[Viewpoint] Young do not understand the war

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[Viewpoint] Young do not understand the war

A man who tutors small groups of high school students told me that he has a hard time explaining the May 18 Democratic Movement because the students do not understand its true meaning.

While they dutifully learn the facts, they are not exactly sure how the military took over the government and why the people in Gwangju risked their own lives to rise up against the regime. Born in the ’90s, the high school students learn about the May 18 movement - which took place in 1980, more than a decade before they were born - as a historical event, so they do not feel empathetic toward the democratic movement. Given this, the Korean War must feel even more distant to the teenagers.

This year marks the 59th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, and July 27 is the 56th anniversary of the signing of the cease-fire agreement.

A few days ago, the U.S. Congress passed a bill so that the July 27 Korean War Armistice Day will be remembered with the American flag flown at half-staff.

Recently, I heard from an elementary school teacher that the school holds a rice ball event to mark the Korean War every year. In order to please the palate of the children, the rice balls are made with freshly cooked rice mixed with sesame seeds, vegetables and sesame oil.

The students love them.

But the point of the event is to have children experience the pain of the war. So this year, the rice balls were prepared to taste coarse.

These elementary school students would have no idea what rice balls tasted like a half-century ago when older Koreans received frozen ones after wandering around the war-torn country on an empty stomach.

I enjoyed reading a Japanese book titled “Post-war History of the War Experience” by Yoshiaki Fukuma.

After World War II ended in 1945, a number of books written by Japanese soldiers who had fought in the Pacific, especially essays left by the fallen soldiers, became best sellers in Japan.

“Listen to the Voice of the Sea God,” a collection of essays by college student soldiers killed in the war, is the most notable one. Until recently, intellectuals have had intense debates over the student soldiers.

Some considered them “victims,” since they were forcibly mobilized by the imperialistic government and were killed in the war. However, as time went by, a different perspective garnered more support. It holds that they are still the offenders because they invaded countries such as Korea and China even though they might be seen as victims in Japan.

Those who were in college during the war and were recruited as the student soldiers are clearly different than the pre-war generation and those in the post-war generation who were born after the defeat.

While they all initially agreed that the student soldiers killed in the war were the symbol of the anti-war and peace movements, the idea encountered discord in 1969. Student activists associated with the All Campus Joint Struggle Committee destroyed a statue of student soldiers erected at Ritsumeikan University, a private university in Kyoto.

Having been born when Japan was going through rapid economic growth, these student activists considered the post-war Japan a developed imperialistic society under complete control, so they destroyed the statue, a symbol of a controlled society.

When a major event such as a war is waged, people fight a “war of memory,” arguing about how to look at and interpret the war. That is a war in and of itself. Like others, the Japanese fought a war of memory.

Here in the South, we have North Korea to take into account.

The North Korean defectors say they were most confused when they learned the Korean War started as a southward invasion by North Korea. It often takes over a year for them to accept the fact that the war was not a northward invasion from the South. Even in the South, some people have the absurd theory that the Korean War was a national unification movement initiated by the North.

I believe that we need to address the generational gap more seriously than the ideological differences or disagreements between the South and the North. We need to educate the young generation that neither personally experienced the war nor learned about it indirectly from their parents. But how can we teach them when we have not yet absorbed the meaning of war ourselves?

The Korean War is not yet a part of history, and those who lived through the war are aging. We need to think hard about how to teach young Koreans wisely.


*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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