There is a difficult balance between honoring the dead and the living.
This summer I visited Cheonanham, the memorial for a Korean Navy corvette that had sunk in March 2010. At that time, I had been teaching English in Jeollanam-do. We heard that a ship had sunk off of the coast, and 46 Korean sailors were dead. I remember the televised funeral services.
The ship was recovered from the seabed in two halves; upon investigation by an international team (South Korea called in foreign experts to increase the investigation’s credibility), the investigators determined that the ship broke in two from something called a bubble jet, caused by the explosion of a torpedo a few meters from the hull of the ship. The resulting pressure differential tore the ship in two.
Seeing the damage in person was striking—it’s a big ship, and anything powerful enough to have torn it in two must be powerful indeed. The ship was split all the way through the keel; thick sheet metal was twisted, cables spilling out everywhere on the inside. We stood at the bottom of the fissure and looked up to the deck forty feet above us and it was all a piece of destruction. Groups of visiting soldiers took pictures and old men on some sort of reunion trip talked in low voices.
The torpedo was believed to have been fired by a small North Korean submarine, and since then relations between North and South Korea have gone deeply downhill. Later that year an island in the Yellow Sea was shelled by a North Korean ship, creating a further downturn.
There was a film shown at the memorial’s visitor center dramatizing the events of the conflict. Sailors said goodbye to loved ones without knowing it was their last goodbye; actors wearing life vests were being fired upon, and they ran around desperately returning fire, being wounded, taking up their guns again and firing to the last breath. It was awfully nationalistic; as we left the screening room, one of my Korean friends said very seriously, “Now I want to join the military.” I was upset. All this glorification of war, and it actually works.
On the one hand it’s important to honor the memory of the sailors who died, but too often I think we attempt to honor their “sacrifice”, and sometimes in honoring that sacrifice we restrict our actions to what seems reciprocal—heightened military presence, cessation of dialogue or of aid.
The most just service we can do in memory of the sailors who lost their lives is not to turn our backs on the North, to disengage, but instead to work toward unification, so that in the future there will be no more need of patrol ships. Rapprochement with the North is not a betrayal of those sailors; it is the best dedication to their memory we can offer.