The Korean War Memorial in Sydney, toppling statues and understanding what we memorialise

In Sydney’s picturesque Moore Park, there is a memorial to those Australians who served in the Korean War. Located at the northernmost tip of the park, it is always a pleasurable experience to visit the memorial. Moore Park is close to the large and cultivated Centennial Parklands, a popular destination for walkers, cyclists, joggers and tourists. This past June 25th marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.

A small service was held to mark the occasion, attended by Australian defence force personnel and members of the Korea War Veterans association. The memorial honours those Australians who perished in that conflict, and is a welcome addition to the beautiful surrounds of Moore Park. In the immediate aftermath of the global movement in toppling statues, the primary designer of the memorial was asked for her thoughts.

Jane Cavanough, the designer, stated that she welcomed the debates and histories that have found expression and wider audiences in the context of questioning historical landmarks. To that end, let’s make a contribution to the question of the Korean War, and what we are memorialising. There is no disputing that Australians suffered during that conflict. But let us not allow our own nationalism to blind us to the horrendous suffering endured by the Korean people.

What most Australians do not realise – just like most Americans – is that the United States, during the Korean conflict, demolished the North Korean side in its entirety. Between 1950 and 1953, North Korea was subjected to intensive aerial bombardment by the US Air Force, in which every city and town in North Korea was destroyed.

Under the direction of General Curtis LeMay, the US proceeded to drop more bomb tonnage on North Korea than during the American campaign in the Pacific in World War 2. When all the buildings, hospitals, roads and schools were bombarded, the US proceeded to bomb rice fields, dams, and other civilian infrastructure, bringing North Korea’s population to the brink of starvation. Aid from China and the Soviet Union averted a wider catastrophe.

Napalm, incendiary bombs, and fragmentation weapons were used to kill and vaporise hundreds of thousands, possibly millions. The North Korean countryside was left scorched and poisoned – but yet, after the war’s conclusion, North Korea rebuilt its society house by house, street by street, brick by brick. After World War 2 concluded, the major powers declared that industrialised mass killing would be outlawed and never occur again.

In the early stages of the world, General Douglas MacArthur, renowned American commander in the Pacific during World War 2, requested 34 atomic bombs to be used to create a radioactive belt in northern China to prevent any land invasion of Korea. Planning an aggressive war to achieve predatory war aims was something for which Nazi and Imperial Japanese generals had been convicted.

Surely South Korea is a democracy, a capitalist economic miracle and ally protected by the US and its friends, such as Australia? There is an element of truth to this description, but not in the way that the majority of Americans (and Australians) realise. The South Korean regime, based in Seoul and installed by the US in 1945, has spent most of its life as various military dictatorships. Syngman Rhee, the fanatical Christian and conservative supported by American arms, ruled South Korea with an iron fist, establishing a police-terror state. Thousands of suspected leftists and regime opponents were tortured and killed by 1950.

If South Korea currently implements democratic practices, it is not because of the regime. It is because South Korean people have periodically risen up and ousted widely-despised military dictators. Syngman Rhee, the longtime strongman, was deposed by the 1960 April revolution. He fled to Hawaii. In 1980, the little-known Gwangju uprising overthrew yet another set of military rulers. The Gwangju revolt was not without its casualties; highly trained elite special forces were deployed to suppress the rebellion.

It is very true that South Korea emerged as an economic tiger in the Asia Pacific. In the 1950s and 60s, Seoul pursued a series of policies that boosted its economy and lifted people out of poverty. But let us be clear on the reasons for their success. Contrary to today’s quasi-religious ideology of free-market fundamentalism, it was the state-driven capitalism that accounted for the stunning growth of South Korea’s GDP and export-intensive economy.

Setting out five-year plans, the Korean state elaborated ambitious targets to be achieved in cooperation with the private sector. General Park Chung-hee, the main architect of this government-driven, centrally-planned economic recovery, learned from his experience as an officer in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, and corralled the state’s resources to attain spectacular economic growth. Following Japanese models of state-corporatism, General Park created a resurgent South Korean capitalist class.

The South Korean chaebol, which literally means ‘money clan’, is a corporate-dynastic structure, which involves concentrating wealth in the hands of a few ruling family-dynasties. Samsung, Hyundai, LG – now famous international companies, have their origins in a dynastic clannish structure. The alliance between the authoritarian state and the dynastic chaebols contributed to the stunning success of South Korea’s tiger economy. The chaebols are the cornerstones of the economic and political landscape of that nation.

Should the Korean War memorial in Sydney be demolished? No, it should not. Am I suggesting that an enormous statue of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un be constructed in Sydney and worshipped? No, I am not. We need to have a long-overdue national conversation about what we memorialise whenever we commemorate US imperial wars, and what the Asian nations have to say about those wars.

Commemorative memorials do not compensate for serious historical amnesia.

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