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Korean novelist Han Kang, presumably most famous outside Korea for winning the Man Booker International Prize 2016 for The Vegetarian, penned an opinion piece for the New York Times on October 8th.
“There is no war scenario that ends in victory,” reads the subtitle, before a call for peace amid the war of words between North Korea and the US.
Han begins her column with a story of an old Korean man who drew a significant amount of money from his bank account in fear of another Korean war.
She moves on to the ordinary people of South Korea—those who are often portrayed by foreign media as calm and indifferent to what said media cover so hard: the war threat from the North.
In fact, she argues that South Koreans struggle to stay calm because they feel the existence of the North more than anyone else.
As those who would suffer the most should another war break out, she says Koreans firmly believe peace to be the only solution.
Rather than focusing on big, powerful figures like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, Han maintains her focus on these ordinary people—in cafes, hospitals, and schools—from first word to last.
Perhaps that choice explains the widespread praise. She managed to cast light upon the oft-forgotten aspect of the Korean crisis: the lived experience of the people on the peninsula. (Pundits and ranting politicians: take note.)
Local media rarely tire of the tale of a Korean writer chosen by a world-renowned paper. Korean Man Booker winner writing for the NYT? It’s no surprise that the piece drew the attention it did.
However, in a weird twist of events, Han’s call for peace ended up the subject of a political dogfight and the foreign minister was left with no choice but to publicly criticize her writing.
Limelight of blue
Right after its publication, Han Kang’s NYT column made the news of the day. It also enjoyed limelight of an unlikely color: blue.
Because the source of light was the Blue House.
“The NYT has published an article by Han Kang, winner of the Man Booker Prize 2016 [sic],” reads the Blue House introduction to the opinion on its official Facebook page.
Oddly enough, the Blue House even took the trouble of quoting one reader.
“Someone get a copy of this [piece] into the hands of everyone in the American government so they don’t forget what’s at stake,” the comment reads.
It’s rare for an official social channel of the Presidential office to share a piece from someone with no official position in government, especially an opinion piece.
The reason is pretty obvious. Doing so risks sending the wrong signal to those listening, local or foreign: that the government is one hundred per cent behind what the article opines.
And that’s precisely what happened here.
War on ‘proxy war’
“Han Kang wrote that the Korean War was a proxy war by great powers,” conservative lawmaker Yoo Seung-min wrote on his Facebook. “Is this the Blue House’s confession that it shares the same preposterous understanding of history?”
Many conservatives shared Yoo’s concern. Because the seemingly passing mention of proxy war reveals much more than you might first think about the political position of Han Kang.
The way one views history shapes one’s political position, and vice versa. Given that the Korean War is the greatest tragedy in modern Korean history, it is impossible to overstress the importance of understanding it.
While conservatives tend to emphasize that it was the North who instigated the war, progressives focus on the post-war situation around the Korean peninsula. They believe the birth of the cold war, symbolized by the power struggle between the US and the Soviet Union, played a significant role in the breakout of the Korean War.
The nationalists, who constituted the majority of the Korean progressives during the democratization era, took this seriously. They made it their foremost goal to tackle the issue of national (read: peninsula) division while keeping all foreign influence at bay.
This is where the proxy war comes in. Some nationalists argue that the Korean War was in effect a war between the two superpowers, with the Koreas as pawns.
It may be true that the North would not have attacked the South had the Soviets and China not been on its back, but that does not negate its responsibility in any way.
The proxy war theory, however, achieves exactly that. And some hardline conservatives still believe the progressive camp to be full of North sympathizers who are ready to give the whole country away to Pyongyang. The dismissal of the North’s responsibility for the war is, for them, yet more proof.
There was once a time when the responsibility for the breakout of the war was very unclear, because of a dearth of trustable evidence. But when the classified diplomatic archive of the Soviet Union was broken open with the fall of the union in the early 1990s, it became clear that it was the North that had done the instigating.
In the history of modern Korea, left-leaning regimes have been consistently condemned as North sympathizers, often without a firm basis. The Blue House (of left-leaning Moon Jae-in) sharing Han’s column represented a golden opportunity for conservatives.
The issue even became a subject in this year’s National Assembly audit of government affairs. With the Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha in attendance, a conservative lawmaker brought this up and asked the minister her thoughts.
“Of course she can have her personal opinion as a writer,” Kang said. “But I think there are some problems in the way she expresses herself and in her understanding of history.”
“If [the Blue House] had consulted me, I would have advised not to post it,” Kang added.
The Blue House later explained its decision to share the piece. “[The author’s] opinion is not far from the Blue House’s opinion that [the Korean crisis] needs dialogue and peaceful solutions”, they said, and emphasized that the Blue House doesn’t hold the same view on the Korean War as she does.
That certainly won’t be enough to cover up its mess.
Is Korea really only a victim?
Though Han’s column has managed to move readers and to bring their attention to the ordinary people of Korea, some were disturbed by her view on the US.
Many can’t help but see the column as portraying Korea as pure victim and the US as mere perpetrator. As if there is a thick, clear line that differentiates victims from aggressors in times of war.
But there is little that can be fully grasped in black and white. While it is true that US soldiers committed terrible deeds during the war — including the notorious No Gun Ri massacre — so is it true that they are not the only ones to carry out such atrocities.
Han says she tried to gaze into the universality of human violence by delving looking back on the Spanish Civil War, Bosnia and the massacres of Native Americans, but her reflection falls short of the brutal nature of the Korean War:
The Korean War is a war in which Koreans slaughtered other Koreans.
It was not only the American soldiers who perceived the South Korean refugees as “subhuman.” The soldiers of the two Koreas did the same to one another.
This is why the Korean War remains horrifying and must not be repeated.
For many here, to restrict Korea to the position of victim is to limit the nation from reflecting and repenting on the atrocities of the war in its totality.