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[Lee Kyong-hee] Reconcile with the past and walk together

On a day of deepening COVID blues, I came across a heartwarming essay. Recalling our tumultuous days in middle and high school, the leader of my class wrote that she regretted not perceiving the undisclosed emotional pains of her cohorts. “Friends, forgive me!” she implored in an alumni newsletter.

My friend and classmate recounted two episodes. The first was from April 19, 1960, when thousands of students marched to the presidential residence, claiming the election of President Syngman Rhee was rigged and demanding he resign. The government answered with bullets.

As police gunfire echoed in central Seoul, our school, close to Gwanghwamun intersection, suspended classes but only escorted students were allowed to flee. “When their names were called out through the classroom speaker, my friends left one by one,” my classmate wrote. “There were several of us who remained behind because we had nobody in our families to come to accompany us.”

Eventually, they had to leave alone. “We barely managed to return home on our own, occasionally glancing sidewise at jeeps carrying wounded persons on hoods, dashing through empty streets, where no other vehicles, even tram cars, were seen.”

The second episode involved the faculty. “The following year, about a month into the first semester, our homeroom teacher didn’t appear for the morning assembly. He never did afterward. There were only rumors that he had not finished his military service.”

In the wake of the May 16 military coup in 1961, evasion of compulsory military service was an explanation often heard when young men who were critical of the coup suddenly vanished. My friend went on to retell how our school events were canceled during 1964, amid public rallies that protested the negotiated terms for normalizing diplomatic relations with Japan.

She also disclosed that she did a reading at a ceremony attended by President Park Chung-hee and his wife on a school ground in Yeouido, the island-district that includes the National Assembly today but an Air Force base back then. “I was carried there on a military jeep. I find myself seldom talking about the day’s event to anyone,” she wrote. The reading was an emotion-ridden panegyric, written by a Korean language teacher, for soldiers departing for Vietnam.

“We lived through such turmoil,” she wrote. “After all, we are a generation that knows what it was like to evacuate from what is now North Korea to the southernmost island of Jeju to survive war. Poverty was our daily reality and the pain of separation from loved ones had to be buried in silence deep in the hearts of individuals.”

My friend resurrected memories of our senior-year homeroom teacher, who quietly took care of students struggling in even direr circumstances. Our teacher had my friend accompany him when he went to see a hospitalized student, and later attend her funeral. The student had lost both her parents in war and lived with her younger siblings; she suffered from chronic malnutrition and died of tuberculosis.

“Our teacher must have known a lot more about our friends’ predicaments, which he kept to himself and tried to help in his own way. Through such visits, he probably wanted to teach me how life was tougher for some of our friends, but I didn’t realize the depth of his teaching at that time.”

It was long after graduation -- about three decades later -- while preparing for an alumni reunion that she came to learn more of our teacher’s benevolence. On the moving day of a friend, he unexpectedly appeared to help. The friend only had her mother; her father was carried away to the North during the war, something she had never dared to reveal to anyone until then. She didn’t know what repercussions her family would face if it was known that her father was in North Korea.

As for myself, I still avoid giving a detailed explanation about how I have two sisters with the same name -- one in the South and one in the North. The ever-volatile relations between the two Koreas have yet to fully dissipate my concerns about possible misfortune that might befall anyone involved.

My friend concluded her essay, saying, “Now I look back on those faces of my friends who had to feign calmness, hiding unspeakable pain in their tender hearts. Now I can imagine with an aching heart how some tried to look coy for self-protection as they concealed tangled stories. Back then, I didn’t have the antenna to detect those stories. Friends, please forget my indifference, or even cold eyes with which I might have looked at you. Forgive me!”

I would like to hear more such pleas for forgiveness throughout our society, instead of venomous attacks recklessly hurled against foes, real or perceived. Our society is reeling with a cacophony of hatred and intolerance. Viewpoints that defy facts and logic have fragmented society and created chasms that are only growing wider and deeper.

As the 2022 presidential election approaches, the notorious divisions between the so-called conservatives and progressives and between regions are exacerbating. Inequality between income groups and generations is also being magnified. Gender-based abuse and violence are recent additions.

I hope everyone learns to forgive and forget inadvertent mistakes or unintended wrongdoings of others, so we can move ahead with a single-minded purpose toward a better future as a nation. I want to hear more politicians discuss critical issues on our country’s agenda, such as the diplomatic gambits affecting the peninsula, inter-Korean relations, economic challenges and climate change besides the pressing need to overcome COVID-19 and prepare to better cope with the next pandemics.

The preliminary races of presidential wannabes are ignominiously tainted with petty tactics of opportunistic amateurs and myopic politicos. Our nation needs politicians who can match the global standards that our entrepreneurs and artists have achieved.


Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (koreadherald@heradcorp.com)
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