This was written in the summer of 2003 right before the big commemoration event in Panmunjom. Reading this essay again, I am reminded how important and special it was for me writing for one of the English-language newspapers in Korea and experiencing a bit of history in the process. I pray that such an opportunity comes along again and that I am really not an accidental journalist, but that I am capable of writing some very fine features and essays about something that means a lot to me.
It all started with a visit to a bookstore.
In February of 2000, I was browsing in the Kyobo Book Center when I came across an anthology of short stories and poetry on the Korean War written by veterans of that conflict from the United States. Having studied English Literature at both undergraduate and graduate levels, the book piqued my literary interests. But at the same time, I was also interested in reading something about the Korean War as the 50th anniversary of the start of the conflict was just months away.
As I stood there, holding that book in my hands, little did I know about the journey that I was soon to embark upon. A journey that would take me back to the beginning of the Korean War and into the lives of some of the men who fought in it, battles that I had only read about (and others that I would soon learn about), but more importantly a greater awareness of that conflict and its legacy both here on the peninsula and around the world.
My journey began when I approached a former editor of The Korea Times and asked if I could review this book. Back then I was making monthly and sometimes bi-monthly contributions to this paper about living in Korea. You know which ones I am talking about—the ones that expats write when, after being in Korea for some length of time, they feel like sharing with readers and fellow expats about they take on what it is really like here.
The editor, sensing the importance of this worthwhile contribution, allowed me to review this book and others on the war as I, in my own small way, commemorated the conflict. I had only read a handful of books on the Korean War, and I began to find and read voraciously the most recently published books on the conflict.
It first started with one book review a month, followed by two and then finally one a week as the anniversary approached. As I read more and more on the conflict, I realized I wanted to do more. With my foot in the door, as it were, I wanted to make other contributions on the commemoration, and thinking that I had become more knowledgeable on the conflict than most of my colleagues, hoped that I could cover some of the events.
My first chance to write something other than book reviews came when I read and reviewed Gen. Paik Sun-yup’s memoirs From Pusan to Panmunjom and then managed to interview him one May afternoon in his office in the War Memorial Museum. Reporters are not supposed to be in awe of someone they are interviewing, but as I sat there listening to the then 82-year-old Korean War hero recall some of the battles he had fought in, and the horrors and desperation of those early months of the war, not to mention the heroic stand he and his men made at the Pusan Perimeter, it was hard not to.
Shortly thereafter, I had an opportunity to meet another important and distinguished person, whose family’s legacy in missionary work and education has left an indelible impression on Korea. When I learned that Dr. Horace Underwood was an interpreter at Panmunjom, all it took was a phone call to arrange for an interview. Underwood was most receptive and gracious, as he welcomed me into his home one afternoon and shared his experiences during the war.
Since then I have met with Paik and Underwood on numerous occasions for other interviews or while covering another commemorative event. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to know both men and to write about their lives.
With two interviews under my belt and a dozen books on the Korean War reviewed, things started to fall into place for me when the managing editor of The Korea Times sent me, a translator, and a photographer to the Iron Triangle near Chorwon. From a reporter’s standpoint, you might say this was my big break, being sent out to write a feature story for the paper. That day was sweetened when I returned to the newspaper and discovered that my interview with Underwood would be carried on the front page of the paper.
Looking back on my “first” big feature for the paper, there were a number of things that I could have done and that I should have done to have made it more readable. (One glaring mistake, and one pointed out by a veteran journalist posted in Seoul was that I had not included a map.) Nonetheless, I was proud of my accomplishment and grateful that this paper had the faith in me to write features.
Although I never tried to pass myself off as a journalist, (I consider myself more of an accidental one) I always felt that my passion for writing, and my dedication and interest in these stories would be enough to make them interesting enough for our readers. Above all, I thought I was doing my own small part to remember the conflict as well as the sacrifices of all those brave men who came to the defense of Korea and democracy.
After throwing myself headlong into writing about the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, albeit book reviews or feature stories, attending the impressive commemorative event at the War Memorial Museum in Seoul on June 25, 2000 was not something that I wanted to miss. While I didn’t have any press credentials and I was not on any guest list (I was supposed to have been put on such a list, but when I arrived there, my name was nowhere to be found on the guest list), I somehow managed to talk my way in.
Without question, it was a glorious event as Korean War veterans from all the United Nation member governments that had participated in the conflict as well as Korean veterans marched in and took their place of honor before the throngs of attendees and distinguished guests.
Although the event might have seemed a bit toned down—coming on the heels of the historic North-South summit earlier in the month, it was not evident in the tenor of many of the veterans that I talked to on that hot, blistering day three years ago. They were just happy and honored to be back in Korea and to be part of this historic-making event.
Notwithstanding some events that had been cancelled (a parade downtown, but according to one organizer, having the veterans march downtown was probably not a good idea in the first place) the only obvious change was in the theme of the commemorative event that had been quickly changed after the summit as not to offend the North Korean regime. Instead of remembering the Korean War outright, these new themes stressed “pursuing peace beyond the Korean War” and “pursuing reunification beyond the division.”
Politics brushed aside though, these veterans soaked in the positive reception and gratitude bestowed upon them. This was their day and for me, it was an honor to be there, to have the chance to be part of history whether it was meeting and talking to the veterans or listening to then President Kim Dae-jung’s speech. Who would have imagined that when I was holding that book in the Kyobo Book Center four months earlier my journey would bring me here?
But this was just the beginning.