Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Park Wan-suh on the 'Democratic Youth League'

Park Wan-suh
(Image from Dong-A Ilbo)

At the onset of the Korean War, Park Wan-suh, just out of high school and naive about politics, felt torn between North and South, even when she saw the refugees streaming through Seoul from north of the city, and she told herself:
Maybe they were evil landowners, or from the families of police who had led the crackdown on leftists, and had been terrified even before anything actually happened. (Who Ate Up All the Shinga?, page 213)
In the very next line -- albeit from what we later learn was bitter experience -- she castigates such thinking:
Even though I didn't want the Korean People's Army to invade, not even as an idle fantasy, my thinking had been quite affected by leftist ideology. (page 213)
Reality hit hard when the North took Seoul for three months, enabling the Democratic Youth League to run Seoul National University, where she had recently started attending classes:
The Democratic Youth League ruled the school. Their "democratic" study method was to take turns reading Soviet Communist Party history or a full newspaper page of Leader Kim Il Sung's teaching, and then treat it with fawning adulation. Nothing is more exhausting than having to offer glowing praise when it doesn't flow naturally. I had the marked sensation of my vital energy evaporating. Despite reading the same text over and over, we had to maintain the peak of enthusiasm we'd shown the first time. The new lessons sounded no different, but we were expected to add a fresh spark to our fervor. Absurd. Even if that had been possible, it would have been a fraud. I couldn't carry it off unless I muttered to myself what an idiot this leader was if he was so taken with charade. (pages 227-228)
As for 'real' subjects taught in the occupied university, Park remarks:
The Democratic Youth League lessons consisted of endless study of the obvious, things that elementary-school kids would have understood the first time around. (page 228)
But lessons weren't the point:
Our major task was to encourage others to come back to school. Each of us received several of our fellow students' dossiers, including the hand-drawn maps to their homes within them. Track down the absentees, we were told. Urge them to return. I learned later that students were frequently rounded up with this tactic and sent to the army . . . . [but] I ignored the instructions. (page 227)
She means the male students, of course. When the South's forces retook Seoul after its three months in Communist hands, young men spilled out of hiding . . . but not all of them:
[T]he full revelation of how many had been taken away or killed defied our wildest imagination. The scale was too immense, too cruel . . . . What the communists had done was so outrageous that a barrage of complaints came forth. (pages 231-232)
Unfortunately for Park, she was rounded up in the group of 'leftists' to suffer punishment in spite of her reluctance to cooperate with the Democratic Youth League and despite her 'inner resistance', for her family was mistakenly believed to be high-level leftists, and Park endured a series of harrowing interrogations at the hands of anticommunists that might have turned her truly communist if she hadn't experienced its stultifying, horrifying omnipresence during the North's three-month occupation of Seoul.

Her brother, conscripted into the North's army, apparently saw even worse -- for when he escaped in the chaos of the North's retreat, he returned home a physical, emotional wreck -- but whatever he did see was merely hinted at in Park's book, so I can also only hint at it here.

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