Crossing Memories: Reckoning with Loss Past and Present in North and South Korea

“Make reparations! Make reparations,” shouted the crowd.

I stood alongside over 100 protesters gathered across from the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea recently to support Korean survivors’ ongoing claims for redress from the Japanese government.

Won-Ok Gil, a nonagenarian survivor who was a teenager in 1940 when she was deceived into becoming a sex slave for Japanese troops in northeast China, has been at the center of these weekly protests since 2002. The protests have been ongoing each week for 26 years.

After WWII, many women journeyed back to their villages, but some, like Gil, were unable to see their families ever again. When Gil, who hailed from Pyongyang, eventually tried to return to her birthplace, she could not because of a newly fortified border between North and South Korea.

“Now it’s all in the past, but if I try to speak about the pain we went through, my heart feels like it could burst,” Gil told me in an interview.

This summer marks the 65th anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement that formally ended the hostilities of the Korean War. However, it was not a permanent peace treaty.

The two countries, North Korea and South Korea, are technically still at war. As negotiations for denuclearization on the Korean peninsula wax and wane with every official meeting, a constant question remains about how peace will be achieved and what it will mean for those who live on the Korean peninsula.

The pomp and circumstance of past meetings between the leaders of North KoreaSouth Korea, and the United States cannot obscure the legacy of division, war, and injustice that is the responsibility of these three countries.

It is a history of violence that has been intimately experienced and felt by Koreans and passed on to their children. While denuclearization is key, reckoning with this loss is also critical to lasting peace.

At Northwestern University, I teach on and research the relationship between performance and politics in Korea. I spent 10 years chronicling the paths of a group of 10 Korean survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery and their supporters who rely on public, embodied methods such as protests, tribunals, theatre, and memorial building to advocate for justice.

They illustrate that reckoning, grappling and coming to terms with the past is a continual process that demands the presence and participation of bodies committed to social and political change.

After the defeat of Japan in World War II, the U.S. proposed a division of the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel in deciding what to do with Korea, one of Japan’s colonies. This divided the country into the Soviet Union-backed North and the U.S.-backed South. The breaching of this line on June 25, 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea inaugurated the Korean War.

“After you leave your hometown, you realize how much you miss your parents and your friends,” recounted Gil during her public testimony.

When I last attended a public testimony by Gil in 2016, she expressed this desire to see her mother and explained how she spent every day of the last 70 years dreaming of going back home. Gil’s ache for what was left behind in North Korea is shared by many in the Korean diaspora.

My father-in-law, who is 71 and has lived in Germany, the U.S., and South Korea, was a child in the late 1940s when his family joined the thousands who fled what became North Korea and made their way to South Korea as refugees.

I remember my father-in-law excitedly sharing how he had obtained satellite images of his old village in what is now North Korea. He could only satiate his yearning for home with fuzzy pictures of green and brown topography.

Reckoning with this kind of longing needs to be a central part of the long-term, ongoing peace process on the Korean peninsula.

While I am not an expert in political and diplomatic negotiation, I understand the means of achieving peace on the Korean peninsula are fraught and complicated. For some, the peace process would not only entail denuclearization of the peninsula and a formal declaration of the end of the Korean War, but also the withdrawal of troops at the border and of U.S. troops from South Korea.

Temporary reunions between select groups of North and South Koreans separated by the 1950-53 Korean War point in the direction of attending to the desires of Koreans to be reconnected with lost kin and to return home.

Along with measures to create more open borders and communication between North and South Korea, there also needs to be public acknowledgment and remembrance of not only the history of division and war, but also its legacy—how people have lived with the trauma of separation, destruction, death, displacement, and resettlement.

At a visit to the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul recently, the sterility of the exhibit room dedicated to the history behind the 38th parallel line is stunning. At the center of the room hangs a large black-and-white photograph of a family of Korean refugees about to cross the then-nascent border between North and South Korea positioned above a replica of the sign marking the division and a white line on the floor with the number “38” in large print.

The gleaming wooden floor seems to sanitize the violence and trauma represented by this number. I wonder what happened to the family in the photograph and the countless others whose faces adorn the images on the walls. Their voices are absent in the museum underlining the need to create permanent public spaces where the individual voices and personal histories of those who endured the traumas of division and war are heard and remembered.

The responsibility of reckoning, however, is not solely in the reins of governments or public institutions. It is the burden of history that we all carry.

People across the Korean diaspora are already doing this work.

Legacies of the Korean War is an on-line repository of oral histories by first-generation Korean American survivors of the war. This spring a Korean diasporic artist walked more than 330 miles across Minnesota in memory of her mother who walked the same distance in her escape from Pyongyang in the 1950s.

Still Present Pasts: Korean Americans and the “Forgotten War,” a digital multimedia exhibit of installation art, performance art, film, archival photography, and oral histories, “explores memories and legacies of the Korean War” in a “public space of remembering that breaks the silence about a tragic episode in U.S. and Korean history.” Exhibited in different spaces since 2005, Still Present Pasts continues to be available for presentation.

The efforts of these artists and scholars deserve support. Everyone is responsible to learn the heart-wrenching history behind the division on the Korean peninsula. And everyone needs to refrain from asking a person of Korean descent whether his or her family is from the North or South with part-suspicion, part-fascination.

Because it is not so simple. Reckoning with the legacy of loss in North and South Korea requires dealing with present injustices.

An alarming absence of attention was paid to North Korea’s record of human rights violations during negotiations with the North. Earlier this summer the South Korean government closed the office for a “state-run foundation for North Korea’s human rights.” South Korean activist groups for North Korean human rights struggle to raise funds and face pressure to stop criticizing the North.

The Korean public and international community have a moral obligation to urge their respective political leaders to pressure the North to attend to human rights violations against its own people.

The work of reckoning with loss is multifaceted and continual. In dealing with North Korea and the legacies of division, war, and injustice on the Korean peninsula, the dreams of those who desire to cross and reconnect is inseparable from the responsibility of those of us who must relentlessly insist and remember.

As a Korean diasporic subject born in the U.S., I have inherited this history. My hope is that I can pass on a legacy of peace to my children.

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