Friday, December 01, 2023

Drug scandals and why celebrities are held to such high standards in South Korea

A recent article at Korea Pro by Chris Tharp (author of this excellent memoir), titled “Unpacking South Korea’s strict drug policy amid celebrity scandals,” examines societal attitudes toward drug use by celebrities and raises an important question as to “why so many South Koreans seem to hold celebrities to such high moral and ethical standards when, in Western countries, public figures are not usually held to such standards.”

It seeks answers from PNU professor CedarBough Saeji, who has spent a great deal of time studying K-Pop fandom, summarizing them as follows:

when feelings of personal aspirations and closeness induced by parasocial relationships combine with the far-reaching nature of social media platforms, allegations of drug abuse can often lead to South Korean fans feeling betrayed and questioning their idols’ integrity or worthiness, thus profoundly affecting the fan base.

Chris also sought input from me about the history of South Korea’s drug laws, but he informed me apologetically that this material was cut by the editor. What I sent him would be a bit of work to edit into a blog post, but I did want to write a few paragraphs laying out why, from a historical perspective, I think celebrities in South Korea are held to such high moral and ethical standards.

One reason for this is that in the past, entertainers – meaning those who earned a living through performing, rather than those taking part in, say, musical performances during local festivals or while working – came from the lowest social strata. As was noted in this 2006 NYT article about the hugely successful film “King and Clown,” which was about  Joseon-era traveling performers, 

One person the director consulted was Kim Gi Bok, 77, who is considered the last surviving itinerant clown. Mr. Kim was amused at the attention he had gotten because of the film. “Before, we were treated as beggars, but now we are considered traditional artists[.]”

Gisaeng might be seen today as a few rungs above itinerant performers, but they were tainted in many peoples’ eyes by their association with the provision of sexual services. 

This caused issues during the initial rise of popular culture in urban Korea during the colonial period, leading to people in the early 1930s denouncing the negative effects of radio because “Drunken songs with corrupt lyrics from the mouths of kisaeng come into our homes every night…to great harm and spiritual corruption,” leading to “struggles in households all over Korea… between fathers who hate the sounds of the new songs and want more traditional songs and their sons…who want to hear Western music.” All of this prompted the question, “Should we not be cultivating the cultural consciousness of the masses?”*  

This gives some hint as to how entertainers were perceived, and even then their private lives were scrutinized by news media. Though working as an entertainer is certainly seen in a better light today than it was in the 1930s, elements of past attitudes linger, and media scrutiny has only intensified. 

One reason for this can be found in the question “Should we not be cultivating the cultural consciousness of the masses?” This raises the other issue that goes beyond entertainers to the role of entertainment itself. As Haksoon Yim’s article “Cultural Identity And Cultural Policy In South Korea,” put it, “The arts have… come to be seen as an integral part of cultivating morality.” 

Or, as ROK Minister of Culture and Communications Sin Beom-sik described youth culture, or mass culture, in 1970, it was “something that emerges healthily in the mass media in a spirit of assigning tasks to citizens and lighting the way forward for the nation.” 

Yim further described how the South Korean state perceived and promoted mass culture: 

Park [Chung-hee]’s government differentiated “sound” culture from “unsound” culture. The term “soundness” was strategically used to enlighten and mobilize people for the political purpose of Park’s government. Park’s government sought to promote a “sound” culture conducive to anticommunism, nationalism, traditional morality and state-led economic development strategy. [...]

[S]ince the 1980s, culture and the arts have been considered to be a solution to social problems. Governments have tended to attribute social problems to the deserted spiritual world and the confused ethics caused by rapid economic growth. Thus, the government has stressed that the enrichment of the spiritual world by culture and arts was necessary to counteract the negative effects of materialism and commercialism. This demonstrates that cultural policy has considered the moral mission of culture and the arts. Culture and the arts have been mobilized as a cement of social cohesion.

Olga Federenko has highlighted how this even affects the advertising industry (that link is to her thesis; her highly-recommended book is here), noting that

in South Korea, the marketing instrumentality of advertising is subordinated to the ethos of public interest, and both advertising consumers and producers strive for advertising that promotes humanist values and realizes democratic ideals, even if it jeopardizes the commercial interests of advertisers.

Also, beyond previous attitudes towards entertainers and official perceptions of the role of entertainment in society, the first time drugs and entertainers were really linked in news media on a wide scale was the marijuana scandal of 1975, which I looked at here, and which was used by Park Chung-hee’s government at the height of its authoritarianism (and deployed along with extensive song bans) to enforce morals and silence the slightest hint of defiance (let alone dissent) that might appear in entertainment media. This lesson reverberates into the present, shaping attitudes toward marijuana use in general and drug use by celebrities, as well as making it clear to entertainers that when it comes to politics, they should keep their goddamned mouths shut. Almost 50 years later – and even 30 years after the arrival of democracy and greater freedom of speech (marred, to be fair, by Park II's artist blacklist) – entertainers continue to steer clear of political commentary unless they feel their opinion is a very, very popular one, such as during the candlelight demonstrations in 2002, 2008, and 2017. Only when there is a clear alignment in political opinion between those opinions felt personally and those articulated as the will of the people (the present day mandate of heaven?) will some entertainers take the risk of speaking out.

* Michael Robinson, “Broadcasting, Cultural Hegemony, and Colonial Modernity in Korea, 1924-1945,” in Colonial Modernity in Korea, ed. Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 65, 67.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Wooing your lover and modernizing the fatherland with Goldstar radios

I found this Goldstar portable radio ad in the Seoul Women's University (서울여대) newspaper from the summer of 1972. While the images initially caught my eye, the text proved to be rather interesting:

A symbol of prosperity and modernization of the fatherland

A radio for love, friendship, and active people, RM-707

The mini-transistor radio RM-707 for active people and friends and lovers amid overflowing youth is ideal for...

  • Campus singing groups where friendship grows
  • Enjoying go-go rhythms while picnicking
  • Conveying the thrill of being at sporting events
  • Background music while with your lover

The RM-707 is a high-performance portable radio uniquely designed by Goldstar for the styles of active youths.

Clear sound, sophisticated design

Goldstar transistor radios

Sold at Goldstar specialty stores nationwide.

Battery-powered transistor radios gave one the freedom to roam and integrate music or other broadcasts into your activities as never before (with such activities including singing groups on campus, picnics, sporting events, or even romantic escapades). I also couldn't help but note the phrase at top left: "A symbol of prosperity and modernization of the fatherland." While advertising a product that allowed young people to take part in frivolous activities, name-checking the authoritarian state's development drive was probably a good idea. Note the price of the featured product: 2,980 won. This inflation counter suggests that would be around 60,000 won today, but I suspect it felt like a lot more at the time.

I should note that in 1966, anthropologist Vincent Brandt, who was doing ethnography in a remote village on Korea’s west coast, described "the sudden development of a new youth culture" facilitated by the growth in the number of transistor radios and the resulting exposure of young people to broadcasts from Seoul. As Brandt described it,

the constant expression on the radio of romantic love as an ideal through popular songs and radio dramas seemed to have substantially undermined the repressive force of Confucian puritanism and made a severe dent in parental authority within an extraordinarily short time. The influence of Seoul broadcasts was also evident in the outspoken determination of many young people to make their own decisions with regard to occupation, place of residence, and choice of spouse.*

Brandt also described the consumer goods which appealed to the young: "A transistor radio, dark glasses, new clothes, trips to town, and for some a guitar, have an immediate fascination that may conflict with the requirement that individual interests be subordinated to those of the family."*

There's a certain irony here, since in the early 1960s the military junta that took power in 1961 oversaw the distribution of thousands of radios to towns and villages throughout the country so as to disseminate official news and propaganda, but the commercial broadcasts (such as TBC and MBC) that were also available provided "counter-examples" that could also undermine authority.

*Vincent Brandt, A Korean Village Between Farm and Sea (Harvard University Press, 1971), 16, 102.

(I should note that I was initially left scratching my head figuring out what 빅게임의 드릴에 찬 중계도 referred to, but was later clued into the fact that 드릴 was 'thrill' and not 'drill' as I'd thought, since I was imagining practicing for the mass gymnastics or card sections of university sports competitions at the time.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Foreign English teacher received constant verbal abuse and even assault at hands of Yeosu hagwon owner

MBC reported last week on the egregious abuse of a foreign English teacher taking place at an English hagwon in Yeosu:

Hearing the level of abuse left me shocked until I realized the teacher was from South Africa, which then led to me think, "Gee, I wonder what colour their skin is?" (For a backgrounder on Korean attitudes toward Africans, see this post.) 

Yesterday the site laborplus (참여와 혁신) published this report on a press conference held in Seoul by the KCTU in regard to this case, which featured two of the teachers involved (hat tip to Mike C):

Verbal abuse and assault against native speaker instructor continued at a language school in Yeosu, Jeollanam-do

KCTU: "What is the Ministry of Employment and Labor doing---all workplaces should be investigated"

Comforted by a fellow instructor, an native-speaking instructor speaks through tears at the 'Emergency Press Conference of the National Democratic General Labor Union on the Incidents of Racial Discrimination, Verbal Abuse and Assault of Native Speaking instructors and Migrant Workers' held in front of the Seoul Regional Employment and Labor Office in Jung-gu, Seoul, on Thursday morning. Reporter Gang Hang-nim 

The director of a language school in Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, has been accused of verbally abusing and assaulting native speaking English instructors, prompting calls for the Ministry of Employment and Labor to take active measures to protect migrant workers.

The KCTU’s Democratic General Federation’s National Democratic General Labor Union (co-chair Kim I-hoe) held a press conference with native speaker instructors in front of the Seoul Regional Employment and Labor Office at 10 a.m. on November 14, saying, "What is the Ministry of Employment and Labor doing when verbal abuse and violence against migrant workers is widespread in Korean society?" and demanded from the Ministry a full investigation into and special labor supervision over migrant worker discrimination, verbal abuse, and assault.

On November 9 it was revealed through media reports that the director of a language school in Yeosu, Jeollanam-do, had been verbally abusing native speaking instructors, saying things such as, "Servile people should be beaten," "Those kids should be killed," and "Tell me, you’re stupid, tell me." The native speaker who shared a recording had to repeat the phrase "I'm stupid" in response to his rant. The reason given by the director was that he didn't like the way she was correcting students’ English journals, among other things.

The harassment continued in other ways. At the press conference, the native instructors disclosed that the harassment was chronic, including assaults and unannounced visits to their lodgings from the owner. "He tried to enter my home unannounced, and I had to stop him. I felt like my life was in danger and was afraid to go to work out of panic and anxiety after that day," said Ms. A, a native speaking instructor who worked at the hagwon. "He locked me in the teachers’ office, made me memorize the teaching instructions word by word, and didn't allow me to bring lunch." 

However, the South Korean government did not help her. Ms. A said, "I asked the Yeosu Labor Office for help twice, but the case was dismissed due to insufficient evidence. I even asked the National Human Rights Commission for help, but no one thought my case was valid." "I thought filing a civil lawsuit would at least help, but my employer provided false testimonies from other teachers to frame me as a perpetrator of workplace harassment. When my case was dismissed, I lost faith in all legal systems."

Ms. B, who also worked at the same place, said, "I couldn't even expect common courtesy from people, and without intervention, these problems will continue." "The main obstacle for most foreigners is not language, but policies that exclude us and treat us as commodities," she said.

At the press conference, Kim I-hoe, co-chairperson of the Democratic General Union, said, "How can there be a hagwon in South Korea owner in 2023 who makes such senseless remarks?" "The Ministry of Employment and Labor should not dismiss this as the shamelessness of a single individual, but should immediately investigate the treatment and conditions of foreign workers and take appropriate measures," he demanded.

Ms. A left the hagwon and is working in another area. Ms. B also left and is looking for a job. The process hasn’t been easy. Under the current law, native speaking instructors who entered the country on an E2 (conversation instruction) visa and work at foreign language hagwons, language institutes, and continuing education institutions must obtain a transfer letter from their employer if they want to change jobs.

Participants in the press conference said, "It is the state’s structural violence caused by the current immigration law which allows employers to limit workers’ ability to change jobs.” "Workers on (not only E2 visas but also) E-9 visas are not allowed to change companies without their employers' consent. It is an institutional problem that creates structural violence."

"The government is increasing the number of migrant workers, but it gives all the rights to the employers and asks migrant workers to become their machines," said Udaya Rai, head of the Migrant Trade Union. Even if the employer assaults, verbally abuses, and sexually harasses them, the employer has all the rights, so we can only watch." "Korean society cannot run without migrant workers now. Migrant workers must be accepted into the fabric of Korean society. To do so, we need to create laws and systems that allow them to change workplaces freely," he said.

Lee Hyeon-mi, acting head of the KCTU’s Seoul headquarters, also said, "By restricting workers from changing jobs, the government shackles them so that they cannot escape if they are exposed to violence and discrimination in the workplace." "The government should establish laws and systems against racism and abuse of power and actively enforce them," she urged.

Meanwhile, the Yeosu language hagwon in question has reportedly been unable to operate normally due to a sharp drop in students after the verbal abuse and assault of the native speaking instructor became known to the local community. The press conference concluded with the participants conveying a request for a meeting to officials from the Seoul Regional Employment and Labor Office.

MTU's head, Udaya Rai, makes a good point about Korea's need for migrant workers, particularly as Korea's demographic implosion continues apace, and for the need to ease up on rules tying foreign workers to one employer. It should be remembered that this system was implemented in 1984 after the news media here flew into a tizzy after Le Monde published an article talking about how easy it was for travelers to find language teaching jobs in Seoul, where one even managed to marry a local girl from a "good family"; in response, the government changed the law. As David Mason remembered it:
I left back to America in the fall of 1983, the French scandal happened in 1984, and when I returned in early 1986 there were these new rules. No teaching at all on a tourist visa, and when a school or company sponsored your teaching visa they became your "owner" -- you couldn't have any other jobs unless they officially approved it. And if you stopped that job for any reason you just had to leave the country within five days, returning if you had another job that would sponsor your visa, or if not, not. Reentering on a tourist visa to find a new job, if you hadn't found one before your left, would be your only option. I remember some good quality longtime teachers who left in disgust and protest between 1985 and 1987, because they felt disrespected by all this.
Considering the role foreign workers will play moving ahead, maybe visa portability is something not to aspire to, but to return to?

On a somewhat-related topic, perhaps foreigners hoping for better treatment and representation could ask the Chosun Ilbo for help? But then (in comparison to the Joongang Daily's take on the bedbug problem, which pointed out that at least one Korean had been exposed to them while travelling abroad) considering Chosun Ilbo's report on the spread of bedbugs in Korea, which might as well be titled "Dirty foreigners bring bedbugs to Korea," perhaps not:

A mysterious bedbug infestation that first made headlines in Paris earlier this year seems to have made its way to Korea, traveling in the luggage or clothes of foreigners.

A dormitory at Keimyung University in Daegu and a public sauna in Incheon where bedbugs were sighted recently are believed to be inhabited or visited to foreigners, although it is still too early to make definitive conclusions. [… (Oh, they're making conclusions, all right)]

An official at the National Institute of Biological Resources said, "Hygiene standards are very high in Korea, so even simple maintenance can prevent a major spread. But bedbugs could continue to be spotted in areas frequented by foreigners." [...(who by inference must have very low hygiene standards)]

In Korea, bedbugs are often traced to areas with high numbers of foreign laborers. "There was even a case where bedbugs arrived here still attached to the body of a foreigner and spread in his room," the official said.

Maybe this is not the best way - in your English-language edition, of all things - to speak about the people who may well be ensuring you receive your pension in the future. 

Oh, and maybe put systems in place (and enforce them) to try to protect foreign workers from abuse, so that they don't give up after being failed in so many way by officialdom here?

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

"Paradise" by the projector's light, and real estate databases

 For my latest Korea Times article, I interviewed Todd Henry and Minki Hong about their documentary, ‘Paradise,’ which uses oral history and animation to explore the history of Seoul’s last-standing (if no longer operating) theater that once served as a venue for gay cruising.

I didn't have the space to discuss Todd's other project, which he shared when Paradise was first screened at the theater late last year, which is mapping out queer spaces in Seoul, some dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, which have mostly disappeared (including one grouping of such spaces in Sindang-dong, the neighbourhood I now live in), almost all of which were "anchored" by the presence of second-run theaters where gay cruising took place. The maps he put together were assembled from "a fragmented variety" of sources, a "combination of real estate databases, aerial photography, oral histories, and textual sources" such as weekly magazines. 

I recently discovered a two online real estate data bases, one which you have to enter an address for (and provides building information such as the year it was built), and another which provides a map which you can click on to find similar information, as well as information about the lot. Both are great tools which can be used to learn more about whatever neighbourhood or building you might be interested in.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Exploring Gaehwasan with the RAS this Saturday

I’ll be leading an excursion next Saturday, November 4, for the Royal Asiatic Society to Gaehwasan (near Gimpo Airport), a low mountain covered with temples, tombs, a Korean War memorial, and fall colours. It also overlooks Haengju fortress, site of Imjin War and Korean War battles. 

Starting from Banghwa Station, at the end of Line 5,we will pass through a park with a number of 400-year-old zelkova and gingko trees and then head up the mountain to see the numerous, beautifully carved tombs, flanked by stone statues, of the Pungsan Shim clan, who for several generations served the Joseon kings and were memorialized for their meritorious deeds, including taking part in the overthrow of the notorious king, Yonsan-gun, and, generations later, organizing righteous armies during the Imjin War.

We will also go to Yaksasa Temple and see a statue of the Buddha and a three-story stone pagoda which date back to the Goryeo Era.

We'll see an even larger such statue dating from the early Joseon period outside Mitasa Temple, on the other side of the mountain. The statue was found buried in the 1930s, when the temple was rebuilt. Both temples were destroyed during the Korean War, but the pagoda and statues survived.

Next to Mitasa is the Memorial to the Loyal Dead, which was erected to remember the 1,100 soldiers of the Korean 1st Army Division who died defending Mt. Gaehwasan - which overlooks Gimpo Airport - during the opening of the Korean War, which will provide an opportunity to learn more about the fighting which took place on the mountain during the war, as well as its military importance in the present. I'll also touch on the importance of the area during the Imjin War.

Being a mountain, of course, there will be lots of opportunities to take in views of the Han River and surrounding area and enjoy what nature has to offer (below is a spring view).

For more information about the tour, or to sign up, see here.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Yeouido sinkhole redux

The Korea Herald reports that yesterday a "4-meter-deep, 5-meter-wide sinkhole was found on a traffic island between IFC Mall and Parc 1 Tower in Yeouido, western Seoul at around 11 a.m."

It only took a quick look on Kakao Map to find its exact location. As it turns out, it's about 200 meters from the bunker turned into an exhibition space I mentioned here.

More disturbingly, it's about 150 meters from the site of retaining wall collapse that occurred during the construction of IFC on September 19, 2007, which created a 50-meter-long, 20-meter-wide and 30 meter-deep crater that swallowed several cars.

This might be something to keep in mind as authorities investigate the cause of the current collapse.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Restored Palaces, tunnels, and bunkers (among other things)

Over the Chuseok long weekend I visited a number of sites that might be of interest. First up was  Dondeokjeon, the European-style building in Deoksu Palace that was demolished in the 1920s and, after being restored, was opened to the public last week.

A model of the building.

I guess I hadn't been inside Deoksugung since 2018 (other than grabbing a coffee with a friend by the pond during Covid since it was a central and scenic place to sit outside), so I was surprised to see the gate that once stood in the southwest corner, where it sheltered a water clock, hwacha (multi-cylinder rocket launcher), and a temple bell, was gone. As it turns out, it was moved in 2018 closer to the entrance and back to where it originally stood as the gate to Gojong's sleeping quarters.


I'm not sure where the relics it sheltered went. The bell was from Heungcheonsa, a temple built on the grounds of what is now Deoksugung in 1397 by King Taejo in honour of his recently deceased wife, Queen Sindeok; its bell was commissioned by King Sejo in the 1460s in response to his feeling a bit bad about killing his nephew to take the throne, and the temple stood until it was mostly demolished under the tyrant Yongsan-gun and the sari hall burned by fired-up Confucian students out to destroy heresy in 1510, after which the bell moved from palace to palace, landing in Deoksugung by the 1950s and now gone to who-knows-where. (For more on that temple, and Jeong-dong's history, see Gregory Henderson's article "A History of the Chŏng Dong Area and the American Embassy Residence" from the RAS Transactions Volume XXXV (1959), which can be found here.)

A couple days later I headed to Mullae-dong. While I'd visited it before, I'd never been there on a warm evening, and it had quite a different feel to it as the narrow alleys had tables with customers spilling out into them. It makes for a unique urban space, which would explain the past decade of gentrification.

The next day I visited the Noryangjin Underground sewer, a restored tunnel dating back to perhaps 1899 which has various shapes and is an interesting place to explore (though it is only 92 meters long, so it's not a place you'll spend a lot of time in). It's near exit 7 of Noryangjin station (walk straight from the exit for 250 meters).

If you continue walking in the same direction for five minutes, on the south side of the street you'll find this building, now a wedding hall. 

It doesn't look like much, but this is where the 1971 Silmido incident (which inspired the 2003 film of the same name) ended when the soldiers in a hijacked bus were stopped and they blew themselves up with grenades (I wrote about it here long ago, where I first posted these photos). The second photo confirms that the bus was stopped at the right of the above photo (before the road was widened).

Older brickwork is visible in the sections behind the main street:

The cornerstone makes it clear that it was constructed in 1961 by the Yuhan Corporation, the pharmaseutical company established by Ilhan New (Yu Il-han) in 1926. (Wikipedia has more interesting information about him, with even links to the OSS during WWII.)

Then it was off to Yeouido, passing over the ecology park on the "inner side" of the island

Robert Fouser led an interesting excursion for the Royal Asiatic Society here back in June, when I took the following photos, which make it clear just how rural it feels down there in certain areas:

The next place to visit was SeMA Bunker, the underground bunker, likely built in 1977, that lies beneath Yeouidaero next to the bus stops near the International Finance Center and across from Yeouido Park. (The entrance is here.) The bunker was located beneath where stands were placed when Park Chung-hee would oversee military parades. It was perhaps last 'checked on' in the early 1990s, forgotten about, and rediscovered in 2005, and opened to the public as a gallery space in 2017 under management of the Seoul Museum of Art. The large space inside serves as a gallery, while a smaller section which housed sofas and a bathroom serves as a museum.

What the bunker, inundated with water, looked like when it was rediscovered.

Perhaps one of these days it would be worth documenting the slow, though increasing, gentrification of the area around Sindang Station. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

MMCA Exhibition on "Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s"

 The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul (next to Gyeongbok Palace) has an exhibit - until next Sunday, July 16 - titled "Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s" which is well worth a look. The Fourth Group (제4집단) was a mainstay of the weekly magazines in 1969-70 as they organized all kinds of 'happenings,' so it was fun to see some of their artworks, or preserved pamphlets, up close. (The Korea Times has an article on the exhibit, along with photos of some of the works, here.)

Two notes: The museum is open until 9 pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and after 6pm entry is free (though the exhibit is only 2,000 won), and I'll have to go back since there's a whole second room (the part I went to was spread over two floors) that I missed.

Also worth noting is that I found it fascinating that - as he notes in this interview - Kim Ku-rim could find little information about avant garde art in Seoul in the 1960s... until he stumbled upon Life and Time magazines in a bookstore that had come from Yongsan Garrison. I imagine at least some in Korea's authoritarian government found the cultural influence of the US military presence to be a nuisance at times.

At some point I'll likely put up translations of some of the articles about these artists from the 1968 - 70 newspaper weeklies. For now, here are some photos not in the exhibit, from the June 17, 1970 issue of Weekly Woman (주간여성), which show members of the Fourth Group at the exhibition organized by the Hankook Ilbo at Gyeongbok Palace abstractly "painting" the ceiling with balloons:

[It] is the work of avant-garde artist Jeong Chan-seung (29, Hongik University grad), a self-proclaimed heretic of the Korean painting scene, and is titled "Neutral Space." It is said that it is an attempt to abandon the conventional painting tools, which have limitations for aesthetic expression, and use a more expressive object (balloons) and expanded space (the ceiling) as a canvas.

Oddly, a week later the same magazine showed photos of the other exhibits there - some of which are visible above (particularly the sculpture in the third photo) - but there's no sign of the balloons. Were those photos taken earlier, and if not, had the balloons fallen down, or were they removed? It's hard to know...

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Evacuating the US embassy in June 1950, and the photos Shirley Dawes took of Korea in the late 1940s

For my latest Korea Times story I look at the events surrounding the evacuation of the US Embassy during the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.  

Some time ago I was contacted by Lynn Thompson, who had worked as a journalist at the Seattle Times and was writing a novel based on her parents' lives. Her mother had worked for the US Embassy from around 1948 to 1950, which was then based in the Bando Hotel (about which I have a post here). She shared with me numerous photos her mother, Shirley Dawes, took (or at least collected during her stay in Korea) and I answered questions about them. She also gave me permission to share the photos, and from that starting point came the idea for this article, supplemented by other sources such as interviews with political officer Donald MacDonald and Marine guard George Lampman [update: there's much more about him here], and John C. Caldwell's 1952 book The Korea Story

Below I share the photos Shirley Dawes' photos that were shared with me - many thanks to Lynn Thompson for giving me permission to do so. She really did capture a variety of scenes in Korea at that time.

But first, here is the Seattle Times article (which Lynn also shared with me) about her mother's experiences during the outbreak of the Korean War:

Hwanggudan altar on the grounds of the Chosun Hotel.

Seoul as likely seen from the former Mitsui Building, now the Seoul City Euljiro Annex.

The frozen, snow-covered pond in the secret garden in Changdeok Palace.

Children play on a see-saw.

Women do laundry near Hwaseong Fortress’s Hwahongmun in Suwon.

A monk at an unknown temple.

A sailboat, whether for fishing or transport is not clear (though perhaps the latter).

Dried fish being sold, perhaps in a market. Note the hairstyle of the girl in the center, which was very common for younger girls at that time.

I suspect this is a 'honey bucket', collecting human waste to use as manure.

A police officer directing traffic in the days before traffic lights. Life Magazine documented a very dynamic officer in action in the late 1940s.

An American on a mountain top, perhaps north of Seoul.

A US embassy employee poses next to the White Buddha in northwestern Seoul.

A Korean farm scene. The photos that follow are clearly also farm scenes.

Planting rice.

Employees of American Mission in Korea sunbathe on the roof of the Naija Hotel.

An employee of the Naija Hotel poses on its roof. Below are two more (out of focus) photos of the same woman. Note the former Government General building is can be seen clearly in the photo below on the left.

Embassy employees play tennis on the grounds of Paichai High School (Thanks to JiHoon Suk for identifying the location.)

Gimpo Airport. The relaxed poses suggest this was not taken when she left the country in June 1950.

US AMIK staff boarding a plane. Was this during the evacuation? Perhaps more eagle-eyed military plane experts could identify the plane to help give a clue.