Temujin, who was later proclaimed Genghis Khan, was nine years old when he lost his father. His tribesmen, which considered young children roaming about without an adult male to be burdensome, abandoned Temujin's family when they proceeded with their nomadic wandering. Temujin's mother, thinking that her family could only survive the winter if she accompanied the tribe, followed them on horseback, while holding her deceased husband's spiritual flag aloft as a sign of protest. She told the others to remember that her husband would be watching over these worldly developments.
A spiritual flag, which is said to contain a person's spirit, was made out of horsehair and is a possession of all Mongolian families. Temujin's mother no doubt believed that although her husband's flesh had been turned to ash, his spirit had survived and remained alive within the family's spiritual flag and was looking out for his family and kinsmen.
Things are not always as simple as they appear. Certain things that go through a process of birth, ageing, sickness, and death have their own stories attached to them. Like those who become nervous, ashamed, or frenzied when they realise that they are not where they are supposed to be, things with their own individuality can lose their uniqueness when not in their rightful place. Such things should thus be returned to their place of origin.
The return of Bukgwan Daecheopbi, slated for August 15, the anniversary of the nation's liberation from Japanese colonial rule, appears to have been postponed yet again.
Upon the Japanese invasion of 1592, Joseon immediately fell into utter chaos, since it was wholly unprepared for such an assault. The one-sided nature of this offensive, as well as the sense of hopelessness that must have pervaded Korea, were obvious from the fact that the capital city of Hanyang surrendered a mere 20 days after the outbreak of the conflict. The national crisis resulting from this war meant widespread turmoil for the everyday lives of common people. However, even amidst such a perilous life-and-death situation, there were those who risked everything to organise an army of volunteer troops. Jeong Mun-bu from Hamgyeongbuk-do province was one of the leaders of these courageous individuals. He and his troops handed the Japanese forces their first defeat on the battleground, thereby stemming the onslaught. To commemorate the landmark victory of the volunteer army led by General Jeong Mun-bu, Bukgwan Daecheopbi was erected in Gilju County, Hamgyeongbuk-do province.
While Bukgwan Daecheopbi should stand heroically at Gilju as a spiritual symbol of this land, it sits in a secluded area nearby the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan. This monument had been abducted to Japan by Japanese Lieutenant General Miyosh! in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War. However, there is something highly unusual about this entire episode. Why was this monument, a symbol of Japanese defeat, taken back to Japan instead of being destroyed? Until today, Bukgwan Daecheopbi remains unattended on a site outside of Yasukuni Shrine, without any kind of explanation about its history or significance. Further compounding matters is the fact that a large stone slab has been placed on top of the monument, as if to forcibly weigh it down. Is this some kind of witchcraft intended to suppress the spirit of a volunteer army general of Joseon, who thwarted Japan's ambitions at that time, for the sake of the ghosts of Japan's imperialism? Bukgwan Daecheopbi, which now stands alone in a dark and out-of-the-way corner, represents much more than just a stone monument to Korea; it is a vital symbol of our national spirit and pride.
Gwangbok, or the restoration of independence, refers to seeing the light that makes it possible for everything to find its rightful place. The rightful place of Bukgwan Daecheopbi is not the Yasukuni Shrine where the monument is essentially ignored. Moreover, the Bukgwan Daecheopbi monument is not the only example of its kind. The number of Korean cultural properties plundered by Japan during the Japanese colonial rule has been estimated at some 30,000. Bukgwan Daecheopbi is but one of the cultural works that Japan has pledged to return to Korea. When can these items and their spirits, while being denied their rightful place and forced to drift about aimlessly, finally be returned home?
When Bukgwan Daecheopbi, which has been disregarded and mistreated all this while, finally crosses the sea it will eventually travel across the DMZ to return to its rightful place. Since North Korea and Japan have yet to establish diplomatic relations, the monument will first come to the South and then later be returned to its original place in Hamgyeongbuk-do in the North. Such a journey represents the return of the heart of this volunteer army commander who sacrificed everything for his nation some 400 years ago. As overcoming national division represents the ability to see the light again, in its truest sense, we can only hope that this joyous return will contribute to a restoration of our national community.
The writer is the Professor of
philosophy of the University of Suwon.