"What amazes me about Korea's story is her resilience and unquenchable passion to rise from the ashes of a history marked by oppression and division to now becoming the prosperous country we see today." — Nelly Shin Global Korean Politicians Forum, Seoul, August 17, 2022
War Memorial of Korea
On August 18, GKPF participants were given a historic tour of Seoul. The first destination was the War Memorial of Korea. I was moved when I saw the many flags that represented the countries that fought in the Korean War to defend peace and freedom. I was profoundly impacted by the dozens of plaques on the wall commemorating the fallen heroes from the Korean War in the Roll of Honour Hall.
I'd like to provide a little background about my interest in the Korean War and its connection to my awakening to the importance of caring for Korea's peace and prosperity. Back in 2014, while visiting Southern California, I serendipitously walked into a local museum curated by the Torrance Historical Society. I was drawn to a display on the Korean War at a far wing of the museum. Among the artifacts, the honour rolls of men who had volunteered to fight in the Korean War was most compelling. I became tearful as I saw names of soldiers in their teens and early twenties. These were young men of different races at the threshold of new lives with education, work and marriage, who chose to fight for a country they knew nothing about, for a people they likely had no connection with. I always had deep respect for the Korean War veterans and fallen heroes in Canada, but for some reason, seeing names etched in memorials of yet another country, stirred something very deep inside me. The fact that many nations around the world came together to die defending freedom and peace in Korea drove home the conviction that even though I no longer live in Korea, Korea is a country that matters and her peace and freedom was fought for at a high price. This eventually inspired me to compose a tribute, "Triumph of the Cross," for the Korean War Veterans, in 2015. This stirring also convicted me to stop dismissing politics just because it's dirty and corrupt because it's exactly this kind of apathy that allows evil to erode a nation's strength, prosperity and freedom. I got involved in supporting a local election campaign for the first time in my life in the fall of 2015.
Now back to Seoul, the War Memorial of Korea has a very through display and recounting of the Korean War. It was interesting to see more details come together. It was a difficult war and a complicated one that resulted in a divided nation. A path forward will require thoughtful, sober consideration of many factors, and a realization from both entities that there is greater value in resolution.
Nevertheless, those who died in battle and the nations who sent them believed for goodness to triumph over darkness. For that I am grateful and I know I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for their sacrifice.
Ultimately, the capacity for conflict resolution occurs when both entities realize that there is greater benefit to resolution than continuing in conflict. — Nelly Shin
After visiting the war memorial, we stopped by 아담한 어상 (Eosang Korean Restaurant) and enjoyed the air conditioning, traditional Korean food and good company. The bonds continued to form. We cheered with small cups of tea and water. A light break from the weight of war stories. I think we all experienced the joy that comes with unity.
In contrast to the jovial mood we had at lunch, our visit to Seodaemun Prison was met with shock, sorrow, and disbelief as we toured the century-old prison grounds, built under Japanese colonial rule and served to suppress Korea's independence movement.
Between 1910 and 1945, Korea came under Japanese Colonial Rule. During this time, the Japanese Empire tried to wipe out Korean culture. Assimilation tactics included forcing Koreans to learn Japanese and take on Japanese names, while removing Korean language and history from school curriculums. They also confiscated properties and used brute force to suppress resistance.
The people of Korea reacted with a growing independence movement. On March 1st, 1919, peaceful demonstrations were organized and held by thousands of civilians and students in Seoul and simultaneously with 1000 demonstrations in other cities. According to Korean historian Park Eun-sik, approximately 7,500 were killed, 16,000 wounded, and 46,000 arrested. The movement continued nevertheless and many of its activists met their end at Seodaemun.
Yoo Kwan-Sun organized the April 1, 1919 independence movement in Byungcheon, Cheonan. She was arrested, and sentenced for sedition. She died a violent death in Seodaemun at age 18. She is recognized as a national patriotic martyr. March 1st is a national holiday in both South and North Korea.
During the tour, we were told about the Wailing Poplar, which was planted in 1923 at the time the execution building was built. Apparently, independence activists, on their way to their hangings, had clung onto this tree and wept bitterly. We were told during the pandemic, that the 30 metre tree fell and the grounds keepers found new baby trees growing underneath. I'd like to look at this as the sign of a new era, one that is marked by peace, freedom, security, and joy, arising from the people's sacrifice for freedom.
The atrocities of Japanese colonialism continues to haunt Koreans. I heard from my father, who was born during World War II, that when he was growing up in Korea, he experienced immense bullying and racism from classmates because while his father was Korean, his mother was Japanese. Neither my father nor his mother were responsible for the Japanese Empire's actions during Japanese Colonial Rule. Yet resentment and hatred transferred even into children's classrooms years later. It is wrong and unfortunate. At the same time, seeing the oppression explicitly displayed at Seodaemun, it is not too difficult to understand the hard feelings many Koreans still have toward Japan for the atrocities.
To add another layer to the picture, as a Canadian, I have immense empathy for the Japanese Canadians who were unjustly displaced from their homes and put in internment sites during World War II. They were not responsible for the military strategies that Japan executed during the War. Among all the Canadians who were treated as alien enemies during the Second World War, they were the most discriminated.
During different times in history, different peoples have risen to power and at times, have also fallen under oppression. When we fail to put history into an objective, big picture perspective, it is easy to paint it with a broad brush stroke and inappropriately project hostility and hate. At the same time, accountability calls for a look into the finer details of history. Those in power to amend past wrongdoings should identify the wrongs and exercise appropriate measures of restitution where called for. History should be reviewed, restoratively, to study the pathology of grievances that need to be put to rest, and ensure they're not repeated.
There are different stages a people or nation undergoes in the aftermath of oppression. There is sorrow, anger, and blaming. I call this the grieving stage. But a decision also has to be made as to whether people want to heal and move forward to the restoration stage or remain in a place of grief. In this respect, I feel that while South Korea still carries some historical trauma, the nation's resilience expressed through self-motivated restoration, has allowed the country to rise to the top.
"There’s a theft of destiny, where oppression takes place, for both the oppressed and the oppressor." — Nelly Shin
Simply put, there is no winner where oppression exists. It merely creates bad blood and interferes with the flow of justice for both the oppressed and oppressor. When justice is hampered, there is disruption in peoples' destinies—the flourishing of their callings, dreams and those of their descendants. But redemption is accessible when there is resilience and sincere efforts to heal the past.