Sunday, September 28, 2008

Excavating history, starting at Nogunri 노근리

One sleepless night in Seoul, I wrote a note to myself about what history means to diasporic Koreans in the US, residing in Cold War communities, one generation removed from the pivotal events that changed the course of history on the peninsula forever. I was thinking about this conundrum, of being in Korea where the state media is being reshuffled under Pres. Lee Myung Bak, of life post-KEEP, when the days are no longer packed with site visits with people with fire in their eyes.

It means, first and foremost, that you get an official history that only later, you realize, is the equivalent of reconstituted meat parts vacuum-sealed in tins and stamped for approval by the US State Department.

When you 'return' to Korea, it means constantly being on a scavenger hunt for meaning, and at first, everything satisfies, sometimes the packaged homeland tours, sometimes just the food speared on a stick under the shelter of a colorful umbrella, the vendor speaking to you like you’re her child. It means you visit ‘memorials’ meant to shut you up. It means something clean, like the preserved palaces of Kyungbokgung, it means everyone and everything would like to start over; can we please start over?

And yet, if you refuse the shiny tins of official state history, the amnesiac routes of tourist packages, then where do you begin?

It means you learn history from dogged AP reporters, not your parents or your teachers. It means fifty years later the typhoon rain is the researcher that makes the breakthrough, the construction crane is your accidental instructor, the documentary film is the gateway to questioning everything you've ever learned. And so when you go to Korea, it means you visit graves that don’t have names, it means visiting towns you are never supposed to visit, it means collectively grieving ‘bad' women that you should abolish from your memory...

Like much of the world outside the directly affected families, I learned about the Nogun-ri civilian massacre committed by the US military in 195o through AP reporters. I remember opening the New York Times in my college dining hall in 1999, a day just like any other day, and reading the front page report. The news exploded in my head- that before and during the war, the US army had approved, observed, and directly participated in the killing of Korean civilians without due process or trial, in a period AFTER the US had signed the Geneva conventions (which are meant to protect against the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians during wartime )- and not only this, that the US government had classified the relevant documents and that the South Korean government had suppressed it for almost 50 years. Since 1999, the report, the South Korea Truth Commission has built up a docket of at least 200 such cases.

This summer, I had the chance to visit three such sites. I am starting with Nogun-ri because that is where it all started- when those who knew what had happened under the administration of Pres. Syngman Rhee, during US military rule (1945-48) and the Korean War were finally legitimated, when the investigations by the newly formed national Truth Commission could finally begin.

First, in pictures, the huge sign announcing that this is where you are:

I found the huge sign somewhat ironic considering that, for much of the previous fifty years, it had been kept secret by the South Korean government. The politics of naming is also evident - who knows what an 'incident' is, or a '사건', unless you already know what happened at Nogun-ri? Nothing to indicate that this is where planes bombed down upon unarmed refugees and US ground troops fired into both ends of the tunnels.

Consider that the South Korean government had tried covering up the holes from the machine gun strafing (which didn't work too well, as you can see here from the dark patches below):

But in the later acceptance of the fact that the whole world now knew about Nogun-ri, the bullet holes from the airplane firing are now made even more visible by white paint circles (although there are more bullet holes than just the ones circled). Here, on one side of the tunnels:

And just to give a sense of scale:

You have to walk through the tunnel to find the small memorial where you can commemorate those who have been killed. Walking through the tunnel is not easy; you can just read the information panel and skip back to the car and drive off into the sunset. But walking through the enormity of the tunnel alone, it struck me; what it would feel like to hold on those memories for decades, to survive and survive and survive that experience without anyone listening, to be persecuted for even remembering -- how long did that tunnel feel?

There is a strange cartoonish painting at the site that tries to recapture what happened, and this is one part of it :

This is what Pres. Clinton said after the report came out:
"I deeply regret that Korean civilians lost their lives at No Gun Ri" (2001). This is like the classic New York Times byline on every article about Korea ("Korea was divided in 1945"). By who? A language completely lacking in any accountability.

In any case, I think there is a different kind of power in the histories that get buried for so many years. Sometimes I feel despair when I know that survivors are passing away without getting any justice, that Pres. Lee Myung Bak tried to bury the National Truth Commission by next year, that his mantra, 'Let the past be the past,' sounds appealing to many.

But things can grow in the dark, the direct memory of experience can translate into so many other forms for the following generation, and there are so many people who are inspired to take part in movement work because of news that explodes much later into the light of day, like the 1980 Kwangju massacre, the 1948 Chejudo massacre, and for me, the 1950 Nogunri civilian massacre. This is not a history of sound bites, of boring reading assignments, of things under glass cases in museums. This is a history, literally, of bones that talk.
More on this to come.