The 1980s was an apocalyptic decade for the Korean people. It began with the military coup by Chun Doo-hwan who seized and stayed in power until 1988 and ended with the democratization of South Korea after more than a quarter of a century of military dictatorship. Chun’s military regime persecuted political dissidents brutally and, as a result, numerous people were massacred by the Army during the Gwangju Uprising in 1980. At the time, college campuses were chaotic, covered with tear gas, demonstrators and plainclothesmen. The Korean people had to endure relentless suffering in the 1980s.
In 1984, I returned to Korea after living peacefully and comfortably in the United States for six years. While waiting at the San Francisco International Airport for my flight to Seoul, I saw on TV violent clashes between anti-government student protesters and riot police on various university campuses in Korea. When I saw the bleeding students and wounded policemen, I was depressed and dismayed. I was not sure if I should go back to a seemingly hopeless, Orwellian country. However, I decided to return to my homeland.
When I began teaching at Seoul National University in 1984, I saw violent clashes between the police and students every day. My faculty office was filled with tear gas so often that my eyes were teary most of the time. There I was, weeping for the miserable plight and grim future of my country, though involuntarily.
As an intellectual and writer, I was, naturally, against military tyranny. At the same time, however, I found I was surrounded by numerous stubborn, hostile, and self-righteous students who were willing to sacrifice anything for the Grand Cause or the Greater Good they believed in. I was appalled to hear them say, “Everything, including literature, should serve political ideology,” or “We vow to take revenge on the right-wing military fascists. One Day, they will surely pay for this.” I tried to teach those radical students the importance of “the middle against both extremes” and the “Third Way” to no avail. While fighting monsters, many of them inadvertently became monsters themselves, despite Nietzsche’s warning.
Later, when those young political dissidents became adults and seized power in the 2000s, they indeed took revenge on the right wing, even long dead people who were pro-Japanese during the Japanese occupation. Just like the military dictators did, they, too, completely excluded and even ruthlessly repressed those who did not abide by their political ideology. As a result, Korean society was sharply divided into two mutually exclusive factions and the gorge between the two extremes grew bigger and bigger.
In India, 1984 was an apocalyptic year as well. In his presentation at the 2017 Seoul International Forum for Literature, prominent Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh recalled the assassination of Indira Gandhi by two of her bodyguards and the ensuing anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Ghosh vividly described the hostile anti-Sikh atmosphere of India at that time.
Sly politicians and wicked rebel leaders immediately took advantage of the situation for political gain. They instigated the angry mobs who burned down the houses of Sikhs and murdered them indiscriminately, baying for revenge on the assassins. The religious bigotry was terrible. Approximately, 3,000 Sikhs were murdered and millions were displaced. It was a shameful war between two different religions sparked by hatred, bigotry and prejudice. Religion teaches us to love our neighbors, not to hate or kill them. Yet, history tells us that humans have been unabashedly killing others under the excuse of religious creed or political ideology.
Psychologists point out that revenge does not make us feel good. Rather, it increases our stress and impairs our mental health. It also drags us down to the level of the people we abhor and want to take revenge on. On the contrary, forgiveness heals our wounded souls and makes us feel good. The power of forgiveness can make the world a better place to live in. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” Marcus Aurelius, too, wrote, “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
We strongly hope that our new political leaders have the capacity to embrace their political opponents, and will accomplish reconciliation and integration, rather than disruption and disintegration. We hope that instead of going back to or repeating the 1980s, we can move toward a bright future together, burying the hatchet. Otherwise, we will end up living in an Orwellian dystopia once again.
Recently, I watched a movie that ends with the following touching lines, “Revenge does not change the past. It does not bring back dead people.” Indeed, it is useless to cling to past grudges. Instead, we should move on. We need not forget the past, but we should spread our wings and soar into the future. Living in a country of so many temples and church buildings, I often wonder, “Where is our spirit of forgiveness? Why should we cling to past grudges?”
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.