In the 1959 Korean War movie Pork Chop Hill, directed by Lewis Milestone, a multicultural American infantry company led by Lieutenant Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck), is engaged in a long, tense, casualty-heavy march up a desolate, deforested hill located near the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea. The battle between U.S. and Chinese forces takes place in April 1953 during ceasefire negotiations that would lead to the signing of the Korean armistice agreement. Pork Chop Hill, which sounds like the expression bok jap hae ("it's complicated," or "complex") used by Koreans during negotiations, is strategically unimportant, which means the company receives little support from higher command. Yet because of its location, the hill is symbolically important, so the company is instructed to keep on fighting despite heavy losses and a lack of bullets.
In the 2011 South Korean film The Front Line, directed by Jang Hoon, troops from North and South Korea have been fighting for a long time over Aerok, a desolate hill located near the 38th parallel, which, like Pork Chop Hill, is strategically meaningless but symbolically valuable as the film is also set during ceasefire negotiations. Control of Aerok is constantly changing, so negotiators don't know what is going on. Soo-hyeok (Go Soo), who was captured by North Koreans at the start of the war, asks, "Do you know how many times this hill changed hands? Nobody knows. I counted up to thirty."
The Front Line concludes as the armistice is signed at 10 am, July 27, 1953. The beat down soldiers on both sides are ecstatic and begin playing in mountain streams, soothing the wounds of war. Yet the armistice does not take effect for twelve hours, so they are instructed to fight once more to take control of Aerok. The climactic battle scene is brutally graphic as soldiers from North and South Korea slaughter each other over a pile of rocks while U.S. warplanes drop bombs indiscriminately on the battlefield, killing soldiers from both sides. At the end, only two soldiers are left standing, one from the South and one from the North. The South Korean asks, "Do you still know what you are fighting for?" The North Korean responds, "I used to know, but I don't any more." As the camera pans the mountain at the end of the film, the ridge is covered in mangled, dismembered bodies, a haunting image of both the past and of a future no one wants.
Tensions are always escalating on the peninsula, a state of emergency that has become ordinary, a state of "crisis ordinariness," to borrow a term from Lauren Berlant's new book Cruel Optimism (Duke UP, 2011). As I write these words just 48 kilometers from the 38th parallel, the Koreas are exchanging fire across a disputed sea border, joint U.S. -South Korea military exercises are about to begin, North Korea is threatening a new round of nuclear tests, and my mother who is planning to visit me in the spring is understandably worried. While set in the past, The Front Line brilliantly captures the absurdity and futility of this cycle of repetition in the present.
The recent Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has fueled a sense of moral outrage in the United States, inspiring Secretary of State John Kerry to channel George W. Bush and declare that North Korea is an "evil place." Yet there has been little critical discussion or debate over the multiple meanings of human rights as this concept applies differently to North Korea, South Korea and to the Korean peninsula as a whole. While South Korea, like the U.S., focuses on the civil and political rights of individuals, North Korea understands human rights in social and collectivist terms, an example of which would be the right to free and universal health care.
Clearly, there are big problems regarding human rights in North Korea, as there are in both South Korea and the U.S. Yet as Judith Butler argues in Precarious Life (Verso, 2006), which addresses the Manichean rhetoric that led up to and supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, and is equally relevant to the situation in Northeast Asia now, we should let "neither moral outrage nor public mourning become the occasion for the muting of critical discourse and public debate about historical events."
The journal Critical Asian Studies (CAS) has recently published two special issues edited by Christine Hong and Hazel Smith that provide some much-needed reflection on the issue of human rights in Northeast Asia. In "Reframing North Korean Human Rights," Hong, an Assistant Professor of Literature at UC Santa Cruz, explains that these special issues of CAS are motivated by concern that the goal of regime change in North Korea has united a broad "spectrum of political actors-U.S. soft-power institutions, thinly renovated cold war defense organizations, hawks of both neoconservative and liberal varieties, conservative evangelicals, anticommunist Koreans in South Korea and the diaspora, and North Korean defectors." We have all seen just how well regime change worked out in Iraq.
These special issues, which "attend to what has hovered outside or been marginalized within the dominant human rights framing of North Korea," as Hong puts it, are essential reading for scholars, journalists, artists, activists and concerned citizens interested in making sure that there are no more Pork Chop Hills or Aeroks.
In 1984, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 39/11, which recognizes "the right of peoples to peace." Suh Bo-hyuk, a Research Professor at Ewha University and former senior researcher at the South Korean National Human Rights Commission, draws on this resolution in "The Militarization of Korean Human Rights." Suh argues that rather than using human rights to deepen the divide between the two Koreas, a peninsular human rights perspective is needed which addresses Korea as a whole. Increasing militarization in both Koreas, and in the region, prevents the right to peace from being realized. Suh writes:
The increase in military expenses and militaristic competition by both Koreas and the conscription of South Korea to the neo-cold war agenda of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region infringes on the right to the pursuit of happiness and the right to peace for the Korean peoples... progress in human rights requires the abolition of militarism as a necessary precondition.
In order to move toward the realization of peace as a human right on the Korean peninsula as a whole, President Obama, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, needs to acknowledge that the policy of "strategic patience" has not worked and begin dialogue with North Korea.
In an exchange with George W. Bush in 2002, former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, one of the authors of the "Sunshine Policy" (1998-2007), the last period in which there were some glimmers of hope in inter-Korean relations, reminded Bush that:
President Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," but he had dialogue with Mikhail Gorbachev and sought détente, which brought about change in the communist system and the end of the cold war. President Nixon denounced Chairman Mao as a "war criminal," but he met with him and played a crucial role in normalizing relations with China and fostering its opening and reform. (Memoir, Vol.2, 466-67: Seoul Samin)
In a recent interview discussing matters of reform and reunification, University of Chicago History Professor Bruce Cumings points out that:
If we had an embassy in Pyongyang, we might actually have inﬂuence over that government. Diplomacy arose in the world to deal with enemies short of war, not to deny recognition to someone because you don't like them, which is what we've been doing to North Korea for 70 years.
In 2015, 70 years will have passed since Lieutenant Colonel Dean Rusk, Colonel Charles H. Bonesteel and John J. McCloy unilaterally drew a line at the 38th parallel, dividing North from South Korea. This line was never meant to be permanent. And yet, this past summer, in a speech commemorating the signing of the Korean armistice agreement, President Obama triumphantly declared the war a victory.
This past February, the state of emergency became a state of mourning as elderly families from North and South Korea were briefly reunited. I wonder if President Obama could look these long-suffering men and women in the eyes and tell them that the Korean War, that the division of the peninsula, was a victory.