[KS] War graves in North Korea

Afostercarter at aol.com Afostercarter at aol.com
Sun Jul 2 05:44:56 EDT 2006

This is a fascinating thread. Many thanks to Heonik Kwon
for starting it. 

Let me attempt a possible answer to his latest question:

One obvious difference is that the modern West has gone 
so far down the road of informalization (Norbert Elias),
individualization, emotional privatization, narcissism (C Lasch),
subcultural segmentation and so forth, that the very idea of
explicit shared public binding memorials arguably now runs
counter to the whole ethos of our age.

South Korea similarly, I'd hazard, is rapidly leaving behind
the twin collectivist heritages of both Confucianism and the 
Park regime's highly activist state- and ideology-building.
Especially among the young, the new norm is the atomized
individual at his/her computer, or in their MP3 cocoon; or at
best, sustaining ephemeral micro-solidarities via endless
banal text messages and similar largely pointless chatter.
(Or am I just getting old and grumpy here?)

Hence in our postmodern societies, it takes a positive, active
effort by the state (or whoever), very much against the current,
to sustain or recreate any strong Durkheimian sense that,
pace Lady Thatcher, there is such a thing as society; and hence
that on occasion we all should, or even must, drop what we are
each doing for a moment and come together, solemnly, to remember
or for some other shared, macro-social purpose.
(We can just about manage an annual two minutes silence.)
Or perhaps sport nationalism (ugh) has usurped this function.

North Korea, by contrast, is the very opposite extreme from all this.
There, even in 2006, a powerfully proactive state subjects all its
citizens, continuously, to pervasive socialization and indoctrination,
inculcating a single and singular militant worldview.

In that context, what would the Kim dynasty want with war graves?
- with the risk, as Chris Springer said earlier, that this would remind
people of the sheer scale and pointlessness of their human loss.

After all, they already have the carefully named and arranged 
Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum; where the regime's
version of events - there is of course no other - is rammed home,
as it likewise is in school, political education, and so on, all the time.

In sum: In the West, war graves fill a gap, and make you think.
The DPRK has no such gap, and does not want people to think.

How ordinary North Koreans 'consume' what they are thus force-fed
is a fascinating question. But the balance of evidence from defectors
seems to be that they mostly accept it; to the point of having problems
adjusting their received worldview, even after they become exposed
to other versions - eg as to who invaded whom in 1950.

Best wishes

Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds University 

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In a message dated 02/07/2006 05:01:55 GMT Standard Time, hkwon at skynet.be 

> Subj:[KS] War graves in North Korea 
> Date:02/07/2006 05:01:55 GMT Standard Time
> From:hkwon at skynet.be
> Reply-to:koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws
> To:koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws
> Sent from the Internet 
> Thank you so much, all of you, for your very engaging responses. 
> I knew about the Revolutionary Martyrs' Graves and the Patrotic Martyrs' 
> Graves that Stephen mentions. Studying their images in fact made me wonder where 
> the other thousands postcolonial war heroes of that country are buried. 
> Chris's comments are amazing and the notion of an ideologically deathless 
> land is deafening (I've just ordered your book). Your idea of absent memories 
> of mass war death as an instrument of a militant political order is really 
> interesting. However, it seems that something is not right. War cemeteries are 
> not necessaily evidence of mass suffering but can be a powerful instrument of 
> political legitimation and social mobilization. Those in Europe were 
> originally invented precisely for these grand purposes, meant to function to 
> translate the meaning of tragic loss of human lives to a heroic sacrifice for the 
> collective, and this certainly applies to the dominant culture of commemoration 
> in the southern part of Korea. Why did the DPRK leaders decide to conceal the 
> Korean War mass death instead of using it? 
> For Kenneth, I once again thank for your illuminating story. Let me add that 
> in this wild political world, it seems DPRK is not the only state that 
> forgets how to use the remains of war constructively. 
> heonik kwon

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