Of all the years that I have lived in Korea, 2002 was a rough year to get through if if you were an American living and working in Korea.
Early in the year, U.S. President George Bush included North Korea in his “Axis of Evil” speech and short track speedster, Apolo Ohno became Public Enemy No. 1 Korea after the cross-tracking incident at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
At a World Cup match between the U.S. and Portugal, there were signs (in Hangul) which could be loosely translated as “F**k the U.S.” (wait a minute, aren’t the U.S. and South Korea allies with this whole U.S. – ROK military alliance?). The boos from Korean fans in attendance, every time the U.S. had the ball, might have reminded some Korean old hands of the boos that U.S. men’s basketball team got during the 88 Olympics when the U.S. played the former Soviet Union (read Don Oberdorfer’s excellent Korean history, The Two Koreas for an explanation of this).
However, the real tragedy of the year occurred during the height of the World Cup excitement and fever gripping the nation when two Korean middle-school girls were accidentally killed by a U.S. armored vehicle. It would set off a wave of anti-American sentiment that would get ugly by year’s end with flag burnings, demonstrations in front of the U.S. Embassy, and a few restaurant owners in Seoul putting up signs which read, “No Americans Allowed.”
In February though, at the beginning of this intense year, I managed to talk my way into into the press pool for President Bush’s Korean visit:
Other than the articles I wrote about Korean War commemorations, the occasional interview with one of the top U.S. military leaders on the peninsula, or former U.S. Presidents, I never had the chance to cover a high-profile media event until I talked my way into the press pool for U.S. President George Bush’s visit to Osan Air Base.
Although two staff reporters from The Korea Times covered most of Bush’s visit to Korea, including his meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, when I heard through my USFK contacts that Bush was going to address the troops at Osan, I immediately went to work calling in as many favors as I could to join the press pool. Thanks to having already worked with the PAOs at Osan and Kunsan Air Bases, I knew the right people to call and they returned those favors.
Osan Air Base, which is adjacent to the Korean town of Songtan, is about an hour south of Seoul. Fortunately, Bush’s visit was on a Wednesday morning (I didn’t have to teach on Wednesday—one of the perks at the Yonsei Foreign Language Institute, no classes on Wednesdays), but I would have to go down the night before because the media had to report to the base no later than three in the morning. Unlike the majority of the media that would be coming down from Yongsan on a bus or arriving by their private vehicles, I had to find my own transportation, which wasn’t a problem because I could take a bus from the Nambu (southern) Bus Terminal. The only drawback was I would have to catch the last bus at 10:30 p.m. and figure out what to do until I could get on base.
With four hours to kill, I hung out in an entertainment and shopping district outside the main gate of the air base. I stopped in one of the bars and had a drink. I watched a handful of Russian and Filipina hostesses hustle drinks from a couple patrons. Not looking military enough, they paid no attention to me….
An excerpt from Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm now on sale at Amazon and Lulu.