Life Must Be Lived to Be Understood

|Korean Peninsula

The other day, at a meeting of a learned society held in the ROK, I met an old fellow in his mid-seventies and had the privilege of being able to hear about his eventful life.

Originally he had started his working life as a career bureaucrat. At the end of the 1950s, at a young age, he went to study in the US, and afterwards had a promising future as a candidate for the executive. At precisely the time his name was put forward as a contender for vice-minister, however, he was affected by the fallout, after the assassination of Park Chung-hee, from the reorganization that was the forming of the Chun Doo-hwan regime. He was marginalized within his department. Eventually he had to give up his life as a career bureaucrat, and moved to being a common researcher at a research institute run by his old department. He had to start anew, in his fifties, on the path of researcher. He subsequently devoted himself wholeheartedly and made achievement after achievement as a historical researcher, and even today is active as a prominent figure in the learned society.

In the Korea of his childhood, under Japanese colonial rule, a modern school education system was introduced by the Japanese General Government of Korea. Being born into a provincial yangban (Confucian scholar-official) family, however, he received a traditional schooling in the Chinese classics under his parents’ direction. At that time continuing to middle school and beyond was difficult with a schooling in the Chinese classics alone. Flying in the face of his parents’ objections he went on to middle school. This as good as meant his having left home. This decision could be said to have effectively opened up the way for the subsequent career bureaucrat. Decades after that, however, his childhood grounding in the Chinese classics became of enormous use in his historical research.

The old fellow would never tire of saying “Life must be lived to be understood.” For the post-war generation of Japanese—who “had never known war”—to experience vicariously the political and cultural upheavals of colonial rule, liberation, military dictatorship and democratization in modern and recent Korean (ROK) history, requires a considerable degree of imagination. From his humorous way of talking, however, I thought I sensed the deep emotion of a Korean scholar who had been buffeted about in the period of upheaval and truly survived.

Life must be lived to be understood. This expression is so charged with reality that it amounts to an idea of “people who were unable to live right through to the end of their lives.” For him, and for ROK society also, the establishment of the Chun Doo-hwan regime was a time of severe trial. This was particularly so for the citizens of Gwangju. A great many of the cities’ residents, to their bitter chagrin, had their lives taken from them by the power of the state.

Life must be lived to be understood—if you somehow don’t carry this out to the full, then it will all be to no avail. One can go far as to say that this deep emotion is not just felt by this one man, but widely shared by the people of the ROK, a country which achieved democratization built on a great many sacrifices. In the near future, if a regime were established which had some affinity to the former military dictatorships, it would probably no longer be possible for them to ignore the existence of this sensibility, commonly held in ROK society, and to forcibly turn back the clock.

[Translated by ERINA]