Guest post by John Finch, PhD, Associate Director of the Institute for Korean Studies and Lecturer of East Asian Languages and Cultures.
It would be difficult to pick a more timely movie to include in a series about the Cultural Foundations for Peace than As One (2012). In the past year, uncertainty about peace in the Korean peninsula has re-emerged as a major concern for the world as the leaders of both the United States and North Korea have threatened each other with nuclear annihilation. This month’s agreement that North Korea will be sending a delegation to the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics was a welcome change in the tone of news from Korea. As One is based on an example of sports diplomacy between North and South Korea from nearly thirty years ago, and it offers an opportunity to reflect on what has kept the Korean peninsula free from open warfare for more than a generation.
Korea has a history of over a thousand years as a unified nation, but its independence came to an end in 1910 when Japan took over from the weakened monarchy and instituted a colonial government. For thirty-five years Korea remained part of the Japanese empire until it was defeated in 1945, and at that point Korea (not Japan) was divided into two halves by the victorious allies. The Soviets got the Northern half and the Americans got the Southern half. The occupying powers then installed governments led by anti-colonial activists who matched their own ideologies. This is the origin of North and South Korea. Neither side accepted that the division would be permanent, and in 1950 the North sent troops to take over the South.
Active fighting in the Korean War lasted three years, and saw most of the country occupied at least once by the opposing side. At first, the South was rescued from defeat by the U.S., and later the North was rescued from defeat by China, but the fighting left the entire country devastated, and the border between the two sides was left pretty much where it had been before the war started. On each side there were more than a million casualties, mostly civilians. The U.S. continued to bomb the North after the battle lines stopped shifting, but the North never surrendered and the fighting was only stopped by an armistice agreement.
The war left the two Koreas as bitter enemies, and each state demonized the other in its histories. Everyone had experienced the evil behavior of the enemy, and this justified extreme policies. North Korea’s Communist dictatorship used the war to magnify the heroism of its leaders who had fought the Americans, and South Korea spent much of the Cold War under a military dictatorship that justified its policies through anti-communism. Nevertheless, throughout the Cold War period, both Koreas maintained a sense of common ethnic heritage, and relations fluctuated with occasional peaceful overtures punctuated by assassinations and other acts of violence.
In 1991, North Korea and South Korea were still hostile powers divided by the world’s most heavily fortified military border along the ironically-named Demilitarized Zone. The North was still run by the same Kim Il-sung who had led the country into the Korean War, but the South was starting on its transition away from military dictatorship and looking to expand its connections to former adversaries.
This is the context within which the events depicted in the movie As One take place. In 1991, North and South Korea joined together to create a unified team for the 41st World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba City, Japan. This was one of the first major sporting events after the 1988 Seoul Olympics which had been South Korea’s great opportunity to show off its post-war development to the world. North Korea’s response to the Seoul Olympics had been to use state-sponsored terrorism to disrupt them, using spies to plant a bomb on a Korean Air jetliner.
A ping pong tournament is not at the level of an Olympic games, but ping pong is a popular sport in East Asia, and both Koreas do well in international competitions. The decision to form a unified team was sudden and surprising. The combined team did not employ national symbols that were connected to either North Korea or South Korea. It used “Korea” (코리아) as the country name, avoiding the South’s Hanguk (한국) and the North’s Chosŏn (조선). Instead of either the North Korean Red Star or the South Korean Taegukgi, it used the Korean Unification Flag with a blue outline of the peninsula on a white background as the national flag. And it used the folk song “Arirang” as the national anthem. Perhaps even more surprising than the existence of the team, the unified Korean team was a success and the women won the gold medal in Chiba City. Star players Hyun Jung-hwa from the South and Ri Bun-hui from the North played together as doubles partners and won.
Sports has been an area where the two Koreas have been able to cooperate on several occasions, and in the early 2000s they marched together at opening events in several international competitions, but the end of the Sunshine Policy in South Korea and North Korea’s ramping up its nuclear and missile programs led to increased tensions.
The movie As One was made in 2012, the year of the London Olympics, perhaps in anticipation of more sports diplomacy. The movie’s title in Korean is simply Korea. The film stars top South Korean actors in the lead roles; Ha Ji-won took the role of South Korean player Hyun Jung-hwa, and Bae Doo-na took the role of the North Korean Ri Bun-hui. The acting is excellent. The actors look like real athletes and wear unflattering team uniforms, rather than trying to look pretty. All the ping pong played in the movie is by the actors themselves. The real Hyun Jung-hwa coached the actors, and even had a cameo role in the movie. She oversaw the actors’ training and made sure that Ha Ji-won could imitate her playing style. She insisted on getting details right in order to enhance the movie’s realism. For example, she insisted that Bae Doo-na learn to play left-handed because the real Ri Bun-hui is left-handed.
Korea is a sports movie, but it is also an acute reminder that Korea is still a divided country. It is about people, about friendship and love, and not about ideologies or politics. Bae Doo-na and Ha Ji-won expressed appreciation for being able to play strong women who aren’t dominated by male leads. Bae is quoted as saying “It is so rare in films nowadays for actresses to be able to tell a story about women in films, with a cast full of other actresses.”
After the movie was released, its producers tried to arrange a meeting between Hyun Jung-hwa and Ri Bun-hui. (The two had not seen each other since a tournament in 1993.) Hyun even had a friendship ring made as a gift for Ri, but at the last minute the meeting was called off because the South Korean government objected to its timing. The Korean-American who was to be the intermediary explained that she could not even transfer the ring, saying “I made the decision that with inter-Korean relations in such a bad state, both Ms. Hyun and Ms. Ri could find themselves in trouble if I delivered it.”
Even before last year’s threats and nuclear tests, relations between North and South Korea had been deteriorating. After an uneasy period of tensions and non-communication, delegations from North and South Korea have just held their first meetings in over two years, and, in a remarkable turnaround, came up with some constructive ideas for defusing the crisis. North Korea announced that it would send a large delegation including high-ranking officials, athletes and cheerleaders to the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and Seoul proposed that North and South Korean athletes march alongside each other in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games (February 9-25, 2018).
Commenting on the latest events in Korea, Pope Francis said that “it is of paramount importance to support every effort at dialogue on the Korean peninsula, in order to find new ways of overcoming the current disputes, increasing mutual trust and ensuring a peaceful future for the Korean people and the entire world.”
As One will be shown at the IU Cinema on February 4 at 3 pm. This screening is part of the Cultural Foundations for Peace series, which is sponsored by the Department of Business Law and Ethics, the Institute for Korean Studies, and the IU Cinema.
John Finch is Lecturer in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Associate Director of the Institute for Korean Studies within the School of Global and International Studies. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, he specializes in the Asia Pacific region, and his research has focused on family, migration and education; gender, culture and cinema; globalization and inequality; and household and community ethnography. He has published many articles in referred journals, and currently, he is co-authoring a book, entitled The Making of Global Citizens?: Transnational Migration and Education in Kirŏgi Families, with Seung-kyung Kim. This semester, he is teaching “South Korean Film and National Identity” and “South Korean Education: Examination Hell or Role Model.”