I think that if anyone has ever studied the history of the world, or even the history of a country, any country, they will understand that there is always someone to fight.
In my copy of The Art of War, the introduction states that the term “winning” is never defined as a treaty or even considered to be attainable. It reads that “…no end state, no final peace, is ever reached, there will always be an opponent with whom to contend.”
When I visited South Korea last month, I put at the top of my list the War Memorial of Korea as a place to visit, especially since I was visiting primarily for research purposes for my upcoming novel. The memorial in no way disappointed. It was a massive building that covered the beginning of the country, around 3,000 years ago, to now. It had timelines, artifacts, photos, weaponry, and other war memorabilia. This, however, isn’t about the War Memorial of Korea, and yet, to an extent, it is.
Toward the tail end of my visit to the memorial, I walked through an incredible set up of South Korea’s past and current military armament. Planes, tanks, missiles, etc. I took various photos, but one that I took stood out the most to me. It is the one you noticed when you clicked on this blog post. To me, more than most people, I would assume, it defines so much of South Korea moving forward, yet not moving forward.
WHAT DOES THIS PHOTO MEAN?
There are four boys of elementary age. My guess would be five, but no more than six years old. They stand in front of an old South Korean tank undoubtedly used during the Korean War. All four are saluting and two are additionally holding out their other hand as a gun. It struck me the necessary indoctrination these young South Koreans must undergo.
I understand the uneasiness you feel when hearing the word “indoctrination”, especially accompanied with the word “necessary”, but not all indoctrination is wrong. Not all propaganda is inaccurate and deceptive. So I watched these boys for a moment, and now I am able to truly analyze the meaning behind this photo.
I remember asking myself, “Do these boys really understand what they’re doing?” They are standing in front of a tank at a war memorial that celebrates the finality of the Korean War. It celebrates the freedom this particular country currently enjoys. “Do these boys really understand the horrors of war?” “Do they really understand the demands of the salute or, even greater, the demands of the weapon?”
These are children, unwittingly ingratiated into the war effort that continues to this day. Yes, the Korean War, the one that lasted from 1950-1953, is over, but the fight has continued throughout the decades. I began to argue within myself that these children were unaware of the powerful statements made via these gestures. I suggested to myself that their teacher must have told them to salute and hold out finger pistols. Someone must have thought it was cute, since children can do almost anything and induce a smile or laugh. But I thought about the magnitude of it. The place where it took place. And the purpose behind it.
No. They can’t understand.
THE THREAT AT THE DOOR
Since the end of World War II, Korea has been split in two. The previous statement of the country starting 3,000 years ago may have astounded you, but it is true. Korea had been a country of stability and peace and isolation for the mass majority of its existence. It wasn’t until about a 75-year span (1876-1953) that Korea began to lose its identity and slowly but surely began to be ripped apart, sewn back together, and essentially and ultimately torn apart again.
Since this time, North Korea and South Korea have desired to unify, though attempting this idea with different methods. North Korea tried for the first two decades to unify through force, barbarism, and assassinations. South Korea struggled to maintain a hold on its own people as it grew to understand democracy, after millennia of monarchy.
Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un have continued a way of living that goes back more than 1,000 years into Korean history. They have set up a dynasty. There have been three rulers, whom I just mentioned. The last dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty, had 26 monarchs over its more than 500 year reign. In so many ways, it is a continuance of the old ways, except with the addition of a dictatorship (which, to many extents, was unlike the previous dynasties).
So how many more rulers will the Kim Dynasty have before it, like Joseon, is removed? That is the question that is most difficult, even impossible to answer. And why is it impossible to answer? Because of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. There is no easy solution. Kim Jong Un has officially connected the legitimacy of the Kim Dynasty to its military might and removing that connection would mean removing Kim Jong Un. I don’t believe you will ever have one without the other, primarily because of a certain Cold War indoctrination that has continued to engulf North Korea, in particular, the regime. This indoctrination, that the Cold War is ongoing, has been happily received by the regime and regurgitated to the populace, which can hardly disbelieve it, having returned to strict isolationism, and more importantly must believe it, or be thrown into labor camps.
So we see this incredible power, built almost completely on nuclear arms, just north of a thinly veiled border separating the two countries, called the 38th Parallel. There are landmines littered through the line. There are soldiers aligning both sides, preparing for an attack from the North or South. Both governments have their fingers on the proverbial trigger. And now you have these children who stand in front of a tank at the War Memorial of Korea saluting and making hand pistols. It is an indoctrination of what is possible. An indoctrination of what is true and very near to them. This indoctrination consists of the notion that at any moment the world of South Korea, as it is known today, may be under massive attack. It is, more than anything, an indoctrination of preparedness.
After having studied this photo and understanding the disturbance it caused me, I viewed it from a different perspective. It isn’t about fighting. It isn’t about shooting or killing. It is about understanding what lies at the back door. A threat that is very real and very determined.
Now, as I look at this photo, I no longer suggest that these children are making playful gestures with no cognition to what they mean. I look at them and consider the fact that despite their age, it isn’t that they have no idea of what they are referring, but quite possibly they may truly understand the reference. It is a reference to the knowledge that “there will always be an opponent with whom to contend.” It is just sad that these opponents shared this wonderful country together for so many hundreds of years.