Korea, the war the West wants everyone to forget but refuses to end | marketrealtime.com

White transgender guy walks into a bar for a psychic reading via zoom screen.  He has one question for the typical white lady psychic: “Why did Korean history become so important to me as my father died?”  The psychic looks at the clients alleged “spirit guides” in the vacuum of her room.  They have a silent conversation.  She nods and says, “Oh wow,” often.

By Johnny Atlas

The psychic turns back to the screen to relay the message.  I am the white trans guy.  I am trying to keep an open mind as this psychic reading was a birthday present.  I look at the lady curious what will happen.  Her eyes open wide as she faces me through the screen.  She tells me the “spirit guides” want me to know I am “a reincarnated ruler of Korea.”  She turns and chats with the empty air again.  Looks back to the screen and says “You’ve been born again {in a little white trans man body} to liberate Korea! The spirit guides say to ignore the stigma and trust your calling!”

I stare at the psychic blankly.  She asks if I have any more questions.  I take this as an opportunity to let her know my white military father lived in Korea in the 1960s.  I list the complications of that intersection:

  • The US military camptowns.
  • American soldiers meeting Korean women working in the entertainment industry.
  • The orphans that often resulted.
  • The controversial international Korean adoptions.

I tell her how I’ve wondered if, given the timing, my interest in Korea has something to do with a long-lost sibling.   Some sort of haunted psychic sibling branch.  She looks away, then back again, says the spirit guides are unable to confirm this.

After the call I sit with the audacity.  The audacity of us white people.  The audacity of us white people getting spiritual.  Still stealing & trading ancestors not our own.  In 2022 one hopes a white psychic would download less appropriative messages from the spirits, but the road of unlearning white supremacy is a long one for us white folks.  I smoke after the reading to burn it off.  During my cigarette, I text a Korean American friend, “Well, turns out I was once Queen Min in a past life.  I’ve been reborn all these years later to liberate Joeson.  lmfao.”  He responds, “Oh thank god.”  I laugh into the screen and send my trademark elderly teenage transman memoji.  He sends his trademark freakshow barrister wig memoji.

It would make a great K-drama if I were Queen Min trapped in the body of a tiny white transgender man.  Someone should NEVER make that teevee show.  I am zero Korean.  Not even by possession.  I love Korea but my ancestors come from the wrong side of imperialist history.  The closest I get to Korea is a bag of Korean coffee candy with a white Scottish bagpiper set against red plaid and Hangul (Korean).  Perhaps the candy is a nod to the first Bible translated into Hangul by a Scottish missionary.  Real cool grandpa.  Real cool.

I may not be living out a K-drama as Queen Min trapped in the body of a tired old white trans man, but I care a great deal about Korean history and the liberation of Korea (Joseon).  I care about seeing the US military exit Korea before I die.  Care about seeing the DMZ deconstructed. Care about seeing peaceful reunification. How could I not, my birthday shares the date with Korean Liberation Day.

For those unaware of Korean history, Korean Liberation Day was August 15th, 1945.  After decades of brutal Japanese colonization, the end of WWII saw Japanese forces leave the peninsula.  Sadly, this is when the US military landed in the Southern part of Korea and saw Korea split along the DMZ.  Korea, one country for thousands of years, was cut in half by the binary world powers of Capitalism and Communism.  Within years of the division, the Korean War broke out 1950-1953.

My father was stationed in Uijeongbu, South Korea from 1962-1963.  A recent West Point grad, my father was one of many US military officers helping the Park Chung-hee administration solidify a US backed dictatorship which lasted until Park Chung-hee’s assasination in 1979.  The years under Park Chung-hee were not a happy time.  Ten years after my father helped smash democracy in the name of democracy, I arrived on earth into his arms, kicking.  I would eventually grow his hair gray with my queer socialist leanings.

While not all US military men in Korea had relations with women, my father was my father. Before studying Korean history through a feminist lens, I once snuck him into a Sex Worker’s Art Show my friends organized.  I wanted him to see the intellectual side of sex work.  It wasn’t until after my Korean studies, I saw the intersection of him in Korea painting a troublesome picture.  It should be stated there was/is a lot of love between US service men and Korean women that has NOTHING to do with sex work.  I’m not trying to disgrace anyone, just being realistic about my beloved father.  Sadly, his dementia prevented us from discussing this complication.  It’s all theory.  Does my father in Korea mean I have a long-lost sibling?  No.  Does it make it possible?  Absolutely.

It was a haunted feeling that led me to wonder if I had a long-lost sibling.  I’m not some K-pop fan who recently discovered BTS & kimchi.  My interest in Korean history felt haunted.  A psychic sibling branch was the only thing that made sense until I discovered I am allegedly Queen Min.  Previous to my Korean royalty reveal, the haunted feeling led me to connect with an organization helping Korean adoptee’s find family.  I shipped DNA into the data bank right before my father died.  Afterwards I made a private post on the 325 KAMRA social media site with a picture of my father.  I felt crazy, as it was just a hunch.  I shared this honestly with the folks on the message board.  The outpouring of support took me aback.  So many adoptees asked me to keep searching.  So many adoptees are still searching for long-lost military dads and long-lost Korean mothers.

My last meal with my father was on my birthday in a Korean restaurant.  He’d fallen off my porch on our way out the door to Mount Rainer.   We arrived at Seoul restaurant with him in bandages from the ER.  The older waitress asked, “Grandpa, what happened to you!?”  He pointed at me and said, “HE hit me!”  Then he began laughing as the woman frowned, then smirked.  All week due to poor health, he had zero appetite.  I only ordered one serving of bulgogi, which was a mistake. He resumed his appetite.  Me and my busted-up old dad on Korean Liberation Day, sharing our last meal together.

After my father died, I kept searching for clues into his life in Korea.  I called his old Army buddy, but he had his wife on the call, which blocked sensitive questions I wanted to ask man to man.  Next I talked with my father’s oldest friend, who was still in contact with his first wife.  They had a pact: She would let the last living half know the other died.  She shared that whatever happened in Korea led to their divorce after 15 years of marriage.  I wrote my father’s first wife a letter asking if she would share why, but never heard back.

In 2020, after six months of Covid quarantine, I finally buried my father at West Point.  On his ashes I threw two coins: one American, one Korean.  The American coin was for me.  The Korean coin was for my speculative long-lost sibling.  I will never know.  So many will never know.  Will never know their American soldier dads.  Will never know their Korean mothers.  Will never know their siblings.

They call the Korean War “the forgotten war.”  This collective conditioning has worked on a large part of American people.  Most Americans know nothing about the Korean War, let alone that it has yet to formally end.  Even fewer Americans understand the damage done to ALL of Korea during the war.  Most Americans sadly see North Korea as evil and backwards.  They have no idea why North Korea would feel the need to defend itself from the United States.  A closer look at the Korean War illuminates war atrocities committed by the United States against Northern Korea.

In the name of democracy, the US dropped more bombs on North Korea in three years than it did in the entire Asia Pacific theater of WWII (six years).  Napalm was also dropped.  If math helps, 635,000 bombs were dropped on North Korea, in addition to 32,557 tons of napalm.  Once America was done carpet bombing Northern Korea, it is said nearly no buildings remained.  The country was crushed and saturated with poison.  Many nations stated they felt the atrocities were outright racist.  Winston Churchill was said to have privately called the American use of napalm against North Korea, “cruel.” (Neer, R. (2013) Napalm: An American Biography.)

Looking at a map, the land mass of Northern Korea is about half the size of Washington State, where I currently live.  I am trying to imagine what 635,000 bombs over the course of three years would do to Western Washington.  I am trying to imagine 32,557 tons of napalm being dropped in addition to all the bombs.  I am trying to imagine surviving and what kind of fear and trauma it would create.  One can only imagine the kind of defensive weapons Western Washington might create in the aftermath of such devastation.  They might look like the military parades we see in North Korea.

It’s always been ironic to me that America is the only country to ever drop nuclear bombs, yet we are the gatekeepers of such horrific instruments of annihilation.  I read a Bruce Cumings account that nuclear-equipped US bombers flew over Northern Korea in cruel psychological warfare.  Will it be today?  I can only imagine the kind of fear that would instill in Korean people who knew America dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki five years prior.  Fresh memory.  Not forgotten.

What most in the West don’t realize is many North Korean missile launches are in RESPONSE to US/ROK offensive war drills.  They are in DEFENSE of US/ROK aggression.  Cause and effect.  North Korea isn’t some aggressive country trying to upload the great leader into living rooms of the West.  If anything, they are a country trying to keep Uncle Sam out of their own living rooms.  North Korea was DESTROYED by US military campaigns during the unended Korean War.  A large part of North Korea’s military might is in direct response to the fact the Korean War is still ongoing with regularly scheduled US/ROK war drills.  The war the West wants everyone to forget is a war the West refuses to end.

It’s complicated.  The scope of these words only scratches the surface.  How I came to care about these issues is also complicated.  The psychic didn’t have an answer and my father’s DNA in various databases has yet to yield a match.  Like so many, I will likely never know if I have a sibling or find that sibling.  The divided families of Korea extend far beyond the DMZ split between North and South.  There are many people around the globe trying to solve the mystery of family as it relates to the unended Korean War.

I recently thought I found my long-lost speculative sibling.  Ever since discovering 325 KAMRA, I held close it could happen one day.  To this end, I had a powerful conversation with a professor that shifted my search.  She offered I could look at this question in a more radical way.  Rather than search for a speculative sibling, I could get involved in helping women get out of sex work.  Help Korean women leave camptown life.  There is an organization called MY SISTER’S PLACE doing this work.  It was offered in doing so, maybe I would find my speculative sibling.  A very radical and infinitely altruistic idea.

These are the ways I spent my deep pandemic.   While some were learning how to bake sourdough bread, I was in zoom calls with a grassroots campaign called KOREA PEACE NOW GRASSROOTS NETWORK  trying to get more US Congress members to sign onto H.R.3446, H.R.1504/S.690, and S.288.  In layman’s terms: a bill to end the Korean War, a bill to enhance humanitarian aid to the North Korean people, and a bill to help Korean American families reunite with family in North Korea.  I also got involved with the LIFT campaign  (Let Individuals Freely Travel) thru WOMEN CROSS DMZ .

In addition to activism during the pandemic, I also began helping an older friend at her Korean restaurant.  This is where I thought I ran into my long-lost sibling.  My friend’s restaurant—like many Korean restaurants in the US—is a place Koreans and Korean Americans go for homecooked meals when missing home.  I’ve watched my friend reach out to adoptees who never knew their Korean families.  She fills their table with free treats and love.  I have watched her do the same to younger folks who simply miss their moms’ home cooking.  A form of activism, in my opinion.

The woman I clocked as someone who fit the age of my speculative long-lost sibling, was patiently waiting for her bibimbap while the restaurant bustled.  It wasn’t until after she left that I wished I had asked her more questions knowing she was born outside Uijeongbu, Korea where my father was stationed.  As luck would have it, she eventually returned.  We got to talking.  She got real sassy telling me her life story.  She was born before my father was there, so not my sibling, but she spoke of never knowing her American military father.

She was born shortly after the Korean War armistice in 1953.  She lived in an orphanage until she was eleven years old.  In a rare miracle for someone that age, a kind white American couple adopted her from the orphanage.  She told me that, later in life, when she met Korean War vets, she would straight up ask them, “Are you my father?”  When she told this story, we both laughed but also held the weight of how painful this is.

As I finish writing this piece, Lunar New Year fireworks are lighting up the sky in my neighborhood.  The escalations between the DPRK and the US/ROK keep ramping up.  Every year joint military exercises are held between US/ROK forces, and every year they prompt North Korea to respond in kind.  This year the escalations are the worst they have ever been on both sides.  This Lunar New Year, the world enters the year of the rabbit.  In Korean folklore, the rabbit, in an act of self-sacrifice, offers itself as a meal to the great emperor of the heavens.  As a reincarnated ruler of Joseon, I believe Korea has sacrificed enough.

Enough earth and grass has burned.  It’s time for smoke to clear and for the rabbit to reincarnate from moon back to earth.  No more war-torn rabbit country divided at the belt.  One Korea.  One Joseon.  One people.

Johnny Atlas is a gender queer writer living on stolen Nisqually Tribal land in the Pacific Northwest.  He has a graduate degree in writing, but co-owns & is a line cook at an anarchist collective breakfast cafe with twelve millennial punks to pay the bills.  The kids consider him the token old guy at the collective who doesn’t know how to use a computer. Most of his published works have been DIY xeroxed zines. 

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