If we sit by and become complacent and put our heads in the sand, we're complicit. - Shelley Morrison
Last Sunday was a public holiday here. Memorial Day, held on the 6th June each year, commemorates those who have died for what has become the Republic of Korea.
I was on a beach, it was hot and smoke blew overhead from a burning building, but the acrid smell which reached me didn't drive me back; amongst grotesque images of death and destruction I saw tanks and they were friendly. A British flag flapped in the wind. The pristine sands of Haeundae were hosting a Korean War memorial.
Under the title of "Thanks Runs Forever" (except, perhaps, if you're a member of this group), "The World Peace Freedom United" explains:
We would like to publicize the realities of the Korean War... ...which was a fratricidal war, and which everybody is forgetting, especially for young generation who do not know anything about truth.
This may be a fair point - a Gallup poll conducted in Korea suggests that only 43.9% of young people polled identified North Korea as being responsible for the war. 10.9% blamed the United States. While this is contrary to accepted history, it cuts both ways. The memorial describes the 1948 Republic of Korea as 'a free, liberal and democratic country', a narrative which does not necessarily fit well with the Jeju Uprising during which mass executions of suspected leftists took place, or the findings of South Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission pertaining to the 1948-1950 period.
People like to label themselves liberals or conservatives, but when they do so they give up their individual rationality in favour of outsourcing their thinking to a newspaper, television network, political group or political leader, and this country has its fair share of useful idiots in this respect. But unless you believe the North Korean propaganda machine (as some in the South are apparently minded to), most of the facts are not in question. Stories like those of the SS Meridith Victory are often no more than historical footnotes, and yet they are profoundly important touchstones in the context of their times.
"North Korean refugees just trusted United Nations Forces and followed them to go the world of freedom, Republic of Korea."
Coming down 'Hwangcho-Ryung' Pass on December 10, 1950, the column of US 1st Marine Corps and a Provisional Battalion of 31st Regiment of US Army 7th Infantry Division, which were composed with survivors, were intermixed with many North Korean refugees feeling from the Chinese Communist Forces to go the land of freedom and life, Republic of Korea.
Some civilians were not so fortunate, and the memorial did not hesitate to show those images too. Below the photo of a dead American soldier with a gaping head wound and minus a leg, we are informed:
Body of soldier killed from 3rd Battalion, 31st Regiment of US 7th Infantry Division. Why this young fellow die? He sacrificed himself for freedom and democracy for Korea and Korean people.
But the memorial is not just about the past, but the present and the future. We are told that North Korea has never changed:
"North Korean Communists who were controlled by Soviet Union have opposed the founding of the Republic of Korea since August 15, 1945, the day Korea was liberated from the Imperialist Japan.
Despite their opposition, the Repubic of Korea was founded on August 15, 1948 through election as a free and democratic country.
Then, under the pretenses of unification as one county, the Communists created an unprecendented fatricidal tragedy, the Korean War.
There are many who believe North Korea has changed and now many look upon North Korea too amicably.
However, we must recognize the goal of North Korean Communist remains the same: the communization of the Korean peninsula. This has never changed. Never changed."
So who are these people that would so readily forget the 'lessons of the past' and 'the realities of the present'? Apparently, it's the people who burned the contents of the first memorial when in was on display by Cheonggye Stream in 2008.
"Behind Candle Light Rally?: Who is trying to overthrow Republic of Korea?
While we held our Korean War Photo Display at the Cheonggyecheon of Seoul in summer of 2008, our peaceful photo display was totally destroyed by some of a so-called candle light rally organization. On the night of June 25, 2008, they attacked and broke most of the photographic displays and again, on the night of June 26 to the early morning of June 27, 2008, they continued to burn the photographic memories of the founding of the Republic of Korea and its defense during the Korean War. The photos which these radical terrorists attacked were mainly related to the national identity of our sovereign nation, Republic of Korea. Who can say that these demonstrators were engaged in a peaceful rally when every one saw their acts of terrorism attacking our peaceful photo display?"
Two years later, there are now images of the sinking of South Korea's navy ship Cheonan to add to the display, and the opportunity was not missed. It was an image heavy with symbolism when I saw it, because the memorial made frequent reference to the "Chinese Communist Forces" that ultimately fought against the armies gathered under a United Nations flag in Korea, and to many people's minds by refusing to condemn North Korea's sinking of the Cheonan, they are siding with the aggressor again. There was a board at one end of the memorial with a large sheet of paper and a pen, where people left their thoughts. Two people wrote in badly formed English letters, which made it highly likely that they were not native speakers, 'Chinese Fockers', or something very similar.
Ultimately though, despite China's considerable contribution to the Korean War, the memorial is really about Korea. And personally, I came away from it with a heightened sense of the darker forces which are at work with the Korean Republic - old schisms forged in blood which would rewrite history, and perhaps even re-enact it, given the right circumstances. It's said that those who do not learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat it, and it's easy to forget those lessons on a bright summer's day on a beach where people are playing games and children's laughter is carried through the air. Yet it's that very banality - immediately beyond the images of horror, that perhaps more than anything is the real memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of the free and democratic country which South Korea finally became in 1987.