When a taxi ride becomes a mini history lesson

After I finished teaching two teacher training classes in the Solbridge building (the building houses an international school of business associated with Woosong University) near Daejeon Station this morning, I caught a taxi outside to go to HomePlus—about a ten-minute ride away—to pick up a few things.

As soon as I told the sixtysomething driver in Korean where I wanted to go, it must have really impressed him because I got bombarded with a volley of questions (in Korean and English) from where I was from and what I do in Korea.

After we got through that small talk, he told me that he had fought in the Vietnam War for two years and had been stationed first in Saigon in 1965 before moving up country. His English was pretty good—good enough to tell me that he suffers the side effects from the use of Agent Orange during the war.

All this in about a fifteen-minute taxi ride to HomePlus.

As for the South Korean military represented the second largest contingent of foreign troops in Vietnam, second only to the U.S. forces. It has been argued that South Korea willingly joined in the Vietnam War because it represented a fight against communism, which South Korea was eager to stem under the guidance of President Park Chung-hee’s military administration. Park initially sent two Korean infantry divisions and a marine brigade in 1965. At their peak, the Korean military had over 50,000 soldiers on the ground; all together more than 310,000 South Koreans served throughout the war. About 5,000 of them died in combat in Vietnam, and more than 11,000 were injured or wounded.

Without question, it was a win-win situation for South Korea given that these troops were paid for and that those troops gained valuable battle experience, not the least of which the South Korean army became skilled with using some of the most advanced US military weaponry.

Although the price tag in terms of financial and economic aid to the South might smack of mercenary underpinnings, the war actually helped build the economy of South Korea because of massive U.S. military contracts and related economic aid awarded South Korea. To be sure from 1965 to 1975, South Korea’s GNP grew 14 times, and exports increased 29 times. Moreover South Korean automakers as well as shipping magnate Hanjin also benefited from the war effort.

And here was one veteran, a taxi driver talking about his war experience to a foreign passenger. He might have just been trying out his language skills but it turned out to be a mini history lesson.

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2 Responses to “When a taxi ride becomes a mini history lesson”

  1. Florida Panhandler September 29, 2009 at 7:54 am # Reply

    Turnabout is fair play — in the same way Japan’s economy took off in the early 1950’s due to the Korean War, it is true that the South Korean economy in the mid-60’s was catalyzed by the dollars it earned in Vietnam as soldiers and contractors.

    In fact, many of the companies we know today — Hyundai, LG and Samsung — got their feet wet as the de facto U.S. contractors responsible for building the U.S. war machine there.

    However, Vietnam was not Korea’s only source of foreign currency at that time.

    Also throughout the 1960’s and early 70’s, thousands of Korean volunteers were recruited by the South Korean government to work as “Gastarbeiter” in West Germany.

    They were mostly nurses and manual laborers who loyally sent home their paychecks back to Korea every month, thus contributing to and building up Korea’s non-existent foreign reserves at the time.

    These Korean Gastarbeiter — employed mostly as miners and nurses — were sent to Germany by Korea at the request of the Willy Brandt government due to a shortage of such workers in Germany.

    And while many of them moved on to the U.S. or returned to Korea after their initial contracts expired, some 31,428 still remain in Germany to this day, having obtained permanent residency there.

    Still, for a developing nation like South Korea at the time, the contributions of the Vietnam vets and the German Gastarbeiters were significant in developing Korea’s foreign capital. Even to this day, they are still remembered in Korean history books as patriots and heroes.

    • Jeffrey September 29, 2009 at 8:00 am # Reply

      Florida Panhandler,

      Thanks so much for your comments.

      Also, many Koreans went to work in Saudi Arabia as well in the 1970s and sent home money. When people talk about the “Miracle of Han” — it was in many ways, a global effort when you consider the number of Koreans who went abroad to work.

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