Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: South Korea (page 2 of 46)

Bureau 39 — An Excerpt

bureau39_ebook_front 2WRAPPED IN LAYERS of threadbare rayon and vinylon, Kim Min-hee shivered on the shore of the frozen river and hoped she wouldn’t have to wait too long. After traveling for almost two days to get there, she had lain low for another day to watch for military patrols, and had been unable to light a fire for fear of being spotted. Hungry and cold, she spent the night huddled under an old blanket she had found tucked between rocks at the edge of the mighty Yalu.

She felt the small package under her clothes. Its weight and shape were both comforting and deadly. If things worked out, she would make contact with a Chinese buyer who would pay her well for the package. Bingdu—methamphetamine or crystal meth, was a valuable commodity, but if she was caught carrying the drugs, she would either be shot on the spot by one of the patrols, or worse, arrested and sent to one of the work camps where she would most assuredly die. The risk was extreme, but definitely worth it if Min-hee wanted to escape to the South.

Getting the drug was simple, since there was a man in her village who made it in his kitchen. He had once been a renowned chemist at a state-run laboratory, but when the country fell on hard times, he and other chemists who found themselves out of work turned to alternative means to support themselves. There were others who made the drug, but Min-hee’s villager was the most reliable. He had lost his wife the winter before, and no longer cared about life. The government threatened to crack down on the production and sale of bingdu, but the kitchen labs prospered, and the thriving black market along the border between North Korea and China was impossible to stop.

Min-hee had heard there was even a factory that was producing the drug on an industrial scale. Supposedly a Chinese businessman had built it and was manufacturing the drug using some of the same chemists who had been producing it in their homes. Min-hee feared it would only be a matter of time before chemists like the one in her village would be put out of work, or executed. The regime liked to keep the people scared, and mandatory attendance of public executions in the village square did that. Either way, if these rumors were true, she would have to come up with another way to fund her passage to the South.

Like many of the people in her village, Min-hee had sampled the drug she was carrying for the Chinese trader. Fellow villagers had told her how, in small quantities, bingdu suppressed the awful hunger they all felt. At first, she wanted nothing to do with it, but when she could no longer endure the gnawing emptiness in her stomach, she relented. The drug also had other supposed medicinal benefits. Some took it for headaches, to treat a common cold, or to seek relief from depression. She heard about soldiers who used it to stay alert when they were on duty or workers who took it to work longer hours in the country’s factories.

Everyone who tried it more than once found it extremely difficult to stop using.

Min-hee was not the only person in her village who sold the drug to Chinese traders. There were others who were willing to take risks, but not everyone was so lucky. There was one woman in her village whose son was arrested and thrown into jail for smuggling the drug into China. When the woman went to try to secure the release of her son, one of the guards told her that if she ever wanted to see her son alive, she had to bring him two grams of the drug. She did, and her son was freed. Another woman was caught and never heard from again.

It never crossed Min-hee’s mind that what she was doing was wrong. When she was younger, she had been mesmerized by her country’s charismatic leader. Once, while serving in the army, he visited her radar station on a mountain. She and the other women in her unit wept when he stopped to talk to them and pose for a photograph. It was one of the happiest days of her life. She believed in her country’s policy the Juche ideology or self-reliance. However, not everyone felt the same way. People grew tired of the food shortages and the empty slogans that told them to grow more mushrooms or annihilate the enemy to the last man. These slogans did not improve their lifestyle or put more food on the table. Soon, she dreamed of a better life.

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.

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.


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

Book Review: Letters from Joseon

Letters from JoseonKorea in the late nineteenth century was a turbulent time. John Mahelm Berry Sill, the American Minister to Korea from 1894-1897, couldn’t have asked for a more difficult posting. In that time there would be the Sino-Japanese War, the Gabo Reforms, the murder of a Korean queen, and the subsequent refuge of King Gojong in the Russian legation.

In the fascinating and historically rich Letters from Joseon, 19th Century Korea through the Eyes of an American Ambassador’s Wife, Korean historian and freelance writer Robert Neff has given us a unique window on a bygone era in this very readable and enjoyable trip back in time. Relying mainly on the personal letters and correspondences between the Sills in South Korea and their family back in the United States, this period of Korean history comes alive as the letters offer insights into life at the American legation as well as what was happening outside the walls. To be sure, as Neff writes in the book’s preface, “these letters provide a candid view of life in not only the American community in Seoul, but also in the Russian legation, where King Gojong and the crown prince sought refuge following the murder of Queen Min.”

The book is divided into three parts which coincides with the three years that Sill was posted to Korea. In Part One, the Sino-Japanese War is the historical backdrop for the letters and correspondence, which signals the beginning of Japan’s grip on the Korean peninsula; in Part Two, the letters cover a wide range of events inside and outside the legation and ends with the murder of Queen Min; and finally, in Part Three, the letters offer insights into King Gojong’s refuge in the Russian legation and the subsequent period of unrest in Korea.

Neff keeps his commentary to a minimum, though he augments the letters with numerous notes and asides to provide readers with related information to the events and people he describes. Though Sill was not looked upon too favorably for his actions, or lack thereof as minister, Neff lets the letters tell the story and is only there to amplify any historical references.

Although scholars will find this book as an indispensable source of information about the late Joseon period, other readers will enjoy this window on Korea’s past, especially Korea in the late nineteenth century on the eve of the eventual Japanese colonization of the peninsula. Neff has carved out a niche for himself when it comes to the study of this period of Korean history. His knowledge and expertise in this area is commendable. He might not be the only Korean specialist writing about this period, but he certainly has become one of the most prominent.

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.


Book Review: An American MP in Korea

81Ax6VNc8uL._SL1500_An American MP in Korea

416 pages

Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Synopsis: When Richard Cezar is drafted into the army in the fall of 1965, trained as a military policeman and shipped off to South Korea, he believes that fate has spared him the horrors of a burgeoning war in Vietnam. But instead, he’s thrust into a different kind of war—one that would shake his core beliefs and cripple his ability to deal with the tragic and deadly consequences.

If you were an American male in 1965 and received your draft notice, there was no doubt where you were headed. However, not everyone was sent to Vietnam after completing one’s military training. One might be lucky to draw an assignment to Europe or South Korea.

Of course, for those fortunate to find themselves in South Korea, the assignment could be just as dangerous as Vietnam.

In An American MP in Korea, the author Richard Cezar, who served in Korea during the 1960s, delivers an evocative and riveting story about a young Army MP who finds himself stationed in Korea during this same period. Part coming of age story and part thriller, the novel takes the reader on a drama filled ride from military bases in Seoul to the seedy underbelly of Seoul’s camptown establishments. There are shootouts, high spend chases, event a visit by General Westmoreland. Through it all there’s the constant threat from North Korea as the Stalinist country conducts limited warfare along the DMZ.

What I found most interesting about the author’s story about Korea in the mid 1960s were the references to what is sometimes known as the second Korean War. During this period, Park Chung-hee had sent two divisions of ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers—the Tiger and White Horse Divisions to fight in Vietnam as part of the deal for the economic aid package the United States had given to South Korea. In retaliation, Kim Il-sung and North Korean fought a limited war along the DMZ as a means to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States. My only regret is that the author didn’t talk about this more. I suppose that is rather selfish because I have lived in Korea since 1990 and have written extensively about North-South relations including the 1994 nuclear crisis and 1996 submarine incursion. Nonetheless, there’s enough here to whet one’s appetite about this period and how dangerous it was to serve in Korea.

I also found the author’s descriptions of Seoul during this time interesting and insightful. I’ve seen the country change a lot in the twenty-four plus years, but back in 1965, the country still hadn’t been able to rise from the ashes of war. Although Korea has become one of the world’s leading economic powerhouses, back in 1965, Korea was still seen as an under-developed country. To be sure, the GNP was less than a 100.00 in the early 1960s. This back story to the main story alone is worth buying this book.

There might be some readers who will fault the author for his depiction of Korean women, but one must give the author a certain degree of poetic license in that he is merely documenting what he observed as an MP stationed in Korea. He’s neither condescending nor is he demeaning. If anything, we see the author articulating one of the darker, and sometimes disturbing underpinnings to America’s presence in South Korea since the end of the Korean War. You can read it for what it’s worth, but I see the author calling attention to the reality of the US military presence in Korea for better or worse.

Through it all, Cezar weaves an interesting and engaging story which keeps you hooked until the very end. There are not too many books about Americans serving in Korea during this period which makes this book a real gem to read.

Well-done, Mr. Cezar.

Amazon link

2014 SolBridge Asian Thought Leaders Case Competition

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The first-ever SolBridge Asian Thought Leaders Case Competition got underway on Monday, January 20th, featuring twenty-two students from seven universities (SolBridge included) around Asia.

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Picture of the Day: Portrait of an Artist


Seoul’s palaces are a magnet for artists and photographers, especially in autumn and winter. I snapped this photograph ten years ago on one of my visits to Kyongbok Palace which was not far from where I was teaching at the time, Yonsei University.

I thought this would make for a nice photo commentary in the Korea Times. Sadly, I never got around to submitting it.

However, I did write about it and other visits to the palace in Waking Up in the Land of The Morning Calm.

Long Train Runnin’

freight train

Sitting here in my apartment on a Tuesday night in Daejeon trying to finish my novel for the 2013 NaNoWriMo contest; in the distance I hear a Korean freight train rumbling through Daejeon Station (about a quarter of a mile away) and just like that I am teleported back to the Illinois Valley, back to my grandparent’s house on the east of LaSalle, where I am sitting at the kitchen table with the windows open listening to a train in the distance, down by the tracks that ran along the I&M Canal.

Just hearing the sound of the trains rumbling through Daejeon (a lot of train traffic in the evening from Pusan to Seoul) makes me think of back home and feeling extra homesick and nostalgic with Thanksgiving a few days away and only a few weeks before Christmas.

Trains do it to me a lot.

Photo of the Day: President of Boeing Korea Speaks at SolBridge

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The President of Boeing Korea and Vice President of Boeing International, Pat Gaines, gave an inspiring special lecture to the SolBridge student body on October 8, 2013. During his hour-long talk, Gaines talked about his career with Boeing and the importance of soft skills, especially the importance of mentoring in today’s competitive business world.

Photo of the Day: Fall 2013 Market Research Competition

Fall 2013 Market Research Competition 001

Heidi Huong Nguyen (right) and Quynh Nguyen (left) listen to their mentor speak during a breakout session for the Fall 2013 International Market Research Competition at the SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, South Korea. Both students are MBA students from Vietnam.

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