[Viewpoint] Never forgetA few days ago, I went to an interesting exhibition in Insa-dong, Seoul: “War and Everyday Life” at Gallery Tea. The exhibition displays ordinary goods and articles that show how the Korean War influenced the everyday lives of Koreans.
I was born in the late 1950s, so most of the articles were familiar to me. The oil container was a recycled can from the United States. The shopping basket was wires woven together. The chamber pot was an army helmet. Chimneys and school bells were made out of ammunition shells. And bags were sewn-together sacks of so-called “Handshake” flour - with the packages bearing a warning that the goods inside should not be traded or sold, since they were donated by U.S. citizens.
That’s how life was six decades ago. I spent my childhood in an area where battles had been intense during the Korean War, so I frequently encountered what the war left behind, such as bullets and helmets. Some kids were injured when they found duds and tried to disassemble them. Sleighs made from the tops of U.S. military ammunition boxes were incredibly fast on the ice. Children felt both sympathy and fear when they ran into disabled war veterans with hooks where their lost arms had been. We made fun of the biracial children born to U.S. soldiers and Korean women, calling them by the belittling name “Ainoko,” Japanese slang for a half-breed. When I think of them now, I still feel guilty.
My parents were born in the 1920s. To them, the Korean War was a vivid reality. My father had escaped North Korea during the war and settled in the South. My mother was part of the famous Hungnam evacuation. Having heard what they went through over and over, I thought the Korean War was as real as my own experience when I grew up. But do my children’s generation, and their children’s, consider the Korean War a reality?
According to a survey taken by the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, only 41.3 percent of today’s children and young people know that the Korean War broke out in 1950. The twentysomethings were not much different: Only 46.3 percent were aware of the history. Among adults, 63.7 percent knew the year the Korean War began. More knew the aggressor: 63.7 percent of the young said that North Korea started the war, and 79.6 percent of adults responded correctly. It is too much to expect that Koreans in their teens, twenties and thirties perceive the war as a vivid reality. The older generation is responsible for educating them about its cause, beginning and development, as well as its impact on Korean society.
But how well have the grown-ups been teaching the youth? In the name of objectivity, the war is taught as if it happened to some other country, and some facts are misrepresented in the education.
A few days ago, I read “The Alarm of Aviation,” an autobiography by former Prime Minister Kim Jeong-ryeol (1917-1992) before its re-release. The new edition was published after revision and supplementation.
I remember Kim as the father of the ROK Air Force and the minister of defense under the martial law during the April 19 Revolution. He was a respectable soldier who did not order his troops to fire at the protestors.
But what really impressed me was the prognostications of war in “The Alarm of Aviation,” which he published at his own expense in April 1949, a year before the war broke out. Making precise predictions that North Korea would provoke a conflict - and how it would do it - he desperately asked, “Should we choose a life as a slave or glory of independence?”
“I do not intend to call the brother a virtual enemy. Who would like to fight his own brother?” he wrote. “But since the dummy government of the Soviet Union is in power in the North, I cannot help defining North Korea as the prime virtual enemy state.”
Kim vividly described how North Korean fighters would bomb downtown Seoul if a war broke out, and insisted that the Republic of Korea had to build an Air Force. Sixty-one years later, his war scenario is a chilling prediction full of patriotic spirit.
The alarm is still ringing today. If we lose a sense of the reality of the Korean War, treat the tragedy as if it happened to another country and fail to properly educate the younger generation, the alarm can lead to a terrible catastrophe any time. The attack of the Cheonan was a serious warning. The alarm bell could sound on the land as well.
*The writer is an editorial writer and a senior reporter on cultural news for the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Noh Jae-hyun