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What Every American Could Learn from a Korean War Movie

© 2004 Kang Je-Gyu Films.

“No Korean can watch this movie without crying.” I can’t speak for others, but these words from a friend rang true for me, and I’m not Korean. Made in South Korea, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, follows two brothers in the Korean War. As an allegory of the North and South, it provides crucial insight for current events, especially to Americans.

Tae Guk Gi begins with two brothers. They clearly care deeply for one another, as we see almost immediately: the older Lee Jin-tae shines shoes so the younger Lee Jin-seok can attend college. Then, war breaks out. Both are unexpectedly drafted. To protect his younger brother, Jin-tae does everything possible - he volunteers for every dangerous mission with the agreement that his bravery will earn a medal and the right to have Jin-seok sent home. But as Jin-tae becomes a war hero, he loses his soul, drunk with the praise of his fellow soldiers and his hatred of North Koreans. After seeing their enemies’ brutality, he (and the entire platoon except Jin-seok) even slaughter unarmed prisoners.

If you’re intrigued (and if you’re ok watching graphic violence), stop reading this now, as major spoilers follow. We need them to understand the ongoing Korean conflict and to shed light on an appropriate role for the United States.

Three Lessons for Americans

1) Violence Furthers Violence

While the army regroups, the brothers seek out their family. But since Jin-tae’s fiancée had attended communist rallies to receive food, the South Korean Anti-Communist Federation captures her. As the brothers attempt to rescue her, the authorities fatally shoot her in front of them and arrest them. Soon after, while under attack from the North, the South Korean army burns their prisoners alive. Believing his younger brother died, Jin-tae bludgeons the commander who ordered the execution and defects.

People commit atrocities in response to evil in real life as well as in film. American foreign policy leads to the death of countless civilians, and when the US attempts to kill terrorists, more people become terrorists, turning violent like Jin-tae. (How would you respond if a government killed your family?)

A simple family before the war. © 2004 Kang Je-Gyu Films.

Why would the North Korean government and people respond differently? The United States carried out relentless, indiscriminate bombings of populated regions during the Korean War, killing up to 20% of the population. While we have forgotten, they have not, and this influences the regime’s current policies towards the United States.

2) This is a Family Affair

Years later, Jin-seok learns his older brother has defected, and he’s soon questioned by oblivious authorities, attempting to understand why their “decorated hero” would fight for the communists:

Interrogators: At first, we didn’t believe it. But his fiancée was executed as a communist. That must have affected him.

Jin-seok: He doesn’t know what communism or democracy is.

Interrogators: Then how come he turned into a communist?

Jin-seok: The Jin-tae I knew was just an innocent shoeshine boy… who loved his family, especially his brother.

The movie becomes a telling allegory for our current relationship with Korea, and the relationship between North and South. The elder Jin-tae represents North Korea and the younger embodies South Korea. Though brothers, foreign ideologies and nations have torn them apart.

The United States must not make the same mistake, which means we must respect