Abe Keita (Franciscan priest)
The heads of the governments of North and South Korea met officially last June, in Seoul, in a historical event for both Koreas. I arrived in Seoul on June 16th, the day after such an official meeting. I would like to offer a report on how Seoul looked 50 years after the Korean War and 55 years after the split of North and South Korea.
First of all, I went to Korea accompanying the staff of the Omoni Hakkyo (Korean mothers' school) where I work as a volunteer. We were on a study tour and it was mere chance that we arrived in Seoul the day after the two Koreas resumed their historical official conversations.
We were, nevertheless, lucky to be able to observe what people thought about the reunification of Korea and the 50-year span after the Korean War.
Firstly, with regard to the reunification issue, as it was already reported in Japan also, we could observe in Myongdong and in the shopping center of Seoul all kinds of impromptu writings and hanging screens celebrating the historical meeting.
South Korean most famous architects symbolized by the Hyundai builders' empire are rebuilding the former Kyonbokkung royal palace at the site of the destroyed old Headquarters of the Governor General of Korea. Private volunteer groups have placed panels with mosaic and pictures all along the construction fence that celebrate the theme of the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
After the big Kobe earthquake people did something similar, drawing paintings in the fences of the construction sites, the so-called color sketch project, to counter react to the sad images of the destruction done. In a similar way young Koreans continued painting their panels in a joyful mood. People visiting the Kyonbokkung seemed to enjoy also the view. Such a spectacle of impromptu writings and panels transmitted the feelings of the people for reunification, even to persons like myself unable to understand the Hangul language.
The impressions received this time were very different from those of my last visit 5 years ago. At that time the demolition of the old Headquarters of the Korean Governor General, a symbol of the former colonial domination, had clear resemblance of wiping out all abominable past. Now, judging from the themes in the fence surrounding the newly rebuilt Kyonbokkung, I felt that South Koreans are rebuilding their country for the 21st century, creating a new hopeful future. On the other hand, looking at the increasing facilities of signs in Japanese and the free services of Japanese interpreters in museums and other public places, I received the impression that the former scars of the past in relation to Japan have started to heal.
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In Seoul I had the opportunity of meeting former American soldiers who had been fighting in the last Korean War. They were about 75 years old and they were on a tour of the country. Some of them looked deeply impressed by the landscape, while others were talking to school kids. They spoke to them slowly in English asking them, "Have you heard of the Korean War?" They tried to explain to them that at the time of the war they fought to save South Korea. It was interesting to realize the existing awareness gap between the Americans speakers and the listening children.
In other words, no matter how tense the relationships between both Koreas were, the Korean War was a very far away event to school children. Many of them answered, "We heard about it in class, but we could not understand it well". In the dealings between the American travelers and the Korean children, I felt not only a language barrier but also a generation gap between old people and children. A long period of 50 years has passed between the school children and the former American soldiers. Many changes have occurred since then.
On the other hand, in some fields there have been no changes. Since the issue of indemnity to be paid to former Japanese military comfort women is still unsettled, former comfort women and their supporters hold sit-downs, once a week, in front of the Japanese Embassy. Koreans who had been brought as forced labor in the past and had sued a factory of Toyama prefecture agreed, last July, to an amicable settlement of financial reparation. Such a trial shows that amicable settlements are proper ways to solve the problem of past due reparations. Nevertheless, in the case of indemnity due to former military comfort women, there is often, no amicable settlement on sight. Since the fight still continues it seems that war is not over.
On my way back to Kinpong airport our bus stopped in front of the Lotte Hotel. People were striking there as Japanese media has also reported and hotel authorities put up notices of apologies written in several languages. At that point, management and labor were in an antagonistic situation of attack and defense and nobody could imagine that, several days later, the introduction of large numbers of riot police would produce such a large damage and uproar.
This is all about my introduction to the situation of Seoul following the official conversations between both Koreas. My impression is that South Korea shows a mixed situation of light and darkness. On one hand, one can feel a strong dimension of a hopeful future, and on the other, the scars of the Korean War and the fact that Japan has not yet fulfilled her war obligations still influence Korean society. I realized again that South Koreans have hopes for reunification, although the scars of the past war are not yet healed.