Seoul Searcher

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Friday, February 26, 2010

Casualties of War

As I grow older, I often look back and wonder, of all things, what kind of life I would have had if I had been born a girl. The answer, of course, is simple and clear. Women's lives on the whole are not any easier than men's. Nonetheless, I have engaged in that idle speculation ever since I heard that when my mother conceived me, she and my father wanted a boy so desperately that she locked herself in a room at a Buddhist temple and prayed for 100 days. They had enough daughters and felt they deserved a boy.

In Korea at that time (and even now, I might add), a married couple has to have a boy in order to keep the family's bloodline going--for what that is worth.

When the Korean War broke out, and I was drafted into the South Korean army to fight the Communist invaders from the North, my parents prayed for my life in a Catholic Church every day. Shortly before the war, my mother had died and Father married a Christian woman. So, my father moved from the Buddhist temple to the Christian church to pray with my stepmother for my safety. I don't know how influential their prayers were but I somehow survived that brutal war.

During the war, it appeared that women were better off than men, who had to risk their lives on the frontline. Then again, women were not safe either. To back up this point, I'll tell you a story of a girl I knew.

She was the younger sister of the wife of one of my cousins. She was a year younger than I was but girls mature sooner than boys of the same age, as they say. She had apparently taken an unusual interest in a boy--me--when we were still in middle school. I knew for a fact because when our girl servant went to her house on errands, she asked all kinds of questions about me. She even sent me a couple of letters. I couldn't make sense out of what she was trying to say in her letters, but thinking back later, I figured they must have been something akin to a "confession" of love.

The trouble was I was too shy to respond to her approach. I couldn't event look at her without blushing, much less talk to her whenever we met at family gatherings. Then, the war broke out, and I forgot all about her--that was until I heard the shocking and sad news of her death while I was away in the army.

What happened was that while the North Korean forces occupied Seoul, the capital of South Korea, her brother-in-laws--that is my cousin--worked for the so-called people's committee of the city, which was set up by the Communist party.

After the North Korean forces were repelled from Seoul by South Korean and U.S. troops, my cousin was captured and summarily executed by nothing more than a squad of South Korean soldiers. That is not all. They went to the dead man's house and gang raped the girl. Overwhelmed by the shame and despair, she later hanged herself.

Hearing that story, I felt intense anger and hatred toward those who had perpetrated the crime taking advantage of the chaos of war. I also felt a vague sense of regret that I had been unable to reciprocate her feeling toward me. Anyway, the incident showed me that women were not any safer than men nor were their lives any easier.

Throughout the war, brutality and inhuman acts that often led to death were inflicted nonchalantly as though they were routine exercises. And as an infantry solder, I had to witness them countless times so that, in the end, I became very insensitive and callous like most of my fellow soldiers. I simply stopped feeling any sense of outrage or indignation. But those scenes must have been buried deep in my unconciousness; years later, they would float to the surface, as it were, like nightmares.

One of those nightmares also involved a woman. She must have been the wife of a farmer, who had no doubt been hiding in her isolated house near a mountain pass, unable to flee from her village when the other did. She was caught either by a group of retreating Communist troops or by the advancing forces of the democratic South.

As our platoon searched the house, we happened to come upon her body. She was obviously in an advanced stage of pregnancy, and yet she had been raped before being stabbed in her abdomen with a bayonet.

Cynically, the man who committed the crime had stuck a Chrysanthemum in between her legs. The whole scene was so gruesome and sickening, I almost threw up as I ran out of the room. At the same time, I was so totally indignant and angry at all men in general that I had a hard time resisting an urge to shoot one of my superiors, who laughed at me and said, "Hey, kid you have a long way to go to become a real soldier."

How could the man who obviously liked flowers enough to pick one and carry it along with him in the battlefield, turn around the next moment and commit such a beastly and heinous crime? I simply couldn't figure it out.

Talking about war, I have noticed a recurring phenomenon in time of war, namely, the killing of "innocent civilians." Many people, especially so-called humanitarians and other self-righteous persons, beat their breasts and condemn the combatants, including and especially the soldiers of their own country. But as every soldier who has been to war knows "civilian casualties" are often unavoidable, however, regrettable they may be. That actually is one of the reasons, I believe, why so many people oppose war in the first place. But war occurs regardless of our beliefs and wishes.

And once you are at war, you are in it up to your neck.

While I was also in the thick of it for more than and half years during the Korean War, I never shot my rifle in anger, that is to say, I did not shoot with an aim to kill anyone, It was possible someone on the enemy side got wounded or even killed by the bullets I fired blindly, but as far as I know no one was. That means that I was a pretty bad solider. But to this day, I think I was fortunate--fortunate that I didn't have to kill anyone.

Nevertheless, I become exasperated whenever some self-righteous people get upset and condemn soldiers for killing "innocent civilians" without knowing the precise circumstances. Few soldiers in their right mind would kill another human being knowing that he or she was a non-combatant. But in a situation where you have to kill your enemy or get killed by them and where you have to make a decision instantaneously, you have no choice but shoot first and ask questions later. Innocent civilians get killed by stray bullets or shot at when they are forced to become a shield by the enemy. These situation occur often and they are regrettably unavoidable.

But what I cannot forgive or forget are those--soldiers on both sides--who take advantage of the confusion and chaos to commit crimes that have nothing to do with war. They include rape and the killing of innocent and helpless women as well as plundering and stealing other people's valuables with impunity.

After I became a newsman years later, I thought about digging into the aforementioned incident in which one of my distant relatives was brutally killed by a group of soldiers. But I came to realize that investigating such a killing during the war that took place a quarter of a century before and especially by the soldiers of "our own side" was well nigh impossible.

Looking back on my life, I have no particular complaint on the whole. In fact, I feel I have been fortunate in many ways, except when the horrible war ruined what should have been the best period in my life. Because of those bitter nightmarish experiences of war, I have come to believe that we must try and avoid war at any cost.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Chinese Maneuver

The Lunar New Year's Day that fell on February 14 this year by the Gregorian calendar, is one of the most joyous holidays for most Asians, including the people of North Korea.

However, for our cousins in the North, this year was an exception. They were reported to have cast the Lunary New Year's holiday aside in order to celebrate the birthday of their dictator Kim Jong-il, which happened to be a day after New Year's Day.

The traditional holiday, in other words, meant nothing when it was pitted against the mother of all festive days in North Korea--that is the birthday of the current ruler and the son of the founder of the pseudo-Communist regime, Kim Il-sung, who is worshipped by the North Koreans as a demigod.

While starving North Koreans wished "many happy returns" and a long, long life for their Dear Leader, his lackeys searched far and wide and bought many exotic animals and offered them to him as birthday presents, according to South Korean press reports. The animals included, it was said, some turtles that symbolize long life and rhinoceros.

Kim Jong-il, who reportedly survived a stroke a few years back and is suffering from other illnesses such as chronic diabetes, was able to bounce back physically, thanks to Chinese herbal medicine that included doses of the boiled horns of rhinos. They, of course, are an endangered species and poaching is prohibited under international law.

Earlier in November last year, the Kim regime undertook currency reform, entailing the redenomination of the North Korean currency, won, at the rate of 100 to 1. The unexpected reform wreacked havoc on the country's crumbling economy. It was also said to have brought extreme hardship to people who were already suffering acute shortages of food and other daily necessities.

As the level of public discontent and anger rose sharply, Pyongyang has been trying its best to divert atttention, resorting to its old trick of blaming "the U.S. imperialists and their puppets" in South Korea for their economic hardship. Pyongyang has also been threatening armed strikes against the South all winter while telling its people that it is only the military that can insure their safety from foreign aggression.

Meanwhile, partly due to the chronic mismanagement of the nation by the reclusive regime and partly due to the sanctions imposed by the United Nations to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons development plans, the country is in the throes of struggling with a sagging economy.

We all remember that in the late 1990s, North Korea faced total collapse but was saved in the nick of time by the then South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, who provided Kim Jong-il with billions of dollars in emergency bailouts. North Korea, however, lost sympathetic South Korean leaders after 10 years of leftist government in Seoul, which was replaced in 2008 by that of the conservative Lee Myong-bak Administration which has been reluctant to help the North unless Pyongyang promises to scrap its nuclear program.

Now faced with another economic meltdown, North Korea has turned to China, its only remaining ally. China was reported to have agreed to invest US$10 billion in North Korea to help build railways, harbors and other social-infrastructures, presumably creating jobs for North Koreans.

And some members of the news media in South Korea and elsewhere said that China appeared to have made the decision in an effort to motivate the impoverished neighbor to rejoin the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue. This, however, is only wishful thinking. For I firmly believe that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons under any circumstance because they are the only guarantee or lifeline, if you like, for the existence of Kim Jong-il and his regime.

What's more, China will never press Kim hard enough for North Korea to give up its nuclear bombs even though it often pretends to share international concerns over North Korea's nuclear ambition. There is no reason for Beijing to worry about Pyongyang's possession of nuclear weapons as it literally holds the fate of the Kim Jong-il regime in its hand.

China's decision to invest so much money in North Korea is part of its strategy to lay the groundwork--or pretext--to go into North Korea and install a puppet government should the Kim Jong-il regime collapses and civil unrest and political chaos ensue. For such an eventuality, China will never allow South Korea, one of the staunchest allies of the United States, to intervene in North Korea, much less try to unify the two Koreas.

In any event, chances for the Korean people to see their countries reunite in the foreseeable future seems to have receded further by China's latest sly maneuver.



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