In December of 1968 I was sent by the Army to Korea. I was one of the fortunate ones who through luck alone was spared the horrors of Vietnam. But Korea was not a country without conflict. To the contrary, Korea had a simmering peace that occasionally erupted into armed exchange. The world took little note of these exchanges because of Vietnam. But the exchanges were often deadly. Two of the more infamous events at that time was the taking of the ship USS Pueblo and its entire crew, and the downing of an American spy plane, an EC-121. I was there for the release of the Pueblo and the entire EC-121 incident. The latter came close to bringing about an all out fighting war.
But this is not the story of a divided country on the brink of war. This is the story of a people I came to know, respect, and love. It was also my introduction to a third world country, and all its challenges.
When I alighted from the Boeing 707 that took me to Korea I noticed a distinct scent in the air. I found out in time it was a mixture of burning wood, burning charcoal, and human excrement. The wood and charcoal were the fuels of choice for most of the Korean population and human excrement was used in the rice fields as fertilizer.
Many of the soldiers in Korea, myself included, lived in Quonset Huts. Each of the huts was kept clean and in good order by a house boy, a Korean man we paid. It was my house boy who introduced me to Korean society, such as it was. But prior to arriving in Korea, I had met a Korean family in my home town who expressed to me their desire I visit with their relatives in Seoul. I did that too.
At the time, Korea had a very small rich class, a slightly larger though still tiny middle-class, and a huge number of poor. Korea was still recovering from the second world war. My house boy, of course, was a member of the poor, and the family I was entreated to visit was a member of the middle-class. You could tell middle-class members by their black and refurbished former US Army jeeps. The rich owned small Toyotas and Datsuns.
My house boy invited to his house for supper one day. I, of course, was obliged to accept. His house was little more than two rooms that included his wife and children plus his parents. In Korea it was expected and accepted that children cared for their parents. The door to the outside was a wooden frame with paper filling what would otherwise have been small window frames. The house was heated by a small charcoal stove situated beneath the floor. These devices proved to be deadly too often, giving off much carbon monoxide. It always amazed me that these structures never seemed to catch fire. Such a fire would have ravaged its neighborhood with its extremely tightly intertwined wooden edifices.
A veritable feast was laid out in front of me. We sat on the floor and ate there. It was not as much because of custom but from a lack of any sort of furniture. Such furniture was a luxury the poor could not afford. The feast in front of my was, I am certain, far more expensive and expansive than the family could afford. Rice, fish, kimchi and seaweed were a large part of this feast. At the time, most poor Koreans allowed themselves fish once a week, opting for rice and kimchi as their staples. Somewhere in the course of the evening my house boy offered how good they had it compared to others. He explained that the truly poor were forced to eat rat at times. Dogs were rare, for obvious reasons, but were considered a delicacy, he told me. When the meal was finished we men had a drink of cheonju, a Korean rice wine. When he took a drink my house boy turned his head away. He later explained he that out of respect to his father, that he did not drink in front of him.
When the EC-121 was shot down my house boy disappeared for a week. The entire Korean and American army had mobilized for what everyone was certain was the coming war. My house boy was a member of the national guard which included every man between the ages of 18 and 60 without exception. My house boy expressed a passionate desire to fight the north and re-unite the two Koreas. He had relatives in the north he had never met. When he returned he expressed his disappointment that a war had not started. It did come to an exchange of artillery fire at the DMZ, and a lot of posturing.
I was also treated to dinner with the middle-class family I had been introduced to. I do not remember how we found each other, but I do know their American relatives informed them I was there and where to find me, so I expect they reached out at some point. They picked me up in their black jeep and took me to their home, considerably larger than that of my house boy. The meal they put out, equal of course to that of my house boy, included pulgogi, beef that is fried upon a small stove.
I visited something that was rather unique in the orient while I was there, a “girl’s university.” Women were still second class citizens in the far east. But in Seoul there was a rather large, and or some prestige, college for women to attend, Yonsei University.
Koreans were hell-bent on being both autonomous and powerful. Their army was large, extremely well-trained, and proud. They were so highly thought of by the US Department of Defense that they were considered out best ally and fighting partner in Vietnam. Many Koreans gave their lives in war in Vietnam. Unlike other allies America has had, the Koreans never backed down from a fight and were intensely loyal. The ROK soldiers, as they were known, were highly valued by the American troops. This resolve was fermented in the 40 plus years of Japanese occupation Korea endured.
I knew, at the tender age of 20, that this industrious society would one day come into its own and be respected by the world. That day, of course, has arrived. I responded to what I found in Korea by vowing to verbally defend anyone who would detract Korea and its people. These are wonderful people. They have a marvelous country, rich with history, and a force in the world both economically and politically. They are the epitome of Teddy Roosevelt’s axiom, “Walk quietly and carry a big stick.”