[Guest essay] Words are easy to throw around, until you know the history behind them

Posted on : 2024-02-01 17:54 KST Modified on : 2024-02-01 17:54 KST
The blood, sweat and tears of countless individuals are obscured behind the limited, inadequate words of “industrialization” and “democratization”
Still from the film “The Attorney.” (courtesy of NEW)
Still from the film “The Attorney.” (courtesy of NEW)

By Park Bo-kyeong, professor at Kyung Hee University

I lecture on the South Korean economy to international students at my university. In the course of doing so, I’ve noticed that students from developed countries show interest in the South Korea of today, while those from developing countries want to know more about South Korea’s history.
Since those from developed countries have only ever known South Korea as another developed country, they aren’t concerned about the poor South Korea of the past. Those from developing countries are fascinated with comparing South Korea’s economic growth with the current situation in their home countries.
During my lectures, I put a great focus on how the government, while standing on the rubble of a country devastated by war, actively developed an economic development plan and fostered the growth of exporting industries and heavy-chemical industries. I explain the specifics of the policies adopted in the economic development plan and the results it garnered through various statistics.
Some students ask insightful questions: “How has South Korea managed to evade extreme political corruption?” It is a question most South Koreans have not seriously considered, as we tend to think of South Korea in the past as an extremely corrupt society.
However, compared to the level of corruption in other developing countries, where it can reach the level of kleptocracy, South Korea’s level of corruption was benign.
By the 1950s, the Korean public’s ability to monitor its government was enhanced by the universalization of primary education. The resistance of students with moral conviction in their hearts, intellectuals, and citizens was crucial to Korea’s relatively low level of corruption. 
Even as a faltering democracy, there was breathing room for freedom of the press, enabling a certain level of checks and balances on power. If not for this, the South Korean economy could’ve been set back by extreme corruption.
I explain to my students that in South Korea, economic growth came hand-in-hand with the development of democracy. However, that explanation always seems slightly inadequate.
How could dry descriptions of the simultaneous achievement of industrialization and democratization inspire my students? Visits to history museums didn’t seem to offer what I was looking for, so at one point I decided to show them some movies.
“Ode to My Father” was what I chose to show South Korea’s industrialization, and “The Attorney” to demonstrate South Korea’s democratization.
My class gathers around dusk and students pass around pizza boxes as I give a brief explanation about the time periods the movies were set in. Initially, I worried that the English subtitles would not be enough for the students to understand the content or the context of the movies. Those worries proved baseless.
By the time the credits roll, the room is generally full of sobs and sniffles. Even after turning the lights back on, everyone often seems lost in the various emotions brought up by the film. Students clap, wipe tears from their eyes, exchange looks, and begin to bombard me with questions.
People tend to feel moved by movies due to their dramatic nature. But this welling up of emotion was caused more by the realization that industrialization and democratization are always achieved through the hard work of individuals.
The students realized that the blood, sweat and tears ㅡ the sighs and toils of countless individuals are obscured behind the limited, inadequate words of “industrialization” and “democratization.”
These film screenings have become my favorite part of the semester. The second time I showed my students the movies, I made sure to place tissue around the classroom before hitting play.
The younger generations of South Koreans, who were born in and have only known South Korea as a developed country, are only learning about our modern history through dry textbooks. 
The reason that “12.12: The Day,” a dramatic recounting of a military insurrection, has attracted hordes of people to the box office is similar to why the international students found the two movies I showed them so moving: The movie shined a light on the people that are often hidden behind insipid words.
We still live with the generation that overcame the hardships of absolute poverty and dictatorship in the middle of phenomenally fast growth. Generations who lived through desperate poverty, war, and starvation, as well as the generation who lived through torture, kidnapping, and ideological wars, are still with us today.
These people don’t easily open up to younger generations about the hardships they went through or the wounds that they carry. It isn’t because they have forgotten, but because they know it is difficult for younger generations to sympathize with such experiences.
It is often said that history should only be judged after enough time has passed, as the perspective afforded by the long term can differ from judgments that have been made in the immediate aftermath.
Another reason to avoid making judgments of modern history is due to its divisiveness, and how that can lead to partitions among citizens.
The unique experiences of a generation are often linked deeply to the personal experiences of individuals. Therefore, putting hasty labels on a certain generation can be an act of denying or insulting the entire lives of individuals.
What should be avoided the most is to make judgments on modern history for political purposes. Political motivations make balanced and objective evaluations difficult, as people can tend to exaggerate or hide certain facts to suit their own purposes.
In this way, when a politician creates and reinforces their own identity by denigrating someone’s past, it signifies division and regression, as it does nothing positive for the future of the country.
I worry that the pejorative connotation of the phrase “protest generation” being used by some in the ruling camp will lead to people looking down disparagingly at the entire history of democratization in South Korea.
History cannot be so easily summed up into neat, definitive words.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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