I’m now technically an American citizen but I watch a Korean movie or a TV show, and I get so emotionally attached to that culture and heritage. There’s a Korea adage that goes: “You can’t deceive your blood (피는못 속인다).” It’s a saying I personally have had an issue with. To translate, the saying is that we are defined by our genes, that you can tell who’s father and son by seeing how similarly they behave. In an even larger context, it’s saying that there is a fundamental difference between one group of people compared to all others. In this American society that celebrates individuality, emphasizes free will, and which preaches personal responsibility, this particular Korean adage is sure to be offensive. I take offense to it largely, but in some ways, I unwillingly see a semblance of truth to the statement. I can’t deny that my birthplace, that my heritage begins in Korea.
Oftentimes, I find that fact disheartening. I’d imagine it’d the same sort of disappointment and heartbreak a person from South Sudan would feel. More recently, I could imagine an Iraqi person having a similar sentiment. There’s a painful longing boiling inside us, born into a nation violently split in two, unable to reconcile except through a bloody war and an arms race. Almost all nations have gone through a civil war (that’s how some nation states are born after all, particularly so in the case of United States), and my heart really goes out to the peoples still undergoing one, especially my birthplace.
It feels personally disheartening to me because my dad’s side of the family originated from what is currently Democratic Republic of Korea (대한임민국) a.k.a. North Korea. My grandmother, her four daughters and only son (my dad) fled to the southern part of the country about seven years after the outbreak of the Korean War. So it is that my dad has no idea what’s happened to his father, to his uncles, aunts. Once the country was split in two, backed by superpowers of opposing ideologies and policies, those who used to be family became strangers, and even became enemies in certain cases.
To engage in a war against a foreign nation is still a bloody, terrifying act. On paper, the brutality of such a war is no different than a so-called civil war. Because there is nothing civil about a war between those who share the same “blood.” In practice, this kind of war strikes deeper into the heart. It really is heartbreaking to have what was one nation kill and rape each other in the name of national defense (South Korea’s rationale), or in the name of peace and unification (North Korea’s rationale).
Vietnam was once in a similar situation. It gained independence from Japanese oppression largely with the help of the Americans and the Soviets. Two superpowers couldn’t agree to there just being one Vietnam, and left alone by either superpowers. So the country was once split into south and north. South tried its best to defend itself from the North’a aggressive desire to be a unified nation once more. Fate though was not kind to South Vietnam. Well, it wasn’t kind to Vietnam overall. The aftermath of that civil war was an exodus of millions, and for those who remained, what awaited were mass murders, torture, and brainwashing.
That could very well be the future of the two Koreas. If the two brother nations were ever unified, it would most likely occur via northern aggression and conquest. For one, it’s politically impossible for the south to do so as UN and United States would never allow it. Even the most rightwing hawks in South Korean government would consider it political suicide to suggest the South re-initiate conflict. The South has too much to lose in war, and most business owners in that free market (though heavily regulated) society would lobby trillions against such a proposition. The South has the more advanced weaponry and the backing of powerful nations such as U.S., UK, and France, but ultimately, should bullets and shells start flying again, the North is the one with the advantage, with millions of heavily trained soldiers at its disposal, and a dictatorial style of governance that allows for its populace to more easily engage in brutal guerrilla war tactics. The North is also ideologically more geared towards unification by any means necessary, including the conquest and slaughter of its capitalistic brothers/sisters. The South doesn’t like the current situation, but ultimately, asked to choose between unification via northern aggression or status quo, South is content with remaining as one of the richest nations in the world.
To be leftwing hardliner in South Korean politics means leaving Korea vulnerable to North Korea’s manipulation and aggression. But on the other hand, to be a rightwing hawk means provoking the North Korea into a conflict. The country for the past sixty years has been in the precarious situation of “damned if you don’t; damned if you do.” It’s truly a wonder that it’s been able to survive and thrive as it has. There’s widespread guilt in the South regarding this, reflecting the fact that South Korea is one of the richest and most politically free countries in the world, all the while a nation sharing its blood is one of the poorest and most politically repressive countries in the world. More than guilt, there’s fear, that this poor repressive nation is far stronger and more determined, that one day, South/North Korea could have the same fate as Vietnam.
All this is to simply say that it sucks that there had to be two Koreas like this. Pretty recently, I watched this Korean TV show called “Comrades” (전우), which follows the actions of soldiers in North Korea and South Korea in 1951. I found the scenes in this show to be some of the most brutal and heartbreaking I’ve ever watched. There’s a point when one of the North Korean sergeant says of the splitting of Koreas into two: “This is the unfortunate result of us achieving our independence [from Japanese occupation] on someone else’s[Soviets’ and U.S.’s] conditions, and not on our own.” That line begins to summarize the heartache I feel regarding the place of my birth. There are millions of people that share my blood, but because we won the war against Japan by relying on help from other more powerful nations, those millions of other people have become people trained to hate and kill us. It’s certainly disheartening if you ask me.