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Tear down the DMZ

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Emanuel Pastreich stands at Imjingak's Pyeonghwa-Nuri Park in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, June 25, 2020. Courtesy of Emanuel Pastreich
By Emanuel Pastreich

Exactly 70 years ago, the Korean People's Army crossed over from up there and set out to invade, or (as those in the North thought) to liberate, the southern part of Korea. The division into North and South was artificial, a product of the geopolitical struggles between the United States and the Soviet Union that emerged as the consensus on the need for a new international approach to governance that had powered the struggle against fascism faded into the background.

The United States and the Soviet Union had worked together as allies against the ruthless fascist push to destroy wide swaths of humanity in the pursuit of profit and against an agenda of eugenics that assumed much of humanity had no rights at all, not even the right to exist.

This invasion of the South was not the start of the conflict, but it transformed it. Getting right the historical and cultural significance of what happened 70 years ago is critical to the future of the United States and above all, to the continued role of the United States in East Asia.

As an American who was trained as an Asia expert and has spent a career trying to understand Asia, and to make a concrete contribution to Asia's future, this question of what the United States' role has been, and what is can be, is critical. Although it is clear that there are numerous examples of Americans, and of American institutions, that have made positive contributions in Korea to the lives of the people, those efforts were mixed with other, far less benign, activities.

As the United States turns back to extreme isolationism, as racist and anti-Asian rhetoric spills out from the corporate media in the United States, as we see the commitment in the United States to Korea increasingly conditional on the sales of weapons, the hyping of a China threat and a North Korea threat, the greatest danger is that everything that the United States did of value will be buried in a wave of anti-American sentiment, some of it with justification. We can already see that wave coming.

But the response cannot be to embrace the American flag and try to defend the indefensible. If we Americans do that, we will no longer have any positive role in East Asia, and I fear we will no longer have any role in the world either. Our only choice is to condemn the racist and destructive efforts to blame the American culture of decadence and corruption on East Asia and to go forward with a new vision for America's role in Asia, and in the world, that makes a clean break from the destructive habit of promoting conflict, competition, containment and consumption. We can, we must, embrace a vision based on cooperation, coexistence, climate science and cultural exchange.

Let us go back to the moment on June 25, 1950 when the Korean People's Army swept down though Gaeseong toward Seoul, through Chuncheon to Hongcheon and through Gangneung towards Pohang. It was a tremendous shift in the nature of society. Family members would not be able to see each other again, millions would die in a war that produced one of the highest percentages of civilian deaths in history. Nothing would be normal again.

As we today anxiously await a return to "normal," a return to an environment in which we can work as we did before, travel as we did before, we cannot help thinking about that........

© The Korea Times