A Personal History with Korea

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Like many Friends, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in my youth. The Peace Corps Act includes three goals for volunteers: do a job, introduce host country locals to a U.S. young person (usually young), and bring an awareness of the host country’s culture and history back to the U.S. Of those three goals, far and away the most difficult has been that last one. Family and friends typically enjoy hearing a few stories, seeing a few pictures (even a slide show back in the day), but any in-depth thinking about the volunteer’s host country is rare. I’ve used a number of venues to talk about my host country, Korea. Now, with the current political situation, I feel again the need to share my thoughts and what I’ve learned over the years. This is a task made much more difficult by the strongly negative portrayal of the northern part of Korea today. Please notice that I will not use the terms “North Korea” and “South Korea,” as no countries exist with those names.

I first went to Korea in July 1971, expecting to serve a typical two-to-three-year term. The Peace Corps decided that a good fit for me would be with a public health program, fighting tuberculosis. After three months of intensive language, cultural, and technical training (which took place outside Hilo, Hawai’i, and was a fine experience, although not the best for learning Korean), I landed at my site, a small town in southwestern Korea about an hour’s bus ride south of the provincial capital of Gwangju. There I spent two years preparing and reading microscope slides of stained sputum, peering at chest x-rays, persuading people to take and continue taking tuberculosis medications, and visiting people in their homes to check up on them. No one in my area spoke English, and I often went many weeks without speaking or hearing English. Communication with my family back home was through a slow process of exchanging aerograms. At the end of my assignment, fairly fluent in a down-country farmer variety of Korean, I signed up to train an incoming group of health volunteers. I fell in love with one of the Korean language teachers training this group, and she with me, and we married – and here we are, forty-five years later.

Over the years, we maintained ties back to Korea. We tried to visit as often as time and finances would allow. We taught our children the language so they could talk with their relatives. My wife’s family and ancestors have been very active in politics and diplomacy over many centuries, so she maintains that interest, and my late mother-in-law enjoyed giving me history lessons.

Like most Americans, my initial understanding of Korean history started and ended with the Korean War. Actually, it extended just a little bit further – to include the decades-long occupation by Japan, from roughly 1910 to 1945. Some of my mother-in-law’s more tragic stories come from that period, as she was born in 1914. By listening to her and others, I began to learn how deep the history of the people on the Korean Peninsula really is. Because of the location, the peninsula formed a ready bridge for imperial Japan to extend its reach into the continent. Genghis Khan claimed the territory as a useful base in the early 1200s. The peninsula was first unified as Silla in 668 CE and again in 918 as Goryeo, or Koryeo, which is the origin of the Western name for the country.

The final monarchy on the peninsula was Chosun (or Joseon), which began in 1392 and lasted over 500 years, up until the Japanese Occupation of the 1900s. During Chosun’s beginnings in the late 1300s, the Ming Dynasty (rulers of China who were Manchu people) was failing and Ming bandits were raiding Chosun’s borders. The founding Chosun monarch made peace with the Ming despite this, beginning a long relationship. The Chosun monarch also made peace with the Ashikaga shogun in the Japanese Islands (despite Japanese pirates raiding along the coast). Although this looks like three countries developing relations, in reality, Japan as a nation came about only with the Meiji restoration in 1868, and China was not unified or stable with its present boundaries until 1949. However, because of Chosun’s geographic position between these two often-turbulent neighbors, diplomatic and political relations were crucial and often contentious. The result was a long history of contentious Chosun politicians and court advisors, some favoring Japan and some China. This created a set of dynamic balances that have continued to underlie Korean politics to this day.

The government of today’s Republic of Korea (ROK), on the southern half of the peninsula, largely favors Japan and by extension, the U.S.  The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), on the northern half of the peninsula, largely favors China. The great failure of U.S. politics, diplomacy, and mass media is their ignorance of the nuances in these relationships. The illusion of a stark division between two peoples on the Korean Peninsula reflects a division that was not a choice of Koreans, but of Western nations at the end of World War II. The division line itself was one that Japan drew after occupying part of the peninsula, prior to their war with Russia.

I was puzzled when I first discovered that many Koreans feel a strong dislike toward Theodore Roosevelt. Later, however, I read The Imperial Cruise by James Bradley and learned that Roosevelt was a key figure in the U.S. imperial adventures in Asia. Following the gunboat diplomacy that opened Japan to U.S. trade in the mid-1800s, Roosevelt decided that the Japanese were the most civilized of the barbarian East Asians. He encouraged the Japanese to take over Korea. They had already begun to do so – by fomenting revolutions in the 1880s and by assassinating the Chosun empress, Queen Min, in 1895. Ultimately, with U.S. encouragement, the Japanese forced treaties upon Chosun in 1905 and 1911.

When WWII ended, U.S. forces occupied Japan, leaving the Japanese royal house and government mostly intact. When they came to liberate Korea, however, instead of recognizing the Korean provisional government, they kept the previous Japanese governors in place, and later replaced those governors with Koreans who had been Japanese collaborators during the Occupation. A number of political parties jockeyed for position, but U.S. occupation forces were strongly anti-communist, and so they placed strongly conservative Koreans in positions of leadership. The country was divided between two governments in 1945. Russia supported the government in northern Korea while the U.S. half-heartedly supported the southern government. The Korean royal family had been absorbed into the Japanese royal family during the Japanese Occupation, and so was regarded with mistrust by the Korean people generally.

War between the north and south broke out in 1950. The acts that precipitated this war are unclear, but the resulting acts of destruction were obvious. The U.S. had recently invented napalm, and they viewed war in Korea as an opportunity to test their new incendiary, which they did, liberally. They also tested methods of biological warfare, experimenting with knowledge they gained from Japanese labs in Manchuria. U.S. bombing of Korea was widespread and indiscriminate. Most of the peninsula was laid waste; the north in particular was carpet-bombed by General Curtis LeMay.

Koreans have not forgotten these acts of aggression by the U.S. Yes, the Korean army and the Chinese army were also destructive, but here’s a story told by my late mother-in-law: During the early part of the invasion from the north, in June 1950, northern Korean troops came up to the gates of one of the royal palaces in the south. Standing in the gate was Empress Sunjeong, fifty years old, and maybe 4’10” tall in high heels. She told the troops from the north, “You may come in here. But this is not some rich person’s house. This is our heritage as a people. This is part of what defines us as Koreans. Come in if you wish, but do not act as barbarians.” They bowed and said, “Yes, ma’am.” No palace or historic place was damaged by the northern army during the war. This story stands in sharp contrast against countless tales of indiscriminant destruction by U.S. forces. (At the same time, the dictator Syngman Rhee was so intimidated by Empress Sunjeong and her popularity that he kept her under house arrest during his entire reign.)

So the war came to an end – or didn’t. In his 2016 article, “The Korean War: Barbarism Unleashed,” historian Jeremy Kuzmarov notes, “During the 1954 Geneva Conference in Switzerland, Chinese Premier and foreign minister Zhou Enlai suggested that a peace treaty should be implemented on the Korean Peninsula. However, the U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, did not accommodate this attempt to achieve a treaty. A final peace settlement has never been achieved.”

My wife’s family had started a women’s teachers college in Seoul in the 1940s. When the war broke out, they moved the college down to the refugee camps in Busan and carried on as best they could. At the end of the fighting, they moved back up to Seoul, and life, and the college, resumed. And the U.S. stayed.

When I lived in Korea in the 1970s, I periodically went to a mountainside temple in my town and played chess (the Asian version, very similar) with one of the monks. (He always clobbered me.) We held slow, thoughtful conversations, and during one these, he said, “We Koreans have much sympathy for the Vietnamese, as we are both occupied by the U.S. military.” This observation surprised me, as it was so distant from the usual statements of gratitude Koreans expressed to me. But I fear it was more honest.

Korea was ready to govern itself again at the end of WWII, but U.S. arrogance and racism wouldn’t allow that, and a hostile U.S. attitude continues to drive the relationship today. For instance, while the U.S. loudly insists upon human rights and total verifiable de-nuclearization by the DPRK in the north – as preconditions for any moves at all by the U.S. – they ignore the significance of Kim Jongeun’s demand for complete de-nuclearization of the entire peninsula. In a recent interview on Chicago Public Radio, historian Bruce Cumings recounted: “People are always flabbergasted to find out that the U.S. introduced nuclear weapons to South Korea in 1958 and kept them there until 1991; and that the U.S. used nuclear blackmail and intimidation time and time again, starting in 1951 during the Korean War; and that North Korea was essentially defenseless against this for decades and decades. . .  [T]hat’s not to say that North Korea is blameless. There’s just very little reporting on the background of the nuclearization of Korea, which was begun by the U.S.” The real motivation for U.S. stubbornness here may be the fear that U.S. forces will be asked to leave Korea, leading to the collapse of the “U.N. Command-Rear” force, which in turn would lead to the end of U.S. authority to base its troops in Japan – an outcome unacceptable to the U.S.

I’ve wandered around in this story. Clearly, the Peace Corps changed me. My bi-national family grants me an understanding of a culture very different from my own. I view history – up to the current day – from a vantage that is different from the one presented by mainstream U.S. media.

In the spring of 2018, the people of the Korean Peninsula felt new hope. It seemed like a good bet that the DPRK and ROK would open relations, leading to better ties. Now, with U.S. hardliners blocking everything – including, literally, the roads and rail lines connecting the north with the south – Koreans are feeling discouraged.

However, one thing I’ve learned through my life with Koreans is patience. Koreans like to portray themselves as impatient people, always in a hurry. But they have a much better sense of the long view of history than those of us who live in the U.S., even Asians who live in the U.S. With patience, and with support from the entire country of Korea and from friends abroad, time will heal the damage done to Korea by war – perhaps much sooner than one would expect. ~~~

For sources cited in this article and for further reading suggestions, see: westernfriend.org/media/resources-korea.

Dan Strickland has worked and taught in the field of epidemiology since the 1970s. He tried to retire three years ago, but finds himself still teaching college courses in Korea. He plans to retire again this summer and is waiting to see how that goes. He is a member of Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, CA (PYM).