by B. Yoon

With John Liu running for City Comptroller, two Korean Americans are running for his vacant seat, along with three other non-Korean Americans. One of the Korean American candidates, John Choe, is a founding and former member of Nodutdol for Korean Community Development. This is the latest event in the increasing visibility of Korean Americans in mainstream politics, and knowledge of history and context is crucial to be able to critically analyze this phenomenon and participate in a constructive manner.

Political campaigns often become sites of contestation over definitions, history, classifications. Often, these types of situations lay bare issues that have remained dormant and unaddressed within a community. This race is no exception, and once John Choe announced his candidacy, Nodutdol and John Choe were inevitably linked in the media. Didn’t he go to North Korea? Doesn’t Nodutdol run a program to go to North Korea? Isn’t he/Nodutdol pro-North?

On some level, none of this is surprising. The impulse to categorize, classify, and divide is natural. We have the Civil Rights Era, the Renaissance, the Middle Ages. When dealing with these types of temporal classifications, however, it is easy to create the illusion of decisive shifts, of moments that have beginnings, middles, and ends. And so with history, conventional understanding has it that the Cold War was a moment in time that had the requisite beginning, middle, and end. Conventional understanding also has it that the Cold War was a successful war scenario with minimal loss of life, the best possible outcome in the context of the inexorable conflict defined as one between freedom (capitalism) and oppression (international communism). But this was not the lived experience of many in the Third World.

The need to define is a parallel impulse, and can become problematic when words evolve beyond their initial meaning, when context and time shape a new definition that can sometimes bear little relation to the original scope of the word. Correspondingly, a definition may remain static but renewed understanding of those objects which it categorizes can cause a shift in understanding. Pluto, for example, is no longer a planet. Merriam-Webster defines Cold War as: “A conflict over ideological differences carried on by methods short of sustained overt military action and usually without breaking off diplomatic relations.” Categories and definitions are useful and serve their purpose but we should recognize their limits and not let them be divisive. Instead, they can serve as vehicles for solidarity and community building.

For the Third World, the Cold War was never cold, and the cost of avoiding “overt military action” between the Soviet Union and the United States was paid for by the Third World with consequences that yet remain—consequences too often termed unintended, despite their close parallels to the consequences of colonialism and now the War on Terror. The Cold War, as defined by the Third World, is a collective noun for the high price exacted on the less powerful and includes experiences of division, civil war; the consequences of these experiences that can not simply be forgotten about in the same way former colonizers and former Cold Warriors were able to withdraw and declare an end to conflict. The United States waged the Cold War for decades and yet recent fears of Obama’s “socialism” show how little our country understood the terms of engagement, of the destructive reality behind the rhetoric of the Cold War.

To understand the local Korean community is to understand that in Korea, the Cold War was tragic and continues to play out to this day. History teaches us to look critically at today with what we know of yesterday. What we call McCarthyism in America was far more toxic in Korea: blacklists became mass killings and incarceration—it was the widespread repression of the broad-based, socialist-oriented Korean People’s Republic in a country that, far from being an enemy combatant in World War II, had been recently liberated from colonial rule. Immigration to the United States was largely fueled by those wishing to leave such destruction behind, whether it was in the wake of the devastation of the Korean War or during the decades of military rule that followed. And while in the rest of the world walls were torn down, global capitalism embraced the Eastern Bloc, and the Cold War was declared a thing of the past, Korea remained divided. The persistence, in this context, of Cold War-style politics and red-baiting is an understandable phenomenon—it is the local manifestation of those issues that remain unresolved on the Korean peninsula. We must, however, look back into history and context, and when confronted with present day incarnations of Cold War politics, we must ask: “Were such tactics useful then? Are they useful now? What are the unintended consequences of this? Who benefits from this, and is the introduction of these divisions into the local Korean community something we wish to facilitate or work to repair?”

As those working toward a Peace Treaty to finally end the Korean War, we must also be aware of those divisions that exist within our community and work to establish a common future for both diaspora Korean communities and those living on either side of the 38th parallel.

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Nodutdol e*News.