The accidental journalist — Part 1

From 2000-2006 I was a feature writer for The Korea Times, the oldest English-language newspaper in Korea.  

Starting out with book reviews, I moved on to feature articles, interviews, travel, culture, and the occasional news story. In that time, I had the chance to interview everyone from Korean War veterans and celebrities like Johnny Grant (honorary mayor of Hollywood) to military leaders, ambassadors and even former U.S. President Jimmy Carter when he was in Korea for Habitat for Humanity.  

I got to do a lot of things that most people would envy like fly in an F-16, fly into Panmunjom in a helicopter (with CNN’s Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Ji-ae), or get to travel around Korea carte blanche and see things that most foreigners (and sometimes Koreans) might not have the chance to.  

It was a lot of fun, sometimes frustrating (when having to deal with editors who spoke little English), but always interesting. It also helped me to get through one of the more difficult periods of my life after my wife passed away in September 2001. 

It all started with a book at the Kyobo Bookstore in downtown Seoul.

One cold, February winter day in 2000, I was browsing the bookshelves in the English Books Section at Kyobo when I came across a book, which would change my life. It was an anthology of short stories and poetry—Retrieving Bones—written by Korean War veterans. As soon as I spotted the book and pulled it off the shelf, I stood there holding it in my hands.  I knew right then and there what I was going to do. I was going to read it and review it for the Korea Times. 

I had been submitting one or two submissions a month for the newspaper’s “Thoughts of the Times” column for about a year. It was nothing out of ordinary or anything really special. A lot of expats made contributions to that column (and at a time when there were no blogs it was one way to comment about life in Korea and other topics). 

However, when I held that book in my hand I knew what I wanted to do. Little did I know just how much that book would be my ticket for a very interesting, fascinating and inspirational five-year journalistic journey. 

When I approached the editor of the newspaper, he seemed pretty keen on allowing me to review books for the paper. I explained to him that I wanted to do something to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Korean War and thought it would be interesting to review whatever new books on the conflict had been published. He liked the idea. 

However, when I went back to the Kyobo Bookstore I was saddened and shocked to discover that there were hardly any books on the Korean War. I was even more surprised that there were hardly any books (in English) about current affairs in Korea. If I was going to review one or two books a month (soon it would be one a week) I was going to have to order books on my own. 

And that is exactly what I did. Thank God for Amazon.  

First, it was two book reviews a month, but when the books started coming in (and when I also started to finally receive reviewer’s copies) I was reviewing a book a week. 

Looking back on those reviews, I have to confess that they were really not “reviews” but more like a “book report.” However, what I think I really achieved was learning more about the Korean War and sharing this information with readers. In my own small way, I was commemorating the anniversary of the conflict as well as informing readers what books were available. Personally, it was an eye-opening experience for me to learn much about the conflict in the books that I read. 

My first big break, as far as branching out and writing more feature stories, was when I had the opportunity to interview Korean Gen. Paik Yun-sup after reading his memoirs of the Korean War. Paik is perhaps best known for his valiant stand at Tabu-dong during fierce fighting along the “Pusan Perimeter” in the summer of 1950. Having been pushed back advancing North Korean troops, Paik told his troops they had nowhere to go; they had to stand and fight. “If I run,” Paik is claimed to have said, “you can shoot me.” Paik’s remarks inspired his troops and they stood their ground and helped to turn the tide of the battle. 

I was surprised how easy it was for me to set up an interview with Paik. It just took a few phone calls from the Korea Times and a few days later, I was sitting in Paik’s office in Seoul’s War Memorial Museum having my first interview. Perhaps, his staff was surprised that someone wanted to interview him even though he had written a book. (Interestingly, I was the only foreign reporter to interview him prior to the fiftieth anniversary commemoration.) 

He was very gracious and appreciated me wanting to interview him. The article that I would write (to accompany my book review) was by no means one of my better ones. Most of it was just a transcription of the interview. However, it opened the door a little wider for me to write more feature articles. 

Around this time, someone suggested that I might want to interview Horace Underwood (his grandfather had founded Yonsei University) who had served in the Navy during the Korean War and along with his brother was an interpreter at Panmunjom during the Armistice talks. Again, all it took was just a phone call and Dr. Underwood was more than happy to grant me an interview (perhaps being an instructor at Yonsei helped a little). 

The day I interviewed him was the day before the historic summit in Pyongyang with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. It was also pretty historic occasion for me, not to mention an honor to have the chance to sit down with Dr. Underwood. I thought the interview went well (though I was still honing my interview skills about what kinds of questions I should ask) as Dr. Underwood shared some of his recollections of the Korean War. 

Those two interviews as well as the books on the Korean War that I had reviewed between February and early June 2000 had opened the door for me as a feature writer for the Korea Times 

I have to admit that I have always tried to be humble when talking about my journalistic pursuits. I just felt lucky that I could write for the paper. Sure, a lot of people have been critical of the English-language newspapers in Korea (including myself) for shoddy journalism, but I honestly believed that I was making some valuable contributions.  To be sure, on the day the Underwood article came out in the paper, I was off on my first assignment to write a special feature article on the Korean War. It was just the beginning.     

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