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About Still Present Pasts

Rarely are personal life stories, art, film, spoken word, and history combined in public exhibition. STILL PRESENT PASTS: Korean Americans and the "Forgotten War" is an exception. It weaves these elements into a multi-media, interactive experience that lifts the silence shrouding the Korean War, a pivotal event in Korean, United States, and Korean American history. A space of Korean American memory, the exhibit explores the human experience of the Korean conflict and its hidden but enduring personal and family legacies, and underscores the urgency to end over a half century of national division. For everyone, it evokes reflection about the United States' role in the war, empathy for survivors, and recognition of our common interest in acting for peace.

The Korean War (6/25/50-7/27/53) 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 1.2 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. It was merely 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 losses engendered by this war and the pivotal role it played in shaping U.S. foreign policy during the ensuing Cold War, most Americans can barely recall the Korean "police action." Ironically, it is at best remembered as the "Forgotten War." But for Korean American survivors and their children, the Korean War remains a source of shared, if not publicly expressed, pain and division. To speak openly about this past is to violate a pervasive popular culture that renders this war as "forgotten," to risk provoking Cold War divisions that linger within Korean American communities, and to expose children and grandchildren to deep personal suffering that survivors, themselves, may not have reconciled. But silence can also be disaffirming and immobilizing. It robs survivors of the opportunity to heal past wounds, denies younger generations knowledge of their family roots, and hinders community reconciliation essential for Korean Americans to become an effective voice for ending the stalemated conflict on the Korean peninsula and between the United States and North Korea. The creators of STILL PRESENT PASTS share the belief that a public space of memory and dialogue about the Korean War can challenge these multiple layers of silencing as a means to promote healing, reconciliation, and advocacy for peace.

STILL PRESENT PASTS embodies life stories from the Korean American Memories of the Korean War Oral History Project, directed by Ramsay Liem, professor of psychology at Boston College. Motivated by the personal quest of several younger Korean Americans to acquire a deeper understanding of their families' experiences during the Korean War, the project currently has three dozen oral histories from three generations of Korean Americans living in the Greater Boston and San Francisco Bay areas. These narratives are among the first public remembrances by Korean Americans of the devastation of this horrific civil and international conflict. They also reveal multiple legacies of the war that influence individual, family, and community life, to this day. These oral histories provide a counterpoint to the invisibility of the Korean War in public consciousness and the U.S. historical record.

The exhibit is the result of two years of collaboration among artists Yul-san Liem, Injoo Whang, and Ji-Young Yoo, documentary filmmaker Deann Borshay, historian Ji-Yeon Yuh, and project director, Ramsay Liem. Prior to joining the exhibit team, each had previous professional experience working with war-related themes and was familiar with the oral history project. As our work evolved, we invited participation from contributing artists Erica Cho, Sukjong Hong, and Yong Soon Min, spoken-word artists Grace M. Cho, Hosu Kim, and Hyun Lee and their stage director, Carolina McNeely, Language Consultant, Seung-Hee Jeon, study guide designer, Wol-san Liem, and Technology Coordinator, Young Sul.

We made a critical, early decision to work collectively to conceptualize, design, and implement the exhibit recognizing that our varied professional backgrounds, styles of work, and even languages - textual, visual, spatial, not to mention understandings of the Korean War, posed difficult challenges to this approach. Yet, precisely because of these differences, it was essential for us to find a common path. It took six months of intense and lengthy discussions to create a motif for the exhibit using the concept of dialogue as the integrating thread - a multi-voiced conversation involving the recollections of the oral history participants and our reactions to them framed by the historical landscape of the Korean War. The vehicles for this dialogue are oral history excerpts, installation art, spoken word, documentary film, archival photographs, and historical text. Each element is important to the artistic whole while simultaneously drawing substance from it. Our hope is that visitors to STILL PRESENT PASTS will deepen this conversation about memory by participating in the interactive installations.

STILL PRESENT PASTS affirms the memories of survivors and their courage to share them, and provides a bridge to an ever-present, yet unfamiliar history for younger generations. For everyone in this contested global era, it evokes memories of other conflicts, promotes dialogue as the principle means for resolving hostilities, and urges a genuine end to the Korean War.

The STILL PRESENT PASTS exhibit team expresses our gratitude to the oral history participants for sharing their life stories and for their willingness to help create the exhibit.  We thank: Soam Chang, Suntae J. Chun, Helen Kyungsook Daniels, Eungie Joo, Helen Sunhee Kim, Kyung Hui Lee, Min Yong Lee, Orson Moon, Andrew Park, Kee Park, Song J. Park, and Won Yop Kim.  Their voices help us to begin a critically important dialogue within the Korean American community and wider society, and to build bridges among ourselves, with the Korean people, and with all communities divided by war.

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