Essay (two winners): “Obangsaek” by Andy Seungu Choi and Untitled essay by Quynh-May Nguyen
Andy Seungu Choi
An acupuncture needle punctures the peninsula
and pricks my thumb: my halmoni had never seen Korea before liberation.
Her father lay hunched in the coal mines of an archipelago
separated by deep blue water and forcefully conjoined by the hungry embrace of empire.
subaltern bodies displaced in the process of hemispheric annihilation
stars and stripes replace the rising sun, countless villages are lost in the hellfire soft corals suffocated under concrete / disembodied voices rising from scattered bones The 38th parallel
is stitched into the backs of the peninsula’s phantoms, begging to be soothed.
I trace my roots to Paju, a city on Korea’s waist
where the blue waters of the Imjin River flow in tight curves and barbed wire lines the motorway. Tourists flock to the Joint Security Area, snapping pics of a 70-year war to bring home with them but the DMZ is more than just Panmunjom to me
more than just 160 miles of electric fences and land mines, or a skinny strip of unspoilt land
the dividing line transcends the peninsula’s crinkled terrain
runs through the streets of every Koreatown, summons ghosts from all corners of the diaspora. Island ancestors, mountain ancestors calcified in submerged valleys
calling across the Pacific, pulling on rotting commodity chains, hiding in the shadows of warships, stowing away in plane cargo to surmount the vast ocean
to remind us of the motherland, whose waist is so unjustly cut in two
and how the architects of division lie so near to us
busy at work imposing sanctions and building bases
while killing and exploiting just the same in these very streets.
Occupied land on both sides of the Pacific swell with loud cries rising to the shared sky. The blaze of Minneapolis could be seen from the streets of Gwangju
and the chants of the crowds could be heard from the seashells of Jeju.
The Forgotten War is not forgotten.
The separated families do not forget.
The child killed by sanctions does not forget.
The adoptee does not forget.
The displaced peasant does not forget.
The unconverted prisoner does not forget.
The camptown sex worker does not forget.
The stateless Zainichi Koreans do not forget.
The massacre victims buried on mountain sides and under airports do not forget.
The refugees strafed while fleeing the conflict do not forget.
The city residents huddled in the subway station during an air-raid drill do not forget.
The schoolgirls run over by US military tanks do not forget.
The factory worker unable to support her family due to neoliberal reforms does not forget.
The red soil destroyed by napalm does not forget.
The Algerians and the Vietnamese civilians who bared witness to the same colonial brutality which was perfected on the peninsula do not forget.
Generations disemboweled by empire, forgotten only by the empire’s own annals.
The steady beat of the hourglass drum reverberates through every mountain valley.
The piercing cry of the gong is carried by the ocean breeze
as if imitating the whine of the 635,000 tons dropped on the north
or the whistling of gunfire from the USS General Sherman sailing up the Taedong River. An uninvited intruder posing as a benevolent guest, feasting until there is no more blood left to flow from the peninsula’s valleys.
How many more monsoons must flow in from the Pacific we can cross that dividing line?
How many more typhoons must roll up the coast from Okinawa before the land is free?
Dollars and dollars and dollars pour into the country like mackerel from a winter
catch. Structural adjustments are made with surgeon-like precision.
A scab hits a worker’s head, disfiguring him permanently.
Smog drifts across the DMZ from the beehive apartments of Seoul.
Politicians advertise free economic zones and fancy megaprojects.
Shell casings emerge from the mudflats of Maehyang-ri.
The last ritual is performed on Gureombi Rock before it is dynamited to build a naval base.
Riot police are deployed in rice fields as students gather around the entrance of Camp Humphreys.
My great aunt
born in Jeju on the eve of the massacre
300 miles from the hallowed halls of the capital
exiled to the long shadow of the volcano.
An island with its own cosmos, legends of the sea and the sky
witness to countless uprisings sweeping the circumference of the rocky coast
and penetrating deep into the gotjawal forest.
Memories of death are hidden under golf courses and luxury resorts.
The waves that crash upon the cliffs murmur to the basalt walls and the infertile soil
of the guerilla shrouded by evergreen leaves
and the shaman whose song rises above Hallasan.
A song carried beyond the reef to Osaka as the villages are torched
unable to return with the reversal of the current
kept alive by a language unintelligible with the tongue spoken on the mainland.
바당 badang (sea, ocean)
밧담 basdam (stone fence around a field)
보리클 bolikeul (barley field after harvest)
도시리다 dosirida (let somebody know)
거둡다 geodubda (harvest, gather)
건들마 geondeulma (wind during the summer rainy season)
흥글다 heunggeulda (shake, swing, wave, sway)
궵씨 gwebssi (rice cake used for ancestral rites)
친부찌다 chinbujjida (help people become friends)
시꾸다 sikkuda (appear in a dream)
과랑과랑 gwalanggwalang (sunny part of the day)
Learning how to measure the tides
trace the moon and plow the earth.
I cast the broken fragments of my Konglish into the sea.
Living artifacts of the neocolonial still weighing down on my tongue.
Picking up what I have lost / what has been taken from me
and remember the masses of people huddled in the caves
listening to the water drip like the whispers of the forest spirits
and the distant sound of gunfire coming ever closer.
“Are you from North or South Korea?”
I come from a peninsula with a longitudinal span of 3,000 ri, jutting out into the northwestern Pacific as a land bridge between the continent and the scattered archipelagoes. I come from a place untraversable by land, a place perpetually at war, a historical crossroads, a site of imperial collusion. I come from a place way across the ocean but intimately tied to the banks and the bases and the bureaucracies over here, a place haunted by what you call the “Forgotten War.” When you talk about Korea it is not a nation, a peninsula, or a place but a projection, narratives that inevitably cast the “East'' as automatized and inhuman whether it serves the purpose of villainizing the north or praising the south. But the empire has stretched so far that for you, Korea lies to the west, not to the east, across a militarized ocean that the empire calls its own. And as the empire has encircled the globe, so has Korea- Korea as in the diaspora pulled to every corner of the world by the global flows of capital, Korea as in the international struggle against imperialism, Korea as in solidarity amongst division.
The DMZ is everywhere.
“The DMZ is everywhere?”
The DMZ runs through Palestine just as it does through Korea when Palestinian refugees are unable to return to their home villages. The DMZ runs through Okinawa when Okinawans are
prohibited from visiting their ancestors’ grave sites because they lie on a US military base. The DMZ runs through Vietnam when the victims of Agent Orange cannot get full compensation for their suffering. The DMZ runs through the Philippines when Filipino community leaders are massacred in counterinsurgency operations directed by the United States. The DMZ runs through Guam when sacred Chamorro sites are destroyed to build a firing range. The DMZ runs through Hawai’i when native Hawaiians are forcefully evicted from their homes to make way for resort development and military installations. The DMZ runs through Puerto Rico when residents of Vieques are poisoned by the US Navy’s activities. The DMZ runs through Laos when Laotians are killed by unexploded ordnances. The DMZ runs through Cuba along the barbed wire fence of Guantánamo Bay. The DMZ runs through Afghanistan, through Libya, through Grenada, throughout the entire world.
“What is Korea then?”
Korea is a peninsula surrounded by ever-warming seas and becoming more and more subtropical every year. Korea is a strip of land raised and developed in the Cenozoic and Mesozoic orogenies. Korea is a nation-state consolidated under the Silla Kingdom in the 7th Century. Korea was first described as the “hermit kingdom” by William Elliot Griffis, an American orientalist in 1882. Korea is invisible above the 38th Parallel, packaged and shipped all over the world below it. Korea is famous for its never-ending blocks of apateu, its army base stew, and its haendeupon manufacturing. Korea is the 7.4 million people in the diaspora. Korea is the flesh of the earth twisted by ancient tectonics, laid bare for the weathering of history, and left open to witness unimaginable destruction and limitless possibilities.
Our peninsula’s story meanders like the countless rivers that flow west from the Baekdudaegan. Our dreams are launched to the infinite horizon beyond the breaking waves, looking southwards, eastwards, in whatever direction, searching for whatever it is that may set all of us free.
The first time I remember apologizing to anyone was when my elementary school librarian told me her grandfather had died in the Korean War.
“I’m sorry,” I said head bowed, and at that moment, I was, under the lingering gaze of my peers A soldier of the Korean People’s Army, John Doe strung up through my bayonet, his sacred flesh pierced by my savage hands, the red afterglow of a foreign Sun seeping into my coin slot eyes stretched thin like blood sausage and the 38th Parallel.
A zipperhead piled onto rows of bodies arranged like cypress trees on the side of a dirt road, carrying a persistent bullet in my body that penetrates through my ancestors and haunts this peninsula like a distorted shadow. I am faceless, a buried ghost tethered to the thick concrete
of U.S. army garrisons and crucified to the barbed wire of the Demilitarized Zone.
In Korean there is a word called han, a visceral state of intense rage and resentment stemming from the trauma of colonization, war, division, and occupation that has haunted generations as a vicious specter and a catalyst for resistance.
a map of the alien motherland drawn on every flag
strips of calcified land between rivers of blood 50 stars, 500 years of conquest i saw in
my sleep that it was 1950, the
bombing of pyongyang had not yet started
and all i could see was
the grins of 100 senators one solitary bald eagle, suffocated under the packed under one
dome weight of olive branches and aircraft bombers location: washington, district of
district: the territory in jurisdiction columbus: the shivering masses graced by this of a feudal
lord, from the latin god-given land, sentinels of blood, distringere (draw apart) the cries of
millions stomped under their feet in 1945, u.s. forces invaded korea and
established a military government, effectively
dividing the peninsula. by 1953, 5 million people
had died in the korean war.
August has stretched on drowsily for too long
the bittersweet taste of that hot summer day haunts every fireworks display.
Suspended over loudspeakers and ICBMS
the air stands still as if about to be broken by the cries
of a million flag bearers pouring into the streets just like in 1945
upraised arms beaten down by barbed wire and B-29s.
on a peninsula of ghosts perpetually threatening resurrection in the form
of tongue twisters whispered under the cover of nightly curfew
of another student engulfed in flames, of another ceremony on campus to honor them of grey
work clothes neatly folded in the corner of an apartment to be torn down, gathering dust of an unconverted prisoner crying out to the moon from his cell
of a scorched-earth operation pulling a village out of the frail tissue of collective memory of
a peasant wiping her brow and feeling a harsh tugging in her stomach of a crowd of
bullhorns encircling a korean school, a rising sun on both sides of the horizon of
unexploded bombs hiding under the bustling streets of pyongyang
of toxic waste dumped into the han river by the US military
of war drills reminding the weary land that the armistice is just that, a frozen war of
camptowns, of air bases, of firing ranges, of training areas, of naval facilities, of military
installations, of power projection platforms, of missile defense systems
of a peninsula trampled, walked over, choked, stabbed, flattened, shackled, and
of a nation divided at its waist, bearing a scar almost a century in the making.
If anything, the silt along the Imjin River will wash me clean.
If anything, the collective rhythms of a global pungmul will set us free. If anything, the monsoon will no longer have to release its heavy belly over barbed wire If anything.
Personally, I have no direct ties to the Korean War. I don’t have any Korean family members, I didn’t grow up around Korean people, and I didn’t even learn about the Korean war until I went to high school. However, this winter I took a class about Korea and the involvement of the United States in the Korean war. Although I am not Korean, I found myself relating to many of the same stories I’ve learned about in these past few months.
When I heard about the prisoners of war along the 38th parallel during the Korean war, I was reminded of my own grandfathers, uncles, and cousins who were held captive in their own countries. When I learned about all the napalm usage in the Korean war, I thought back to the countless health ailments caused by chemical warfare in my own family. When camp town women were brought up during lessons, I thought about my cousin who babysat me as an infant, a former call girl who had three mixed Amerasian children. Like many Korean women who had no other options, she gave up two of them for adoption so they could have lives better than she could provide. Perhaps the most salient of all stories I heard in this class were the victims of separated families. My parents told me stories of how their families were paraded around their sponsor’s charitable events, to show how benevolent their white saviors were. Missing home, my parents’ families sent back goods to their homelands for over forty years to support their relatives. My grandparents sponsored all their siblings to come to the United States, waiting a total of thirty-five years for each of their turns in immigration.
My parents are Vietnamese war refugees. Without the Korean War, I would not have their stories to tell. Everything the United States learned to do from the Korean war, they repeated their actions again during the Vietnam war. The atrocities committed during both wars were not mistakes, but intentional methods of imperialism on the Eastern Hemisphere. Even today, the United States military still occupies South Korea. Vietnam was still sanctioned until only very recently in 2016. These are not stories of the past, they are still affecting us to this very day. In supposed times of peace, the U.S. military has hundreds of bases in the Middle East, thousands of troops in Thailand and the Philippines each, and hundreds more bases worldwide. If war committed by the U.S. government does not stop now, there will only be more countries for them to “save”.
Peace needs to happen now. After 70 years, Korea is still at war. While the lives, livelihoods, and families lost can never be regained, there can be prevention of more being sacrificed in vain. For an ideological war fought by external forces, Korea must take this matter into their own hands and address the harm done to their country and people. Peace within Korea will not solve everything, but this is the first step to healing from the seventy years of war.
Poetry: Untitled Poem by Sydney Gil
An awkward stillness when I rise
Which state line binds me this morning
A myriad of choices offered to me
New York, Pennsylvania, California,
Illinois is where I land, where I am
My mother also landed in --
No, escaped to --
Illinois in her twenties
I flew by plane, she by fear
I read Kierkegaard facing the water,
Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom
How much did the world spin
When she crossed the ocean?
How lucky I am to escape merely cram school
Not alcoholic fathers, soldier half-brothers, and an unforgotten war
Fortune shines down on me
I crave for a sliver of shadow
Grateful! Grateful! I should be --
The pleas grate against the backs of my eyes
The eyes that betray my otherness
The eyes that betray trauma inherited
I know not of han
Not like my mother does
How do I carry the sorrow
my nationality assigned to hers?
I cannot ignore such injury, and
Refusal comes at the expense of peace
I am her dream
Yet, how can a dream be peaceless
Is that not a nightmare?
Still, when she asks if all is well
I answer with resounding fragility
all is well.
Visual: “Silhouette Video” by Joan Gwak
Winning Submissions: Voices for Peace in Korea Contest