This is a seriously long overdue post, which I meant to start and upload ever since June, but was too lazy to do so. Since I have some time to kill before what I expect to be a hectic schedule will start in September, here goes.
National History Museums are often a place to remember a nation’s history (okay, that sounded dumb and redundant), and more often than not, it will be about the difficulties and ordeals said nation went through, rather than the joyful moments, if there ever is such a thing in a nation’s history. By displaying the past to those of us living in the present through pictures and records, these facilities force us, in a way, to feel and remember what our forefathers went through to allow us to live in the comforts and peace of today.
When one talks about Korea’s history, its 35 years spent under Japanese imperialism constitute an inevitable and significant segment. The struggle a great number of Koreans went through to regain their independence, sacrificing their lives and enduring unimaginably cruel torture, is clearly depicted at the Seodaemun Prison History Hall in Seoul, often to the point that it is unbearable to visit.
Carefully strolling around the prison halls, fearing the next torture scene that would be materialized with wax figures, the visit instills within you a certain negativity towards Japan, even if you haven’t grown up taking courses in Contemporary Korean History like myself. And it is all very heart-breaking, to imagine the inhumane hardships many of these men and women had to go through before they could fully blossom into their youth. I have no doubt that the Korean youth should remember their sacrifices and what they did to allow this youth to enjoy life in an independent country today.
However, it is just as important, I believe, to remember that this is the very prison where numerous other young men and women were killed and tortured, many years later, in the 1980s by the very Korean government, and not the Japanese empire, that tried to crush the democratization efforts.
And to me, there is no bigger tragedy than to see the overlapping of these two different portions of history in one single space. While the museum seemed to try its best to focus on the early years, I could not help but feel that if indeed, souls existed and lingered on, how sad and devastated the lost lives between 1910 and 1945 would have felt looking down on what went on in the 1980s.
It is easy to point to an outsider (in this case, Japan) and blame everything that went wrong on that particular ‘outsider’. It is less easy and much less pleasant to do so with the ‘enemy within’; and so we often let it go and brush it under the table so that we can all forget about it and pretend to live happily ever after as ‘one people’. Yet no country can truly find peace and stability, or even equality, if it doesn’t look back on itself and clearly assesses the wrongs one group of people did to another as a nation.
Especially in times like today in Korea, where democracy took a huge leap back by electing Ms. Park as president (I think) and by dismissing clear proofs that the National Intelligence Agency interfered in what was supposed to be fair elections, I do wonder what history indeed means to Korea and Koreans. History is not something you can ‘stare at’ in museums. History and its mistakes are there so that you may step into the future with ‘better’, for the lack of a better word, or ‘improved’ concepts and ideas. So that you may provide a ‘better’ world for the generations to come. So that you may not make the same mistakes and bring the country back to point zero.
As much as I have more to complain and dislike about Korea than the opposite, it just pains me to witness that history has apparently no value whatsoever to many Koreans today.