Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Asia (page 1 of 8)

Dennis Rodman: Our Man in Pyongyang

Rodman 2

Guess who’s thinking about going back to Pyongyang to hang with his bud, Kim Jong Un?

The Worm.

At least that’s what the digital Chosun Ilbo is reporting today:

Rodman told the Miami Herald at a charity gala last Friday that he and Kim “have no plans really, as far as what we’re going to do over there, but we’ll just hang and have some fun!”

You can read the rest of the story here if you want to keep up with America’s unofficial roving ambassador.

If Rodman wants to hang with his bud, at least it’ll keep Kim preoccupied and having a good time instead of threatening the region with destruction.


Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — She’s Got the Beat

In the late summer of 2001, I was writing a series of articles about USFK (United States Forces Korea) organizations doing things in the Korean community. One of the articles I planned to write was about the Eighth Army Band that was giving a concert with some Korean bands in the middle of September.

Then 9-11 happened.

At the end of October, there was another concert, this one near the Amsa Prehistoric Settlement Site in southern Seoul and the Eighth Army Band played at it. Before the band played, the audience was entertained by traditional Korean dancers and drummers.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — Swilling OB, 1990

I’ve got this “Big Country” look going for me one Sunday afternoon in Itaewon, swilling OB in a restaurant underneath what used to be the Burger King. The name of the restaurant was called Vincent, as in Vincent Van Gogh. All these places were the same: the standard menu: kimchi fried rice or pork cutlet, OB on tap, and a name that had you scratching your head trying to figure out why it was named after a composer or artist.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — President George Bush’s visit to Korea, 2002

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.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — A North Korean Through the Looking Glass, December 31, 1996


My first trip to Panmunjom, which is not really Panmunjom per se, but the Joint Security Area (JSA) was on a cold, deary New Year’s Eve in 1996. The weather made me feel like I had stepped into some Cold War thriller.

When you step out on Conference Row and enter one of the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) buildings, sometimes one or two of the North Korean guards outside will look in one of the windows to see who is on the tour.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — North Korean School Trip to the Joint Security Area (JSA), 2000

Here’s something you don’t see every day: A North Korean school trip to the Joint Security Area (JSA) and Panmunjom.

This was back in the summer of 2000 during my second trip to the JSA and a trip that I would write about for my first article about “the scariest place in the world.”

Of all the times that I visited the JSA between 1996-2003, this was one of three times that there were visitors on the other side.

I wonder what kind of propaganda the guides were filling the heads of these kids with on this school trip.

In Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm, I have an entire section of articles and essays about my visits to the JSA, including this trip, as well a commemorative article on the 25th anniversary of the Panmunjom Ax Murders.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — Tumuli Park, 1991

Before we journeyed to Pusan, my friend and colleague Ken wanted to spend a day or two in Kyongju, the ancient capital of Korea’s Shilla Kingdom (noted for its arts and the spread of Buddhism).

Located in the center of town were these small hills, which were actually burial mounds. You see these mounds all across Korea, but in Kyongju there is a large cluster of them in Tumuli Park.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — On the Streets of Pusan, 1991

On the Streets of Pusan

On the streets of Pusan, not too far from Chalgachi Fish Market.

When I think about when I first came to Korea,  I think about photographs like this one. I think about cold days and washed out, drab colors.

Although I hadn’t noticed it before, as soon as we walked out of the hotel, we were greeted with the cold salty air smelling of fish and simmering silkworm larvae—called bundaegi, a Korean delicacy. Farther on down a narrow side street, chubby ruddy-faced ajumoni squatting over their wares on the sidewalk flashed us silver-capped toothy smiles. Farther on down, we scurried past wooden carts lit with strung up jury-rigged incandescent bulbs swinging in the howling, swirling wind. Thanks to the movie Ghost, speakers everywhere resounded with the ubiquitous strains of “Unchained Melody,” an octave above the market cacophony.

But it wasn’t the carts laden with pig intestines steaming in metal pans, sheets of seaweed, dried squid, and pirated cassette tapes that caught my eye; instead, it was a scribbled misspelled sign flapping in the wind above a vendor hawking his goods.

Hey, Ken, get a load of that,” I said, pointing to the sign.

Ken laughed. “Precious. I should have brought my camera.”

Instead of “Unchained Melody” the vendor had scribbled, “Unchanged Melody.”

An excerpt from Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — Chalgachi Fish Market, 1991

One of my first trips outside of Seoul was all the way down to Pusan in early 1991. My friend and colleague Ken Celmer, who had made the same trip the year before wanted to take the same trip again and I joined him.

I have an essay about this trip in Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm and mention this famous fish market.

It was a bitterly cold day when Ken and I were there and one of the first things he wanted to do was tour the fish market as well as hire a fisherman for a few hours to take us on a boat ride around the harbor. When the skipper of the skiff got too close to some fishing trawlers, Ken and I got a little nervous.

Later, to warm up, we ate some spicy fish soup which included the head of the fish in a spicy chigae (stew) concoction.

Daejeon, 2011 — Seoul, 1990

In many ways, Daejeon reminds me of what Seoul was for me 21 years ago, especially when I see a truck laden with yontan–the charcoal briquettes used for heating and cooking. A lot of it is used in Daejeon, in fact still used a lot by low-income families across the nation.

I mention yontan a few times in Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm.



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