Constitution might bring in the future.
I will skip over the trials I underwent after coming out of his office. Surviving them anyway, I returned from Vietnam and was discharged from military service. I don’t know what became of the forgotten vote of mine. With everything forgotten, the wave of history has rushed on.
I became a professor at a university and the stylish commander became a general, working at some place. One day, it occurred suddenly to me that I should meet him. It seemed that he might remember the name of sergeant “Han Sang-kyeong” even if he forgot other names. I hesitated for a long while and then dialed. “May I speak to General ‘Somebody’?” “He’s gone.” “What do you mean by ‘gone’ ?” “He is gone far away.” “What do you mean?” “He died.” He was said to have died in an accident. The man, who was so dandy, left this world so early. Ours was nothing but a dark story of those who led tough lives in the same period of an age. Everything appeared futile.
As someone asked, is life like a play? He and I had a different cast. I was a tactless private and he was a capable commander. His face has now become dear in my memory. A verse from the Bible comes to my mind: “There is a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.” Discussions are being made these days over the revision of a law to examine the truth of pro-Japanese activities. I wish it would turn out well. Could we not live together, loving each other and embracing each other’s painful wounds?
* The writer is a professor of horticulture at Samyuk University and the founder of Achim Goyo (Morning Calm) Arboretum. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Han Sang-kyeong