[KS] War graves in North Korea: the political meaning of their public absence

Heonik Kwon hkwon at skynet.be
Mon Jul 3 06:05:04 EDT 2006

We discussed earlier about the sites of memory for the Korean War fallen and their relative absence in North Korean public life. Aidan offers a very interesting comparative perspective to this issue. I quote him: "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." This comment is so thought-provoking; so, if you bear with me, I'd like to raise just one more question. 

It is indeed argued that modern war cemeteries (and tomb of unknown soliders, cenotaphs and etc) enable us to experience the national memory and "think" the organic unity and vitality of the nation-state. This theory has it that people achieve this moral unity and transcend the condition of Hobbesenian individuals as they ritually identify with the fallen and assimilate the geist of self-sacrifice their tombs are supposed to signify. So, Aidan is absolutely right to suggest, "war graves fill a gap (the void between individuals) and make you thinlk." However, modern war cemeteries are not only an important instrument of political unity but they are also a national thatre of democratic political relations. I am thinking here of Thomas Laqueur's notion of "democracy of death," pointing to the rules of citizen's army (including people's army) where old social distinctions become irrelevant and the related materiality of modern war cemeteries in which big men of battle and humble foot soldiers are equally entitled to the same minimalist identical graves irrespective of their ranks and hierarchy. 

Aiden notes, "The DPRK has no such gap, and does not want people to think." It is extraordinary to imagine that there is a political community in the modern world which does not suffer from the structural contradiction between individuality and collectivity and hence has no need for a mediativing device such as war cemeteries. But I wonder whether we can conceive of this sociologically unique status of North Korea as a product of its particular politics of memory rather than in terms of a structural exotica. 

Jim Hoare reminds us that the battle of Waterloo left no graves of fallen citizens. The absence is because our memory of that battle is not a modern memory, centered on one single heroic individual and taking the rest devoid of aesthetic relevance. I note that Korean world of nationalism has its own equivalents of Wellington, traditionalist heroes of war whose deaths are deified. If we accept the thesis that the difference between Waterloo and Ipre or Verdun is epocal, can we think about the material culture of mass death in North Korea according to the same scheme? 

In my reading, the Patriotic Martyrs' Graves and the Revolutionary Martyrs' Graves are sites of premodern memory--presenting one really heroic individual or family at the center surrounded by relatively less heroic contributors, and obliterating the traces of the mass. Considering the aesthetic supremacy of this centrist composition of collective memory, premodern in form and anticolonial in content, and also the absence of the traces of people's war in the material culture of commemoration, can we think of an hypothesis that the absence of Korean War cemeteries in North Korea is an aspect of the absolute centrality of a dynastic model of modern history? In other words, isn't the invisible "democracy of death" the infrastructure of the all-seeing cult of the dead father of nation and people? Just a thought...

One last note about Jim's comment on Kenneth's US-NK joint body recovery mission story: Dead bodies are far from a minor player in the geopolitics of the cold war. Since the Korean War where the US army lost its GI graveyards to the communists, the lost graves of "our boys" have been an unsettling element in the formation of US foreign politics, later manifested by the Vietnam War MIA/POW controversies during the Reagan era. I add that all important US state visits  to Vietnam in the early 1990s including that of Clinton included a visit to the joint US/Vietnam MIA excavation sites. The normalization of diplomatic relations in this context was practically inseparable from and symbolically equivalent to the recovery of the lost American bodies. 

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