Remembering the Korean War

By Kimberly Kim

A cloud of discontent among a group of Korean Americans hints at an impending storm, releasing unresolved tensions of the forgotten Korean War. As it seems, the war remains as a painful account to multiple generations of Korean Americans from both the young and old who still struggle with memories, as well as present realities of the war. Bolder in its efforts than ever before, a tightly knit community of Korean Americans today is airing their dissatisfaction to an unhearing administration in Washington.

“Diplomacy, dialogue and engagement are important,” said Jae Jung Suh, Professor at Johns Hopkins University. “We need to take the fight out of DC into our work places. There needs to be a fundamental shift that mounts a challenge to institutions that are all about making war plans.”

A conference held on April 22 and 23, 2011 at NYU highlighted this idea ofunfinished business in one of Asia’s most developed nations—at least the southern counterpart we know as South Korea. About 150 guests attended both days and seats were taken up by a colorful range of students,

Group of panelists at The (Unending) Korean War Conference.

professors, war veterans, and the usual hecklers. Such an event dedicated to examining the past, present and future implications of the Korean War was NYU’s first, according to Professor Henry Em at the East Asian Studies Department.

“It’s almost 60 years since the beginning of the war, 60 years represents in East Asian culture a lifetime,” said Mr. Em, adding, “Scholars, artists, and community activists thought it important to remember and to rethink the continuing legacy of the Korean War.”

The Korean War was inextricably linked to U.S.’s larger goal in destabilizing the Soviet Union. To fulfill its Cold War narrative against communist ideology and to prevent it from gaining a foothold on Asia, the U.S. intervened, instilling its own principles of democracy and providing military assistance to South Korea as it fought against its Soviet Union-backed counterpart North Korea. The U.S. may or may not have foreseen that its involvement would cause and perpetuate the establishment of the 38th parallel, chilling relations between North and South Korea to this day. The Korean War ended merely with an armistice in 1953 and a formal peace treaty has yet to be made.

Organized by NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute and Department of East Asian Studies and Third World Newsreel, The (Unending) Korean War Conference made intentional use of public space, engaging in academic discussions, screening independent films, and presenting artworks, all of which captured the essence of the Korean American struggle in relation to the war. For participants and guests alike, it was indeed a time to finally remember the Korean War.

Panelist Monica Kim from University of Michigan said that by involving itself in such a deep and direct way, the U.S. had become a “hegemonic system of power.” As it saw the incentive to “control life and change lifestyle” of the South Korean, the U.S. had eventually assumed the role of “aid-giver, benefactor, superintendent, protector, and guarantor of free will and self determination.”

It is an idea which certainly holds weight within the Korean American society today. Their lives, through one way or another, have been touched by this unsuspected and distant historical entity. For some, the Korean War embodies the dichotomy between the part of them who is artificially bred American by nurture and the other that is at the most basic level racially Korean by nature.

According to U.S. Census report in 2000, there is a population of 1,228,427 Korean Americans, including mixed race. As a result of U.S. intervention in the Korean War, between the years 1951 and 1964, there was a heavy migration of war brides, war-orphans, and students seeking foreign education to the U.S.

“Around 1952, U.S. immigration law changes that allows South Korean women who married American G.I.s to immigrate to the U.S. Prior to that, it was unlikely,” said Mr. Em. Studies have shown that up to about 50% of Korean Americans living in the U.S. can trace their origins back to events directly related to the Korean War.

Deann Borshay is one of them. Her film In the Matter of Cha Chung Hee, a story about her life as a Korean War adoptee and the journey back to her origin, struck a deep chord with the Korean American audience at the conference.

“I felt like a colonized subject relative to the U.S.,” shared Borshay in an interview. “There were tens of thousands of adoptees who had been brought into the U.S. during and after the war. We’ve all been educated within the U.S. system, primarily by white families.”

As it stands in its present state of incompletion, the Korean War is highly problematic. Peace and hopes for reconciliation between North and South Korea stop short as they meet the presence of U.S. troops in the homeland and the stubborn refusal of the North Korean government to give up its developing nuclear weapons program.

Nodutdol members raise silent protest on streets.

“The end goal is the withdrawal of U.S. troops and denuclearization of North Korea, which will allow peaceful reunification for Koreans to self determine what kind of society they want,” said Hyun Lee, member of Nodutdol for Korean Community Development and the National Campaign to End the Korean War. “Peace to me means disarmament, meaning no more spending so much money on creating new weapon systems and funding the military, for all parties involved—North, South and the U.S.”

From February 28 through April 30, 2011, the U.S. and South Korean militaries conducted the annual Key Resolve Foal Eagle, an exercise which mobilized 13,000 U.S. troops and 200,000 South Korean troops in Korea’s West Sea. Some find these joint military measures to be provocative, targeting the collapse of the North Korean regime as well as stirring fear of a full-blown war on the Korean peninsula. As the U.S. government continues to execute these war plans, the discontent of the Korean American community on the lack of dialogue related to these issues continues to grow.

Since 2001, U.S. military expenditure has been on the rise and currently stands at about 800 billion dollars a year, out of which roughly 20 billion dollars is utilized to maintain its military forces in Korea and neighboring regions in Asia. Many Americans feel 20 billion dollars could be spent not on war efforts overseas, but as a means to create more jobs and build a more sustainable economy within the U.S.

For others, especially Korean Americans, 20 billion dollars is a chance for the U.S. to lift the curtailment of humanitarian aid that was placed on North Korea since early March, 2010. The wages of what officials continue to claim as the war on terror seem to outweigh the costs of promoting internal economic development and alleviating poverty abroad.

“The Obama administration should not sit back,” firmly said Jae Jung Suh, a panelist at the conference. “Why is it so difficult to give humanitarian aid to those in need? Provide it now.”

UNICEF currently reports that about 6 million North Koreans suffer from lack of food. As a result of severe chronic malnutrition, children experience stunted growth. Out of 20.4 million dollars of funds UNICEF has requested on April 15, 2011 to “prevent a full scale nutrition crisis from emerging” in North Korea, U.S. has granted $500,000—10 per cent of that which was asked.

The (Unending) Korean War Conference served not only as a public forum to discuss and raise awareness about such issues, but also a reminder, more so for younger Korean Americans than not, that the Korean War not only once happened, but is still ongoing, and it has become something they cannot compromise. As a result of the war, they cannot escape the duality that inherently exists with being Korean Americans. And many times, being a Korean American means having to question what that really means.

“It’s to be caught between both worlds and also having the privilege to identify with both worlds,” said Kevin Em, Senior at NYU. “Going to Korea, not really fitting in because you look the same, but you’re different. Being in America, you know everyone looks different, but they don’t know you’re Korean. People can mistake you as Chinese, Japanese, so on.”

“I’m lucky and proud of it. Being Korean American means being born in a place where you are comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time.”

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