We grew up being told North Korea was a monster. The historic events of the past few days do little to change that long-standing perception, only creating an impression of a fearsome creature temporarily pacified. CNN was right to note that Korean peace remains a distant prospect, but wrong to emphasise the role of China and the United States in any breakthrough.
Many are giving US President Donald Trump credit for last week’s summit between the two Koreas. That praise seems absurd when you note how the Korean War came about in the first place, how tension has persisted ever since in the absence of an armistice, and how Trump himself only weeks ago sparked global anxiety by boasting he has a “bigger button” than Kim Jong-un.
The absurdity extended to the hype around “symbolic gestures” like the handshake between the Korean leaders. Kim was born in 1982, to begin with. The war that tore the peninsula apart began in 1950, which was three years before the man he shook hands with, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, was born.
The question here is why the “ending” of a war should depend largely on two men who were not even born when it happened, and on foreign governments that do not include a single Korean national. That no truce was signed by those who started the war is “ancient history”; that it has been kept going by generations ever since is far more pertinent.
The Korean War is hardly unique. Families, relatives and friends have been made to hate and kill one another throughout history. Those who refused to hate or kill tried to escape their walled and demarcated zones, though not many were lucky enough to succeed.
The Vietnamese and Germans are fortunate, but whether their history is now serving as a lesson for other countries remains to be seen. One thing that’s certain is that many Vietnamese and Germans grew up being taught to abhor the political system of “the other side”.
The German and Vietnamese unifications did not vindicate any political system. They only proved that when families, friends and relatives are reunited, they blend seamlessly as if the divisions never happened. Fanaticism and manipulation may have damaged the bonds, but they eventually proved too strong to be denied.
Such bonds, however, were often eclipsed by the comments, rhetoric and gestures of people who had little to do with historical division. Only when Kim and Moon smiled at each other did the media report what has been on the mind of Lee Bong-joo for a very long time.
The 52-year-old South Korean woman said she always wanted to visit her father’s hometown in North Korea to conduct a memorial service for him. One of the “lucky” few, he lived in the South but had always wanted to meet the family he was separated from in the North, and died waiting.
CNN may have interviewed her for a “side story”, part of routine journalistic practice. The media spotlight was elsewhere, on the people “who really matter”. The voice of Trump, Kim and Moon took centre stage, while the likes of Lee Bong-joo were “fillers”, used to add background colour if needed.
It’s the way things are. Whatever Lee Bong-joo feels is insignificant compared to what Trump or Kim or Moon or the Chinese and Russian leaders think about the Korean Peninsula. That she represents the millions who “really matter” means little.
Trump himself was a toddler when armed conflict ripped the Korean peninsula apart. Last week he tweeted “Good things are happening” and said he was optimistic over prospects for peace. He is set to have his own meeting with Kim, the man he demonised not so long ago, in a few weeks.
That summit will trigger even more interest. Everyone will be following its progress, which can only be good for the momentum towards peace.
Whether it will also amplify the controversial origins of wars and peace will be worried about later.
But, at the end of the day, the world should start thinking whether the status quo needs to be changed. A world without war remains in the realm of fairy tale, but a world of one-sided stories generated by warmongers has caused innocent people countless miseries. This is not saying that Kim “the monster” should get the benefit of the doubt; this is saying that children should grow up free of the conditioning and fear that keeps families, friends and relatives apart.