Saturday, July 27, 2013

Armistice + 60

At the sixtieth anniversary, in 2005, of Korea's liberation from Japanese rule, I noted that in East Asia long periods of time go in five cycles of twelve years, making sixty years a kind of century-like milestone. It was, I hoped a chance during Korea-Japan Friendship Year for South Koreans to move past the emotional response to frequent insensitive utterances from Japan's right wing — and the politicians who supported them — and move toward reconciliation. Nationalists on both sides of the East Sea wouldn't let them.

Three years later, in 2008, I hoped for the same thing as the Republic of Korea entered its second sixty-year cycle as an independent country. Two years later, in 2010, I had a similar sentiment regarding the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities in the Korean War.

So on July 27, 2013, we again come to such a milestone, as both sides mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Armistice that effectively ended the Korean War, which officially is still going on, though it wasn't officially a war, depending on whom you ask.

North Korea marked the occasion with (reportedly) the largest military parade in its 65-year history. In Washington, President Barack Obama gave a moving speech about the significance of the Korean War and its effect on the Cold War that would involve much of the world for the next four decades or so. Here in South Korea, dignitaries gathered in Seoul to make speeches and show their solidarity with one another. It was easy to spot banners and posters thanking the United Nations forces — led by the Americans but with no small amount of support from sixteen other countries — for rescuing South Korea when the country was on the brink of collapse at the Pusan Perimeter.

On this sixtieth anniversary, as a war-weary South Korea enters a new cycle, can we possibly see a new direction? Where will it take us? Will it be reconciliation, a chance to make nice with a new DPRK leader who may wish to go down in the history books as North Korea's Gorbachev or North Korea's Deng Xiapoing rather than a brutal third incarnation of an evil Kim?

Or will a new cycle see South Korea go in the direction of accepting as its fate a permanently divided peninsula, where the two Koreas will never become one. Koreans are fond of saying they're the last divided country, but that's not really true. Germany has been reunited for two decades, but China remains divided in the PRC and the ROC, and many Taiwanese seem determined to become an independent country, though China is determined to prevent that. Cyprus continues to be divided, though European Union and NATO politics may finally effect a change in that status. Arguably Ireland is still divided into its Republic side and its British side, and that seems unlikely to change.

What lessons can be learned from Germany, the two Chinas, Cyprus, etc.? Maybe nothing. Maybe Korea is unique, but so far that uniqueness has meant division. Maybe, like the other sixty-year cycles I mentioned above, the status quo will dominate. For now at least.

In that case, the significance of the sixtieth anniversary is reflection on how far South Korea has come. We can see from the North that the ROK's economic and democratic development was by no means a foregone conclusion. Hard work and sacrifice is what propelled the country forward, but that was made possible by brave ROK and UN soldiers taking up arms and laying down their lives for the Republic of Korea to eventually flourish. In later decades, workers would turn their sweat and blood into dollars, and eventually students and workers and other citizens would rise up and oust dictators in favor of a truly democratically elected government, but without the sacrifice of so many, the ROK would have become the southern part of the DPRK, and its prospects would have been very dim.

Thank you, soldiers of the Republic of Korea and the member countries of the United Nations forces, for bringing that bright light.


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