Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The history depicted in "Ode To My Father"

In my previous post, I reviewed and offered an interpretation of the recent film "Ode To My Father (국제시장)." Along the way to writing the post I did quite a bit of reading about the events portrayed in the film, so below I will look at how the film followed (or didn't) the historical facts.

While the scene of a Korean begging the American general to save the refugees at Hungnam is not really what happened, it accords with the basic facts. Several accounts point to Dr. Hyun Bong-hak as being in great part responsible for the evacuation of almost 100,000 refugees from Hungnam. As this brief biographical entry about him describes it, he was from Hamheung and studied medicine at Severance Medical School before studying in the U.S. in the late 1940s. When the Korean War broke out, he headed south, treated wounded civilians, and volunteered his services as a translator for the U.S. Military, who asked him to work for the commander of the US X Army Corps in Hamheung. As his children described him in a recent Korea Herald article:
During the Korean War, our father served as a civil affairs Adviser to Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond to help rebuild Hamheung, North Korea. Christianity had a strong foothold in Hamheung, so when the Americans liberated Hamheung from the communists, they were embraced by the locals.

Shortly thereafter, the U.N. forces began to retreat. This was disastrous for the Christians, local government leaders and anyone working for the U.N. Forces, as all would be tortured and massacred by the communists. Our father advocated for a civilian evacuation, stating, “It didn’t seem fair to me that those who had risked communist retaliation by cooperating with the Americans should be abandoned so readily.”

He received constant encouragement from Col. Edward R. Forney, the foremost amphibious expert at the time who masterfully plotted out how the evacuation would be implemented; and together, they met with Gen. Almond several times. Gen. Almond approved of the mission with a planned evacuation of 4,000-5,000 civilians from Hamheung to Heungnam by train.

The Hamheung railroad station was flooded with more than 50,000 people. Over 100,000 arrived at Heungnam Port circumventing the roads, which were reserved for military personnel and closely monitored by MPs. Blankets and rice were given to the refugees who remained at the port in minus 10 degrees Celsius weather.

The Meredith Victory was the last ship to leave the Heungnam Harbor, which was rife with mines. Designed to carry 12 passengers with a 47-person crew, it brought 14,000 refugees to safety and ultimately made it into the Guinness World Records as “the largest evacuation from land by a single ship.” The port was blown up to render it useless to the communist forces. Many civilians who should have been evacuated were left behind.
It's interesting that this account refers to many being left behind, while American accounts I've read describe getting all of the refugees out. For statistics, as this article notes,
At the finish a total of 105,000 US and ROK military personnel had been embarked and 91,000 civilian refugees. The statistics of supplies and equipment were equally impressive—17,500 vehicles and 350,000 measurement tons of cargo loaded out of Hungnam on 6 APA, 6 AKA, 12 TAP, 76 time-charter ships, 81 LST, and 11 LSD loads.
As for the aforementioned Meredith Victory, it appears in the movie as the ship they escape on. As it turns out, there is not only a book about this voyage - during which 5 babies were born - there is also a documentary that can be watched here, and a monument to the Hungnam evacuation which features a model of the Meredith Victory was unveiled in 2005 on Geoje-do, where the ship unloaded the refugees. This article also points to Maryknoll Father Patrick H. Cleary, a missionary in Korea who joined X Corps as a chaplain, as someone who contributed to the refugee rescue effort. What should be clear is that yes, there was a Korean who asked an American general to evacuate the refugees, but it certainly didn't happen at the last minute once the Americans were aboard and ready to leave, which makes them appear more callous than they were. This contributes to a social Darwinist view of the world as a harsh place in which Korea was the 'shrimp among [Chinese and American] whales' and had to beg the (initially cold and unwilling) Americans for help in order to survive.

Years after the war, once Deok-su had grown into a young man who worked as a labourer to support his family, he is convinced by his friend Dal-gu to apply to work in West Germany as miners, where they could make lots of money. These "workers sent to Germany" (padok nodongja) are examined in an article by Kim Won titled "Memories of Migrant Labor : Stories of Two Korean Nurses Dispatched to West Germany" [The Review of Korean Studies, 12(4), 2009.12, 111-151]. As the article notes,
In the case of mine workers, padok started in 1963 and continued until 1978. Until 1980, the Deutchemarks that a total of 7,936 padok miners and 10,032 padok nurses remitted to Korea were an important means of “foreign exchange earnings” (oehwa beori) and for solving the domestic labor surplus problem before the advent of a loan economy (cha-gwan gyeongje). At present [2009], about 5,000 out of the over 20,000 padok workers continue to live in Germany, and some 5,000 padok workers eventually chose to immigrate to the Americas. Among Korean residents in Germany, the number of nurses is said to be about 500 today. The last Korean miner retired in 2003.
The article also adds that in 1967, "padok workers’ remittances to Korea represented 36 percent of the total foreign exchange holdings of the country." It wasn't only men working as coal miners who worked in West Germany, however. Deok-su soon meets and falls in love with Yeong-ja, who is working as a nurse there. As the above article notes, Korean women were initially, in 1959, sent to Germany to study nursing for three years and then could work as nurses there. Then in 1966 a new phase began with the sending of nurses already trained in Korea to Germany, which was initially organized by a medical organization and coordinated by the Korean Foreign Development Corporation. These were all organized through civilian, medical, or Christian organizations, however and it wasn't until August 1969 that an agreement between South Korea and West Germany on the hiring of nurses was signed, and a quota was set. Prior to this agreement, 2,080 nurses had worked in Germany, and numbers increased a great deal in the ensuing years, as per the article:

In the end, some 18,000 Koreans worked as coal miners or nurses in West Germany and their earnings in foreign currency contributed a great deal to the growth of the Korean economy.

Another very large contribution to the Korean economy's growth was the Vietnam war, and Deok-su is depicted going to Vietnam with his friend Dal-gu to work as contractors and make lots of money. Over 300,000 Korean soldiers fought in the war, leaving behind a legacy, literally, of Korean-Vietnamese children abandoned by their fathers, as well as a reputation for brutality. In addition to these soldiers being paid in U,S. dollars, South Korea also benefited in many other ways from the Vietnam War (much as Japan did from the Korean War), as pointed out in "America's rented troops: South Koreans in Vietnam," by Frank Baldwin, which was published in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars Volume 7 Number 4, and is available as a pdf here (pages 33-40):
The major forms of U.S. commercial assistance were procurement of war supplies in South Korea and construction/service contracts for R.O.K. firms in Vietnam. Among the major South Korean exports to Vietnam were military uniforms, jungle boots, corrugated metal roofing and cement. In the construction and service field, at one point more than eighty South Korean companies held contracts with the U.S. government in Vietnam. Their activities included construction and engineering, transportation of goods, and operating service facilities such as laundry shops and entertainment clubs. South Korean civilian workers in Vietnam were especially well rewarded. According to U.S. government estimates, there were sixteen thousand South Korean foreign contract workers in Vietnam (of a total of twenty-five thousand). Their annual earnings were $8,400-compared to an average of about $200 in South Korea.

ROK troops pulled out in March 1973, though the Korean military did send a ship to rescue South Koreans from Vietnam in 1975 as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. As described in "The Pursuit of State Status and the Shift toward International Norms: South Korea’s Evolution as a Host Country for Refugees," by Hans Schattle and Jennifer McCann, published in Journal of Refugee Studies (2014) 27 (3) (pgs 317-337):
The influx of Indochinese asylum seekers into South Korea began with the April 30, 1975 evacuation from Vietnam of a group of South Korean nationals, their non-South Korean family members, and a number of primarily Indochinese refugees by a South Korean military vessel (Korean Red Cross Busan Chapter 1993). In the absence of appropriate domestic legislation, the government treated arrivals on an ad hoc basis, setting up a temporary shelter in the port city of Busan. By the end of 1975, officials had managed to settle the 1,562 Indochinese refugees by encouraging female Indochinese refugees married to or in a common-law relationship with a South Korean national at the time of their arrival, to become naturalized citizens or by granting them a continuous permission of sojourn as a stateless person (South Korea did not officially recognize Vietnam at this time) (I. Chung 2009). By contrast, the 977 refugees without such ties to Korean nationals were quickly resettled in third countries (Korean Red Cross Busan Chapter 1993). Then in 1977 a new wave of Indochinese refugees poured into the South China Sea. However, unlike the refugees evacuated in 1975, the government perceived arrivals less as victims of political persecution than as so-called economic migrants (I. Chung 2009), and therefore responded by securitizing arrivals.
It goes on to explain that the ROK went out of its way to stop its ships from picking up Indochinese "boat people," firing a captain who did so and confining those boat people who did arrive to a newly built 'Vietnamese people’s relief center'. "Although criticized for such an approach (Koh 2011), officials pressed hard for third-country resettlement, and as a result, not a single Indochinese refugee who arrived between 1977 and 1989 was permitted to settle in South Korea."

I first became aware of the presence of Vietnamese refugees a few years ago when reading through Korea Herald articles from late 1975 and early 1976. Here is one from December 17, 1975:

Here is another from January 31, 1976:

As mentioned in the previous post, in 1983 KBS broadcast the TV show, "Reuniting Separated Families," planning only to do a single broadcast, but when it proved successful it continued for over four months and led to the reunion of over 10,000 separated families (episodes can be watched here).
The Korea Bang post linked to above says that the reason it took so long for such a reunion show to happen was that the government was too busy developing the country to care much about divided families, and that it was only by the 1980s that enough people had televisions for such a show to be effective. This misses an important factor, I think. Under the anti-communist governments of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee, admitting that you had relatives that might be in North Korea was likely enough to make the authorities suspect your loyalty.

Hopefully the above information proves helpful for those who have seen "Ode To My Father" and wanted to learn more about the history it depicts.


Kevin Kim said...

I haven't seen the movie yet, but this is excellent background all the same. Nicely researched.

William Schwartz said...

Not terribly surprised to learn that the Korea/Vietnam relationship is a bit more shady in reality. The actual filming for that section was done in Thailand. Using Thailand as fake Vietnam, for what it's worth, started a long time ago with American movies.

On that comparison I'm actually willing to give Ode To My Father a fair amount of credit. Even if it's a whitewash, the narrative thrust of the Vietnam segment (they went through the same thing we did) is a well-intentioned one. Contrast American films, which are much more interested in making the banal statement of "war is hell" rather than actually admit the main reason the situation escalated into a humanitarian disaster was pretty much entirely our fault.

Esther Hyun said...

Thank you for mentioning my father, the late Dr. Bong Hak Hyun in your blog.