Playing for Keeps


For the second time since its opening in 1987, I visited the Independence Hall of Korea, a huge patriotic monument south of Seoul; and I was struck by the same thoughts as during the first visit: Was my revulsion a sign of decadence, of Western flabbiness? Were Spengler and Toynbee perhaps right? Is there something to the idea of the rise and fall of national, even racial vigor? Intellectually, one rebels against such notions. But still the place overwhelms by its sheer force; it has the fascination of Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries. One notes the kitsch, the absurd mysticism, the sentimentality, the brutal aesthetics, but one cannot deny the power.

Unlike before, the place was virtually empty. People were either at work or watching the Olympics on TV. I examined at my leisure the great Patriots Memorial, the Patriotic Poems and Quotations, and the Grand Hall of the Nation, an enormous temple with large stone groups of patriots, nude, Nordic-looking and vigorous, their lantern jaws and outstretched arms pointing toward a glorious future. The effect of histrionic power was heightened by Wagnerian music and sounds of drums and neighing horses. The hall commemorates the struggle against Japanese colonialism. The style owes a great deal to Arno Breker and Stalin’s socialist realists. The purpose, according to the official guide, is “to awaken Korean national consciousness and promote patriotism.” The method is quasi-religious.

Inside the exhibition halls I noted some of the anthropological information. On the physical characteristics of Koreans (in English): “Their arms are rather short. Their heads tend to be flat in the back and their foreheads are rather broad, suggesting large brain capacity.”

In the history section there was a nineteenth-century stone with an inscription that read: “Western barbarians invade our lands—if we do not fight, we must appease them. To urge appeasement is to betray our nation.” A rebellion by the Righteous Army against the Japanese in 1907 was said to have “sent a signal to the world that the Koreans were prepared to unite to fight for their national sovereignty, justice and world peace.”

At the end of the exhibition, as a kind of climax after all the heavy oil paintings of battle scenes, pictures of Japanese atrocities, and relics of Korean martyrdom, we get to the Olympic games. There is a model of the Olympic stadium, there are photographs of Korean medalists at the 1986 Asian games in Seoul, and, in a panoramic film, entitled Korea, My Motherland, we see a thousand young Taekwondo fighters in identical martial gear punching the air in unison while letting out a piercing battle cry. This is followed by images of steel furnaces, followed by more pictures of Korean athletes winning gold.

“Welcome to ’88 Olympics, and the Land of Ginseng,” says a ginseng-root drink commercial: “Ginseng for over forty centuries has symbolized power and youth throughout Asia.”

“Korea’s Economy Outpowers Japan’s at Time of Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964,” said a headline in the Korea Times on the day…

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