Seoul Searcher

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Friday, August 28, 2009

A Brief Encounter

The following is fiction but it is based on a real incident that I heard about from various sources. It occurred during the Korean War (1950-53) in a remote village in the mid-section of the Korean Peninsula. While I was still in middle school, I became a refugee from the North Korean Communist-occupied Seoul and lived with relatives in a village near where the incident happened, and the story has remained in my mind all these years.

I wrote it down based mostly on my imagination as to what might have happened to the American flyer and young Korean girl. I keep talking about the war because it took place when I was at an impressionable age and because I realize that people on both sides of a war suffer countless, unknown personal tragedies and yet resilient life—including love and marriage—goes on even amid the death and destruction.


Speaking in halting but correct English, the girl told him again and again that he should never come out of the cave during the day under any circumstance. She said her village was small but there were quite a few Communists, and the minute they sighted him, they would report him to the occupation forces from the North.

The girl was sure that there was no one in her village who knew of the existence of the cave. Nor did they know that the pilot of the American fighter plane that had been shot down over an adjacent mountain a few days before was hiding there.

The cave was shaped like a small, rocky tunnel, barely large enough to accommodate three city buses. And it was difficult for anyone who did not know its existence to spot it as the entrance was practically blocked by thick undergrowth. (“How did you manage to find the cave anyway?” she asked him later).

Still it was best to remain in the cave during the day, she said. You never know when someone may decide to come up here for some reason. After all, “I ran into you unexpectedly, didn’t I?”

But hiding in the dark, hot humid cave all day was becoming unbearable for Lt. Erwin Walker of the U.S. Air Force. His plane had been hit by enemy ground fire, and he had injured his shoulder when he ejected. Now it seemed to have become infected because the throbbing pain was getting worse as he lay in the dark.

He wanted to crawl out of the cave if only for a few minutes to look at the sun and bask in its light for the first time in two days. He also wanted to look at the winding white road down below for any sign of the girl who, he hoped, would come before sundown.

The girl hadn’t shown up for more than two days now. When she last came, she had brought enough food to last for several days. Maybe, she wasn’t able to find a time when she could come up here without anyone noticing her absence. It must be difficult for a young girl to sneak out of the village.

Or maybe, she was trying to get the penicillin that he had asked her to try and find for him. Although he knew it would be almost impossible to get penicillin in her tiny village at a foot of the mountain, he asked her to try anyway.

The girl said she would have to walk 15 kilometers to the nearest town where she might be able to buy such medicine, if she were lucky. Anyway, she promised him she would do her best to get it as soon as possible.


When Walker had first seen the girl, he thought he was seeing a mirage; she was sitting on a small rock in a grassy clearing less than 20 feet below the mouth of the cave. Appearing to be in her late teens or early 20s, the girl had come up there leading the family cow to the small, enclosed meadow for grazing. She was dressed in what he thought was worn-out clothes.

She was of an average height for an Asian woman but appeared smaller from the distance. The top of her head would come up to his chin, he figured. As he approached her, though, he could see that she was a bit taller and older than he thought. She had high cheekbones and firm, thin lips that gave her an air of a strong-willed woman. But her eyes, which seemed to be smiling, softened the impression.

While the cow was feeding nearby, she looked vacantly at the setting sun. The top of the mountain to the east was still ablaze in the light of the August sun, but a pale, bluish darkness was already enveloping the meadow, which was surrounded by woods consisting mostly of medium-high birch trees. It was an ethereal scene—calm and beautiful—which enabled Walker to forget, for a brief moment, that he was in the midst of a cruel war and that he was desperately running for his life in enemy-occupied territory.

After making sure there was no one else around, Walker decided to approach her as he was beginning to feel desperate. So as not to frighten her, though, he laid down his only weapon, a .45mm handgun, near the mouth of the cave. Deliberately making noise, he nonchalantly walked down the slope toward her with a big forced smile and half raised arms in a gesture of surrender.

Terrified by the appearance of a man out of nowhere and a Westerner at that, the girl seemed to hesitate, not sure whether to run, leaving her cow behind, or confront the fast approaching stranger.

“Please, don’t be frightened,” Walked called out, without knowing if she could understand what he was saying. “I’m an American Air Force officer, a friend of your people.”

The girl took an instinctive, defensive gesture for a fleeting moment before seeing that the man didn’t mean to harm her. “Oh, hello,” she said. “You must be the pilot of the plane that was shot down…”

It was now Walker’s turn to be surprised—shocked, really—by her response. “Well, well! You speak English and well,” Walker stammered. It was not a statement; nor was it a question. Rather, it was a remark made to convince himself. But then, he realized immediately that he must look foolish. Anyway, it was incredible because she was a Korean girl, in a remote, mountainous village far, far removed from what Walker thought of as the civilized world like the capital city of Seoul.

“Yes, I can speak English a little,” she said modestly. “My name is Lee… Lee Jae-in. Lee is my family name; I’m a student at a college run by a Christian mission in Seoul. I studied English there.”

“Hi, Miss Lee,” he said. “My name is Erwin Walker.”

He then added: “By the way, your first name sounds like Jane; so why don’t I call you that, if it’s okay with you, of course.”

She nodded her assent with a smile.

Jane then told him that she had come to this god-forsaken village from her home in Seoul after the war broke out. One of her distant relatives was living in the village. “So, I’m a kind of refugee here, waiting for the fighting to end.”

“I see.”

“I heard that an American plane had crashed into a mountain far from here the other day,” she said. “If it was you who flew the plane, you’ve come a long way.”
Walker told her he was lucky to be alive and lucky to be able to walk all the way from the crash site to this place without being seen by anyone. “I got here two days ago and have been hiding in the cave up there since,” he said. “You’re not going to inform on me, are you?”

“Of course not,” Jane said, somewhat indignantly. “On the contrary, I’ll try and help you however I can as long as you promise me you’ll keep hiding in that cave and never come out during the day.”

“Yes, I promise,” Walker said. “But there is one thing I have to ask you right away: can you bring me something to eat? I haven’t had anything to eat for two days, and I’m starving.”

Jane said she would. “But I’m afraid there isn’t much that you can eat,” she said, “Can you eat rice? Or, potatoes, maybe?”

Having eaten enough berries to last a man a lifetime over the past three days, he explained, he could eat anything that humans could eat.

Leading the cow gingerly, Jane left the meadow telling him she would be back when she could without arousing the suspicions of the villagers.

It was another whole day before she came back with a basket in which there were boiled potatoes and corn and some cooked vegetables like spinach and cabbage. She looked at him as he wolfed it down like a starved animal.

“Ah!” Walker sighed after he had had his fill. “You know what? I’ve never had such a delicious meal in my whole life.”

“We have a saying in our country: hunger makes everything taste good. Now I know why they say that.” As she said it, though, she looked at him with an expression of sympathy and concern over the uncertainty of the immediate future. Perhaps, she was also thinking about the danger that could befall her if the Communists arrested him.

“I know you are risking your life by harboring me this way,” Walker said. “But don’t worry I’ll leave here as soon as I regain my strength.”

“But where to? There are North Korean troops all over the place,” Jane said. “I think it’s better for you to stay here until American and South Korean troops push the invaders back to the North.”

On that day, along with food, she brought a bar of soap and a couple of used but clean towels, a straw mat and a small blanket for him to lie down on. “There is a small stream on the other side of this mountain, not far from here. You can go there if you want to wash. But only late at night,” she said.

After Jane left, Walker came out of his cave and started to walk in the direction where, she said, there was a stream. He ignored her warning about not going out in the early evening. He couldn’t wait any longer to wash himself in running water—for the first time in nearly five days. It wasn’t difficult to find the stream. And there wasn’t anyone bathing there. But Walker decided to wait in a bush nearby until it got really dark.

Perhaps because he was so happy to be able to take a bath in cold, clean mountain water; he scrubbed himself a bit too hard, including his left shoulder where the fresh wound was on its way to healing. The next morning, he began to feel slight pain. Then it became worse as time passed. It had apparently gotten infected, and by nightfall, he even felt a slight fever. That was why he asked Jane to try and get penicillin when she visited him the next day.

She showed up three days later with a vial of penicillin. She said she had found it in a town some 30 kilometers from her village. By then Walker was delirious with a high fever. She had no experience giving injections but with a borrowed injector that was used for animals, she gave him a shot. The effect of the penicillin was immediate and positive. Within a couple of days, Walker was up and walking around the cave and from then on Jane spent a lot of time nursing him.

After Walker had found the cave and had slept there for two nights, he planned to keep moving from one area to another—preferably deserted and isolated areas—so that pursuing parties, if there were such an organized effort to capture him, would loose track of him. He was sure the U.S. Army which was fighting down south of the peninsula, would soon come up to liberate the parts of South Korea occupied by the Communists.

But now as Jane visited him almost daily, bringing food and taking care of other necessities, Walker forgot all about his plan to move on. And while they were enjoying each other’s company, they were oblivious of the time that seemed to be flying by. Walker lost count of the days since he had settle in his cave.

Then, one day when he was out enjoying the sun in a small clearing near the cave, he looked up into the sky and saw quite a number of U.S. transport planes flying north toward Seoul. It might have been going on for several days already or it might have begun that day. In any case, he realized that if the planes were carrying ammunition and other logistic supplies north, it could only mean that the U.S. and allied forces had already recaptured the areas north of where he was. It was time to move out of this hole, he thought.

But on that day, Jane came to the cave and told him that some villagers were saying that a lot of North Korean soldiers, some in tattered uniforms and without weapons, were racing north along the high mountain ridge that runs behind the village. She said she had come to warn Walker to be very careful in case some of them passed through this part of the mountain.

A Brief Encounter (II)


As it turned out, the very next day, it was Jane herself who unexpectedly had the most dreadful experience in her young life. Her aunt and uncle had gone to work in their rice paddy, leaving Jane alone in the house that was relatively isolated from the rest of the village. Nestled against the foot of a mountain, the house was more than two hundred yards from the nearest neighbors. Without warning, a man, wearing farmer’s clothes but carrying a rifle walked into the yard.

Jane could easily see that he was in his early 20s and that he was a fleeing North Korean soldier. He was frail and short, so short that the rifle he slung on his right shoulder almost touched the ground. And perhaps because he had been forced to skip meals in recent days, he looked pale and haggard. And yet, he was extremely alert with his black eyes darting from one place to another as he looked around nervously.

Making sure that Jane was alone in the house, he demanded something to eat. Actually, when he showed up, Jane had been in the midst of preparing some food to take up to the cave in the afternoon. She hurriedly went into the kitchen and while going through the motion of preparing the food, she thought about how she could escape. She had heard from some villagers that the fleeing North Korean soldiers had attacked some women in a nearby village. They had also taken several farmers hostage and forced them to accompany them, carrying loads of food and their equipment.

But there seemed to be no way Jane could sneak out of the house and run away, leaving the man alone. He would simply stay there until somebody—her unsuspecting aunt or uncle—came walking in.

“What’s taking you so long, girl?” the man hollered at Jane from outside. “All I want is a bowl of rice and kimchi!”

The man was sitting on a wooden bench near the well in the middle of the yard. He began gulfing down the food as soon as Jane handed it to him.
After the initial attack on the food, he slowed down a little, eyeing Jane narrowly. “Are you from a city?” he asked, “You don’t look like a farmer’s daughter.”

“No, I was born and raised here,” Jane lied.

”Then, you must know the way around this part of the country,” he said, making her nervous. She knew what would come next. He could very well force her to lead him to a deserted mountain pass or escape route to the North. A sudden and acute sense of fear gripped her, and she began trembling in spite of herself. She swallowed hard and said:

“I’ve never been to the mountains beyond the one behind this house,” she could barely talk. “I really don’t think I could be of much help to you.”

As she mumbled, she noticed that his rifle was left propped up against a nearby tree a few steps behind the man. He must have used up all the bullets and that was probably why he had fixed his bayonet on the end of the rifle. It appeared terribly menacing with a sharp, gleaming blade.

While the man continued eating, paying little attention to his surroundings, Jane went quietly around behind him and picked up the rifle as though she wanted to take a look at it only to satisfy her curiosity. It was surprisingly heavy but she held it tightly and leveled it horizontally, aiming the tip of the bayonet at the man’s back. And before realizing what she was doing, she thrust it into his body downward from a few inches below his neck, with all her might.

The 12-inch bayonet pierced through the upper left part of the man’s chest from behind almost to the hilt with a considerable length of it coming out of his chest. It went into the man’s body so easily that Jane felt as though his soft body was absorbing all her strength. Death came instantly. While still clutching the rim of the rice bowl in his left hand and the spoon on his right, he simply fell over on his face.

In a state of stupor, she sat down next to the body, unable to think about anything for a long time, until the enormity of what she had done started sinking in. With shaking hands and knees, she went around the house, found a large sack woven with straw and, squeezing out the last ounce of strength she had, she put the body into it. She rolled it onto a three-wheeled rickshaw and pushed it through the weed-covered passage up the mountain behind the house. She dumped the body in a shallow crevice, and, working fast like a mad woman, she covered the body with small rocks and stones, topping it with layers of leaves.

Seeing that the grave was so well covered that no one could spot it unless they knew there was a grave there, she fell to the ground nearby, totally exhausted. She felt as though she had just had an awful nightmare, but she shuddered to think what had actually happened only a few hours before.

Suddenly she realized that she had to hurry home before her aunt and uncle come home from the field. She knew she had to erase all traces of what had happened at home. To her horror, she remembered that she had left the rifle in the yard. But more than anything, there would still be a pool of blood near the well. She had to wash the spot clean before anyone came into the house.
She had already decided that she would never ever tell anyone what she had done—not even her aunt and uncle.


It took two days for Jane to recover from the shock of having killed a man. She felt like lying in bed forever. Had it not been for the nagging anxiety over Erwin Walker who had been waiting, no doubt, anxiously for her to come, she wouldn’t have gotten up at all. She wanted to tell him what she had heard from her uncle who had said that he heard from other villagers that they had seen “many trucks” carrying American troops and heading north on a national road leading toward the capital. It was odd, they said, that the American convoys seem to be hardly worried about the possibility of meeting any resistance from the Communist forces.

When Jane relayed the information to Walker, the American jumped up in elation. His premonition was confirmed. He didn’t know exactly how it had happened, but the U.S. and allied forces must have cut across the peninsula north of where he was, cutting off the supply lines to the Red Army in the south and forcing them to flee.

Walker decided that he would leave his hideout and descend the mountain. He wanted to tell Jane about his decision right there, but checked himself. He didn’t have the heart to do so as he wasn’t sure how Jane would react to their imminent parting.

After Jane left, Walker looked around the cave as though he was inspecting a house or condo. He knew there probably wouldn’t be anyone else who would visit the cave, much less stay here as long as he had. For more than two weeks, the cave had been his home. He somehow felt a bit of sentimental attachment to the place that had provided him safe haven. He began cleaning it up.
As he left the cave the next morning, he folded the blanket neatly and left a brief note on a small piece of paper on top of it. It read:

Dearest Jane:
I’m sorry to leave you like this. I know I should at least wait for you and bid you goodbye in person. But I thought it would be very hard for both of us to part like that. Words cannot describe how grateful I am for everything you’ve done for me. You saved my life! I don’t know where I’m going or what will happen to me. I also don’t know if or when I will be able to get in touch with you. Whatever happens, though, I will never forget you for the rest of my life. I hope all goes well with you. Be happy. Love, Erwin.

Friday, August 21, 2009

My Pride and Prejudice

When I was studying at a state university in the Midwest, I went flat broke only two months into my junior year in 1960. Unlike many other foreign students, I could not expect any money from my family back in South Korea. Nor was I able to pay for my room and board and other living expenses with the wage I earned by working as a busboy at an American Legionnaire Club after classes.

A Korean friend of mine who was in a similar situation suggested that we drop out of school, go to Chicago and work there until the end of the semester the following February. By then, we would be able to make enough money to support ourselves through the second semester.

The job he had in mind was at a large wholesale bookstore where he had worked as a shipping clerk every summer for three years. There would be similar jobs for both of us even if we went there in the winter, he said.

The only trouble was that as foreign students, we were not supposed to drop out of school, much less work full time. But we didn’t have any other choice. We slipped out of town in a Greyhound bus at night without telling anyone where we were going.

In Chicago, we rented a one-room flat on the third floor of a decrepit red brick building near the downtown so that we could walk to work. That winter, it was especially cold even for the windy city, and we went to work everyday under a starry sky early in the morning and came home watching the stars again at around midnight. It really was a tough and dismal life.

That was why my roommate and I were so surprised when we discovered that a couple of female Korean students were living right next door. At that time, it was very rare for any Korean to run into another Korean on the street, even in big cities like Chicago. As I remember there was a total of only about 200 Koreans living in the entire city. There were fewer female students than male students as only the rich and powerful were able to send their daughters to the United States to study.

So, imagine, how surprised—and delighted, needless to say—we were to find ourselves as neighbors of two pretty and vivacious Korean girls!
Our excitement, however, didn’t last very long.

It turned out that the girls had many Korean boy friends, (“suitors,” probably, is a more appropriate word); there were so many of them that a long line was formed in the corridor outside our flat over the weekends.

Since my friend and I were working 16 hours a day every day, the weekend was the only time we could catch up on sleep, do the laundry and clean our roach-infested flat.

But we succumbed to the charms and coquetry of the girls and agreed to make our flat available as a sort of waiting room for their callers while the girls were meeting—or rather “interviewing”—other visitors in their room.

Years later, when I recalled that period, I wondered why we didn’t think of courting the girls ourselves. We were not so interested in the girls, I suppose, because we were simply too tired to pay any attention to the opposite sex.

What’s more, we must have been impressed by all those Korean guys who appeared to be rich without the slightest sign of the worry about money that my roommate and I had; many of them had their own cars and appeared to be only too glad to take the girls out for a spin.

Actually, though, we simply did not have the courage to ask them for a date. Besides, we were too proud to join all those guys who were competing against each other for the girls’ interest and favor.

Talking to the boys who were waiting in our flat for their turn to meet the girls, I found that the jealousy and sense of competition among them were so fierce that it was actually frightening. I wouldn’t have had the heart to join the race, however attractive the girls were.

“There are plenty of fish in the sea,” my friend and I joked about the expected abundant availability of girls later in our life.

But some of the visitors to the girls apparently didn’t see it that way. They must have seen us, who were lucky enough to live in the same building as the girls, as having plenty of chances to court them. And one or two of the guys must have decided to get rid of us to reduce the number of “competitors.” That is why my roommate and I were almost certain that one or more among the suitors had anonymously informed the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) about us.

One Saturday afternoon in early December, two INS agents visited our flat and asked us to accompany them to their office.

During the questioning, an INS official told us that we had violated the law by not attending school and by working instead.

“We can actually deport you back to your country,” he said.

We pleaded guilty but asked for his “understanding and generous consideration” as we were not working in order to make money but to continue our study. We pointed out to him that we had only a year and half to go before we graduate from the university.

“We will then go home,” we assured him.

“They all say that,” he said with a knowing smile. “But most of them stay on under one excuse or another and try to obtain a green card if they can.”

“But not me, sir,” I blurted out suddenly. “I’d go back because, I believe, I have a lot to contribute to my country which I love.”

Later, I realized that I hadn’t had to say what I did. But that wasn’t all, I added needlessly: “I’d leave this country even if you people asked me to stay.”

“Oh, yeah?” the officer exclaimed with a touch of disbelief and irony. “Well, then, let me record what you’ve just said in your file.”

After duly transcribing my remark in my file, the official told us that the INS would let us work until the beginning of the next semester. But on condition, he said firmly, that we go back to the university in February.

As dusk was falling on that day, we came out of the INS office, giving out a deep sigh of relief. But little did I know that my cheap nationalistic outburst and the uncalled for pledge that I would go back to my country after graduation would dog me around, posing an unexpected obstacle to my career as a journalist.


My friend and I went back to the University in January. And I graduated in the spring of 1962 with a degree in journalism. As all foreign students who earned a degree in a professional field were allowed to work for one year as an intern, the very day after I got my diploma, I packed up my things and left for New York where I was lucky enough to get a job at the Associated Press.

At the end of my internship, I decided to seek a permanent resident status in the United States. The INS, however, rejected the petition, filed by the employer on my behalf. It did not give detailed reasons for doing so, except to say that the applicant had expressed his desire to go back to his country as soon as he graduated from the university and that the INS had no choice but to honor his stated wish.

Told to leave the United States, I resigned from the AP and travelled to France first and then to Britain in order to see other parts of the world before returning to Korea three years later. I got married to a Korean girl and went to Tokyo where I worked as a reporter for the AP. After working in Japan for more than six years, I followed my wife who decided to immigrate to the United States.


Back in New York, I got a job at the AP, this time as an editor in the World Service Division. I worked there nearly 20 years but took early retirement in 1989 and returned to Seoul in order to work as an editorial adviser and columnist for an English language newspaper in Seoul.

It was a politically tumultuous time back home as the leftist national leaders took over the government and as anti-Americanism began to sweep the nation.
I have not been a particularly politically minded man. Nor was I one of those “pro-American” journalists. Despite my earlier personal difficulty with the INS, I have been a firm supporter of democracy and the free market system as well as the alliance between South Korea and the United States.

The popular thinking in South Korea, however, was that anyone who criticized “our” country and people must be pro-American. Conversely, anyone who condemned the United States as an imperialist state, or said he or she simply disliked America, was regarded as a patriot.

It was at a time like that that I wrote a column, pointing out the follies of nationalism and blind patriotism. For saying such a thing, though, scores of Koreans sent me angry e-mails, lashing out at me with verbal abuse that is not fit to print in any publication in a decent society.

Among the e-mails was the one sent by a student at Seoul National University, Korea’s equivalent to Harvard or Yale. It said:
“People who are eager to criticize our country and fellow countrymen are all traitors. They have no right to live here; indeed, they should be kick out of this country. The trouble with traitorous people like you, however, is that even the United States, which you no doubt worship, would not accept you; that means, you have no place to go; all you can do is fall into the Pacific Ocean and drown at the midway point between Korea and America.”

A few months after I received the e-mail, I had a chance to go to the United States for an extended stay. It would not be an exaggeration to say I had a sense of uneasiness when an immigration officer at an American airport went through my passport.

That was why I was a bit taken aback when the INS officer said, “Welcome to America and have a nice stay,” with a bright smile.

Of course, I knew he was saying the same thing to everybody who was arriving in the United States to live or visit unless he or she were on a list of terrorists or was an international criminal on the loose. Other than those, everyone is welcomed even if one had been—and still is—politically anti-American as long as one doesn’t publicly say so.

In fact, I have met a number of old Korean men and women in the United States, who, I knew, used to be politically active and who had taken part in numerous anti-American demonstrations in Seoul in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Naturally, I was surprised to find them in the United States because they used to say openly that they hated America so much.

The anti-American slogans they shouted during demonstrations in front of the U.S. embassy in Seoul and elsewhere were worse—to my way of thinking—than my youthful and immature outburst to the INS officer in Chicago some 50 years before. That had come from my youthful pride and nationalistic sentiment.

And yet, the anti-American Koreans from the old days apparently had had no trouble getting their green cards when they tried to immigrate to the United States.

When I thought about all this, I felt the whole thing was not quite fair somehow, but then, I suppose, that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Profitable Business of Kidnapping

I followed former President Clinton’s visit to North Korea and the release of two American woman journalists by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il on television last week. I thought the whole thing was like watching one of those absurd dramas by Eugene Ionesco.

Here is this pseudo-Communist regime run by a son of the country’s founder and deified leader and his thuggish lackeys and cruel henchmen who turn the whole country into one huge prison and rule 24 million meek and fearful people in complete isolation.

In order to survive as a nation, they have been reportedly selling illegal drugs overseas, printing counterfeit dollars, kidnapping people of other countries for ransom and, above all, producing nuclear bombs and missiles to threaten and blackmail its peaceful neighbors.

What is amazing is that while committing all these things, it masquerades as a legitimate government and acts like a proud member of the international community.

In their latest mischief, they apparently lured the two young, naïve American journalists only a few inches into their territory across the Chinese border, arrested them and tried them on trumped-up charges of espionage. They sentenced the frightened women to 12 years of imprisonment and hard labor.

Then, using them as bait, they forced the United States to send no less a prominent leader than the former President to Pyongyang for a pre-planned show in which the Dear Leader, out of the “goodness of his heart,” ordered the release of the journalists so that they could return home with Mr. Clinton.

What a cynical show! What an absurd and contrived drama! We know that the poor journalists were kidnapped for all intent and purposes and used like a pair of pawns in a crude and disgusting game of politics.

As expected, their propaganda organs touted the whole affair to their people as a visit by President Clinton to their country to “apologize” for the journalists, emphasizing that the Dear Leader had granted a “special pardon.”

Before the world forgets how generous and magnanimous Kim Jong-il has been, however, North Koreans were reported to have said last Sunday that the issue of the American journalists was, in fact, handled “so wisely” by “General” Kim Jung-un, the third son, who has been designated the heir-apparent by his ailing dad. So, the Dear Leader had to share the credit for the brilliant feat of kidnapping and then releasing the Americans with his rising son.

I don’t know when the 26-year-old heir became a general, but he is apparently mastering the ways of dictatorship already.

Anyway, if there was anyone who was really generous and who acted like a humanitarian, it surely was President Clinton who voluntarily carried out the dubious and difficult task of meeting the North Korean leader in order to obtain freedom for the two Americans.

After the journalists returned home, though, many Americans were wondering out loud how much the United States had paid or promised to pay as ransom as there has not been any mention of the conditions for their release.

We all know that virtually nothing moves in North Korea unless and until money moves into the pocket, so to speak, of the Dear Leader.

Later in the week, Pyongyang’s official press came out telling Seoul to learn from the United States how to make an “under-the-surface contact” with North Korea, if it hopes to obtain the release of its citizens being held in the North.

The broadcast could only be a thinly veiled suggestion that Seoul pay for the release of the South Korean hostages.

And, indeed, the chairwoman of South Korea’s Hyundai Group, visited the North last Monday to negotiate with the North Koreans to obtain the release of a company engineer who had been detained for 136 days on charges of denouncing the North’s political system and urging a North Korean female worker to defect to the South. The 44-year-old engineer had been working in the industrial complex built by the Hyundai Group just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as part of the South’s economic aid to North Korea. And on Thursday evening (KST), the North did in fact free the man and allow him to return to the South.

It is not immediately known whether the Hyundai group agreed to pay for the release and, if so, how much.

In the meantime, indefatigable and ever optimistic groups of people, both in the United States and South Korea, seem to believe the Dear Leader’s “gestures of goodwill” could be an indication that North Korea is willing to return to the Six-Party Talks for the denuclearization of North Korea, or is seeking bilateral contacts for the establishment of relations with Washington.

But how many more times do the members of the international community have to experience a letdown before they realize that negotiations with North Koreans will get us nowhere? We have seen time and again that such talks, which usually drag on for years, only give them time to keep working on their mischief such, for instance, as miniaturizing nuclear warheads and developing long-range missiles to deliver them

But then, they ask, what else can we do with the North Koreans? What is the alternative?

The only answer, I believe, lies in our resolution to keep enforcing the U.N. sanctions against them until the Kim Dynasty collapses. We know the sanctions will bring further suffering and misery to many innocent North Koreans but concerted action by the international community is necessary if we are to put an end to one of the most ruthless dictatorships in the world.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Car Chase

One of the strange and, indeed, silly happenings that I have seen on local television from time to time since I settled in Southern California four years ago is what they call a “car chase.”

A man (or it could be a woman, I suppose), in a stolen car, drives wildly at breakneck speed through city streets and freeways, ignoring traffic rules and often barely avoiding disastrous accidents involving not only the driver himself but also other motorists and innocent passersby.

As soon as the police spot such a car, one or more patrol cars start pursuing it. Thus, a high-speed chase is on.

The police are not the only ones chasing the car, however. Television networks broadcast a running account of the chase via a camera affixed presumably onto a satellite or a pursuing helicopter overhead. Holding their breaths, viewers are glued to the TV as though watching a stockcar race or even a demolition derby. It is exciting because the outcome is, as it were, up in the air.

What amazes me is the judicious and patient approach of the police to the whole affair, which, after all, is an on-going violation of a whole series of traffic laws, if nothing else. Anyway, as far as televised car chases go, I have never seen police acting stupidly.

And the lenient, hand-in-glove handling on the part of police is what the stolen car drivers are apparently counting on as they no doubt enjoy playing a cat-mouse game.

I don’t know about other TV viewers, but I can’t help visualizing the driver—and his companions, if he has them on board—gleefully laughing as he outmaneuvers and outfoxes the pursuing police cars. He might go 90 to 100 miles (144-160 kilometers) an hour over freeways, weaving through traffic jams and driving on shoulders of highways or even going in the wrong direction, avoiding oncoming cars by a hair’s breath.

If the fugitive driver chooses to go through crowded city streets, the chase gets even more dangerous because almost all such drivers with the police patrol cars closely tailing them do not hesitate to go through red lights at intersections. I even saw some of them drive through busy pedestrian crosswalks, jeopardizing countless people.

Watching such a car chase, which is not a rare occurrence in Los Angeles and vicinity, I often wonder whether the police couldn’t take some effective and drastic action to prevent or nip it in the bud, so to speak, before it develops into a full-blown dangerous car chase. One would have thought there must be a way.

Police could, for instance, shoot and puncture the rear wheels of the stolen car when the driver is forced to slow down. I saw one case in which a truck driver brought his 16-wheeler to a halt, blocking the entire width of a highway after hearing on his radio that a stolen car, chased by police, was heading his way.

When chasing a stolen car, police officers are extra careful, I understand, because their action could easily escalate into a shootout. That probably is one of the reasons why patrol cars usually keep a “respectable” distance throughout the chase.

In any case, a stolen car driver calls it quits presumably when he gets tired, runs out of gas or drives into a dead-end street.

After a long, dangerous and nerve-wracking race, wasting so much public funds and police manpower, and sometimes causing senseless casualties, all car chases eventually come to an end. Then, and only then, the stolen car is surrounded cautiously to police officers who jump out of their patrols cars, which by then number six or seven.

What puzzles many TV viewers with the ending of most such car chases is that the fugitive drivers usually come out of the cars with their arms raised over their heads, showing no detectable sign of guilt or remorse. On the contrary, some of them even display the audacity of grinning or sheepishly smiling at the policemen as if to say: “How was my driving, eh?” or, “We had some fun, didn’t we?”

While hundreds of thousands of viewers watch, police handle the law-breakers as though they had done nothing terribly wrong. They are apparently relieved that no more serious incident occurred.

No doubt, those fun-loving perpetrators are sent to prison upon conviction but are released soon enough so that they can steal a car again and race with patrol cars whenever they feel bored with life.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pollution In Seoul

I flew over the southern outskirts of Seoul on a domestic flight some time ago. Looking down at the great city of ours, I noticed that the entire metropolitan area was enveloped in gray soupy smog. The smog was so thick that it was almost impossible to spot any landmarks or familiar buildings. It was unbelievable that until a few minutes before, I had been down there, breathing that foul air and yet survived.

What was more discouraging, though, was the thought that I would have to return to the city in a couple of days and live there, along with 20 million other residents, as though this really were a nice clean place on earth to spend the rest of my life. Actually, though, it is almost a miracle, I felt, that people can live in an environment like that without constantly struggling and panting for air, like fish out of water.

Then, I remembered a brief news item a few weeks before that lung cancer had replaced stomach cancer as the No. 1 killer in South Korea. Despite the report, no one—including city and health authorities or civic groups—seemed to have taken the finding seriously and try to do something about the worsening air pollution in the city.

It is true that we can get used to anything except death. Unless we get a chance to go up in an airplane and look down on the city, as I did, or ask newly arriving foreign visitors, most of us are unable to tell how awful the air we breathe is or how serious the problem of air pollution in Seoul and other major cities around the country is.

In our usual selfish and nonchalant way, each of us seems to think that even the quality of the air is none of their concern as long as they are not directly affected by it, i.e., suffering from asthma or other respiratory ailments.
And yet, we are unconcerned about our health. On the contrary, I can safely say that there are few people who are more health-conscious than Koreans.
Such animals as deer and otter are being hunted down to near extinction by poachers and sold to those who seem to believe that eating any and every wild animal is good for health and virility. Some people don’t even hesitate to eat earthworms or maggots while savvy businessmen are importing ostriches or other esoteric animals from other regions and breeding them for eventual human consumption.

It is heard to understand, therefore, how such health-conscious people can be so unconcerned about the dirty air we all breathe and, for that matter, the polluted water we drink and contaminated food we eat. They seem to think and act as though environmental pollution does not affect them, or at least that they are problems for other people to resolve.

In an effort to help reduce the amount of carbon monoxide in the air, produced by ever-increasing number of automobiles, government authorities urge people, among other things, to leave their cars home as much as possible and use public transportation to commute to work instead. But appeals like this fall on deaf ears as most of us obviously feel that such a campaign is directed at other people but “not me.”

Some people point out that air pollution in other parts of the world, especially Beijing and other major cities in China, is much worse than it is in Seoul. But we shouldn’t take comfort in the miseries and predicament of our neighbors.

It is true that air quality in Seoul has improved considerably over the past decade, thanks to the stricter enforcement of regulations on automobile exhaust fumes and the use of low-sulfur petroleum by industrial plants and private car owners. Seoul, however, still has a long way to go before the residents there can boast the air quality over their city to the rest of the world.


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