Korea’s fate hasn’t changed a bitThe two most frightening risks that can destroy the peaceful lives of humans are earthquake and war. Earthquake is a natural disaster, while war is a calamity caused by men. Advanced technology and civilization were helpless when hit by an earthquake, and the destructive power of wars grew in proportion to the civilization.
A few Middle East countries suffer from both risks. But Korea and Japan have one risk each. Japan lies along the border of the Eurasian Plate and the Pacific Plate. Korea is situated on a “powder keg” where four powers - the United States, China, Japan and Russia - vie. Japan made a fateful mistake by starting World War II, exposing itself to the devastation of war, as well as the existing risk of earthquake.
How aware is Korea of its fate? The modern history of Korea began with a series of wars. The farthest and most intense front that powerful countries coveted was the Korean Peninsula. In 1885, the United Kingdom occupied Geomun Island off the southern coast to hold Russia’s southward advance in check.
The touch-and-go situation was barely eased by the mediation of Qing China. Then, China and Japan fought for hegemony over the Korean Peninsula. The bodies of the Qing soldiers were piled up in Pyongyang and Asan after their battles. Thousands were also buried in water during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 at the mouth of Aprok River, Asan Bay and the South Sea.
During the Pacific War, tens of thousands of Koreans were conscripted by the Japanese Imperial Army, and the Korean War - which broke out shortly after the founding of the republic - tore the country apart. Sixty years after the armistice, North Korea is in an arms race, threatening its neighbors and the region with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. No other area in the world is struggling with such threats of war. However, we built cities on top of unexploded shells and dead bodies and cultivated a solid economy. The cries of the veterans still remain in the mountains and valleys across the country.
The Japanese have a heightened awareness of earthquake in their daily routines. The code of conduct at the time of earthquake is public knowledge, and students and citizens practice evacuation and first aid on a regular basis. Despite thorough preparation, however, the tsunami that hit Fukushima took the lives of 20,000 people. The Japanese government spends about 17 trillion won ($15.26 billion) on earthquake and disaster prevention research, and major universities, local governments and state-funded institutes are working on disaster prevention plans under the banner of “Life Innovation.”
Is Korea - standing on the front line of frequent wars - prepared for war? While Japan has many world-class earthquake research institutes, Korea doesn’t have renowned war or peace research institutes. Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies may be the only one with authority. If replacing the truce with the end of war and turning armed confrontation into peaceful coexistence has top priority, the war of nerves over the level of representatives for inter-Korean meetings are petty tussles in our government’s North Korea policies.
The head-on collision over the missing transcript from the inter-Korean summit is truly pathetic. What is the political benefit of disclosing the transcript anyway? Considering the subtle speech of President Roh Moo-hyun - who often reversed the flow of the conversation by saying, “You are right, but …” - there would be endless dispute over what he really meant to say. Also, even if one side triumphs, does it get us any closer to peaceful coexistence?
When we haven’t even resolved the suspension of Kaesong Industrial Complex - which is only a small windpipe of the inter-Korean economic cooperation - can the dispute over the former president’s alleged disavowal of the Northern Limit Line, a de facto maritime border, help reduce the risk of war on the peninsula? Not really. It will only reignite the flame of grudge and extend the already expired effect of the Cold War.
I am almost 60 and have no memory of the war. The Korean War, which resulted in 2 million casualties, is more like orally transmitted literature. One of the most memorable stories was my late mother’s recollection. “I could see the flashes from gunfire in the mountain, and a bomb exploded in the neighborhood. I hid in a cottage all night.” The baby she was holding in her arms was not me, but even my older sister does not remember the war.
Only 10 percent of the population lived through the war, vividly remembering the horrible sounds of tanks and rifles, destroyed buildings and dead bodies. Twenty years from now, they will have disappeared, and the Korean War will no longer make people shiver. I can barely feel the reality of the war when I read Cho Jung-rae’s “The Taebaek Mountains” or Andrew Salmon’s “To the Last Round.” The Korean War is no longer a routine topic of conversation in average families. But that doesn’t mean the risk of war has been reduced.
I am not arguing that we need to recall the painful memories of the war and strengthen the military authority, like past administrations did. I just want to remind myself and the younger generation - which has no memories of the war and even lower sensitivity to the threat of war - that the topography of Korea’s fate has not changed. Moreover, I want to denounce pathetic politicians who use the pain of war to their advantage. They’d better give up politics if they still can’t open a path to terminate the war and secure peace 60 years after the armistice.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
by Song Ho-keun