Jules Does

Jules Does K-Pop Academy: Week 6!

Posted on: October 27, 2014

Can you believe we’re halfway through K-Pop Academy already? It’s become such a big part of the rhythm of my life that it’s going to be odd to stop going down to London every Saturday. I’ll be able to do so much more around the house!

Brigadier Parritt addressing the troops.

This week’s class was a bit brutal, as we were learning about the Korean War (1950-53). We had an excellent speaker come in, Brigadier (Ret.) Brian Parritt CBE, a British veteran of the Korean War, who told us about his experiences of the war and also gave us quite a bit of background on how the war began and how it was waged.

During WWII, Korea was occupied by Japan. Many Korean men fled Korea to avoid being forced to enter the Japanese army, and as Korea is a peninsula, they fled to the two contiguous neighbouring countries of Russia and China. Some of these exiles joined the guerilla armies of Chairman Mao and fought in battles in China for the Communists after WWII concluded. Those who had fled to Russia were also trained up, though not actually admitted into the army.

Upon the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, Korea was placed into the care of the Allied forces, as there was no Korean government-in-exile that could sweep in and take care of the country. Like Germany, the Allies split the country between them, with the land south of the 38th Parallel in the custody of the US, and the land north of the 38th Parallel in the trusteeship of the USSR.  The US put Rhee Syng Man in charge of the southern section of Korea, and the Soviets installed a certain Russian-trained Korean named Kim Il Sung in the North. The goal, as stated, was to patch Korea back up and make it into a unified country again once everything was sorted.

That’s not how it worked out.

The Soviets had learned from the Berlin Air Lift that they couldn’t sit back and starve the evil Capitalists out of South Korea, so they had to wait to proceed with their plan of Communist expansion in the area. The US left Korea in 1949, and the end of the Chinese Civil War also released plenty of well-trained Communist Korean fighters for use in a new offensive. The USSR had also developed a nuclear bomb by this point (thanks to a network of spies including Fuchs and Donald Maclean, a Brit), so they weren’t so frightened of the US’s military might. South Korea was totally under-armed, whereas North Korea had a bunch of munitions and air support kindly provided by their Russian friends. Kim Il Sung made peaceful-seeming overtures to the South in order to cover his certainty that the South was weak and would yield easily to a Communist incursion.

On 25 June 1950, the first North Korean troops invaded South Korea. In five days, the South Korean forces went from 95,000 strong to less than 22,000 as the Northern forces made their seemingly inexorable advance across the peninsula. That same day, the newly formed United Nations Security Council, consisting of the USSR, China, the US, the UK and France, unanimously condemned this North Korean aggression – but only because the USSR was boycotting the Security Council at the time for having deposed leader Chiang Kai Shek as the representative for China. Then, in a totally unique motion, three days later the UN recommended that its member states should supply help to South Korea.

The tide of the war changed several times – this gif from Wikipedia shows how drastically the front line changed over the following three years between North and South, and how close both came to annihilation.

I won’t go into too much detail here regarding battles, place names and so on, because there are many good books on the subject, including Brig. Parritt’s own (and, failing that, a rather long and detailed Wikipedia article). Suffice to say that when the Southern forces pressed on up into North Korea and got ever closer to the USSR and “Red China”, the Chinese grew concerned that the US would take this opportunity to invade, depose Mao and re-install Chiang Kai Shek. To preclude this, “independent” Chinese fighters, fighting for the Communist side, streamed into North Korea and began employing the guerilla tactics that had served them so well in their Civil War. These fighters were ethnically Chinese and were technically fighting for Chinese interests (i.e. ‘get these capitalists away from our borders thank you’), but everyone was very careful to describe them as independent fighters to prevent all-out war with the USSR and/or China. Many people prefer their war cold.

It’s easy to see why – in all the back and forth of the Korean War, many cities, including Seoul, were destroyed, purges were conducted by the Communists against the intelligentsia and the religious, and an estimated 2.5 million civilians were killed. Civilians. Brig. Parritt’s photos also showed how thinly covered the soldiers were – often they just had a shirt and a jumper, none of that body armour you see in photos today.

Eventually a cease-fire was decided in 1953 and the country was divided along the 38th Parallel (roughly), creating the current border and the Demilitarized Zone we know today. It seems amazing that the war is so poorly remembered in the West, although coming between the Hollywood glory of WWII and the deep horror of the Vietnam War, Korea gets a bit shunted to one side. Even the Korean War Memorial in Washington DC is a bit drab – the Iwo Jima monument is iconic, and the Vietnam Memorial is a game-changer in terms of public commemoration of war, but the Korean Memorial? Looks like this:

(Source)

To me, this doesn’t look like glory. This looks like trudging. An entire memorial dedicated to trudging. And maybe that’s what war is! Trudging punctuated by murder. It just makes me tired looking at it – these people obviously want to go home, they don’t want to be here any more, so why should we look any more deeply into it? What are they fighting for? No idea. They’re just trudging. The Trudging War, 1950-53. Here’s a picture from a wider angle:

(Source)

I didn’t realise until the other day that I have quite strong feelings about the Korean War Memorial and how utterly inadequate it is and how it’s contributed to the general complacency with which we view this incredibly deadly and important war. This is a war which divided a people, a people who had stood up to invasions and conquest over the centuries and retained a strong sense of Korean identity and nationhood, and then three awful years ripped them in two as puppets of two larger countries with competing ideologies. Maybe that’s not giving enough credit to the Koreans, to depict them as powerless in the hands of the USSR and US. And maybe the Korean War Memorial is the most honest memorial in terms of showing how monotonous war can be, even for those fighting, how it all might seem like a horrible punctuation between leaving home and returning home.

Anyway, that’s probably enough from me on that subject.

After Brig. Parritt’s lecture, we all got a signed copy of his book to keep, courtesy of the KCC!

He hasn’t changed at all, has he?

The KCC also kindly provided us with tasty, tasty Pepero to munch on in the second half of the class, where we’d be watching the 2010 film 71: Into the Fire.

The film stars, among other really excellent people, my ultimate fave T.O.P. (Choi Seung Hyun) from Big Bang, who acquitted himself excellently in this very emotionally demanding movie. The film tells the story of seventy one student-soldiers fighting for South Korea with basically no training, left on their own to defend P’ohang-dong, a strategic point, on 11 August 1950. By that point in the war, North Korean troops had overwhelmed most of the peninsula and were closing in on the bottom right corner, hoping to cut off all Allied access to Korean ports. These students, many of whom had fired only one bullet in training due to munitions shortages, held the area with their own ingenuity and bravery for 11 hours before backup came. Many of them died in the attempt.

The film is very sensitively and artistically done, even as it re-uses fairly standard military movie, last-stand type tropes (someone in the troop has a problem with authority, the fat guy likes eating, someone always insists that they don’t have the time or the men etc etc etc), and each soldier is drawn as much more than the usual, one-note brave person. Some of them fight well, others fight really poorly, some welcome death when they realise how hopeless everything is, some are greedy etc etc. Plus, like the best war films, it brings home how truly horrifying war is and how no one should ever make another bullet ever, even as it acknowledges that these people fought well and, dare we say, justly. It’s a really wonderful film, and I recommend you watch it.

BUT BRING TISSUES.

I am not exaggerating when I talk about rivers of mascara and open sobbing going on during and after the screening. Not even Pepero could quell our tears. Song PD, of course, found it made for excellent film, so several interviews were done with sniffing, snivelling K-Pop fans trying to process loss and death. I have a fairly solid heart, but the credits sequence – where they had interviews with some of the survivors of the battle – made me choke up.

The homework I chose this week is to watch a historical drama or film, review it and share what I’ve learned about Korean history. A dangerous method! Please do read that later in the week. As always, thank you for sticking with me through my ranting as I discover opinions I didn’t know I had.

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