While growing up in Korea and even after I moved to the U.S. in the mid-1960s, I obeyed most of my mother’s commandments, including “You must never brag about yourself!”
But I’m about to break this rule, not only because I turned 73 this year, but also to say something about globalism and how heaven rewarded one nation’s undying loyalty toward the benefactor that granted her freedom six decades ago.
Last month, I spoke at Georgia State University in Atlanta for “Five from Five” — five authors representing the creative works of five nations (Brazil, China, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey). I read from my recent spy novel “The Northern Wind: Forced Journey to North Korea,” set in the mid-1960s, the most uncertain time of Korea’s history. And at the school’s request, I also talked about my earlier novel “A Gift of the Emperor,”
the story of Korean schoolgirls forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military during World War II — an issue the Japanese government still denies.
What was humbling about the trip was that I was honored to talk about my country’s turbulent past and how the sweat, blisters and even blood our countrymen shed during a 5-year “New Country Building Movement” decades ago eventually rebuilt South Korea on a sturdy foundation.
Back then our country was in the hands of President Park Chung Hee (the father of today’s South Korean President Park Geun-hye), who led a successful military coup d’etat in May 1961 and became the third president of the Republic of Korea in 1963 by a public vote. Though he was seriously disliked for arresting corrupt politicians and government employees, demanding civilians’ time and free labor to modernize the country, and deploying the troops to fight in Vietnam in the spirit of paying back our colossal debt to Americans, he awakened the conscience of his countrymen until he was assassinated in 1979.
Never mind that I’m a small potato in the world of literature who has written only three novels, and that the other Five from Five participants are internationally known authors. One’s voice, however meek or strong, finds his or her listeners when it carries with it the truth.
As hunger doesn’t mean much to rich people, nationalism means little to those who have never worried about losing his or her country to a stronger one. As one who was born with a Japanese name during the Japanese occupation of Korea, I am a witness to the cruelty Japan inflicted on Korean men and women who bled and died for Japan — some wearing Japanese military uniforms, some as forced laborers and some as sex slaves in Japanese military compounds surrounded by barbed wire. And someday, my generation of men and women will perish like earlier generations, so I speak what I remember when I can.
The news of our country’s liberation from Japan reached our family in the summer of 1945 in a nameless town not far from our hometown of Taegu. We had been hiding since the Japanese lied that Americans would soon bomb Korean towns because Korea was Japan’s colony. As we were returning to Taegu on a rickety pickup truck, our father suddenly spoke with authority. “Children, look over there!” he said, pointing to hundreds of men sitting on the fenced-in school yards along the road, their heads bent. “They’re the Japanese soldiers! They’re listening to their godly Emperor’s surrender speech. We’ll never see them again!”
I was too young to understand our father’s words, yet I understood that we wouldn’t have to hide anymore and that all the mystery of nightly sirens and announcements through loudspeakers had ended.
I remember, too, when our parents talked about something called the 38th Parallel on our peninsula, Russians occupying the northern part of it and Americans the southern part. Before we could fathom our future, we were at war with our northern half, killing one another.
The most difficult time for all South Koreans came when the war ended with the armistice and we faced major challenges alone, without American troops. There was the possibility of another North Korean invasion of the South, the Vietnam War in which South Korean troops were deployed and the urgent need to improve our living condition.
In reality, my recent trip to Georgia State University, engineered by the Center for Collaborative and International Arts, wasn’t about my book or myself as an author; It was about a nation’s strength to overcome obstacles and build friendship with her benefactors over the past six decades that will continue for years to come.