One summer day, while I was still in elementary school, my dad came back from work and told me and my sister that we would soon be able to watch Korean TV through satellite. I remember falling asleep, safely tucked in my blanket, wondering about South Korea and what its world would look like.
The first encounter I had with “Arirang” was during weekend Korean school, organized by expatriates in Frankfurt. The teacher had introduced the song as a national folk song that everyone knew and played it on a portable CD player. We sang along and learned about the story of a man and a woman who fell in love in the mountains. I asked about it to my mom that day and she said that she didn’t really like the song and taught me how it was used for maudlin expressions of nostalgia.
When I had come back from school, with the satellite TV perpetually stuck in my head, I found the silver plate already installed in front of our lawn. But when I started the satellite TV, I only got to see a select number of channels. Also, back in the sunny hours of Germany, Korea was fast asleep and the world I was shown were boring news reports by Arirang TV. It had a red, slanted logo with repeated footages of the sun rising on the island of Dokdo, with the Korean national anthem playing in the background. Despite having never touched money worth more than 20 euros, it was enough to know that we had not gotten our money’s worth from this channel. “Arirang” was now a word for cheap and somehow it left me feeling that there was nothing much to see in Korea.
“Arirang” is estimated to have 3,600 variations of 60 versions of the song. The one most frequently used for official occasions is the “Seoul Arirang”. It is the song of a woman who is singing while looking at the man she loves go over the hill of Arirang. She remarks that without her, he will not go far and will end up stopping from sore feet.
Funnily, the first known recording of “Arirang” was made in the US in 1896. The ethnologist Alice C. Fletcher recorded three Korean students singing a song they called “Love Song: Ar-ra-rang”. The song evolved from its simple folk song roots during the times of the Japanese occupation. It was the song that was sung during the March 1st Movement and many of the variations that live on until today are variations that were written during those times to contain themes of injustice and the plight of the forced laborers. The most famous version of “Arirang” to appear yet was from the eponymous 1926 silent film, which is about a student who had become mentally ill after being tortured by the imperialists.
The last time the Olympic Games were held in Korea, the North Korean regime bombed a South Korean commercial airliner. Therefore, the announcement that both the North and the South would attend the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games as a joint team was a surprise. I hadn’t had the time to watch the actual footage live on TV when both countries had entered together. But when I watched the rebroadcast, I heard the strange and yet familiar sound of the song again. And might it be related to the complicated history it had or not, it was not the sad, sorrowful song I knew. It was the same song, but with a sight of something common. And it was beautiful to hear it.
It was done right and it had me dreaming of peace and perhaps a unification, which seemed to be impossible at times. “Just as there are many stars clear in the sky, there are also many dreams in our heart.”
Like many countries, Korea has a history sown with sadness and sorrow. It has been 65 years since the end of the Korean War and its history should not be forgotten. For those who try to carry on without looking back, they will eventually get sore feet.
We should not forget the days when soldiers used to fire on civilians under martial law. There is yet too much structural injustice. Let’s change this.