Alternative Insight

The Tale of Two Koreas

Three South Korean films reveal another perspective of Korea's North-South struggle.

The North and South Korean peoples have greatly suffered by being separated from one another since World War II. Descended from a common heritage and worship of a land that links them to their forefathers and binds all generations together, the separation creates a void. Those born in the North, and who then die in the South, plead to have their bodies or ashes placed in the soil they trod upon in their youth. A simple deserving request most often remains unfulfilled. The politics of the struggle take precedence over humane considerations.

The Cold War has obscured the reasons for this disconcerting situation. North Korea, which has few friends but itself, releases little information and the information it does provide has insignificant coverage in the Western press. Any policy they profess on North -South problems receives a western "spin" that makes it seem diabolical. South Korea's opinions are usually reported correctly in a small article on an inside page. Being part of the Western eco-mil system, the South Koreans receive more favorable press than their Northern cousins.

Some facts are clear:

North Korea has a dictatorial, one-party system, and the government controls all opinions. They have a passive population that is so tightly controlled that human rights never become an issue.
South Korea, fearful of any disturbance to their delicate political system, has maintained an intolerant attitude to dissension. Those who refused to renounce communism have suffered solitary confinement in prisons. Radical parties are virtually banned. Student demonstrations have resulted in mass arrests and even killings. By Western standards their human rights record has been abysmal. The new government is slowly changing this situation.

North Korea has been more amenable to re-unification. Lacking a strong agricultural industry, they foresee re-unification as beneficial. They recommend a nation in which each maintains their present socio-economic system and autonomy.
In South Korea, it is actually against the law to advocate re-unification with North Korea. South Korea is fearful of allowing North Koreans to participate in their affairs, does not want to recognize North Korea's sovereignty and generally feels that North Korea will soon collapse. Time is on South Korea's side and they forsee a re-unification that is modelled after the unification of the two Germanys.

Most of the dispersed population are North Koreans who ended up in South Korea and want to return to see relatives or spend time in the villages of their youth. Possibly due to the fear of the returnees being used as political pawns, being kidnapped, infiltrating back and forth as spies, learning facts they shouldn't know and causing mischief, the two countries have opted to impede this simple human consideration. It's difficult to ascertain which is the major impediment

The humanity of the struggle has not escaped several South Korean film directors. They have overcome the indoctrination that portrays the struggle to the Western world in a one-sided manner and given all participants, North and South, the humanity the struggle cannot dampen. They have illuminated the shadows, and provided understanding to the misunderstandings that generate further misunderstandings. In three films, South Korean film directors have exposed the inane policies and misrepresentations that have furthered the unwanted separation of "brothers and sisters of the soil."

In Partisans, a large insurgent group fights a guerilla war against the South Korean Syngman Rhee government. The Korean civil war begins. The initial successes of the invading North Korean army encourages the partisans. After years of combat they look forward to an eventual victory that will vindicate their sacrifices. They gain in strength and morale. Unlike enemies in conventional war films, they are clean shaven, smiling, joyful and playful. They treat all Koreans with respect and dignity. Before they attack a South Korean outpost in a village, they send in scouts that inform the villagers of the impending hostilities and delay the attack until the villagers have safely secured themselves. They are willing to expose their positions and lose the advantage of surprise in order to protect the people. By presenting the foe in a human manner, the scenario increases its credibility. The insurgents are not cruel, sneering, clumsy and detestable. They flirt, fall in love and cry at the deaths of their comrades. The film sympathizes with their dedication and naivete. It shows them well motivated and strong believers in a cause they believe will liberate their countrymen from decades of repression and exploitation.

The cause is not always benevolent. The bureaucracy and opportunities of war push them into miscalculations, into misadventures and beyond their limits. After McArthur's landing at Inchon, the insurgents are isolated from the North Korean forces and must find their way through the lines of a superior army. Their total dedication does not permit surrender. They believe in an ultimate victory and are determined to continue the battle. The noise, horror and suffering of their war are realistically portrayed. The audience senses the fear in the battles.

The insurgents are soon forced to retreat- a painful exercise. The only path is through the the mountains, across beautiful peaks that become rugged traps. Obviously defeated, they are defiant, unwilling to a man and woman to admit the setback. They are slowly decimated-some from bullets, others from quarrels and desertions. Soon they are struggling against nature-against cold, hunger, disease and deprivation. One by one the conditions take the toll until only one insurgent remains-wandering aimlessly out of the snow and cold, half-starved and tattered to eventual capture.

In describing the wartime plight of the North Korean insurgents, the film predicts the future plight of the North Korean people. Their post-war industrial successes have been reversed. Isolated by their ideology and by circumstances, the North Koreans have slid into a desperate situation. Their resources have been slowly depleted by the burdens of the miltary-political conflict. The cruelties of nature, droughts and floods, have exacerbated their fallen condition. Similarly to the partisans of the Korean war, they believe in their cause and are too proud to surrender any sovereignty. Hopefully, the world community will sympathize with their plight, recognize the powerful hold of their ideals and assist the North Koreans to gain a direction that enables them to proudly walk to an eventual re-unification with fellow countrymen, rather than wandering aimlessly across the dividing line, a half-starved and tattered nation.

The Third Border opens with the student protests in Seoul in 1980 that responded to the killings by South Korean police of hundreds of protesters in the Southern city of Kwangu. An ex- North Korean soldier, Mr. Park, who migrated South after being captured in the civil war, is distressed to learn that his son has been involved in the protests and has been imprisoned. The ex-soldier has overcome his hostilities and feels it fruitless for other generations to continue the conflict. His disillusionment with ideology has made him more comfortable in being guided by the conventional cultural rules of his Korean heritage.

He often recalls his time in the prisoner-of-war camp with two close comrades, whom he can never forget. He still does not know, after almost 40 years, their outcome and it affects his life. He had accepted the victor's conditions and had come to live in the South. His downcast mood is lifted by a telephone call from Sang Won, one of the friends. This comrade in arms had migrated to India and is now a succesful business man, who has come to Seoul on a business trip. They will meet in Seoul at the man's hotel.

Coincidentally, Mr. Park also learns from a television program that the wife of the other soldier has been in South Korea since the end of the civil war. Believing that her husband had gone to the South and they would meet there, she had managed to come South with their new born son. She had not realized the her husband, Pae Chul-do, had gone North hoping to retieve his wife and their son. Mr. Park visits her, and finds her ill from the continuous brooding over her lost husband. When he informs her that Pae Chul-do went North, the woman's fragile condition further deteriorates.

Invigorated by the thought of being able to recapture precious moments of brotherhood, Mr.Park hurriedly proceeds to meet his long lost friend. Once again his naivete and idealism are crushed by life's realities. Sang Won no longer has the convictions that drove the friends together. He is now a man without a country, part of a new breed of international citizens, concerned only with money and the wine, women and song it brings to him. His parents have died and he no longer wants to share in the strife of the Koreas. He belongs nowhere and is free.

Mr. Park then goes to visit Pae Chul-do's wife and has a thought of arranging a meeting with her and Sang Won. He is too late. Her condition could not support more shocks. She has died from a "broken heart." Mr. Park, still unable to free himself from his North Korean past, is further wounded. He goes again to see Sang Won, but, his friend, wanting to free himself from any commitment to his Korean past, has left his hotel early and Mr. Park cannot see him again. After he returns home, he learns his son is receiving amnesty and will be leaving prison. The family goes to bring the son home, but the son does not want to return. He has dedicated himself to remain with his fellow students and continue his struggle against the forces he believes are tyrannical.

Mr. Park sits outside his modest home, reflecting on his life and past, playing the old music records. He vows to bury the past and live in the present. But he cannot forget his North Korean birthplace.

Mr. Park is unable to comprehend the forces that prevent him from returning to the place of his memories, and so he cannot escape the binds of the ancient and formidable culture that guides his life. His son, fragmented from the family, echoes the fragmentation of the Korean peninsula. To Sang Won, the international businessman, the Korea of his youth no longer exists, and he cannot confront that fact. He frees himself from the everyday dilemmas that plague all Koreans by foresaking his heritage. In their love for one another, Pae Chul-do and his wife, search frantically for each other. But, as the two Koreas, no matter which direction take, they are doomed to separation and eventual desolation.

The stars that shine most brightly on an island village off the South Korean coast are the reincarnated of the island's departed. In Under the Starry Skies a South Korean family journeys by boat to the island in order to fulfill the wish of a deceased father and bury him in the soil of his birth and life. As the boat tows the funeral casket close to the island shore, with the son dressed in traditional Korean mourning clothes, another boat impedes the voyage and a man comes aboard. The islanders, who are aligned along the beach, won't permit the boat to land. The family is distressed. They can't comprehend the situation and can't face a future in which they have not fulfilled a dying father's last wish.

The family finally enters the island while the funeral boat floats quietly off shore. Standing at the intended grave site, they are told that it is not only the islanders who are against the burial-those already buried close by, and who now shine as stars above, have also voiced their disapproval. A long flashback in history resolves the mystery. In the flashback we become acquainted with the villagers and their island life.

We meet the land owner and his tenant farmers whom he continually cajoles and prods to perform their duties. The village has its kind husbands and brutal husbands whom the village is powerless to contain. The school teacher sees everything in finer degradations than the black-and-white manner of the other villagers. A woman suffers from her husband's infidelities and from the pain of tending a dying daughter. The unfaithful husband is now the dead man floating close to shore. The young widow, burning with desire, succumbs to the seductive practices of the island's tinkerer. The island's self-righteous people scorn and villify her for her lapses from the accepted moral codes. The islanders play, laugh, and cry together. Regardless of personal conflicts, they sympathize with each other, protect one another and share each other's burdens.

The ultimate death of the young girl explodes into a drama. The mother, saddened by her daughter's death and by an uncaring husband, drifts into silence and finally into her own grave. The husband returns with the woman with whom he has been unfaithful, and expects to establish his life on the island with her. The entire island population will not permit it. They forcibly remove the man and his new wife and push their boat out to sea.

The islanders learn a Korean civil war has erupted and consider it will not affect them. They have no North and South. They don't even have an East and West. They have their conflicts, but in times of trouble they are unified and share one another's joys and sorrows. Their semi-isolated existence is interrupted by a boat that appears close to the island. When someone states it is a North Korean warship, they shout in unison, Long live the North Korean Republic. When someone mentions it may be a South Korean ship, they correct themselves with, We are loyal to South Korea. As the ship turns and voyages out to sea, the villagers remain apprehensive. Why should the war affect them? In their semi-isolation they have not suffered from war and are not cognizant that war, like rage, has no defined trajectory and seeks a path that engulfs the most helpless.

The ship appears again and the action occurs rapidly. The island's citizens observe soldiers of a North Korean army racing through the island and informing all to immediately appear in the town square. The islanders sit silently, huddled together for comfort, embracing one another with confused thoughts. The army commander stands sternly and stiffly before them. North Korea has won the war and will bring peace and prosperity to all Koreans. The Koreans will no longer be exploited by landowners and industrialist. All citizens will share equally in the economic fruits. The previous exploiters and their bureaucratic lackeys will be liquidated. In order to accomplish the task, all citizens are requested to identify those who took advantage of the people. Volunteers to do this should immediately step forward.

Nobody moves. The commander strengthens his gaze and moves uneasily. Finally, the young widow, recalling the embarrassed scolding by her peers who accused her of immoral conduct, taps her paramour and urges him to volunteer. He sits perplexed. When her taps on him get stronger and more threatening, he slowly rises. His action spurs others who fear being accused of exploitation or bureaucracy. Soon, several islanders stand before the tribunal, banded with the volunteer armband, and prepared to make the identifications. They identify the landowner, the post office worker, the teacher, those vaguely connected with administration. Further urged by the young widow, they use their new powers to settle old scores and create victims from misunderstandings. Soon almost half of the island folk sit barricaded behind a roped area, their heads bowed, their bodies contorted in fear. They have been tentatively accused of crimes against their life-long neighbors. The islanders are now divided, as a North against a South.

A commotion and a moment of uncertainty. The philandering husband suddenly arrives upon the scene and he is surrounded by soldiers. Only they are not North Korean soldiers. They are dressed in the uniforms of the ROK army. Immediately, the "North Korean" soldiers and their commander identify themselves as South Korean military who have posed as North Koreans. South Korea has won the war. To ensure our victory and future, we must purge our society of all subversizes who will undermine our goverment. Your neighbor has informed us of the disloyal elements on this island. We have now located them and will take appropriate action. The rope is moved. The "exploiters" and "bureaucrats" inhale a fresh air of freedom.. The others sit condemned.

The film returns to the present. The funeral ship still floats off shore and the islanders are gathered in a line along the beach. The son pleads to allow his father to be buried. His words only further anger the people. Their hostility is bursting, ready to explode. A wind turns the boat and heads it to the shore. The islanders are alarmed and determined not to allow the boat to touch one inch of their precious soil. One of them, in wild fury, starts a torch and rushes into the water with the torch above his head. The son and his family shake and shriek and try to halt the destruction of the father's body. It does not help. The torch lights the funeral boat and cremates its cargo. The boat slowly turns away from the land and sinks into its eternal grave. Looking towards the heavens above, the villagers observe happily dancing stars.

The villagers have resolved their hostility and can now proceed with their lives. Unlike North and South Korea, they are once again united. They have the peace and freedom their mainland compatriots, North and South, still don't have.

Three South Korean films highlight the human dramas of the North-South conflict. Their approaches provide an understanding that eludes the governments and the media. Celluloid speaks for people and governments refuse to listen.

august, 1999


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