Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: My Life That Was Korea: 1990 – ? (page 2 of 32)

All Along the DMZ — Part I

I just finished Barry Lancet’s heart-pounding geopolitical thriller, The Spy Across the Table, and I really enjoyed the scenes which took place in and around the DMZ on the Korean peninsula. Having been there several times, both as a tourist and a feature writer for The Korea Times, I appreciate those authors writing about events on the Korean peninsula who try to incorporate the DMZ into their stories. It is an amazing, surreal place, “freedom’s final frontier” as one military PSA on USFK used to refer to it back in the 1990s. Inspired by Lancet’s book, and President Trump’s last minute unscheduled trip to the DMZ, which was scrubbed due to fog, it prompted me to share my experiences and accounts of the times I visited the DMZ.

Panmunjom006My first trip to Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area (JSA) was on New Year’s Eve, 1996 as part of a USO tour. Interestingly, the day before I went up there, the bodies of the North Korean commandos who were killed during the submarine incursion in September of that year were repatriated to the North.

What was interesting about going on a tour was that after we listened to a presentation about the history of Panmunjom and the JSA, we had to sign a waiver which said that USFK (United States Forces Korea) was not responsible for our deaths should anything happen while we there. It wasn’t to heighten the tension either. In 1984, an East German tourist on a tour on the northern side of the JSA defected which resulted in a firefight in the JSA. One South Korean soldier was killed. Panmunjom007

Once you leave the confines of Camp Bonifas and head north to the JSA, that’s when things get intense with the concertina wire, minefields, and anti-tank barriers. The day I went to the DMZ it was cold and dreary which added a bit of atmosphere to the tour. Here you can see the Bridge of No Return where POWs were repatriated at the end of the Korean War. It was also across this same bridge, twenty-eight years earlier, where the crew of the USS Pueblo was repatriated in December 1968. It was also where the 1976 Panmunjom ax murder incident occurred where two US officers, Capt. Arthur Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett were killed by North Korean soldiers. I was in technical training school at Lowry AFB, Colorado when this happened. Years later, when I read about the murders and the military operation to chop down the poplar tree which had blocked the blue guardhouse as well as interviewing former JSA soldiers who were stationed there at the time for an article in the Korea Times, would I realize how close we were to another war breaking out on the peninsula.

Panmunjom004One of the highlights of the tour is the chance to walk into one of the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) buildings on conference row where military and armistice related talks between both sides have taken place over the years. It’s also where you can “cross” into North Korea so you can go back home and tell everyone that you have been to North Korea. If you’re lucky while you are there, you might get to see an NPA (North Korean People’s Army) soldier peering in to see who is on tour that day.

Although the tour might seem straight out of some dystopian Disneyland with everyone going home at the end of the day, there’s a reason why Bill Clinton called this place the “scariest place on earth.” It was along the DMZ in the mid-1960s where North Korea provoked numerous border incidents which have sometimes been referred to as the second Korean War (in response to the South’s dispatch of two divisions to Vietnam as well as driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea). And from those events, it would morph into other incidents which have reminded everyone of the fragile peace which has existed on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War.

It remains a scary place to this day. Freedom’s Final Frontier.Panmunjom002

The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

Breen's BookThe New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

By Michael Breen

Hardcover: 480 pages

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1st edition (April 4, 2017)

When it comes to writing about Korea—its people, culture, and history—there is no one better up to that onerous task than Michael Breen who has devoted most of his life observing and writing about the country. In his latest book, The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation, Breen does what he knows best. Sorry, if I seem a little bias, but I have known Breen since 2000, when I started writing feature articles for the Korea Times. In all those years, there is no else who can come up to his level when it comes to talking and writing about Korea.

However, this is more than just an outsider’s take on Korea. To be sure, Breen with journalistic flair and cultural sensitivity offers an in-depth look at modern Korea that is unrestrained and honest. This is more than a history of modern Korea, though. Breen endeavors throughout this impressive tome to help readers understand who the Koreans really are through anecdotal musings and historical evidence.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the opening chapter which talks about the Sewol tragedy when a ferry sank off the southern coast of the peninsula in the spring of 2014. This was a rather bold on the part of Breen to lead off with this tragedy, but this chapter and his delicate, cultural understanding set the tone for the rest of the book when he tries to make sense of why something like the tragedy and its aftermath could happen. I remembered when this tragedy happened and immediately on Facebook, foreigners in Korea started to chime in about “their take” on the accident and the “culture” that allowed it to happen. Breen, though, the acute observer of Korea that he is, can analyze something critically without being shackled by his deep appreciation for the country. In the process, he helps the reader understand the Korean psyche and character without running the risk of being bias.

One of the things that I liked most about the book were all of his personal anecdotes and his loving attention to detail. Even for this old Korean hat who has lived and worked in South since 1990, I learned some new things about my adopted home. Whether it’s talking about why there’s a wastepaper basket next to a toilet in a public restroom or the manner in which Koreans number and name their streets (one of the first things I learned when I came to Korea and took a taxi—in the days before GPS—was always to make sure I could tell the taxi driver a landmark to help with navigations) Breen’s observations and analyses make for some very enjoyable and insightful reading.

Another thing I liked about the book was how he divided the sections and named the chapters, which helps readers develop a better understanding of Korean than by saying this happened, and then this happened because something else happened. We want to know why it took Korea as long as it did to finally rise from the ashes of the Korean War and become the nation that it is today. We want to know why the Chaebol continue to have a stranglehold on the Korean economy and culture. We want to know why men like Park Chung-hee and Kim Dae-jung played pivotal roles in South Korean politics and their legacies that remain until today. We want someone to explain why K-Pop has become an international phenomenon. And yes, we want to know why something like the Sewol incident could happen.

If there was one book that I would recommend to anyone thinking about coming to Korea to work, study, or simply visit, I would recommend Breen’s book hands down. There’s no one writing about Korea these days more knowledgeable and understanding of Korea than Michael Breen.

Proof Day

Proof 1You know the adage, “the proof is in the pudding?” Well, that’s how I felt when I received my proof of Bureau 39 in the mail today. It’s a big day when you see the physical copy of your book for the first time.

It’s a thrill that never gets old.

Even though I had already seen the eBook version, nothing beats holding your book in your hands; the one you worked on for so long; the one written with lots of sweat and torment when certain scenes didn’t always turn out the way you wanted.

This time, I went for a matte finish instead of a glossy one. Although I’m not too happy that the print is not too sharp, I do like how the cover feels.

Like I said, “the proof is in the pudding.”

National Geographic — December 1979

national-geographic-seoulOne of my prized possessions is a 1979 issue of National Geographic that I bought on eBay to remind me of what it was like to come to Korea in 1990.

It was late summer 1990. Iraq had invaded Kuwait, Die Hard 2 and Ghost were two of the summer’s hottest movies, and I had been working at a Del Monte canning factory in Mendota, Illinois since mid-August.

How I ended up at Del Monte, after having taught in Japan just nine months earlier, is not entirely another story, but part of my plan to return to Japan via Malaysia—you know, the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line.

The day after I interviewed for a teaching position at a new language school opening in Malaysia, I was hired by Del Monte and promptly started working the night shift from six at night until six in the morning. If I were headed back to Asia, I was going to need some funds to tide me over until I left. As it turned out, I got to put some of my college skills to good use: my job was tell trucks where to dump their loads of sweet corn and to keep track how much corn had been delivered and processed. I also relieved the two tractor operators who pushed the ears of corn into the processing facility. Actually, it was one of the best jobs I ever had and I really enjoyed the people I worked with at the facility. Had I not been offered a job in Korea (I’m getting there) I had been offered a full-time job at that plant.

At the same time, one of my friends, who worked at a printing shop in LaSalle, told me that one of her clients was the manager of a Japanese plant which made auto parts. This client had a thirteen-year-old daughter going to Washington Grade School in Peru, Illinois. Problem was, the girl’s language skills were too low for her to do well in school. My friend suggested that because of my Japanese language skills, I would be a good tutor for her. In the end, I ended up teaching the girl, her younger brother, and mother before I left for Korea. I’m getting there!

Around this time, I was informed by the recruiter of the language school I had applied for that I didn’t get the job. Although I had done well on the interview (later, I would see the notes from that interview which included the comments, “He has that All-American look; he will sell well in Asia”), the school wanted more seasoned teachers. However, the recruiter told me that positions at two schools in Seoul were opening all the time.
chamsil-2-danji-001

In the beginning, I taught the girl in the afternoon before I went to work at Del Monte. Most of the times, I got to the school early and waited for her in one of the classrooms while she finished her classes. One day, I happened to notice a stack of old National Geographic magazines in a bookcase. I picked a copy and started thumbing through it. Turned out it was one from 1979 that had a story about Seoul, South Korea. It was more of a coming-of-age story about Seoul and how the city had finally risen from the ashes of the Korean War. One photograph in particular of a housing project near Olympic Park stuck out more than the other ones of salarymen drinking and Andre Kim posing with two models. Maybe it was the stark, cold feeling that I got from the photo which showed the Number 2 subway line being built and the muddy tidal flats of the Han River in the distance which made me stare at it longer than other photographs.

Three months later, I would be living in that apartment complex when I started teaching at the ELS school near Kangnam Subway Station.

Had fate intervened that day which made choose that issue over other issues? I would like to think so. Not long after I started teaching at ELS, one of my colleagues and friends, Ken Celmer had that same issue and shared it with me. I still couldn’t get over how I had seen that same issue rightbefore I found out that I had been hired to teach at ELS.

Looking at it today, it’s 1990 all over for me.

chamsil-2-danji-002

That’s when I took the road less traveled again…and once again, it would make all the difference in the world.

A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

Hard Rain

Not much of a rainy season in Korea this summer. Had some torrential rain for about three days in mid-June. Hasn’t rained much since. Now that August has arrived, we are entering typhoon season. Had some really wicked typhoon seasons in the late 90s. I remembering coming back to Shinch’on from teaching a class at SNU in 1998 and it rained so much traffic in some places in Seoul was at a standstill.

This is a stream/drainage ditch not far from where we lived in Daejeon. This is mild compared to some heavy rain we had here in 2011.

Hard Rain 002

Hot Enough For You?

Heat WavesThe dog days of summer are upon us and it’s been one sweltering, humid day after another with no relief in sight. It’s without question one of the hottest and most humid summers I have experienced in all my years in Korea.

There have been some hot summers here in Korea that come close to this summer. The summer of 1994 was a wicked hot one. Back then I was teaching at Yonsei University’s Foreign Language Institute and had an early morning conversation class that started at 7:00. By the time I walked to school from Yonhui-dong, which was about a 15-minute walk, I was already drenched. The school didn’t turn on the air until 8:00 so that first hour was a brutal one.

Not many folks had air conditioning in their homes back then, either. I was living in this boarding house, just down the street from former South Korean president Roh Tae-woo, and I had one window in my room which looked out on another house. I spent two years in that boarding house; some rough times indeed during the summer months.

I read that other day that this heat wave is expected to last until the middle of August.

The daytime temperatures hover around 90-92 degrees with 100% humidity. It’s been that way for almost two weeks now. It’s done wonders for my morning workouts. I’ve been working out every morning from 6:00-7:30. I start out with an hour on the treadmill. Thanks to the heat and humidity, I’ve been able to sweat off a couple pounds.

Yes, You can Judge a Book by its Cover

WR_newcoverYou know the old adage, “you can judge a book by its cover?”

It’s true.

It’s especially true if you are an indie author and you’re trying to fight for a piece of the action in a market that is getting smaller and smaller. If you want your book to get noticed you are going to need a design that speaks volumes (excuse the pun) that’s about the size of a pack of cigarettes (and sometimes smaller).

Book cover design. Can’t say enough about it. There are plenty of freelance designers who can take your ideas and come up with a good design. Sadly, there are some not so good designers who might even use the design for your book for another project. This has happened to two of my writing friends. I hear 99 Designs is a good place to get started. Their rates are compatible and you can choose from several designs.detail of a statue at the Korean War Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I’m fortunate that I have my own designer, Anna Takahashi Gargani who works her visual magic time and time again.

Recently, she redid the cover design for my first book, War Remains. I think she did a pretty good job. This was the original design. For starters, it’s a lot stronger and the font and color she uses is both bold and soft. She also was able to bring out more definition from the original photograph.

It’s a sweet design for a very good book and story.

 

Reviews Do Matter

 I am adetail of a statue at the Korean War Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C.lways grateful when someone takes out the time to leave a review for one of my books at Amazon or Goodreads. When you’re an indie writer you need all the help you can get promoting your book and there’s no better way than by word-of-mouth when someone writes an honest review.

Recently, this is what one reader had to say about my novel War Remains:

“This is a story told through letters found 50 years later about the Korean War. So well written you are taken along with those in war and become scared, yet know it was much worse than you could imagine. Ronnie and his son Michael found long forgotten artifacts in a footlocker belonging to Ronnie’s father who went to Korea and fought for South Korea’s freedom. A police state action, not labeled a war, but Bobby never came home and was listed as MIA. This is a story about the journey to learn about Bobby and those who served with him. Makes you grasp for an emotion you may not realize you have inside. I can’t read this without crying and praying for all servicemen and their families.”

Although I don’t have any clear or hard evidence how a book review will drive sales or help me reach a wider market, I am just grateful that my book resonated with a reader and touched them.

Full Circle

2015-09-04 06.50.53Not long after I arrived in Korea in 1990, I started having breakfast at Paris Croissant in the Kangnam subway station. My buddy, Ken, told me about the place where a fellow could get a fried egg, toast, and coffee for a couple thousand won. Not a bad deal.

On many a morning, before I started teaching my first class at ELS, a language school in southern Seoul, I had my breakfast at Paris Croissant, sitting elbow to elbow with office ladies, dipping my buttered toast in the egg yolk, washing it down with black coffee, and listening to Frank Sinatra. (“Seoul Movement”)

This past week, The SolBridge coffee shop started serving morning breakfast. For 3,000 won a fellow can get two pieces of toast, fried egg, and a cup of joe. Not a bad way to begin the day.

Although there were no office ladies or Frank Sinatra, I felt as though I had stepped back in time, twenty-five years.

Hot Summer in Daejeon

It’s sure been hot in Daejeon this summer. As summers have come and gone for me these past twenty-four years in Korea, this summer has been a brutal one. This past Saturday was ipchu, which according to the Korean Lunar Calendar, is the beginning of autumn. The nights have started to get a little cooler, so perhaps autumn is in the air.

That’s all right by me.

 

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2019 Jeffrey Miller

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑