By Christine Hong l originally for Korean Quarterly, Fall 2013
On July 27 of this year, two series of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War Armistice Agreement took place in Washington, DC, yet for all intents and purposes, they occupied parallel universes. Featuring a keynote address by the U.S. President, one sequence of events unfurled, with pomp and circumstance fitting the military might and wealth of its sponsors, the U.S. and South Korean governments, at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. Attendees to this event received a bag of mementoes—compliments, or so it appeared, of the Park Geun-hye government—which included sunscreen and a fake Korean War medal. Those in the audience were able to hear Barack Obama deliver a ringing speech titled “Heroes Remembered,” which focused narrowly on the “shining deeds” of the American veterans of the Korean War but nowhere mentioned the grievous toll that this brutal Cold War counterinsurgency took on ordinary Koreans both north and south of the 38th parallel—a painful legacy that reverberates to this day in the Korean diaspora. Instead maintaining that the 60th anniversary represented an occasion to “tell our American story,” Obama hailed the Korean War not as a “tie” but rather, in a highly unorthodox historiographical move, as a decisive “victory.”
“When 50 million South Koreans live in freedom—a vibrant democracy, one of the world’s most dynamic economies, in stark contrast to the repression and poverty of the North—that’s a victory,” Obama glibly stated. Signally absent from the spin delivered by U.S. and South Korean officials was the fact that the Korean War is not over, and that war, not peace or democracy, serves to justify an ongoing U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula. Although the July 27, 1953 Armistice Agreement recommended that within three months’ time “a political conference…settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, [and] the peaceful settlement of the Korean question,” the Korean War in point of fact has never been resolved with a peace treaty. Also missing from U.S. and South Korean celebratory accounts of the war was meaningful reckoning with the profound and enduring human costs of the war—which not only resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4 million people (the vast majority of them civilian) and fractured one in three families on the peninsula, but also, continue to this day in the form of a formidable U.S. sanctions regime against North Korea, annual joint U.S.-South Korea war exercises which simulate an invasion of the North and involve the dropping of dummy nuclear munitions, and a durable structure of enmity between the United States and North Korea. The moral of the Korean War, one that “our allies and adversaries must know,” according to Obama, is that “the United States of America will maintain the strongest military the world has ever known, bar none, always.” It was this hegemonic message that was grimly broadcast in the sequence of 60th anniversary events staged under the Department of Defense banner across Washington, DC, in late July of this year.
Just a ten-minute walk away, in front of the White House, a very different, much smaller, but infinitely more hopeful sort of event—namely, a rally followed by a peace march—was taking place that same hot Saturday morning. Representing a national gathering of peace activists who would reassemble later that evening at a local screening of Ramsay Liem and Deann Borshay Liem’s Memory of Forgotten War—a documentary that movingly narrates the unresolved Korean War from the perspective of first-generation Korean American survivors, all of whom are members of separated families—this crowd was remarkably multigenerational and multi-ethnic, albeit largely Korean American. Tirelessly led by Juyeon Rhee of Nodutdol, we raised our voices in calling for peace now. If the thousands of people assembled before the Korean War Veterans Memorial were mesmerized by Obama’s counterfactual insistence that the Korean War was a victory, by contrast, the tens of dozens of peace and social justice activists who took part in DC-based Korea peace events over the Korean War Armistice Day weekend were fortified by the sight of each other, heartened by solidarity on our pathway to achieve a long overdue peace in Korea. This crowd represented a spectrum of organizations: 6.15 U.S. Committee, Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition, Action for One Korea, Alliance of Hope, Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea (ASCK), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Korea Policy Institute (KPI), Korean Alliance of Progressive Movement, Korean American National Coordinating Council (KANCC), National Association of Korean Americans (NAKA), National Campaign to End the Korean War, National Lawyers Guild, Nodutdol for Korean Community Development, Peace Action, Ubuntuworks Peace Education Project, United Methodist Church, and Vets For Peace. Those of us gathered in Washington, DC, were moved to hear Reverend Michael Hahm of KANCC, an elder in the struggle for peace, speak with deep-seated conviction, born of courage and experience, about the need to end the Korean War. Sarah Sloan, of ANSWER Coalition, spoke fiercely and eloquently about the injustice of the Korean War, as an imperialist war, which decimated the Korean civilian population. Hyukkyo Suh of NAKA pointed to the economic stimulus of the Korean War, which jumpstarted a moribund U.S. economy geared toward total war in the aftermath of World War II. Stephen McNeil of AFSC spoke about his organization’s humanitarian record in North Korea and the urgency for peace as the basis of U.S.-North Korea relations.
In terms of their actions, a few principled figures on the Hill stood with us. On July 25, 2013, Mike Honda, a stalwart advocate for peace and justice in Asia and the Pacific, read a clear-sighted statement into the Congressional record, which recognized that “genuine hope” must take the form of “a permanent and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.” During a peace strategy session, activists also decided to reanimate the tradition of Korea Peace Days (for more information or should you be interested in organizing a Korea Peace Day locally, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org). Above all, what this tale of two Korean Armistice commemorations in Washington, DC, reveals is that we cannot expect the U.S. president to prioritize peace in Korea. Rather, we must, as South Korean activist-scholar and longtime member of Solidarity for Peace and Reunification in Korea (SPARK), Kang Jeong Koo, has stated, “conclude peace through our own efforts” by “arous[ing] public opinion, call[ing] upon the main parties to the Armistice, conduct[ing] and perform[ing] campaigns, mass marches, demonstrations, [and] candlelight rallies.” As he further reminds us, “In Korea, the 60th birthday has traditionally been characterized as a milestone that signals the commencement of a new life—one that is qualitatively different from that of the previous sixty years.” Likewise, although the 60th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement represents sixty years of war, it also more hopefully signals “the inaugural year of peace.” Let’s join together to make it so.
Christine Hong is an assistant professor of transnational Asian American, Korean diaspora, and critical Pacific Rim studies at UC Santa Cruz. She is a steering committee member of the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea, a coordinating council member of the National Campaign to End the Korean War, and a member of the executive board of the Korea Policy Institute.