Thursday, March 20, 2008

Korea under US occupation, 1945-48

I looked briefly at the book "I Married A Korean" in my last post. The author, Agnes Davis Kim, described the American occupation of Korea, which I've transcribed below (I've looked at that period before - the photos come from this site). The author's husband, David Kim, worked for the Office of Civil Information. They had previously lived near Seoul between 1934 and 1940. I think this is an interesting chapter, as it looks at different issues (thieving refugees, the behavior of the occupation troops) from both points of view.

"Korea under the conditions which existed at the time of the United States occupation was almost unbelievably different from the Korea I had known the first six years after my marriage. During those years, although we and all Koreans were constantly conscious of the power and supervision of the Japanese over our lives, the country was law-abiding and went peacefully about its work. The people, trained in the old Confucian morality, were quiet, courteous, and dependable – even the most illiterate. The dignity, conscientious attitude and earnestness of nearly every Korean I knew led me to feel that a Korean was a born gentleman. Many of those who knew Korea best felt the same way.

But when we arrived in Korea after World War II, everything was different. Through years of hunger and privation, the very nature of Koreans seemed to have changed. The calm dignity and courtesy which had marked them as a gentle people had given way to a defensively aggressive attitude that was often discourteous. Instead of a peaceful, law-abiding atmosphere in which everyone felt secure, the people lived under a constant threat of being robbed of what little they possessed. At night, a man might load his “jiggie” or cart with farm produce to take to market in the morning, only to find it was gone when he awoke and prepared to leave with it. Jars, pans, clothes left on the line to bleach, or anything removable what was left out at night, might be gone in the morning. This was almost unheard of happening during the pre-war days."

[She goes on to relate a story of firing through the window one night at an intruder her dog was barking at.]

"Careful investigation the next morning revealed nothing missing, and we concluded that if any thieves had been around they had been scared away by the shot. But when David’s nephew drove his father and mother into the city later in the day, a near accident disclosed what the thieves had been after. One of the jeep wheels rolled off and the ar skidded to a stop with one axle dragging. The thieves had been after the jeep tires, and had partially loosened the bolts preparatory to taking off the wheel.

The stealing of automobile parts was so well organized and so bold that it was dangerous to leave a car parked and unguarded for even a few minutes. Beggar children were taught to steal lights or small parts almost under the eyes of observers. Anything left in a car for even five minutes was taken from it. I lost all my winter clothes after having them dry-cleaned during Christmas holidays. David left them for only about two minutes, but in that time, the glass of the window was broken, the door unlocked by reaching through the hole, and my clothes made off with, and nor a trace was to be found.

The large amount of thievery which went on was not surprising however. During most of the time we were there under the United States occupation refugees from North Korea came into Seoul at a rate of about three thousand a day. These were people dispossessed of everything except the clothes they wore and what they could carry. So great was the refugee problem that relief facilities could not cope with it.

Seoul Station

Before the aggression from North Korea was initiated, some ten million people had fled from the north into South Korea. Some of these were members of our family clan. They had owned small plots of land on which they could grow enough food to feed their families and enough to sell to get money for their other needs. Most of the refugees had not been large landowners, but poor though self-supporting farmers. Their land was taken from them to become state-owned property.

These refugees tried making Korean souvenirs, food, or anything they could sell to earn enough money to exist. In most cases they had been hard working, law abiding folk before the division of Korea and the setting up of the Communist regime which had driven them from their homes. Relief organizations of the missionary group as well as the military government tried to help them with used clothes from America, food and, wherever possible, tents or other forms of shelter. But there was not enough to go around. Many had to gather bits of wood, pieces of tin cans, old cloth and straw rice bags which they pieced together to form rude shelters to keep out some of the snow and rain. But these were open, had no heat, and all the cooking had to be done outside over an open fire, no matter what the weather was. The people in these huts had to sleep on the ground, under inadequate rags or stiff straw bags for covers, and that winter was a very severe one. How they could keep alive under the hardships they had to endure is a miracle. Of course many did not. Is it therefore surprising that under the suffering that circumstances beyond their control had forced on them some of them took to stealing to get enough to keep body and soul together?

The attitudes of many of the young American soldiers in the occupation army did not contribute to the happiness and good feelings of the Koreans. Some of the G.I.’s were very good to the Koreans and treated them with respect, for they realized the Koreans were not a conquered people, and Americans were there to protect their interests. Unfortunately, many G.I.’s failed to realize this, and too often their attitude was one of contempt, or even viciously threatening.

One day as I sat in the jeep waiting for David I saw a Korean trying to sell little home-made Korean dolls dressed in bright native colors. He asked several groups of G.I.’s to buy while I sat watching. Several times they looked at him scornfully and struck the dolls from his hands as they passed on, but when he lifted his head, his eyes followed them with very evident hate. I sat there ashamed of the actions of my countrymen. Incidents of such a nature were all too frequent.

On that day I was taken to the hospital, the G.I. who drove the ambulance raved at the “damned gooks” and tried to scare them by swerving as close to them as he could without actually hitting them. “Gook” was the term of contempt used be nearly all G.I.’s. I protested tagainst the attitude and actions of the ambulance driver, pointing out that after all this was their country and we were merely temporary visitors. But he declared that all “gooks” were stupid fools who never watched where they were going. I am sad to say that this was the most common attitude that I observed among G.I.’s. This feeling came from the fact that for years under the Japanese, Koreans had been accustomed to look for traffic coming from the opposite direction, because with drive controls placed on the right side in cars, Japanese cars drove on the left side of the road. Americans had changed the traffic rules, but the habits of years could not be so quickly changed by the Korean people. Many Koreans were killed by American cars, and too often this was when they became frightened and confused by the contemptuous yells and swerving of cars by the American drivers, like my ambulance driver.

But one could not help feeling sorry for the young American soldiers. The rules of discipline with regard to freedom, especially with regard to the association with Koreans, were very strict. The hours of duty were often strenuous, because there were not enough men to carry out the many assignments. Guards at the Office of Civil Information told me that they were assigned to duty every other four hours of the day, with four hours of sleep between their tours of duty and seldom a day off. G.I.’s, resenting this, too often took out their resentment on the Korean people. But if only they had realized it, their contacts with Korean were more important for building up the attitudes towards America and democracy than any official ambassador sent by the American government. It was tragic that the actions of our young soldiers, many of them only in their teens, should have marred the admiration and friendliness that had been so strong right after the liberation.

Some Americans said to me, “Look at all the relief materials we have sent to Korea. That should make them feel friendly towards us. Why we sent seventy five million dollars worth of railroad equipment at one time.”

Where food and clothing have been supplied, or other help of individual needs, Koreans have been very grateful, but the railroad equipment brought us criticism rather than gratitude. If we consider the circumstances from their viewpoint, this criticism is easily understood. We sent $75,000,000 worth of railroad equipment all right, but it was antiquated and without spare parts for repair. The engines broke down so often that many of them were junked on the scrap heap as useless. The best of them had to be relegated to switching in yards, because they were not equal to the task of pulling trains. Is it to be wondered that Koreans said, “If Americans really want to help us, why do they send us their old worn-out stuff? Why don’t they spend the money on an even smaller amount of new equipment that would really be useful, and not this junk that is so aggravating because it is always breaking down and hindering us rather than helping?

Whatever the deal was by which such discarded equipment was sent to Korea, it was not only a futile expenditure of the American taxpayer’s money, but it created resentment in the minds of Koreans.

I knew a number of American civilians who had been sent out to work on constructive programs. For instance, in the agricultural improvement program, there was a very able man sent as an adviser. After surveying the situation, he recommended that the farm organizations left be the Japanese, whose Korean personnel were already trained to carry out such work, be utilized by the Americans. They could simplify and speed up the program, as well as save the extra cost of training and organizing a new group. But the military would not hear of using the exiting setup. In fact, they worked out not only one of their own, but two, one through the countryside and one through the university. Again, a man who was an expert in organizing co-operatives was brought to Korea, but instead of being allowed to do the work he had come to do, he was put at a desk to do clerical work. He resigned and went back to the United States. The cost of starting from scratch on programs for rehabilitating the Korean economy was much greater than utilizing existing organizations would have been. And using American techniques in an Oriental setting was not as effective as the plan worked out by the Japanese.

Our experiences during the 18 months we were in Korea under the army of occupation convinced me that individual contacts with people and the attitudes which those contacts produce in the minds of people under such occupation, or anywhere in fact, are more important than money or material help offered. Money and gifts do not buy friendship. Only friendship sincerely offered, respect and consideration can gain the friendship of a people. In spite of the cruelty and persecution inflicted on those who would not follow Communist orders, the manner in which the Russians treated those who were persuaded to follow them and be trained and indoctrinated in Communist ideas built up a friendly allegiance towards Russia and communism. Treating their followers with respect and restraint was a strict rule observed by the Russians and was maintained as a means of spreading their propaganda.

The effectiveness of teaching democracy and American ideas in South Korea was counteracted by the unfriendly attitudes that Korans met from so many Americans. The examples of drinking and loose living set by too many of the officers families, the attitude of superiority displayed by so many Americans – these too reduced the respect and good will of Koreans toward America, if they did not kill it altogether."

[She then mentions the announcement of American withdrawal in 1948, and her thoughts that this was a bad idea.]

"A short time before we left Korea, a jeep carrying a Russian officer and a Russian woman came along the road near our house, and turned off on the road leading across the valley. That night, and for several nights afterward, a brilliant light flashing dots and dashes came through our bedroom window and awakened me. Being suspicious, I reported it to the American Intelligence Section of the army, and they sent a man out to watch and report on the light phenomena. He found the signals were a code with a definite time pattern. Whatever was done about this, I do not know, but a few nights later, the light disappeared. A little while after that an irregular lard grinding noise took its place – a sound we had never heard before. I reported this also. A few weeks before we were to leave, the anti-communist group formed among the villagers to discover any communist activities got wind of a plot to waylay and kill David on his way home from work. The anti-communist group lay in wait for the would-be assassin, and he was captured and turned over to the police, who imprisoned him. David was earmarked for assassination because of his anti-communist information work among Koreans, in connection with the training for democracy which he carried out with the Office of Civil Information."


thegrandnarrative said...

I've seen the book in bookstores for many years, but for some reason never been attracted to it. Your 2 posts on it so far certainly do make it sound interesting though, and I'll have to consider buying it next time I see it.

I think it was a comment on daveseslcafe that first gave me the idea that Korean's postwar deprivation gave many middle-aged and older Koreans their rudeness and utter lack of consideration for those around them, and that certainly makes much more sense than the torturous and twisted explanations from sources like "Culture Shock: Korea," which argue that because strangers are not placed in their "hierarchy of relationships" then strangers are treated almost as if they didn't exist. After all, "rudeness" is not what usually comes to mind when you hear the word "Confucianism," and didn't in Korea either until the postwar period.

Anonymous said...

My uncle died in Korea on 5 Jan 1946. He was taking out the land mines in Pusan when the dynamite went off to quick. I have some of the hand made silk pillowcases that came back with his body. I have often wondered what it was like in Korea during that time. Thank you for blogging. If you know any sources please let me know