Remembering the Fallen on Korea’s Memorial Day

3 minute read

The Korean peninsula definitely has a lot to remember for it’s memorial day, June 6. In addition to various invasions and wars, there’s the ongoing split between the north and south. Sadly, that situation should have not even happened, but it is what it is.

I like to think of Korea’s Memorial Day as a unified holiday, remembering the North Korean soldiers who died. Just like the civil war in the United States (albeit under very different political circumstances), at the individual soldier level, you typically had a normal person who either volunteered or was forced to fight mostly because of where they happened to be geographically.

Going a little off-topic, some of those who need to always be remembered in addition to the soldiers, are the civilians who died. From famine. “Collateral damage.” Land mines. etc. Without exception, wars always affect the civilian population. They didn’t volunteer. Or do anything related to the war. They just existed in the wrong time and place. Sometimes they are the result of atrocities and massacres, one side cleansing an area. In the Korean War, both sides had all of the above.

Similar to my recent U.S. Memorial Day post, I’m going to highlight a Korean movie that touched me. A few movies that I like that touch this area are:

The Taebaek Mountains (태백산맥)

The Taebaek Mountains (directed by Im Kwon-taek, who has done some absolutely amazing films) is set in a village during the Korean War. You see the manipulation, atrocities, and hardships from both sides on the individual village. It explores some of the underlying problems leading up to the war, like how land ownership changed through the Japanese invasion, Soviet and American influences, and into the war.

Note this is not an action movie in any sense of the word, it mostly explores the political and personal landscape of the war.

WARNING: This movie includes some nudity, language, and violence.

When you get redirected to Youtube (this video isn’t enabled to play here), make sure to enable captions (you’ll see something llike a cc button at the bottom right of the video if you’re on the desktop site).

I hope you enjoy this movie as much as I did! It’s long, but it’s worth it.

I’ll call out a few interesting interactions from the movie. The first is after the North leave the village and the South takes over. They brutally hurt and kill many villagers who are suspected communists. After asking an officer to be more fair in the treatment of the citizens, he went off talking about his family who had been dealt with and wronged, as an example of why they needed to then wrong the communists. Afterwards, one of the people that had asked for the soldiers to be more reasonable, made the following comment:

The terms commie, communist and socialist all mean the same thing but they evoke such different emotions. When the general used the word ‘commie’ today, he said it with such hatred. That one word is enough to put someone’s life in danger.

Sadly, such small changes like calling something a slightly different word, does evoke different emotions and sometimes very hateful ones. You can dehumanize a person by simply changing the vocabulary used.

At the end of the movie, the communists who had taken over the town again did more purging and escalated to burn down some buildings on their way out. A school teacher, walking with the burning town behind him, watches an exorcism being performed to bring peace to the spirit of someone’s wife. Afterwards, he comments:

I realized much while watching the exorcism yesterday. While the lives of the living are treated with little regard, you treat the dead with all your heart. It felt like I was watching the world we had lost.

Exorcisms are for the living. It’s to bring them peace.

Relieve them of pain… It looks like you have a lot of work to do.

The world does quite often bring a lot of pain, Memorial Day is definitely a day to remember that. What we can hope to do, like the Shaman, is bring peace to the living.

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