Tuesday, November 26, 2019

In Search Of Freedom

A Vietnamese refugee's memories of Korea
Part 1: Yang Bumo [Foster Parents]
Part 2: In Search Of Freedom

April 26, 1975.

That day is still vivid in my head even now, when my hair has gone so grey that if I were to pluck it there would be no more hair left on this small little head of mine. I was born fourth of eight children in a middle-class household in Vietnam in 1954. My Father was a National Bank manager and my Mother was a dutiful housewife all her life. In our war-torn country bombing and fighting were an everyday occurrence we had grown used to, and I knew that I would go into the army to fight the Communists when I reached the age of 17 to do the honour of protecting the country from the invading enemy. My oldest brother served with the Biet Dong Quan commandos and survived being shot countless times, while my second brother was in a bomb discharge unit and almost lost all of his fingers while on duty, but survived. I was a little luckier and did not lose anything other than having to use a crutch to the end of my days. I was wounded in the leg with heavy shot when serving in the Army’s 23rd Division stationed in the Kontum and Pleiku highland region. After staying for a while in Nhatrang Hospital waiting for release papers, a Military Medical Report classified me as Class 2 and useless for duty and I was discharged from the Army.

 William training at Quang Trung, the Army Academy, in 1972.

 William’s father at work as Chief of the National Bank in Rach Gia.

Farewell to William's older sister, Thuy, who was going to study in France. 
Taken at Tan Son Nhat Airport early 1975.

Six months after my discharge, despite there being so many candidates, I proudly passed the exam to enter Saigon National Post Office College with the promise that I would be posted to work for the Government when I graduated. Whether I got a good position or a bad one, and whether I was posted far from or close to home depended on how successful I was during the grueling one-year training course which bombarded us with tests and mental assessments, so I was living in Saigon trying to finish the course.

That was my life before April 26, 1975.

At 11 am that day our class was dismissed early from school and I was so happy with my first monthly pay packet from the college of 18,000 VN Dong, which was equal to the pay of a low level Army Private at the time. “Man, this is going to be so cool when I get home and take friends out to a coffee shop to celebrate. Who else in this country is going to a school guaranteeing a job in the future and getting paid while studying? Only me, ha ha ha ha,” was how I felt at the time. By the time I got home after the struggle of riding through the chaotic traffic on my old pushbike, I was asking myself where such crowds of people were going, not realizing what was going to happen to my country in the next four days.

A letter from my eldest sister from Australia, sent a month earlier, had arrived with a very short note in Vietnamese saying “Take this paper and the photographs I included in the letter and hurry to the Korean Embassy to see Mr. Cho. He will help you and tell you what to do, and just do as he says.” My sister’s husband was a Korean citizen, and I later found out he and Mr. Cho, who was an important official at the Korean Embassy, knew each other well. The notes were asking for his help to get us onto an LST which was to embark at Tan Cang Port in Saigon.

Luckily, my two younger brothers, Bao and Phu, and my sister, Duyen, had been waiting for me at home so we could celebrate my first ever work pay from college, so we all headed to the Korean Embassy. At that time we did not know that we would be leaving our home forever, so we just took some basic clothing with us.

We had no form of transportation to take us to Nguyen Du, where the Embassy was, which was about three kilometers away from our home. It was such a chaotic time, but finally I managed to put all of us onto two xe om, or motorcycle taxis, with my sister and I on one and my brothers on another, and we reached the Korea Embassy after driving through the worst traffic I had ever experienced.
Upon arriving I thought, “Bloody hell, there must be a million people in front of the Korean Embassy!” The crowds of people were waiting to enter while Marines were checking passports and entry papers. There was no way I could get through with the four of us and it looked like you had to have some kind of paper to get through – something more official than the letter I was holding in my hand.

Looking around and feeling hopeless, I decided to get inside the embassy by climbing the embassy’s wall. I would show the letter to Mr. Cho while my brothers and sister slowly tried to get close to the gate, and then we would hope for the best.

Even though my left leg was still injured, with the skill of an ex-infantry soldier I managed to climb over the wall and run to the administration office. A few Korean Embassy officials stopped me, but when I showed them the photograph of Mr. Cho, they directed me to the office to see the man in the photo. I handed him the letter from my sister, and after reading it he quickly looked at me and said something in English but, even though I could read and write English quite well and I was a fan of modern pop songs by the Beatles, Paul Anka, and John Denver, there was no way I could understand him. I think the chaos from the gate may have made him impatient with me, but perhaps the content of the letter was so meaningful that he pointed at me and said, “YOU, HOW MANY?” Well, that I understood and answered “four” by putting four fingers up. He reached out onto the table and gave me four cloth patches with Korean writing and stamps on them. He then called another Korean man, said something in Korean, and that man took me to the gate. That's where I found my sister and brothers holding the steel bars, desperately waiting for me but not sure whether I was coming back or not. With help from the Korean man sent by Mr. Cho we were taken to the Embassy lawn where there were lots of buses waiting to go somewhere. I thought, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” so we did exactly what others were doing and got in line to get on a bus. Because there were no documents or anything allowing us on the bus other than those four patches with some Korean words on them, when we got on the bus we chose the back seats so that if something went wrong it would be hard to throw us off. On the bus there were lots of Vietnamese ladies married to Korean husbands, so we felt a little more comfortable when we heard Vietnamese being spoken all the way to Tan Cang.

There were two massive, scary-looking Korean LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) warships docked at the pier. The Marines started to let people onto the ships, and as soon as I was aboard a ship I knew that a journey into the unknown was about to begin.

Though I was so tired from all the hassles of that day, I'm not sure if I got any sleep once we were settled on the deck of the LST. One thing I knew for sure was that the ship was moving, slowly, but it was moving, and my God, I knew we were saved. From the top deck of that massive, scary LST I saw my beloved Saigon passing way with every meter as the warship moved slowly away. It seemed like something was stuck in my throat and my eyes seemed to be a little blurry as I realized I was about to leave my country, the one which my older brothers and I had spilled blood for, and was instead becoming a runaway and not even sure where I was going. But the uncertainty of my future at that moment was really nothing compared to the knowledge of the punishment a former South Vietnamese soldier would suffer from the communists when they arrived in Saigon.

The fact that the warship was slowly heading toward Saigon Bridge comforted me so much because I knew that I would be free from any political conflict in the days to come. Whatever happened, I would be able to face it, and would have a “Que sera sera” attitude and a grin on my face from a thousand miles away.

In the past five or six hours so much had happened and I had been so full of adrenaline. I was exhausted, and I think I fell asleep by the time Saigon Bridge was out of sight.

Friday, November 22, 2019

A Vietnamese refugee's memories of Korea, part 1

A Vietnamese refugee's memories of Korea
Part 1: Yang Bumo [Foster Parents]
Part 2: In Search of Freedom

Part 1: Yang Bumo [Foster Parents]

Over a year ago I wrote an article for the Korea Times about the arrival of Vietnamese refugees in Korea at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. This was followed up by a lengthier article on the topic at SinoNK and two blog posts here and here

As a result of these articles and posts, I have been contacted by several former Vietnamese refugees who spent time in Korea. All have shared their stories and photos with me, but William Nguyen, now living in Australia, has spent quite a bit of time telling me his story because he plans to return to Korea in early January and he would like to find the Koreans who helped him, in particular Choi Ok-suk, a Red Cross worker at the Busan Refugee Camp who essentially acted as a foster parent to him and his two brothers and sister. He would also like to find the generous family of Marine General Lee Dong-yeong. I thought it might be helpful to draw attention to his story in the media in the hope that someone who knows these people who read the article might reach out to William. On Wednesday an article I wrote about William's story appeared in the Korea Times, and I'm hoping to interest a Korean-language news outlet in the story. (Should anyone know a journalist who might be interested, please let me know).

As the article relates, William and his siblings moved to Australia, where their older sister lived with her Korean husband, in September 1976. While in Korea he met his future wife, who was of Korean-Chinese heritage but had been raised in Vietnam, and they were married a month before he left. In early 1977 he returned to Korea to bring her to Australia. This was the last time he was in Korea.

I have edited a memoir by William explaining how he came to arrive in Korea aboard an ROK Navy LST on May 13, 1975. He has also sent me more than 20 photos, most related to the time he spent in Korea. He began the memoir at the end of the story, so to speak, remembering the kindness of Choi Ok-suk, the Red Cross worker and wife of a Busan police chief who, a month or so after their arrival in Busan, essentially sponsored William and his brothers Bao and Phu and sister Duyen. This meant she could take them out of the camp on trips or have them stay over at her house. Below is the first installment of his memoir. Others will follow soon.

---------------

William and Choi Ok-suk at his wedding in August 1976.


Yang Bumo [Foster Parents]

“Misong ah!” The call from my foster Korean mother was the sweetest sound on this earth. “Ne!” I answered with my lousy Korean that I had just started learning about a month ago. She looked at me from head to toe and then she said something, but all I could understand was the word Xichang (market).

Her daughter translated and explained that she was going to take us to the local market for some reason. “Wow - we get to go shopping in Korea?” It seemed like a dream come true for a guy behind the high wall of that Vietnamese refugee camp, a former girl’s high school, where you could only see the city of Busan through a peephole when you wandered around with all of those security officers almost everywhere you turned.

“Mama Sook” was one of the Korean ladies working for the Red Cross at the time we Vietnamese refugees came to Busan. She took us in like a sponsor, took us home to stay with her and told us to call her “Mama.” She treated us like our own mother, sometimes even better. What a lady, what a heart she had! It had to be made of gold the way she treated us, we who were strangers. It really does melt my heart every time I think of her. That great Korean lady left a solid mark in my humble life and taught me the meaning of humanitarianism.

What a view, what a life! The Korea market was just like something out of a movie to a poor soldier just who had recently come out from the jungle, a bustling and busy scene that I had never seen before in my life. We used to be proud of life in our country, a country I had fought and spilled blood for. We thought we were the Pearl of the Orient, but no. I may be a fool, but I had seen enough of my own country to know that nothing there compared to Korea, to such an advanced and bustling place. Even though I had only been there for a very short time, that was something that made me feel that it would not be so bad if we had to stay in Korea if no third country would accept us.

In the market, while we were still looking around at the scenery, overwhelmed by so many things happening around us, she went straight to an underwear shop, came out with a large bag, and told her daughter that we were going home. We were disappointed to leave so soon but still followed her home. When we got home, she opened the bag and there was lots of underwear for all of my family. She hurried us to try them on and get changed to go to a Chinese restaurant with her. She thought that, being Vietnamese, we might be sick of the Korean food in the camp.

I nearly broke down with tear in my eyes when I went to the room to try on the underwear, how did she know that we were not wearing underwear? How did that she know my size to perfection even though I did not know myself, nor did my real mother? It was the first time I ever wore that kind of tight, jockey underwear and to my surprise it fit me perfectly. What an impression that made, what a lady! I'm very close to the day when I will return to dust now, but I still vividly remember that feeling of appreciation every time I think of it.

Every night while we stayed with her, she made our bed on a Futon. The most impressive thing was that she always left out a tray of apples or pears next to a teapot. When I asked her what it was for, the answer in her sweet voice was that it was in case we were hungry at night. Maybe it was just Korean traditional hospitality, but to me, a poor Vietnamese refugee who used to sleep with a gun in my hands watching for the enemy and afraid of being attacked, or who had been tired of worrying about himself and his siblings on the cold steel floor of an LST ship while not knowing where we were going or what would happen after that, this was just as sweet as it came.


Visiting Choi Ok-suk in Busan in 1977. 
William's wife, Helene, Mrs. Choi's husband, Mrs. Choi, William. 

Choi Ok-suk's daughter with William's sister Duyen.


Monday, November 11, 2019

1988 Olympics: The view from the U.S. Embassy

The 1988 Seoul Olympics

Prologue 1: "Why can't Americans be Punished?"

Part 1:  The Seoul Olympics, 25 years later
Part 2:  The 1988 Olympics and Korean fears of AIDS
Part 3:  Americans and bad first impressions
Part 4:  Reptilian Style: The 'live-or-die general war' against Hollywood
Part 5:  An attack in a boxing ring
Part 6:  Media responses to the boxing ring incident
Part 7:  No more lion: US swimmers' 'prank' becomes 'diplomatic incident'
Part 8:  KAIST catches Big Ben
Part 9:  Hankyoreh interviews Korean witness to theft by swimmers
Part 10: Stop me if you've heard this one: Four GIs head to Itaewon in a taxi...
Part 11: Taxi-kicking US runner taken to Itaewon police box
Part 12: NBC uses the power of t-shirts to insult Korea... again
Part 13: Cultivating outrage toward America
Part 14: Politicians engage in damage control
Part 15: Heaven on Earth
Part 16: Hustler magazine tramples the purity of the Korean race 
Part 17: Stolen gold
Part 18: The view from the U.S. Embassy

Not too long ago a rather amazing, 1364-page pdf titled "The Korea Country Reader," a collection of oral history interviews of American diplomats who served in Korea from 1945 to 2002, was brought to my attention by Jacco Zwetsloot. The interviews were conducted and collected by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, and readers for other countries can be searched for here.

I've been dipping into various eras, and it dawned on me that I should look at how the Embassy viewed the anti-Americanism that occurred during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. What I found were two interviews with different points of view, as well as reference to an contemporary news article worth reading that I had not come across before.

First up is an interview with Aloysius M. O’Neill, Political Officer, Seoul (1988-1992), from pages 1117-1118; the final two paragraphs are from pages 1121 and 1146, respectively.

******

O’Neill: The Olympic Games, aside from being a great triumph for Korea both in terms of organization and of the face that Korea put to the world was, as far as I was concerned, also a festival of anti-Americanism. That’s my most lasting memory of the Seoul Olympics. The Koreans were so on edge and so intent to ensure that everything went perfectly that anything involving Americans that didn’t go perfectly really set them off. This included the opening ceremony. The American team was waving to the crowds and cheering, and some of them were wearing Mickey Mouse ears and things like this as young, happy, naive Americans traveling abroad probably for the first time would normally do. This greatly offended the Korean news media who decided that this was not decorous enough and respectful enough of Korea for their sensibilities, and they began blasting the American team for that breach of decorum.

We had another incident… I don’t want to belabor this too much….

Q: No, I think it’s well to capture the flavor.

O’Neill: It was really flavorful! One of the first American gold medals was won by a men’s swimming relay team, and those young guys went that evening to the Hyatt Hotel and had a number of drinks, I’m sure, in the bar. They walked out of the bar with a plaster lion’s head that had been hanging on the wall. They just picked it up. It wasn’t something, as far as I know, that you could stick in your pocket, so it was pretty obvious that they were doing it. Rather than just approaching these tipsy or drunken young men who had just won a gold medal and said, “Give us our lion head back,” the Korean staff of the Hyatt went to the police about this “theft.” The police lost no time in going to their eager media contacts about this gigantic crime. From the media outcry, you would have thought that these swimmers had burned down the presidential mansion, the Blue House.

The outrage was unbelievable. I was, as I often was, in the embassy that Saturday afternoon. The incident was on a Friday night, and I was in the embassy all day Saturday, and the phones were almost literally ringing off the hook, with outraged Koreans calling. The poor embassy operators were just beside themselves trying to field the calls. I remember talking to one man who was just furious. “How could they do this??? How could they possibly steal something?” I said, “They were drunk.” He said, “What???” I said, “They were drunk. He said, “Oh.” And he hung up. It’s safe to say that Koreans understood the concept of doing outrageous things while drunk.

This whole thing, this hysteria, was fanned by the Korean news media. NBC Sports had the broadcast rights for the Olympics. They did a masterful job of broadcasting. Also as part of their programming they had prepared a number of really good…what would you call them?...spots or vignettes showcasing different things about Korea’s industrial might and the economic progress of the country, the palaces of Seoul, the history of Korea, things on the Korean War. Some of my relatives wrote me how much they learned about Korea from this fantastic coverage that NBC Sports was giving the country.

However, there was at least one spot about black marketing and prostitution particularly around the U.S. military bases, a not unknown phenomenon, shall we say. Again, the Koreans were not in the mood for any kind of accuracy or balance. What they wanted was laudatory treatment. If you gave 90% praise and 10% pointing out some warts, all they could think about was, “You were focusing on warts, and that’s rude.” Again, this set them off. There was a case where a Korean boxer had a match called against him. I believe the other boxer was an American, but the New Zealand referee called the match against the Korean. In response, that sportsman sat down in the ring and would not move. Every so often as NBC Sports was reporting on other events here and there, track and field and whatever else happened to be going on, they would occasionally go back and show this boxer still sitting there in the ring.

Q: I recall that!

O’Neill: Again, Koreans were outraged that the Americans news media were humiliating Korea by showing this jerk sitting on his backside in the ring. No mention of the poor sportsmanship of the Korean boxer who had legitimately had a call against him. In fact, either in this match or in another boxing match that went against a Korean, his ringside staff and the Korean security people assaulted the referee.

Throughout, you had cheers for Soviet athletes and boos for American athletes with few exceptions. When Flo-Jo won everybody cheered. I happened to have been there at the track and field semi-finals, where she starred. Otherwise, it was a very grim period for Americans in Korea and the grimness lasted after the games, too. It really ground down a lot of people in the embassy.
[...]
One of the reasons for the outburst of anti-Americanism in the Olympics and afterward was because Koreans who felt this way were freer to do so than they had been in the past. They were able to express their bottled up emotions at the way they saw America as being the friend of the dictators of Korea over the decades before this election. They tended to forget or did not know that we had been pushing behind the scenes all these decades to get the kind of electoral situation that they had now arrived at.
[...]
Most particularly as I detailed earlier in the interview in the context of the Seoul Olympics. I still unfondly remember that as a gigantic anti-American festival with sporting events thrown in. Ambassador Jim Lilley was there up through the end of December 1988, so he had the full blast of the Olympics. He used the expression, “We’re the biggest show in town,” meaning that of all the countries represented there, we were the biggest especially with the large military presence and its endless potential for crimes or accidents, which could become an immediate focus of the anti-American student movement and others as well.

******

A view more sympathetic to Korea can be found in an interview with Thomas P. H. Dunlop, Political Counselor, Seoul (1983-1987), and Country Director for Korea, Washington, DC (1987-1989). [Pages 927-28]

******

The Seoul Olympics were a great success for the South Koreans. There were lots of anecdotes about them, none of which particularly deserves recording. The South Koreans did a good job. I was not there for it. I thought that I might try to "boondoggle" my way out there, but the Embassy was under a tremendous amount of stress just handling the American Olympian contingent. I would say one thing. I got to know some of the people who represent our Olympic movement, and some of them are absolutely arrogant, egocentric, and very difficult people to deal with. I mean that they are concerned about petty things, like demanding suites with a "hot tub" and things like that. I'm not talking about the athletes. I'm talking about the administrators in the American Olympic Committee and all of their "hangers on." They can be real pains to deal with. The Embassy didn't need me hanging around, so I did not go.

Q: What about the problems of having the press all over the place? When the press got there, and the American press in particular, I imagine that they were always looking for a story to make the South Koreans look bad. They did that at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. This is just what the press does.

Dunlop: NBC [National Broadcasting Company] had the coverage. The South Koreans didn't like the coverage. We had complaints from them. NBC, like any American network, put on a lot of "background" stuff about Korea. Of course, what they did was to oversimplify things. Although there are a lot of things in Korean history that are not particularly admirable, on the human rights side, for example, this was probably more than the South Korean authorities wanted to see dredged up from the past and, maybe, the not so distant past. However, there were no big problems.

I remember one example of cultural insensitivity. There was a Korean boxer who was thought likely to take one of the medals and, perhaps, win the gold medal. He was in one of the middle weight areas. He was really beaten and committed a foul in the process, which counts a lot in the Olympics. You get points, and the foul involves subtracting points from the total. He lost. He refused to leave the ring. After the celebration of his opponent's victory, he slumped down in the middle of the ring.

However, the cameramen didn't turn off the lights. The cameras were still on him. He presented a picture of utter dejection. People came up and tapped him on the shoulder, but he just sat there. The commentators began to laugh at him. He stayed there in the center of the ring for about an hour. They would keep cutting back to show him. They would say, "Oh, he's still there." I thought that this was just perfectly without any shred of taste. What was happening to that young man was that his whole life was in ruins. He had lived to be an Olympic boxer. He was a hero in his hometown. He had a salary. He had preferment. He had goodies which were otherwise probably unthinkable for his family. He had the responsibility for keeping all of that going. It was all gone. He knew that they would set the dogs on him in his home village. He would be pelted with stones when he got back there. I think that it was a particularly bad case of insensitivity.

I must say that an American sports columnist, Tony Kornheiser, wrote a good story about it. Some Korean told him what was going on, and Kornheiser wrote a nice piece on this incident. I wrote to Kornheiser and said that this was just a pebble on the beach, but it was nice to see that somebody had taken the trouble to report what was really going on, in a cultural sense.

******

Tony Kornheiser's article for the Washington Post, titled "It's Not The Koreans Who Do Not Understand," can be read here. Below are excerpts of it, which begin after Kornheiser's recap of various events like runner Johnny Gray "Kicking a taxi," the theft of the lion sculpture by the swimmers, NBC's attempt to make insulting T-shirts, and the incident in the boxing ring where the referee was attacked by Korean staff.

******

"Why did you have to show it so many times?" my Korean friend, Mr. Lee, asked me at dinner the other night.

"We'd do the same thing if it was an American," I told him. "That's the way journalism works, it reacts to the story. We do it at home all the time."

"But you are not in your home now," Mr. Lee said, "you are in ours."

Until last year's social revolution, the Korean press historically was in the side pocket of the government. Koreans have clamored for a free press, but don't really comprehend all that goes with it. Koreans saw the Olympics as a way to announce their accomplishments to the world, something like an advertising supplement. They didn't expect the American media to go looking at anything other than what the Koreans wanted to show; they think it's mean that we don't play the game their way, censoring our best instincts for the good of their public image. They've been our friends, and though they should know better after all these years, may think we have betrayed that friendship.
[...]
That gong sound we hear is the clash of cultures. We're unnerved and a bit frightened by the anti-Americanism, and justifiably upset at Koreans taking offense when no offense was intended. But it hasn't deterred some Americans from practicing what is construed as -- particularly by the contentious European press -- as Ugly Americanism. Many Americans treat the Olympics like their own private tour group. We shouldn't apologize for our enthusiasm, but we wave our flags and chant in the loudest, most self-absorbed way. This behavior is beyond patriotism. It's about rudeness and the automatic right of way that Americans consider their birthright as they travel the world in a clumsy exuberance that other cultures take for bullying. Every uniformed guard we treat with impatience, every custom we insult, every sideways glance we give, we feel we're entitled. We're No. 1. We've bought the damn Games, and we have our own aggressive way of doing things. We like to wear our diamond rings on everbody's nose.

It was bad enough in Los Angeles, which was at least our home. It's provocative here. We've been here more than two weeks and most of us have learned one phrase -- kamsa hamnida, which means thank you. One phrase in two weeks, and we get annoyed because every Korean cabdriver doesn't speak perfect English. Not only haven't we been sensitive to their culture, we haven't even acknowledged it.

And yet there have been so many small moments of grace between us and the Koreans, so many tender mercies. I have foundered hopelessly in the Seoul subway, intimidated by Korean language maps and signs, and Koreans have literally led me by the hand to where I should have been. I have been on the streets without a clue how to get home, and Koreans have stopped for me and driven miles out of their way to take me to the press village, and refused to take any money for it. I have been unfailingly treated with politeness and friendliness and genuine warmth by police, security guards and Korean Olympic personnel. They give me flags and pins and small gifts to take home so I'll remember Korea. The anti-Americanism seems more an expression of hurt than anger.

"Please understand," Mr. Lee said, "that we have always had great friendship with the Americans."

"You shouldn't take this boxing thing personally," I told him. "You should let it roll off your backs."
"This is what you do?" he asked.

"All the time."

"You are a big country, a great country, and things roll gracefully off your back," Mr. Lee said. "What rolls off your back is enough to drown a small country like Korea." There was a bottle of Korean soju on the table, and Mr. Lee poured two shot glasses. "I cannot ever make you understand how important Olympics are to us," he said, and in the moonlight his face seemed 5,000 years old. "We invite you to our house to show you what we have done."

I raised my glass. "To your house," I said.

******

Though there are a few cliches in there, Dunlop was right to highlight Kornheiser's article as an attempt to see things from both sides. Most pertinent was his observation that during the Olympics "The anti-Americanism seems more an expression of hurt than anger." What should be added is that it was the media that fanned the flames and turned that hurt into anger. As O'Neill noted, "it was a very grim period for Americans in Korea and the grimness lasted after the games, too." Many of the issues brought to the forefront by activists during (or just before) the Olympics such as the need to revise SOFA, the need to ban the direct importation of US films, and the need to test foreigners for HIV/AIDS, would, in the months to come, get a push from the burst of hurt turned to anger at the US during the Olympics.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Korean government ordered to pay compensation to foreign English teacher over HIV testing

It was reported the other day (here as well) that
A court ordered the state, Wednesday, to compensate a New Zealander for urging her to undergo mandatory human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) testing under a now-lifted government regulation while working here as an English teacher.
In 2009, after working at an elementary school in Ulsan for a year, a native-speaking English teacher from New Zealand was offered a new contract and began the process of re-signing for another year. Well into the process she was told she would have to take another HIV and drug test. While she had been willing to take an HIV test for immigration purposes when she first arrived in Korea, she refused to take another unnecessary HIV test for renewal, and was not re-signed. She subsequently left the country, but challenged what amounted to her dismissal over refusal to take an HIV test by taking her case to the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board (which ruled against her) and the National Human Rights Commission (which rejected her petition).

With the possibility of these "domestic remedies" exhausted, she petitioned the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which decided to hear the case in 2012 and ruled in her favor in 2015, saying that E-2 HIV testing was discriminatory and should be stopped. It also ruled that she should be given "adequate compensation for the moral and material damages caused by... violations of the Convention, including compensation for the lost wages during the one year she was prevented from working." For more on this process and decision, see this post.

The Korean government did not respond until the National Human Rights Commission belatedly took her side and recommended the government take the actions recommended by CERD in 2016. In July 2017 the Korean government finally officially ended the HIV testing regulations but did nothing to compensate the teacher. The teacher finally pursued a civil case against the Korean government, and it was this case that was decided in her favor by the Seoul Central District Court.

Having been given access to the decision, here are some of its highlights.

The court accepted the plaintiff’s claim for damages, including 24,000,000 won for the loss her expected wages salary, and 6,000,100 won for mental damage, and ruled that the defendant should pay this full amount (along with interest dating from June 20, 2018).

In its ruling, the court referred to the AIDS Prevention Act, as it was in force in 2009, according to which it was the government’s duty not to discriminate against HIV-positive patients, and employers were not to require HIV testing of employees. The Act also listed specific groups of non-Koreans who were required to submit HIV test results to the government before entering Korea, but the plaintiff was not part of such group.

[The E-2 visa HIV testing requirement was initially instituted in 2007 via an Immigration policy memo which, when challenged, the government said was perfectly legal but was quietly changed to an enforcement ordinance on April 3, 2009, almost a year and a half after testing of teachers began. This testing regime was never codified by amending the AIDS Prevention Act (or the Hagwon Act).]

The court also ruled that while the objective of the HIV testing was justified to protect the health of children, the defendant did not prove such testing was necessary, since there was no factual evidence that foreign English teachers were a suspect group, nor was there a reason to believe there was a risk of the plaintiff being HIV positive, particularly since she had already tested negative less than a year earlier.

The defendant argued that the statute of limitations had passed, but the court ruled that June 12, 2015, the date of the CERD recommendation, was the date to begin from, since the plaintiff had been unable to determine the illegality of the government’s actions until then. It also pointed out that the plaintiff had made continuous efforts domestically and internationally to abolish the HIV testing policy and to receive compensation for her damages, and had been vigilant in seeking her rights. Therefore the defendant’s argument that the statute of limitations had passed was against the principle of good faith considering the defendant’s continued denial of compensation to the plaintiff.

Though the court did not determine whether the CERD recommendation had any binding power, it took the unprecedented step of accepting the CERD decision as the determining factor in calculating statute of limitations.

It’s hard to believe that it took ten years to get to this point, but it may not be over yet. The government has 2-3 weeks to appeal the decision.

As well, the HIV testing policy, officially ended two years ago, is still being carried out at some hospitals. This is the test I received five months ago:

'AIDS' test results are to be recorded near bottom right.

I printed out and gave an attendant a news report in Korean announcing the end of the tests, but who knows if they did anything about it. Needless to say, that a national hospital is still carrying out these tests suggests the government did little to publicize the end of E-2 HIV testing.


[This was not the only challenge to the HIV testing regime. A case brought before the constitutional court in 2011 (which did not hear the case) was ruled favorably on by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2018.]

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Breaking into the US Ambassador's residence

A few weeks ago, 19 students broke into the compound where US Ambassador Harry Harris lives and displayed banners decrying President Trump's attempts to make Korea pay more for the US military presence and calling on Harris to leave Korea. Police requested arrest warrants for nine students; four were ultimately arrested. Another break in took place last year, but a more well-known and much earlier incident occurred on October 13, 1989, when six students broke into the US Ambassador's residence shortly after Donald Gregg took up his post as ambassador. As he told the story in his memoir Pot Shards, on that day
at about 6 a.m., Meg and I were awakened by a loud “bang!” outside our embassy residence. The residence guards immediately called us and shouted, “Students, students!”

My first thought was: ‘Oh shit, I hope they’re not armed.’

Six Korean college students had driven up from the southern port city of Pusan and had used their car as a sort of vaulting horse to get over the low wall surrounding the residence grounds. They threw some sort of large firecracker at the unarmed residence guards and were quickly able to break a window and enter our house.

I called the security officer and told him to get the Korean police on the scene. Almost immediately, I had a reassuring call from the Marine Security Guard at the Embassy, saying he and his men would “take care of things” if I needed help. I told them to stand by, as one of the first things I’d been taught at “Charm School” (ambassadorial training) was to never turn the Marines loose on unruly local civilians unless a truly mortal threat was involved.

Sounds from outside our bedroom indicated clearly to me that we were dealing not with a trained group of assassins but with young men surprised at how easily they had gotten into the house and unsure what to do next. They gently tried to open our stout bedroom door, then retreated down the hall when they found it locked. I could hear the smashing of lamps and crockery from the front of the house. We slipped out a back window and went to another embassy house on the compound.

The Korean police eventually arrived, and the students were hauled off to jail. Their main motive had been to protest U.S. pressure on the beef quota issue. I called the protocol office at Blue House and urged that the students not be treated too severely. I gather that they served up to two years in jail.

I immediately went into my embassy office, about a mile away, to discuss how to respond to the torrent of questions coming in from both local Korean, and international media. A hurried press conference was held at the Embassy, and both Meg and I appeared on television to thank the Korean police for their help and to say that we were aware of the sensitivity of the beef issue. Meg was gracious and stressed how glad we were to be in Seoul. We heard from many sources that her TV performance had truly moved the Korean people who saw it.

I have since met four of the six students who “visited” us that early October morning in 1989. Two are now rising young stars in the National Assembly; one of the others owns an Italian restaurant, and one works for a French trading company. During a December 2006 visit to Seoul, I was visited in my hotel by three of the former students, all of whom apologized. They were accompanied by the press in large numbers, and a good deal of publicity resulted, all of which I considered positive.
One of those politicians is Jeong Cheong-rae.