The Korean War (1950-1953) was devastating. It pitted the United States, South Korea, and 16 other countries in what the United Nations called a "police action" against North Korea and China. A mere three years of fighting resulted in 3 million civilian deaths, nearly 2 million combat deaths and casualties, the decimation of Korea's natural and social infrastructure, and national division separating 10 million Koreans from family members for over a half century. At the conclusion of the fighting, Korea lay in ruins. But the war never ended. Stalemated in what was supposed to be a temporary armistice agreement, no peace treaty has ever been signed nor has normalization of relations between the principle antagonists, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the United States on one side, and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (North Korea) on the other, been achieved. The prospects of renewed conflict weigh heavily on Koreans throughout the world.
In spite of the magnitude of loss engendered by the War and the pivotal role this conflict played in shaping U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, most Americans can barely recall the Korean "police action." Ironically, it is best remembered in the popular U.S. culture as the "Forgotten War."
For Korean American survivors and their children, though, the Korean War remains a source of shared pain and national division. To speak openly about this past is difficult in a larger culture that has "forgotten" this war and in Korean American communities where Cold War divisions linger. Memory of Forgotten War will help to break a 50-year silence and will for the first time on film tell stories of the Korean War from the perspective of Korean American civilians.
Memory of Forgotten War builds on the success of the traveling exhibition, "Still Present Pasts: Korean Americans and the Forgotten War" (www.stillpresentpasts.org). Based on oral histories collected over a three-year period by Ramsay Liem, Professor of Psychology at Boston College, the exhibit includes oral history excerpts, original artwork, interactive installations, video art and historical photographs from the Korean War. "Still Present Pasts" opened at the Cambridge Multicultural Art Center in Boston in January 2005, then traveled to a variety of galleries in the U.S. including Wellesley College, Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland, LA Artcore, Queens Museum and Intermedia Gallery in Minneapolis. The exhibit traveled to South Korea in November, 2007.
Memory of Forgotten War draws upon the dramatic stories from the "Still Present Pasts" oral history collection. The experiences and memories shared by the participants embrace the full circle of the war – its outbreak and the day-to-day struggle for survival, the aftermath of a devastated, ideology-riven Korean peninsula, immigration to the U.S. as a legacy of the war, life as war survivors in the U.S., and eventual reunion with lost relatives in North Korea. These eyewitness accounts will be interwoven with thoughtful analysis and interpretation of events by historians that situate these stories in a broader historical context. Additional visual materials, including newsreels, U.S. military footage, archival photographs, propaganda posters, and news articles, will bring to life the political, social and historical forces that set in motion the tumultuous events of the War and its aftermath.
The film will introduce all Americans to the lived experience and legacies of a war that forged a lasting, complex relationship between Korea and the United States. The Korean War was responsible for the emergence of a vibrant Korean American community in the U.S. Korean military brides, for example, were among the first sizeable group of Koreans to come to the U.S. Following the end of national immigration quotas with the 1965 Immigration act, chain migration facilitated by Korean War brides led to the rapid increase in Korean immigrants to this country. Similarly, the Korean War set in motion the adoption of nearly 150,000 Korean children by American families. Korean adoptees now represent a significant sector of the Korean American community that numbers approximately 1.2 million people.
The Korean War also opened the door to a complex economic, military, and cultural relationship to Korea that continues to play a central role in U.S. policy in Asia. As painfully evident today, the status of the Korean War as unfinished, stalemated in an armistice agreement, challenges us to prevent a renewal of the conflict and to reconcile our differences. The voices of Korean American survivors express the urgency of these objectives, deepen our collective memory of the "Forgotten War," and humanize the costs of military conflict.
Directed and produced by Ramsay Liem and Deann Borshay Liem, Memory of Forgotten War is a production of the Channing and Popai Liem Education Foundation and Mu Films, in association with Boston College. Funding for the project has thus far been provided by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, the Channing and Popai Liem Education Foundation and individual donors.