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Sixtieth birthdays are momentous occasions in Korea, commemorated with lots of bowing and alcohol, and for wars it’s no different. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, and various groups have organized tributes – most notably in D.C., a controversial children’s concert arranged by the Unification Church in June. This weekend, another group may one-up the Moonies with a provocative art installation and film calling attention to the war, which was never declared over and thus is still technically ongoing.
On Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m., the National Campaign to End the Korean War is sponsoring an interactive art exhibit in front of the Capitol featuring 100 bojagi, traditional cloth wraps in which refugees fleeing the fighting carried away their belongings. The bojagi are accompanied by audio recollections from Korean immigrants with families separated by the 38th parallel. Also on Sunday at 7, at the Justice Center (617 Florida Ave. NW), there will be a film screening of In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee by Deann Borshay Liem. The film focuses on the adoptions of thousands of Korean war orphans, one legacy of a conflict that made South Korea famous as a baby exporter to the world.
The art show traverses a DMZ-sized political minefield over reunification within the Korean peninsula and Korean diaspora. Under South Korea’s former military regime, “pro-unification” was treated as code for “pro-North Korea” and espousing it would get you thrown in jail. Today, it’s official policy for both countries—-South Korea established a cabinet-level Ministry of Unification in 1998—-though on whose terms remains the big question.
For its part, the U.S. has consistently demanded that North Korea abandon its nuclear program as a condition for a peace treaty and full diplomatic recognition. The Campaign, in contrast, is calling for the US to sign a treaty first as a step toward normalizing relations and further negotiations on arms control, human rights and eventual reunification. This position is basically in line with that of the North Korean government, something that won’t be lost on Koreans in the South and overseas.
So if the weekend’s events fail to generate much enthusiasm within D.C.’s predominantly anti-communist Korean community, it won’t be a big surprise for the local organizers: Nodutdol, a New York-based association of left-leaning Korean and Korean American activists and a Campaign signatory, is no stranger to controversy. The group is a vociferous critic of the US military presence in South Korea and arranges friendship tours to the North. Last year, one of its founders, John Choe, lost a bid for a New York City Council seat in Queens after being red-baited by the Falun Gong.
North Korea’s apparent sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March and preparations for Kim Jong Il’s succession by his third son have tensions on the peninsula at a longtime high. The US recently announced new sanctions on the North and will conduct joint military exercises with the South next week; Kim Jong Il has threatened a “physical response.” If they were looking for a challenge, the unilateral peace camp couldn’t have asked for a tougher sell.