Silver lining in Cheonan
By Hannah Kim
Replacing the image of the youngest sailor ― who at 19 died in the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan on March 26 ― with the face of my own 18-year-old ``baby'' brother's makes me shudder with fear, anger and sympathy.
All somberness aside, it's no wonder why the South Koreans ― and the Korean Americans ― are outraged. Currently, the deaths of the 46 young servicemen (including six lost at sea) are still officially ``unexplained.'' Yet speculation about North Korean ties to the explosion has fueled public outcry demanding the South Korean government retaliate against the North.
Sensing the escalation of conflict surrounding the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. Senate passed last week a bipartisan resolution that expressed sympathy to the families of those killed in the sinking of the ship, reaffirming America's solidarity with South Korea in the aftermath of the tragic incident.
``This resolution puts the Senate on record as calling on all parties to do their utmost to reduce tensions that could lead to even greater tragedy than the sinking of the Cheonan,'' stated Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee and one of the co-sponsors. He also correctly pointed out, ``The people of both Koreas have lived too long under and tension and anxiety, and this incident is just the latest example.''
To be sure, the Cheonan incident was a national calamity ― a major shock to South Koreans like 9/11 was to Americans. Nevertheless even in the midst of great distress, I am hoping South Koreans would display the courage to find some good in the wake of this catastrophe, if anything, in effort to honor of the fallen sailors.
I suggest they start out by engendering a culture of honoring the nation's servicemen in uniforms. Currently, it's no secret that the majority of the 680,000 young Korean men on active duty, or males turning 18 (becoming automatically registered for conscription) would evade army service if they could. Sadly, not only do they regard it as a waste of their precious prime years, but many feel deplorably un(der)appreciated by the public.
When I visited Seoul last year and had an opportunity to speak in front of young men in service, I naturally started out my presentation by thanking them, only to receive blank stares. Random young men in uniform whom I spotted on the metro or on the streets and stopped to thank (out of habit in the U.S.) seemed utterly confused. In contrast, American soldiers usually reply with a smile or a ``Thanks.''
Call me na?ve, but I believe a simple gesture of gratitude can help instill a spirit of pride to the soldiers and patriotism to the public, which in turn would bring about a constructive effect on the presently traumatized Korean society as a whole.
To be sure, I am cognizant of the fact that South Koreans have a natural aversion, or an allergic reaction to the army, that can be traced back to the military dictatorial period (beginning with a military coup led by General Park Chung-hee on May 16, 1961).
In fact, today is the 30th anniversary of the May 18 Gwangju pro-democracy uprising that resulted in a 10-day struggle between the military and the citizen militias of Gwangju that tried to resist the martial law declared by President Chun Doo-hwan's military junta. As depicted in the 2007 film, ``Hwaryeohan Hyuga,'' (Flashy Furlough), it was a turbulent chapter in South Korea's recent history ― resulting in as many as 207 deaths, 2,392 wounded, and 987 missing people (the exact number of casualties has been subject to considerable disputes) ― and one that still affects South Korean politics and haunts those originating from the Honam (southwestern) region.
Quite frankly, debating whether to call it the Gwangju Massacre or a democratization movement is less significant. What's important is that the city of Gwangju and its denizens are bravely making strides to reconcile with the past by reaching out to its political opponents (the conservative Grand National Party) in hopes to ``move forward with a smile'' ― the first time in 30 years. To me, this signals an impending cure for the ``military allergy.''
To be sure, I'm uncertain whether the world will ever truly uncover the truth of the Cheonan sinking. What I do know is that the incident should have been a wake-up call that the Korean War still has not ended, and the 60 years of hostilities between the two Koreas continue to linger.
What can the people do in the meantime? So that their deaths were not made in vain, South Koreans can make good out of a tragedy by breeding a culture of expressing appreciation to the servicemen. After all, they are the nation's sons, brothers and boyfriends serving in defense of the country and the people.
Hannah Kim is a 2009 master's graduate at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, specializing in legislative affairs. She spearheaded the passage of the ``Korean War Veterans Recognition Act, U.S. Public Law 111-41," which was signed by President Obama on July 27, 2009. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.