Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: South Korea (page 1 of 46)

Twenty-five Years Ago this Month

snapshots039Twenty-five years ago this month, I taught my last class at ELS, a language school in Seoul near Kangnam subway station.

On November 27, 1992, I said goodbye to my colleagues at ELS and left for Kimpo. I would be back six weeks later, teaching at Yonsei University’s Foreign Language Institute.

The two years I spent at ELS were some of the happiest moments I have spent in Korea. Everything that I would come to love and cherish, not to mention dislike about Korea happened those first two years. If I had left Korea then, I could easily say that I had experienced much about Korean culture and would have had a rewarding experience to talk about for years. But of course, I wanted more…much more. And here I am…it’s 2017 and I am still in Korea.

If I could go back to any time in the twenty-seven years that I have lived and worked in Korea, I would go back to those first two years. It was a special time to be here. A lot had to do with the freshness and uniqueness of being here. I remember one Sunday afternoon in crowded Myong-dong in central Seoul when one of my students saw me and yelled my name to get my attention. The next thing I know she was introducing me to her mother as hundreds of passersby and shoppers swarmed by us. Or the time when I was in in the Shinch’on subway station, a week after I arrived in December 1990, and I couldn’t get my subway pass to work. Every time I pushed it into the ticket receptacle on the turnstile, a loud buzzer sounded meaning that the pass didn’t work, so I tried to push it in again and the same damn buzzer sounded again. All I had to do was exchange the pass, but I didn’t know any better. A young Korean woman on her way to work or school that morning, sensing my impending cultural breakdown, bought me a ticket, so I could continue my morning commute to school. It was one of the nicest things someone has done for me.

It’s no wonder I often find myself waxing nostalgic about my early years in Korea. It surely was a special time for me.

Nuclear Blues

Martin 001Bradley Martin, the man who wrote the book on North Korea with his Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leaderwas in Seoul recently at What the Book? Bookstore talking about his new book, Nuclear Blues.

His new book is a thriller set in North Korea that has everything from evangelists running around, nuclear missiles, a blues musician, Heck Davis, investigating the death of his best friend, to a surprise appearance by Kim Jong-un. It’s a non-stop geopolitical thriller that’s a lot of fun to read. While I was reading it, I was thinking to myself, “you know, this could happen. It certainly is plausible.”

With North Korea and Kim Jong-un in the news so much these days, this is a timely novel from Martin. I doubt Kim Jong-un will have this book on his nightstand for some late night reading…but who knows?

All Along the DMZ — Part IV

This is Part IV of a five-part series on the Korean DMZ inspired by Barry Lancet’s geopolitical thriller, The Spy Across the Table and my articles and essays about the DMZ and JSA.
This originally appeared in Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Panmunjom031“How would you like to fly up to the JSA with CNN?”

It was in May 2001, when one of the public affairs officers for the 8th Army asked me if I would like to accompany CNN to Camp Casey.

“Excuse me?”

“We’ve invited a lot of media to cover the beret changing ceremony,” he continued. “You’ll be flying up there with Sohn Jie-ae, CNN’s Seoul Bureau Chief and a photographer from Reuters. Afterward, you’ll fly to the JSA.”

On June 14, 2001, U.S. soldiers serving in South Korea would be the first ones to wear the new black berets that the Army adopted. In commemoration of this event, and no less in part of the significance of the U.S. military still having a strong presence in Korea, USFK arranged for a lot of media coverage of this event for major U.S. networks and other news agencies.

Another helicopter ride, I thought. If you are going to the place President Bill Clinton called, “the scariest place in the world” flying into the JSA in a Blackhawk was a grim reminder of the tensions that have existed on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War. And if you wanted to talk about traveling in style, not to mention excitement, it would be another ride of a lifetime.

Crew_Chief__Pave_Hawk_2001We were supposed to fly from Seoul to Camp Casey, home to the U.S. Second Infantry Division, where we would cover the “Beret Ceremony” before proceeding to Camp Bonifas. However, inclement weather prevented us from flying, so we had to take a van to Casey, which is located in Tongduchon, about two hours north of Seoul.

So, there we all were—Sohn Ji-ae and her crew of three, a photographer from Reuters, a public affairs official, and myself—squeezed into the van. It was still dark when we left Yongsan, the sprawling military base in Seoul, and there wasn’t too much chitchat on the way up. When the weather improved later that morning after the ceremony we were allowed to fly into Bonifas.

Upon arriving at Camp Bonifas, we were met by Lt. Colonel William Miller, the JSA Commander who took us on a private tour. Many people are not aware that the Panmunjom—at least what is open for tours—is not the Panmunjom where the armistice halting the Korean War was signed in July 1953. That area is north of the JSA in North Korea. However, the area itself including the JSA is referred to as Panmunjom.

First, there was a stop at OP (Outpost) Ouellette, which is only open to dignitaries like presidents and other VIPs. (If President Trump had not canceled his trip to the DMZ to meet South Korean President Moon, this was where they most likely would have gone). Named after Private First Class Joseph R. Ouellette, who was killed during the Korean War at the Busan Perimeter in September 1950 (and awarded the Medal of Honor), it was the northernmost U.S. military outpost on the Korean peninsula (since then, most of the outpost duties have been turned over to South Korea). It was a warm, sunny day—nice weather for Korea at this time of the year before the arrival of changma, or the rainy season. However, don’t let the weather fool you; this is the DMZ and every day is eerie and foreboding.

In the distance, distinguishable in the haze and glare was a North Korean outpost. No sooner had we arrived and toured the facilities, two NPA soldiers with binoculars appeared and kept us in their sights as we were briefed on OP Ouellette’s purpose and Ms. Sohn interviewed some soldiers.

74046421RTHAJj_fsNext, it was down to the heart of the JSA and Conference Row—more like the centerpiece of the JSA and one of the highlights of any civilian tour. Here you can actually get within spitting distance of the “enemy” as it were when you enter one of the blue MAC buildings where meetings between the two sides take place from time to time. Interesting to note, prior to the 1976 Panmunjom ax murders, US, South Korean, and North Korean soldiers could “wander” anywhere in the JSA. The concrete marker between the buildings? That’s the line you cannot cross.

Finally, we stopped at the Bridge of No Return. Enough said. There, Sohn Jie-ae conducted an interview with two soldiers.

I wasn’t going to be writing a story that day. Having jumped at the chance for a helicopter ride into the JSA, another reporter would be covering the beret changing main event, which took place on Knight Field located inside Yongsan. I was just along for the ride—and what a ride it was. After the interviews, it was back on the Blackhawk for the flight back to Seoul. I’ll never forget flying out of Bonifas and over the Imjin River. That was exciting and something that I will never forget.

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All Along the DMZ — Part III

MDLThis is Part III of a five-part series on the Korean DMZ inspired by Barry Lancet’s The Spy Across the Table and my articles and essays about “the scariest place on the earth.”

Did someone say road trip to the DMZ?

That’s what happened in August 2000 when I was invited back to the JSA, this time from the kind generals of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) Major General Adrien Evequoz, head of the Swiss delegation and Major General Peter Hammarstrom of the Swedish delegation.

They were impressed with my article on the JSA that I had written earlier in the summer and invited me to visit their camp just yards away from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL).

The NNSC was one of the three bodies created by the Armistice Agreement at the end of the Korean War in 1953. In accordance with the Armistice Agreement, the NNSC consisted of four neutral nations: Sweden (although Sweden had provided medical assistance with a hospital in Busan it was still considered neutral) and Switzerland in the South, and Poland and Czechoslovakia in the North. Their role, as stipulated in the armistice was to supervise, observe, as well as inspect two specific dispositions of the agreement: the reinforcement of military personnel and the reinforcement of combat aircraft, vehicles, and munitions.Panmunjom012

Originally, six neutral countries were proposed. In addition to Sweden and Switzerland in the South, Norway was the other country proposed. Besides Poland and Czechoslovakia in the North, Russia was the third country proposed. However, Russia did not qualify as a credible “neutral” country, so Norway was dropped and four nations became the NNSC.

Although their duties are “limited” their presence along the DMZ reminds one that the Korean War didn’t end with an armistice and that the two Koreas are still technically at war.

Later that year, I went back to the JSA again, this time to do a story about American troops serving at Camp Bonifas. It was a nice Christmas story and the soldiers I interviewed were happy to talk about serving in the JSA although they were feeling homesick at this time of the year.

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The USO Cookie Train visits the JSA. Wonder what the Norks thought about Santa Claus.

 

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ROK Ready: Two ROK soldiers inside the MAC building. Notice their taekwondo stance.

 

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The Bridge of No Return on a cold, dreary December morning.

 

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The highlight of this trip was being allowed to get out of the United Nations Command vehicle and walk out onto the bridge.

All Along the DMZ — Part II

73396520knZKAv_fsThis is Part II of a four-part series on the Korean DMZ inspired in part by Barry Lancet’s The Spy Across the Table and my articles and essays about the DMZ and JSA.

Summer 2000. Somehow I had talked myself into writing feature stories about the 50th anniversary of the Korean War for the Korea Times and wouldn’t you know it, for my efforts, I was given the chance to visit the JSA again, this time as a journalist where I was given the VIP treatment which included having chow with the soldiers in the Camp Bonifas mess hall and interviewing the commander, Lt. Colonel Miller right outside one of the guardhouses with the Bridge of No Return in the background.

This time I would be riding in style, one of the Korea Times staff cars (if you were in Seoul at the time you couldn’t miss those green sedans), accompanied by a driver and the photographer for the newspaper. I was fortunate at the time, teaching at Yonsei’s Foreign Language Institute because we did not have to teach on Wednesdays. This was some arrangement that used to correspond to “chapel” which was on Wednesdays meaning that there would be no English classes that day. For some reason, it became the normal schedule for the institute. When I left in 2006, we still had Wednesdays off. The reason why this was good was that on Wednesdays was when the 8th Army/USFK Public Affairs Office had the press up to the JSA. Worked out quite nicely for me and the writing that I would do from 2000-2006.

The bridge on the left used to be the way to Camp Bonifas; the bridge on the left had been destroyed during the Korean War.

 

One of the reasons why I wanted to go back to the JSA was to find out if there had been more tour groups because of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. It was still business as usual:

“It’s still business as usual,” remarked Lieutenant Colonel William B. Miller, JSA commander when asked if there had been any changes in readiness following the North-South Summit in June.

This reporter caught up with the JSA Commander at one of the UNC checkpoints during a recent tour of the JSA. Miller, a native of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, has been commander of the JSA since April.

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Lt. Colonel William Miller, JSA Commander

“There’s been no change in our readiness, and as much as we can tell, no change in the KPA’s readiness on the other side,” Miller noted.

Readiness has always been the key priority for troops serving in the JSA or along the DMZ. The ROK and U.S. troops who continue to guard this boundary remain vigilant at Freedom’s Frontier. From the Camp Bonifas base camp to the JSA, it’s a series of checkpoints down Highway 1, which runs through anti-tank barriers, minefields, and the concertina wire that stretches into the distance. Then there’s the propaganda, albeit the signboards (one on the right of a UNC checkpoint translated from Hangul reads “Self Reliance Is Our Way of Life”; another, on the left translated from Hangul reads, “Following the Path of the Leading Star”—in reference to Kim Il-sung. Although the anti-American and anti-ROK propaganda messages blaring from speakers from the North were reported to have stopped following the summit, they are back on again.

“There’s been a heavy influence on music recently,” Miller said, “about the greatness of the North and Kim Jong-Il.”

However, Miller pointed out that there seems to be less angry rhetoric these days than in the past.

“From what the ROK soldiers have told us, there is less anti-American and anti-ROK propaganda,” he added.

There’s always this eerie, almost surreal mood as one enters the JSA and walks out onto Conference Row. For anyone who has ever been to the JSA, it just might seem a little absurd to stand just a few feet away from the enemy or to walk into one of the MAC buildings and peer out at a North Korean soldier looking in at you. On this day, though, one tall, rather presumptuous North Korean guard crinkled up his nose in deference to a military camera crew filming him.

“He’s a bit of a troublemaker,” noted our security escort.

This originally appeared in the Korea Times, July 2000

There was an added highlight to this trip to the JSA: a group of North Korean schoolchildren on a tour.

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 Surreal, huh? Someone told me that the kids were either the children of party members or North Koreans living in Japan. They look pretty well-behaved in the photo.

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It’s all about intimidation in the JSA. I think the ROK soldier eyeballing the two North Korean soldiers has the advantage.

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.”

What is Bureau 39?

DSCF2413What exactly is the infamous Bureau 39?

This is what Wikipedia says:

“Room 39 (officially Central Committee Bureau 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party, also referred to as Bureau 39, Division 39, or Office 39) is a secretive North Korean party organization that seeks ways to maintain the foreign currency slush fund for the country’s leaders, initially Kim Il-sung, then, in progression, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un.

The organization is estimated to bring in between $500 million and $1 billion per year or more and may be involved in illegal activities, such as counterfeiting $100 bills (see Superdollar), producing controlled substances (including the synthesis of methamphetamine and the conversion of morphine-containing opium into pure opiates like heroin), and international insurance fraud.

Although the seclusion of the North Korean state makes it difficult to evaluate this kind of information, many claim that Room 39 is critical to Kim Jong-un’s continued power, enabling him to buy political support and help fund North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Room 39 is believed to be located inside a ruling Workers’ Party building in Pyongyang, not far from one of the North Korean leader’s residences.”

And, in the immortal words of that endearing radio personality, Paul Harvey, “and now you know the rest of the story.”

Of course, the real story is here.

 

Bureau 39: The Beginning

bureau39_ebook_front 2Many people have asked me how did I come up with the story for my latest novel, Bureau 39. The story of Frank Mitchum chasing down an old Army buddy in Korea while trying to cut-off North Korea’s funding for its WMDs started out as a story about a murder in Itaewon, which was based on an actual event that happened in 2002. The novel, Murder in the Moonlight, which was my first foray into the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2012, was the story about a woman found murdered in a hotel in Itaewon. The woman, the daughter of a former United States Forces Korea (USFK) general was in Korea visiting friends. When she ends up dead, her father contacts one of his former NCOs, Greg Sanders, who is a defense contractor in Seoul, to find out what happened. Sanders runs into his old nemesis in the CID who is convinced that the woman was murdered by her boyfriend. Later, Sanders finds out that the daughter got caught up in a drug smuggling conspiracy involving members of South Korea’s underworld and a North Korean defector. The closer Sanders gets to finding out who killed the girl, he becomes caught up in a web of deception and murder.

I wasn’t happy with the how I developed the story and shelved it to work on The Panama Affair.

And then in 2014, I heard about a former Army Ranger who was caught trying to smuggle 100 kilograms of methamphetamine into the United States.

The meth was from North Korea.

It was time to look at the story again.

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