Thursday, December 22, 2011

Grace in Division

I'm not really a good judge of these matters, but I think the South Korean government handled the question of condolences for the death of Kim Jong-Il rather well, as the Hankyoreh reports it:

Regarding the death of North Korean National Defence Committee Chairman Kim Jong-il, the South Korean government stated on Monday, “We offer our consolation to the citizens of North Korea. We hope that North Korea will swiftly regain stability and become able to cooperate in order to achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.”

The government also stated, “We have decided not to send a governmental delegation to North Korea. However, we will permit relatives of late former president Kim Dae-jung and late Hyundai chairman Chung Mong-hun to visit North Korea to offer condolences, in return for visits made by the North [when the two men died].” In other words, Kim Dae-jung’s widow, Lee Hee-ho, and Chung’s widow, Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun, will be allowed to make visits to the North to express their condolences.

Given the churlishness of official American reaction, this was downright graceful. To say nothing of unofficial American reaction, which has been downright shameful. I hadn't intended to post a copy of the screengrab of Kim Jong-Un holding back tears as his father's body lies in state, but it might be a good counterexample to the video clips of wailing North Koreans that have gone viral in the US. Yes, Kim Jong-Il was a bad man, with a lot of blood on his hands, but so was Ronald Reagan, and any criticism of the circus that passed for his funeral was unwelcome in the US. So is Barack Obama, but his daughters will probably weep at his funeral. Yes, some of the public grief over Kim in North is staged (professional mourning is not unheard of, especially outside the West), and some of it is probably coerced, but a lot of it is probably sincere. A lot of the reactions I've been seeing seem to come from American discomfort with public displays of emotion not related to professional sports, plus the connected joy at being able to make fun of official enemies they know nothing about.

I still wonder, when I read mainstream commentary on North Korea and on Kim Jong-Il in particular, how many Americans have forgotten (or never knew) that South Korea and North Korea were one country until the US divided them, admittedly with the connivance of the Soviet Union. There are still families on both sides of the DMZ who were separated by the war and the endless state of truce, though more and more are dying off. It's been over sixty years, after all. I sympathize with my countrypeople's ignorance, since I knew very little more about Korea until the mid-1990s myself. All I knew until I met some Korean students and began to inform myself was what most Americans of my generation knew: that it was a country where college students seemed to be endlessly fighting the police in the streets. These clashes were shown every so often on TV news programs, though it was never explained what they were about. Oh, and there was a war there, named after the country, wasn't there?

It's because of that war, in which over 30,000 Americans and at least a million Koreans died (in much less time than comparable numbers died in Vietnam); because that war was deliberately forgotten in the US (we didn't "win" it, you see, and that's intolerably traumatic for us) though not in Korea; because of the continued presence of tens of thousands of American troops in South Korea; because of longstanding economic and political ties between South Korea and the US; and because the US continues to interfere in Korean affairs, often blocking rapprochement that might lessen tensions or even bring about reunification, that Americans should know more about Korea than we do. But hell, we hardly know anything about our own country, as American Korean War veterans could tell you.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, Americans are in no position to condemn other countries until they have condemned the crimes of their own government, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" as he called it in 1967. Imprisonment of vast numbers of its population? Torture? Militarization? Close surveillance of the population for traces of dissent or disloyalty? Let Americans take the log from their own eye first. That's about the only teaching of Jesus that has any real power to it as far as I'm concerned, and of course most Christians ignore it.