One of the greatest things about North America is the relative safety and security you feel in everyday life. Stepping off the jet bridge from the plane and into the airport, the feeling of relief is palpable. Looking around, everyone is going about their business without the least concern that anything bad could happen to them. In the United States most of us readily have services like the police, fire department and advanced medical care available within several minutes notice. Most of us live without fear of being kidnapped or attacked by another nation. And even with the various attacks over the past fifteen years in America, I have not once talked to a person living in fear or changing their plans due to a security concern. But choosing to live overseas often means giving up any assurances of your safety and security.
Although South Korea was a relatively safe place as kidnappings go, I recall being cognizant of the fact that someone might be following me. I remember training my mind to identify certain features of a person or descriptions of clothing to keep track of if I was being followed. I also remember being instructed that if I ever did feel unsafe and was alone, that I was to go into a busy store and talk to the cashier instead of going to the police who might be corrupt. I used to wear a round metal dog tag around my neck that had my address and phone number engraved on it for such a purpose. In actuality, I never remember feeling threatened while living there, but these skills did come in handy later in life when they were needed.
Another memory was of going off to a hobby store with an American friend of ours so that my brother could by a “Aces of Ages” board game from a specialty store. On the way there, our car was side swiped in the middle of an intersection as we were turning left. Fortunately, it was not a major crash and everyone was alright, but I distinctly remember the American driver being worried not about the accident, but about being faulted or sued because he was American. Fortunately, in his case, the police officer that responded agreed that the other driver was at fault and the other driver was himself very apologetic for the crash. Uncertainty in even the certain things comes with the territory, as well as the understanding that you should always remain calm, say as few words as possible, be polite and if all else fails, follow the instructions you are given.
The vast majority of foreigners present in South Korea in the early 1980’s were the American troops stationed there after the Korean War. The fighting of the Korean War had ceased over twenty-five years before our arrival, but the war was in fact, not over. In 1954, an Armistice Agreement was reached ending the fighting and setting up a neutral Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), but the agreement was more of a ceasefire than a treaty for the cessation of war. In the years since, while South Korea had set its sights on democracy and capitalism (no doubt thanks to American influence), North Korea turned to a communist dictatorship ideologically bent on opposing capitalism and western aggressors and reuniting the Koreas (under North Korean leadership of course). The tense history resulted in a large permanent American military presence, and the DMZ became the most fortified border on the planet.
The greatest danger from North Korea came not in the form of a land or sea invasion, but from fighter jets or missiles flying over the border and into Seoul. The closest distance from the North Korean border to the center of Seoul, the nation’s largest and capital city, was a scant twenty-four miles. The danger that this evoked was an everyday concern and upon arriving, my parents had to sign a form at Seoul Foreign School stating whether they wanted their children evacuated to Pusan in the south or held for pickup at SFS. Nighttime events tended to end at nine PM almost like clockwork, a legacy of the former eleven o’clock curfew, and sometimes North Korean propaganda leaflets would fall into our yard. There were air raid drills on the 15th day of every month as well as a prolonged evening blackout during the summer. I remember the blackouts very clearly. Evening would fall on the appointed day and we would shut off all our lights. I would stand with my family atop our hill, holding my blanket as the sirens would sound and the city would go dark. Area leaders would walk the streets telling people to shut down any remaining lights; they even had the authority to shoot them out, so we were told. I can remember having a dream where we were huddled together under our dining room table during an air raid when Mom mentioned that she thought a light had been left on in the room next door. I watched through the window as a man with a rifle pointed at our house from the street and shot out the light with a single fire shattering through our window. After that dream, I would try to check that the lights were all off – afraid my dream was going to be a premonition instead of a fantasy. For what seemed a long time there would be armored vehicle movements, far below, and voices in the darkness, and then finally, the “all clear” siren would sound. The neon red crosses would burst into view first, followed by other city lights in waves as the siren’s blast carried.
Even though I was young and many of the air raid sirens were only drills, it was clear that we constantly needed to be alert. While we were living there in 1983, for instance, a North Korean fighter pilot diverted from his training exercise and flew his MiG-19 over the border and into South Korea. The North Korean pilot had been instructed via radio that if he was trying to defect, he should tilt his plane’s wings back and forth, but there was no such action. Mom and Dad were at home with my older brother who was sick at the time, gathered around the living room heater. As the air raid sirens burst through the air they instinctively looked at their watches. It wasn’t the 15th. They turned on the television to see police waving people into subway tunnels and traffic downtown coming to a halt. The announcer was repeating “This is not a drill. Take cover! Take cover!” “What’s happening?” my brother asked. Overhead, American and Korean fighter jets were scrambling and the country was on high alert. The sound of roaring jet engines and sirens echoed across the mountain valley and the tension in the air was palpable. Mom began to slowly gather our yellow cards and Passports as my brother and I watched the television for updates. Then, after several minutes, it was over. The all clear sirens rang, the jet engine noises ceased and people came out from the hiding. There was an uneasy since of relief as the stunned masses heard the news updates. The fighter pilot, it seemed, had landed at an undisclosed Air Force base having defected. He gave over North Korean intelligence, was given a hefty cash reward and later served as a Colonel in the South Korean air force. The story made front page news in the South Korean for weeks. But this was an extraordinary loss for the North Koreans both in terms of a valuable fighter jet and in national pride, and the flyovers were halted.
The most poignant reminder of the war for my parents began on June 30, 1983, with a televised broadcast. During the program, “Reuniting Separated Families” family members would describe their lost sibling, child, or parent, and in some cases, even reunite with them for the first time in thirty years. For my parents, it was a gripping production and they remember taxi drivers weeping unashamedly as they listened to the broadcasts on the radio. Indeed, the entire nation seemed transfixed. Searches popped up in other places as well. People wore cardboard signs listing their loved ones names, strung banners across the road, and posted them on billboards scattered across the vast Yoido Island. Many had fled from North Korea, others were separated as they fled troops and bombs. By the close of the broadcast, the billboards had been largely abandoned, their wind-swept pages drifting loosely on the asphalt. But the longing would not fade away. As televisions became more popular, other programs would eventually take up the cause. There would be other reunions as well, including the highly publicized meetings in February 2014 and 2015 in southeastern North Korea. They are perhaps the last of the survivors to recapture a glimpse of their previous lives.
A continuation of the war with the North seemed always at hand. On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was flying from New York City to Seoul via Anchorage when it disappeared from radar. News of the missing plane was broadcast over the American Forces Korean Network (AFKN) and local news. At first, we thought it had landed and all were safe, but then we heard on AFKN radio that the aircraft had been shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor west of Sakhalin in the Sea of Japan and that all 269 passengers and crew aboard were killed. It was horrifying. A family whose child was enrolled at SFS perished, bringing the tragedy that much closer. We were not sure if the South Korean military would retaliate. The news broke on Korean stations later to nation-wide anger and grief–how much sorrow could a nation bear? During the investigation, it was found that Flight 007 had strayed into Russian airspace due to pilot error and was shot down by the Soviets thinking that the plane was part of an aerial reconnaissance mission. But this incident did have far reaching consequences. In order to prevent similar navigational errors from happening again, the Reagan administration chose to declassify and allow worldwide access to a classified United States military satellite navigation system called DNSS, a system which we now use everyday and refer to today as GPS.
These events helped to explain the mighty resolve of the Korean people and the values of courage and endurance they so carefully taught. Sometime later Mom and Dad saw the oldest son of our friend slam a taxi door shut on his hand. He began to scream and the women started forward but were abruptly waved aside by the men. Mom still recalls the scene–the men gathered around the sobbing boy, his father repeating, “참여, 참여” endure, endure! It was only as the boy gained composure that the men began to pat him on the back him and care for his hand. With so many heartbreaks it was no wonder that endurance such an important cultural value.
In addition to our concerns about an invasion from the North, there was also an awareness that medical care was different in South Korea. God had miraculously provided the medical care I needed after burning my back, but in most instances, we tried to avoid going to the hospital. One day my older brother was playing near SFS when a large (2”) thorn penetrated into his thigh. It was painful and very deep. Dad tried to help him, but ended up calling on our colleague for help. Rev. Stimmel was not only a man of prayer but had also been a medic during the Vietnam War. I can remember my brother crying and me trying to crowd around to see the extent of his injury and what was happening. Dad shoved me out of the way and asked me to go somewhere else to give them space to work. Rev. Stimmel reached into his bag and pulled out a scalpel and attached a fresh blade. My brothers screaming intensified, as well as my Dad’s efforts to calm and restrain him. After a short prayer and with Dad holding him down, Uncle Jack was able open an access hole and use a pair of hemostats to remove the thorn. It was another lesson in trust and helped us to value each other all the more.
When we did need to go the hospital it was usually to the Foreigner’s Clinic at Severance Hospital. Sometimes, though, we were seen by resident doctors and that is where the clash of cultures took place. During our first year in Seoul, my sister came down with an eye infection and Mom and Dad took her to Severance Hospital to have her eye looked at. Taking their turn, doctor after doctor examined my sister’s eye. The doctors then told my parents that the redness in her eyes may be an indication of tuberculosis, so they wanted to run some additional tests. Several doctors stood around watching the blood draw. Then they ordered a chest x-ray. Then they realized that they didn’t draw enough blood the first time, so another doctor started to perform another blood test. At this point, my sister was distraught and feeling like a guinea pig. Dad stepped in and nicely asked the doctors to treat her eye infection unless the other tests showed a real problem with tuberculosis.
Doctors at the hospital had to be very careful proscribing medications. Many of the people were already using “Yak-kuk” or native Chinese and Korean medicines that might not be compatible with Western medicines. They also did not necessarily understand the importance of taking all the medicines. So medications were dispensed in small perforated paper packages, three day’s worth at a time. After three days the patient would return to the hospital for an additional three days’ worth of medicine. The reason for this was so that they took them on schedule and did not take more than they were supposed to. Sometimes people would start to feel better and would assume they no longer needed the medicine so they would give it away. The small packages helped the doctor monitor their progress. Despite the differences from the Western health system that we were used to, it was always reassuring to know that there were doctors, hospitals and prescriptions available when we needed them; unlike other missionaries living in more remote areas.
During our four years in South Korea, we crisscrossed the country from the cities, to the mountains, to the ocean and back. But at some point, even a missionary family need to take a break. For our family as well as many other foreigners, we chose to go south to Daecheon Beach. For two summers we rented a cottage there as part of our vacation. Our beach rental was owned by the Salvation Army and was therefore much less luxurious than other cabins. We were glad to have it, though, as rustic as it was. It was made of weather-beaten lumber and beams with a well worn wooden plank floor. The beds were simple but adequate, and draped with mosquito netting. I was so excited to see a large western bed that I lept head first towards the bed only to find myself nursing a goose egg from hitting the head board; not once, but twice! We would make simple meals because the kitchen was limited, but in the evening time, Mom would go to the stalls selling fresh vegetables and bring back a bounty. We would sit out on the wooden deck of our beach rental and shuck the husks and silk from the plump corn kernels or snap the ends off of green bean pods. Sometimes the locals would bring their wares to us – large bowls of fresh shrimp or other delicacies sold door to door.
Being the kids that we were, we would entertain ourselves by burying each other and creating sand castles (or even a sand car that I could ride on). We also took to playing in the waves or at low tide, we would go exploring in the tide pools and observe the creatures that lived there. I loved how the starfish tentacles would stick to my skin while the hermit crabs would curl into their shells when I picked them up. The other feature we prized at Daechon Beach was the library. Missionary families had pooled together to provide the visiting kids with a rare collection English books. This was a great feature of our stay and we would read by dim light long into the night. While these descriptions of our vacation stay are nothing extravagant, they were still a very memorable time for all of us. We were able to be together as a family, set our own schedule, and relax – all of which did not come easily with busy schedules as a missionary family.
Large, white sand beaches are rare in South Korea, but Daecheon Beach was one of the places where it existed. And while the beach provided an excellent vacation spot, it also provided and opportunistic spot for a beach invasion by the North Koreans. In the early morning we would hear groups of soldiers marching or running by in cadence then meet them much later on the beach as the sun was setting. They would rake the sand at the shoreline so footprints would be visible–a sign of infiltrators from the sea. Come the evening, I can remember watching armed guards slowly plod down the beachfront, their silhouettes created by the afterglow of the set sun. Miniature subs had been known to carry spies in from the sea so the military was always watchful. Sometimes the soldiers would even let us kids see their weapons. It is difficult for me now to remember this peaceful place as a place of so many causalities at the start of the North and South Korean conflict, the North Korean soldiers infiltrating the city disguised as farmers.
In the years since we left South Korea, many things have changed. After the transition to an industrial nation, foreigners and businessmen became a more common sight. The nations healthcare has become modern, rivaling any other developed nation. But tensions still linger with the North. While the fighter fly overs ceased during our time there, there are regular power struggles revolving around missiles, nuclear testing and even their submarine force. Even in recent weeks, the actions of their unstable dictatorship have drawn consternation and sanctions from their closest ally, China. But this raises an even greater concern that an isolated, irrational and impoverished nation has nothing to loose from starting a major conflict; a final show of their bravery despite insurmountable odds.
While it may be hard for a Westerner to understand, there were certain advantages to living in a place lacking in the security assurances you had back home. First, experiencing the hardships experienced regularly by the native culture is one of the quickest ways of earning acceptance into the culture. While a foreigner will always be a foreigner, sharing in the joys and sufferings of another culture help you to “earn your stripes” as a member of the community – something of great value. Second, experiencing hardships corrects your perspective on what is important in life. It sounds like a cliché until you actually go through great hardship and realize that friendship and family are worth much more and needed much more than any possessions you could ever own. Third, experiencing hardships allows you to forge deep friendships and develop a trust that is impossible to create otherwise. Fourth, and most important, experiencing hardships helps you realize how little you are in control of, and how we desperately need God to guide us, to help us and to protect us. It is when we finally give up our efforts to control the world around us and let God do His work through us, that we can truly be effective for Him.
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