More than Dokdo, it’s history

I was told when my family and I moved into a house we are renting here in Seoul that it was kind of an older house. I wondered how old, imagining it would be one of those traditional kinds with the sloping roofs and sliding, paper doors. I mean, this is Korea, with 5ooo years of history behind it. The house had to be at least older than the one I grew up in in San Francisco, which was built just before the big quake in 1906.

It was built in the early 80s, I soon learned. The 1980s, that is. Ancient history here in Korea, ironically, an intensely modern country imbued/burdened with an immense historical legacy, the physical records of which have been thoroughly ransacked. What remains are reconstructions, partly real and partly imagined, and an abiding sense that it could all once again go up in flames.

That is what I believe fuels such strong reactions here in Korea to Japans latest move on the East Sea islets of Dokdo, called Takeshima in Japanese. Last month Japan published a teachers manual used in middle schools asserting the islets were disputed, rather than soveriegn Korean territory. What followed was an outburst of nationalistic emotion as Koreans of all stripes turned out to denounce the move.

The Dokdo islets are a series of rocks. Aside from a contingent of South Korean police, two people live on them, both South Korean. Their immediate importance seems to have to do with fishing rights in and around the islets, as well as territorial matters, understandably sensitive stuff for neighboring states. A colleague of mine, a longtime journalist in Korea who speaks fluent Japanese, says that for Japan the islets are merely a bargaining chip in a greater regional strategic game. Theyll ultimately give them up, in exchange for something more valuable.

More important, at least for most Koreans, is the historical memory of a onetime colonizer once again attempting to aggrandize Koreas soveriegn territory. For many here it is further proof that Japan refuses to acknowledge its imperialist past, and in fact seeks to perpetuate it. Thats the trope most often heard in South Korean news accounts trying to explain its countrys bitter feelings. I think theres still more to it.

The physical record in Japan remains visibly, securely intact. Ancient architecture accentuates a modern skyline, assuring residents of historys seamless, unbroken progression. One can see and touch it, in mighty castles and humble shrines, austere temples and simple residences, reassured in the knowledge of its safe and continued existence. In Korea historys progression has been anything but seamless.

In the 13the century Korea was invaded by Mongol forces, which ultimately succeeded in turning the peninsula into a vassal of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, then in control of China. In the 16th century Korea was again invaded, this time by Japan. Known as the Imjin War, that event traumatized the country and resulted in the further loss of Koreas historical record. (One interesting example is the destruction of numerous slave records, which led to the freeing of thousands of slaves putting downward pressure on labor wages and leading to an overall economic slump.)

Korea was again invaded in the 17th century by the rising Manchu Qing, the last dynastic rulers of China into the modern era, when Korea again underwent invasion and colonization by Japan, which actively sought to rewrite Koreas past as part of the greater Japanese Empire. Following WWII Korea became a stationing point for foreign Russian and American forces, leading to a bloody civil-war that has yet to end. In the period following the cease-fire signed in 1953 South Korea undertook a rapid industrialization project that transformed the country into a leading economy by burying its past, literally and figuratively.

Walk around Korea today and one sees countless displays of Koreas ancient legacy, from the kings palace in Seoul to the popular tourist site of Bulguksa in the South. What you quickly realize, though, is that so many of these national treasures are in fact replicas, reconstructions or rennovations of earlier sites destroyed by Koreas turbulent past. Theyre illusions in a way, fragments peiced together to appear whole, and solid. Intended to reassure, yet fragile to the touch.

In the most recent case of historical destruction, Seouls famed Great Southern Gate, built six centuries earlier, was engulfed in flames after an elderly Korean man set it afire. On a visit to the sites remains I encountered hundreds of people seemingly on pilgrimage to pay their respects to the fallen structure, itself a reconstruction. There was a man in traditional black garb, a speaker for the dead my wife informed me. They mourned the loss of a memory.

The anger over Dokdo is more than just the loss of land. Its more than mere hatred of Japan, or irrational nationalism. Deep down it is a sense that history can be destroyed, has been destroyed. It can be taken from a country and smashed into irreparable peices, creating a void filled with haunting memories and bitter emotion. Dokdo is a small but integral part of that underlying knowledge, and Koreans are loathe to give it up.

– Peter Schurmann

[New America Media Blogs] | Original News @ HERE
Date : 2008/08/29

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