[Viewpoint] Remembering Korea’s fallen herosJust like a snowbank, a country is a community of continuity, where accumulated history creates the present.
That’s why blood and sweat from the past enriches the present’s prosperity. The blood and sweat of generations of grandfathers and fathers created streams, which turned into a river, and that is the proud history of Korea and what makes it what it is today.
That’s why we have to respect and appreciate the past, while living in the present.
A death in the community is something we must remember. Tears and sweat are important, but a sacrifice of life is incomparably valuable. It is inappropriate to forget those who died courageously, only welcoming new life.
Last year alone, many people sacrificed their lives for the country and for their neighbors. The sailors of the Cheonan, Naval Warrant Officer Han Joo-ho, who died during the rescue operation for the missing sailors of the Cheonan, the soldiers killed in the Yeonpyeong Island attack and father Lee Tae-seok deserve mention.
In his poem “The Young Dead Soldiers,” American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote:
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this.
They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.
It is the responsibility of the living to remember the dead and assign meaning to their passing. Last year’s deaths made clear that Korea is a community worth protecting; their deaths made Korea more sacred, stronger and warmer.
Without questions, we must build memorials for them. The dead sailors of the Cheonan, the soldiers killed in the Yeonpyeong Island attack, Warrant Officer Han and father Lee are all heroes.
Of course, they are not knights in shining armor. They feared death, just as everyone does. And yet, they were resolute and sacrificed their lives for the community and neighbors.
I was also reminded of Auguste Rodin’s masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais. It is one of Rodin’s most famous sculptures, created 121 years ago. The sculpture is a monument to the six people of the French port Calais, who had volunteered to surrender themselves to the executor of the British king during the Hundred Year’s War in 1347 to save the lives of the city’s residents.
Rodin sculpted the six burghers in a completely different way from the stereotypical image of heroes. Their faces are full of agony, not joy. Their faces are not filled with bravery in the face of death, but with fear of it.
Rodin also placed the sculpture not on a high pedestal, but at ground level. It is an incredible difference from many famous sculptures that are placed on high pedestals, which are placed that way so we have to look up to respect them.
The statutes of King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun-sin in Gwanghwamun are such examples.
They, of course, are heroes of a dynastic era, so maybe that’s why they were placed on elevated pedestals.
But heroes from democratic times such as now should be different. The heroes are ordinary people, just like us.
We witnessed the deaths of such heroes last year. They had not become famous figures before their deaths. They were simply soldiers, citizens and a priest.
They are no different from flowers in a remote mountain valley.
Yet they bloomed as flowers of the community after their deaths.
They remind of the Korean folk tale of Sim Cheong, who is said to have sacrificed her life to restore the vision of her father, who was resurrected from a lotus flower.
And that is precisely why their sculptures should be built. Because of them, we realized that our lives are warm, safe and worth living.
After their memorials are built, we must remember that they should not be beautified as extra-human superheroes.
Their faces should express fear and pain in the face of death. They should be built in life size sculptures and placed at ground level.
That would be the most appropriate way to remember the deaths of our modern-day heroes.
*The writer is a professor of civil ethics education at Seoul National University.
By Park Hyo-Chong