Korea: Shame & Chauvinism

Prison Writings

by Kim Dae Jung, translated by Choi Sung-Il
University of California Press, 333 pp., $22.50
Kim Dae Jung
Kim Dae Jung; drawing by David Levine


“The Government of the Republic of Korea heartily welcomes you to this land and wishes you enjoy every hour of your trip. As you would already perceive, we are under continuous threats from the hostile forces which are deployed along the DMZ line only some 50 kilometers away from our capital city of Seoul. This fact requires us of keeping constant vigilance particularly against possible air-raid.”

(Civil Defense Guide for Foreign Tourists)

On a cold day this last November Colonel Schreuders returned to the spot where Chinese troops wiped out many of his men one early morning in 1951. Schreuders belonged to the Dutch battalion defending a bridge in Hoengsong, a small town about eighty miles from Seoul. The battle, forgotten by almost everybody but the survivors, cost seventeen lives, and the town was destroyed. Hoengsong is now a prosperous-looking place with supermarkets, cinemas, and fashion boutiques. The memorial to the Dutch commander who was killed by a hand grenade minutes after his guard shouted, “The Chinks are coming, look out!” lies in a playground. The colonel tried to find familiar landmarks with his old army map. He found none, apart from the lone steeple of an old church, which had been pulled down only days before he arrived. A South Korean veteran of the Dutch battalion made the motions of firing an imaginary gun. “I shot a lot of enemies here,” he said to the colonel, who did not appear to remember the man. A priest rang the bell in the steeple. A few children played with a plastic machine gun in the playground. A US Army tank battalion rolled through the town for regular maneuvers, and helicopters made dives for the river bank.

The colonel made a short speech, platitudinous but oddly moving, because it obviously meant so much to him. He told the town dignitaries how happy he was to see how well South Koreans had used “the freedom we all fought for.” I wondered what was going through the minds of the Koreans in the room. I thought of some of the statistics I had jotted down in my notebook that week: half a million North Korean soldiers just across the border; nearly 40,000 American troops in South Korea; 6.5 million US dollars worth of tear gas used by South Korean riot police against students during the last nine months.

Some twelve hundred students were arrested that week after a fierce battle with the police at Konkuk University in Seoul. Many of them had shouted North Korean propaganda slogans and claimed that the Korean War had been a national struggle for reunification crushed by Yankee imperialists. They set fire to effigies of Nakasone and Reagan. Many students expressed sympathy for the demonstrators’ feelings if not always for their most extreme aims. Tear gas hung in the air of virtually every campus in Seoul.

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