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.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Blaming victims of a go-go club fire amid anti-decadence campaigns in 1974

A firefighter amid the charred ruins of a go-go club where 72 people died (Weekly Hanguk, Nov. 10, 1974)

My latest Korea Times article examines a series of fires which took place in Seoul in the early 1970s, culminating in the Daewang Corner fire of November 3, 1974, in which 88 people - mostly young people at a go-go club that was operating illegally after hours - were killed in the blaze. 

The newspaper descriptions of unidentified victims made for sobering reading, while articles in the weekly magazines, with their clear aim of denouncing decadence and blaming the victims, are far more infuriating. In three articles spread over eight pages of 주간여성 (Weekly Woman)'s November 17 issue, the magazine ignored the fact that people had continued dancing because they were unaware of the fire and twisted this into the headline, "Even if I burn to death, I'm going to dance." 

Should parallels with a more recent tragedy become apparent, that's not accidental.

Below are photos not included in the article, translations of a so-called "memoir" of a survivor of the fire and another article's introduction, and a scan of a Korea Times article on how these clubs operated.

An advertisement for the new Daewang Corner building reads "The birth of a deluxe city in eastern Seoul!" (Chosun Ilbo, Nov. 3, 1968)

A photo of the first large fire at Daewang Corner (Korea Times, August 6, 1972)

Photos of the fire at Citizen's Hall where Sejong Cultural Center now stands (Korea Times, December 3, 1972)

A grotesque photo of the victims of the fire at Daewang Corner which appeared in several newspapers and magazines (Korea Times, November 5, 1974)

An article about how many go-go clubs operated illegally (Korea Times, November 10, 1974)

Below are a few pages of the November 17, 1974 issue of 주간여성 (Weekly Woman) magazine, including the open splash page that introduced the following group of three related articles. This was pretty standard in the weekly magazines that were published in a magazine format (as opposed to broadsheet format).

Exposing scenes rife with sex

Decadent packed clubs… Seoul nights

Frenzied go-go clubs, pink bars, indecent bathhouses

The New Namsan Hotel-Corner fire unexpectedly exposed a cross-section of sexual promiscuity, and the forms of promiscuity have taken on unprecedented and bizarre forms, making Seoul feel like a "place rife with sex." Just to name the typical forms, "pink bars," "obscene bathhouses," "call-girls at inns and hotels," and "broad daylight go-go meetings" are all decadent. We will expose all of these scenes that are rife with sex.

The introduction of another article reads as follows:

“Even if I burn to death, I’m going to dance.”
The 'stay up all night ecology' of the go-go tribe that grows like poisonous mushrooms

Amidst moody hallucinatory lighting and deafening psychedelic music, the number of go-go tribe members who go crazy all night is growing like poisonous mushrooms every day. What is the ecology of these go-go people who even give birth to the dark humor of “go-go dancing while burning to death”? If you go to the go-go site from opening to closing time… 

"Poisonous mushrooms" indeed. We can be certain that it was the media (with who knows what direction from the government) that gave birth to the so-called dark humor of "go-go dancing while burning to death", not the "go-go tribe" members.

One of the more egregious articles (and obvious anti-decadence propaganda) is the following "confession of a go-go girl" which is obviously fictional. Many articles in these magazines were titillating mixes of fact and fiction meant to both decry decadence and obscenity while also knowing they would draw in readers.

90% of the Go-go tribe fall into the trap of sex

A 24-year-old go-go girl's memoir of surviving the Daewang Fire

A go-go girl who was lucky enough to survive the Daewang Corner fire recounts her hellish experience and the death of her friend, and how "go-go is cursed without end". This account of a naive girl's strategy amidst the excitement of the go-go hall is a lesson for many in the go-go tribe.

Meet, shake it to your heart’s content, have fun, and then part ways without warning 

"Were you still a virgin? Hey, you ripped that band aid off quickly”

Youngja is dead. I rub my eyes and look again, but there's no mistaking her name on the death list in the newspaper. Age 24, the address is Youngja’s house exactly.

She's the same age as me, pretty, slender, and full of charm, and I can't believe she's dead.

Let's play with empty-headed men 

It was Young-ja who taught me about go-go, the same go-go that’s causing me to feel so much remorse. After graduating from the girls' school, while not up to much, I got a job and there I met Youngja. She was my senior BG, so to speak.

She chuckled and told me stories about her boys.

"When you're bored or depressed, go play with the boys."

With that, she led me by the wrist. I followed her to a so-called go-go hall that I had never seen before.

The first thing that overwhelmed me was the deafening music, but it was the atmosphere in the hall that stole my heart. After exchanging pleasantries with some of the boys, Young-ja sat down at one of the tables.

"Hey, don't look like a chicken, act like you're having a good time. They are no big deal either.”

Youngja whispered in my ear. There was no need to say hello to the boys. She went out into the hall and shook her ass, and I joined in with one of the guys. Go-go was like a drug.

To the next room...

This was the beginning of my go-go life, and it was like a rush of water. I even moved out of my house and went to a boarding house with the right excuse. The go-go hall was a convenient place for women, especially for girls, and at around 9:00 p.m., there were men who flirted with me as I passed in front of it.

"Enjoy the go-go," they would say, and all you had to do was go in, let the men bite, and shake you, and have fun. To be honest, I was a virgin until I entered a go-go hall. In my experience, the physiology of the go-go hall and the maintenance of virginity had a treacherous element to it. It was on my third go-go hall visit that I realized Youngja was not there. It must have been around 2 a.m. When I asked the man who was there, he said that he had a headache and was resting in his room.

Worried, I asked the man to take me to Youngja's room. He led the way and went into a room. Youngja wasn't there, and I don't want to imagine what happened next.

Suddenly, I realized that I had fruitlessly lost my 21 years of virginity to a man whose face I could barely remember. I was so upset that I sobbed and told Youngja. Youngja was surprised and asked, "Were you still a virgin?" Youngja continued, "You ripped that band aid off quickly. It's for the best!"

"See you later" is funny. 

Losing my virginity gave me a convenient excuse to play with men. I had nothing to lose, so I would play with them in moderation, and when I felt their eyes on me eagerly, I would take my clothes off, sometimes with a fire in me that made me crave a man. All my relationships had a clean aftertaste. "Let's see each other again!" I thought there was nothing ugly about men: having fun, flirting, and then breaking up without warning. I thought it was funny how outdated conventional morals were. It was only a short time, half a decade or so, that passed before I changed from a well-behaved child to this.

We were free of shame and shyness. Looking back on it now, I was an amazingly bad girl.

If I get pregnant, “It’s nothing!” 

Look at the people who frequent go-go halls and ask. I can say with certainty that eight out of 10 girls who return beautifully after dancing go through the haejangguk house in the morning and find an inn or hotel. The only time my go-go-mad self came to my senses was when I found out I was pregnant last year... “No problem, what are you worried about? You can just get rid of it,” Youngja said with a smirk. I couldn't do anything about it, so I followed her to the gynecologist's office and got it taken care of. The shame I felt at the time was excruciating...

Unbearable pleasure 

But the go-go-hall had a strange magic. Even though I was determined to stay away, I couldn't help but feel my shoulders shake at night. The temptation to go and have a good time was too much for me to resist. I swayed frantically, and with a man I'd never met before I went from the haejangguk restaurant to the inn. Pleasure that took my breath away. I fell deeper and deeper into that pleasure.

Then the fire at the New Namsan Hotel shocked Young-ja and me.

I'm afraid I'll be a little more careful now!" she said. "Shouldn't I also get married?"

She said it just like that.

"When I see girls who keep their virginity, I feel envious!" This was a remarkable thing to say for Youngja. But that Youngja died.

She lost her life during the Daewang Corner fire that shook the world to its core. On that night as well she and I went there together. We were dancing and having a great time when all of a sudden there was a commotion. It was absolute pandemonium. I ran out without thinking. I didn’t think of Youngja or the men at all. Thankfully, I didn't even get a scratch. I came back to the boarding house scared out of my wits, trembling along the road.

I couldn't breathe as I watched the TV news that evening, and it wasn't until I saw the report that more than 80 people had lost their lives that I rushed to read the list of deaths, wondering about Youngja’s safety. Youngja, my Youngja, was dead. That pretty body and charming face had been turned to ashes! I thought I was lucky to be alive, that God had given me one more chance. The horrors of that hellish ordeal and the death of Youngja made me bite my tongue. I bit my tongue and swore that I would never go to a go-go hall again.

In the three years of my madness, my body and mind were torn to shreds like rags. Now I'm going to sew it back together, stitch by stitch. I am ashamed to death of my past. I am regretful. There has never been a woman as unfortunate as me!

God, please wipe the evil go-go madness from this world! 

Not exactly subtle, but such was the propaganda of the time. I can't help but wonder if the name "Youngja" was chosen deliberately, especially considering of the main characters in Choi In-ho's book "March of Fools", which was serialized in Ilgan Sports from October 1973 to May 1974 (and which supposedly doubled Ilgan Sports readership), was named Youngja (who features heavily in the film adapted from the book which was released the next year).

Thursday, June 08, 2023

No Way Out: A conversation with Jeffrey Miller

I first encountered Jeffrey Miller's writing back when he worked at the Korea Times more than 20 years ago (see here or here for examples). He has since written ten books, of which No Way Out, published by Winding Road Stories, is his most recent. The story, about an English teacher arriving in Korea in 1990 and being framed for murder, piqued my interest as soon as I heard about it. What I hadn't expected was what a page-turner it would be - I read its 250-or-so pages in two or three sittings. Miller clearly used his own experiences as an English teacher who arrived in 1990, lived in Jamsil, and spent time in Itaewon to paint a vivid picture of that time period, but what I didn't expect was the way it branched out to shed light on a broad swath of Korean society at the time. He also drew on various historical events from the early 1990s which basically coalesce to put the protagonist and those around him under even more pressure, all while peopling the novel with well-drawn characters and seasoning it with references that reveal his knowledge of modern Korean history (such as the fact that Shinsegae Department Store was the American PX during the Korean War) - something I (unsurprisingly) appreciated. 

While Jeffrey and I have been Facebook friends for years, we'd never had the chance to meet or speak with each other, so, curious about some of the influences upon the book, I rectified that by asking him questions about it a couple weeks ago. The conversation, edited for clarity, is below, with my questions in bold (and one spoiler-ish question moved to the end).

* * * * * *

I really enjoyed the book - it was a real page-turner, and I enjoyed how the story drew upon so many details of that time period. What led you to set the novel during the 1990s?

Thank you. I'm really fascinated with Korea’s modern history, in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, because there were so many things happening at that time. Korea had growing pains, moving towards democracy, and the shackles of the authoritarian governments were still there but whether it was music, art or movies, you knew something was going to happen. And also at that time, this was in the midst of the economic miracle. 

When I came up with the idea for the book, I wanted to set it back in time, because, first of all, it's a lot easier to write in the past, because you don't have to worry about modern technology. The book would never have worked if it was set in 2023. With smartphones and videos, the book would have been over after page one. In the 1990s, a lot of things could happen as they’re depicted in the book. 

I’ve researched the era around the 1988 Olympics, and am well aware that after democratization had been achieved, and after the Olympics, there was a change in the perception of the US, and less willingness to tolerate American actions in Korea. No Way Out reflects that shift. Was that something you felt when you arrived?

I didn't really feel the anti-Americanism as much when I first arrived. It really wasn’t until probably 1991 or '92. There were all of these demonstrations, and in 1991, the student from Myongji University was killed [Gang Gyeong-dae, in April 1991; a month later Kim Gui-jeong was killed at a demonstration, and a student bystander was shot by police that September], and then the demos continued until June. Of course, I'd seen them before on television, you know, back in the 1980s, so I had some idea. But I think for the most part, when I came in 1990, I was, I would say, ignorant. I had known there was a hit TV show about Korea [MASH], and that they had hosted the Olympics, but I think that was as far as many people’s knowledge of Korea went. But when I was with students, they would start talking about these things in class. I think the first time it really hit me was actually about a week after I arrived, and some students invited me and other teachers to a party for their graduation from the language school. There were several students there, but there were also two men who had just gotten out of the military, where they had been riot policemen, so it was a really awkward moment, because the students had been throwing rocks at them. I had no idea what was going on until one of the teachers told me. That was when I first started hearing about the demonstrations. 

Anti-Americanism had been around for some time, but during the authoritarian governments, I think Koreans basically had to put up with Americans and the crimes they committed. But the Dongducheon murder [of Yun Geum-i] changed all of that, and that really soured things for a lot of people. And then there was the nuclear crisis of 1994, and the threat of war with North Korea, and there were a lot of people who thought the US had worn out its welcome. I remember I had one student who really hated America, but she wanted to study in America, so there was a bit of a dichotomy there. There was also the subway incident of 1995, where a GI was accused of touching a Korean woman [who turned out to be his wife] and a brawl broke out. And then much later, in 2002, after the middle school girls were run over, some GIs were kidnapped on the subway, dragged to a rally and forced to apologize for American crimes. There was also a student at Yonsei who tore down some banner or poster about the USA, and students sort of held him, put him in a room and they thought he was CIA, so things like this were happening in the 1990s. Things like the subway incident made it into the International Herald Tribune, and that was new, its coverage of Korea, so by the mid-1990s people were beginning to write more about Korea and look at things that they hadn’t before. 

I remember back in the early '90s, I think it was the Korea Times or Korea Herald that did a story or a series of stories talking about the eventual Yongsan base relocation, and they mentioned Itaewon, and said there was a love-hate relationship with the Americans, with the older generation seeing America as their saviors, but the younger generation was tired of hearing that. So, in the story, I wanted to allude to that, to the fact that these attitudes were changing. Americans couldn't just keep saying, “We sacrificed blood for this country, so you have to let us have our way.” I didn't want to offend anyone in the military because obviously I was in the military myself, but I did sense that sort of arrogance at the time and maybe that still happens.

I’ve spoken with Europeans who were teaching English here from 1985 to 1990 and they said that in the mid-1980s English hagwons were for adults and were centered on the area around Jongno 2-ga or Jongno 3-ga, but by 1990 the center of gravity had shifted to Gangnam.

Right, I think it was 1983 when 시사영어사 first opened their language school. That would have probably been in Jongno, near Pagoda Park, as it was called then, then they had a school in Pusan, and then the school in Gangnam. And of course, in Gangnam, back in 1990, there was nothing there. I think the tallest building was the New York bakery, and the city limits were at Yangjae, and there were empty lots all along up Tehranro. I don't know when exactly they opened that school, but they did have three schools. And there were several other smaller schools that operated in the shadow of ELS, like in the book where he’s teaching and he looks out the window, and across the alley is another classroom where there's another guy teaching and, you know, I saw that all the time. These were really small hagwons, and I don't know how they survived but there was such a craze then. I remember going down to the Gangnam subway station in one of the bookstores and it had all these English books, and the one thing that always struck me as being kind of strange was AFKN English: “Watch AFKN and learn English.” There were all these books; you could watch General Hospital and learn English idioms. At the time there were so many hagwons, including university hagwons like Yonsei and Sogang, but ELS had a good reputation. We were taken very good care of, I will say that; you couldn't have asked for a better gig. We lived in Jamsil, just across from Lotte World, and could hop on the subway and be at work in 10 minutes. We’d teach in the morning for two hours, got the afternoon off, and taught at nighttime. 

I liked Korea back then, I have to say. I really liked the diamond in the rough allure that Korea had. I guess I wax nostalgic about it a lot. Being an English teacher, you were a novelty; you were not seen as a threat yet. This was years before English Spectrum - after that, things changed drastically. I remember one day, it was probably in early January of 1991, I was walking through Myeong-dong, and suddenly I heard somebody yell my name. It was a student of mine. She was shopping with her mother and wanted to introduce me to her. This was in the middle of Myeong-dong on a Sunday, but then, having red hair, I probably stood out a lot more than I do today. There was this sort of novelty then of taking the English teachers out. There were still some of the Confucian underpinnings in Korean society where teachers were respected. I remember one time walking outside and having a cigarette, and some students were smoking, and they put out their cigarettes right away, because it was considered not polite to smoke in front of a teacher. 

I liked that time in Korea, because everything was new to me, and there was this roughness to it, but you knew things were changing, that things were going to get better. And the longer I stayed, the more I began to see those changes. I also began to see things differently. When I moved across the river and started teaching at Yonsei, I started seeing an entirely different aspect of teaching in Korea. Then when I started writing for the Korea Times, I started seeing different aspects of society, and I saw things differently than when I first came here, when I was fresh off the boat, and didn’t know much and was trying to learn the language and learn the culture. 

It was kind of weird, because I lived in a nice apartment complex, and on my first night in Korea, I got to my apartment and I turned on the TV, and there was David Letterman, and it was so surreal, to see that after just arriving in another country. I lived just down the street from the Olympic Stadium, and the Olympics were still fresh in my mind. But things were changing. Korea opened up the educational market in 1994 or 1995 and suddenly all these teachers were coming over, but I think maybe it was the tail end of the euphoria that followed the Olympics and then things started to taper off going into the mid '90s, especially with the economic crisis in 1997. The '90s were kind of up and down. 

Having worked in Gangnam and lived in Jamsil starting in 1990, did you hear anything about the murder of Carolyn Abel? She was stabbed to death in her Jamsil apartment in December 1988, so that was only two years before you arrived.

Yes, folks were still talking about Carolyn Abel's murder in 1990. She taught at the ELS school where I taught. In 1992, I was the interim academic director for the Hyundai Sisa Language Institute in Jongno, which was under the Sisa Yongo-sa umbrella. One day, all the academic directors had lunch with YB Min and he brought up the murder or the topic came up, and I remember him saying that there was an unsolved murder in Thailand that was similar to the one in Jamsil. When I started at ELS, I was told that the murder in Jamsil was some bizarre love triangle. I tried to find out about her murder for the book, but I couldn’t find anything, in part because I thought it happened in 1989. [More about her murder can be read here.

There is also the unsolved murder of Monte Dhooge in 1993 in Thailand. We wrote 12 English books for the Hyundai Sisa school in 1992, which in itself was a major accomplishment back then using Microsoft 3.1. A few months after we finished he left Korea and went to the Middle East to teach. While vacationing in Bangkok someone broke into his Khao San Road guesthouse and murdered him.

Part of the book involves police interrogation and scenes in prison. Was this influenced by Brother One Cell, the book by Cullen Thomas, who was an English teacher arrested for smuggling hashish into Korea in 1994 and sentenced to 3 years in prison?

Yes, that's right. I got some ideas from that book. I did take some liberties when imagining what the interrogation and prison would be like, but his book helped to give me an idea of what it would have been like at that time. That was probably one of the hardest parts to write. I think what gave me the most trouble was trying to make the story believable enough for somebody who's never been to Korea, to understand that these things happened, that even up to the early '90s, there were blacklists and banned books and the National Security Law. So I was trying to write about that, and corruption and police brutality and then going to prison. A lot of that was based on what I've read, but I did talk to a few people and asked if somebody would be arrested like this and a few people I talked to said, yeah, that stuff could have happened. So yes, definitely that book was one of my influences. Another was Martin Limon’s books [about US CID investigators digging into crime in places like Itaewon] - that was probably my biggest influence, even though he’s writing about Korea in the 1970s. By the 1990s, a lot of those things were still taking place, such as the way that the GIs dealt with women and the way that the women grew callused because of that. His first book, Jade Lady Burning, came out in the early 1990s and his writing was really important for me, as it helped me with my own story. So those were my biggest influences writing the book.

Itaewon plays a large part in the book, though certainly not a defining one. You paint a picture of what it was like there in the 1990s.

Right, that was not difficult to write because I remember it quite vividly. Like in the book, one of my colleagues said, “Let’s go to Itaewon,” and I asked, “What's that?” I had been in the military, so I knew what a camptown was like. It reminded me of when I was 18 and away from home, stationed in the Canal Zone, and we’d go to Panama City, though Itaewon was sort of a surreal version of Roppongi or something like that. A few people who were here in Korea at that time read the book and told me I’d nailed it with the Itaewon scenes, of showing what it was like at the time. There’s a scene where they're at the Twilight Zone where one character says of the GIs that they make it difficult for the rest of us here, because Koreans sort of lump us all together. I’m sure you remember how as soon as Koreans saw a foreigner, they automatically said, American, miguk saram - it didn't make any difference who you were, everybody was an American. And as Americans, we do carry a lot of cultural baggage with us, no matter where we go. And you end up becoming an ambassador, whether you want to be one or not, and that’s something you have to deal with.

The Twilight Zone in December 2022.

The first place I visited in Itaewon was the Twilight Zone, just like in the book. There was also King Club, but I think I went to King Club only once or twice in all my years in Korea - it wasn’t my kind of scene. Another popular place was Polly's Kettle. Later, when Stompers opened up, in 1993 or 1994, a lot of people started going to that bar. At that time things began to change and people started going to other bars that had opened up on the main strip. First there was Nashville, then the Nashville extension. There were other bars, I forget the names now, but there were so many on the main strip. Things began to change, and I think a lot of that had to do with more people coming to Korea, young Koreans who had gone overseas coming back, and it was around the 2000s that we saw all of the eating spots and micro breweries opening up. I've always been fascinated with Itaewon, because there was always something about it, a roughness kind of like in the old wild west where GIs and English teachers and expatriates were all thrown into the mix. Up and down the hill there were places like the Grand Ole Opry that even Martin Limon has written about in stories set in the 1970s, so there's a bit of continuity from that era. It was sometimes rough, and fights were pretty common - I've seen a lot of those bars empty out. It was often due to guys coming off the field, coming down from Camp Casey or someplace like that - they never got along with the guys in Yongsan who worked nine to five and then got to go home. The fact that there was this slice of real estate behind the main strip, where all these things were happening and the government was looking the other way, and then you had the courtesy patrol with American MPs and Korean police coming in, made for a weird, weird scene. It was like Jim Morrison’s “weird scenes inside the gold mine” when you were going up to Itaewon.

In terms of English teachers, most of us later started gravitating towards the places on the main strip, because that’s where you could get better beer and food. There was a place called Old Germany that was sort of a German Hof - that was closer to the Japanese section of Itaewon. That's another thing people don't remember - that there was a Japanese part of Itaewon as well, where there was karaoke and Japanese style bars. Japanese tourists headed there, so there were two parts of Itaewon at the time.

I remember back at the Nashville, they had a sign that said ‘No Korean men allowed’ on the door. I did a story on the owner, Skip Tuttle, back in the early 2000s, and he told me that the reason was that if you let Korean men in, there were going to be fights. You know, even then the hostesses that had to dance at certain times of the night and do a Texas two step or something, which was really weird, but all the old GIs there got a kick out of it. Still, it was the best place to get a burger or a steak in town for many years. In the early 2000s the government shut them down because of some bad spices or something, and at the time, Outback was trying to set up shop down the street, so I always wondered if maybe that was a good way to get rid of the Nashville.

I was curious about the gangsters who appear in the book. Did you do any background reading to flesh out these memorable characters? Have you ever had any encounters with them yourself? 

Only at the sauna. I've got several tattoos and usually they would often take a look. But I’ve never really had any run-ins with any gangsters. This was different from Japan, where I actually had run-ins with the Yakuza. I taught in Japan before I came to Korea, and I remember going out and actually being invited into a hostess bar, because this Yakuza guy invited me in since I was an English teacher and he wanted me to teach him English. He brought me into this bar but it was just to show off his English. I never had any run-ins like that in Korea, though.

A lot of the gangster scenes were imagined. I’d come up with my own idea of the gangsters by watching Korean movies. Thanks to Netflix, I had a steady supply of Korean movies that I probably would not have had the chance to watch otherwise. One involved a drug lord in Pusan who was trying to sell drugs in Japan. Actually, I also drew on Black Rain (1989), though that was about the yakuza. I was using some of those movies to get an idea of the way they carried themselves, of their mannerisms, but a lot of it was the product of my imagination. Those were some of my influences, and hopefully the gangster scenes were realistic enough to be believable for readers. Guns do come into play, so I had to make that believable, since that’s not common in Korea - so it was a policeman’s gun. I remember reading an article back in 1992 or ‘93 where there was a big gang fight around the Seoul express bus terminal. These two rival gangs got out baseball bats and clubs and hatchets and axes, and started going at each other in the middle of the street. It was a lot more brutal than simply using a pistol. It's a lot more physical and in-your-face kind of violence, which does come into play in the story, with a pickaxe used at one point.

I want to keep spoilers to a minimum, but the story doesn’t just take place in the city, but moves farther afield.

I wanted to do that - to get him out in the country. It brings out the whole idea of not knowing where you are, especially having just arrived in this new country, and you're trying to survive the best way you can, and then you have a snowstorm. That was kind of more of a nostalgic touch for me, because, you know, I love it when it snows in Korea. I was trying to recall that [certain location] because I'd been there before. I remember walking through the park on a road, and finally I went to Google Maps and was able to find it. Google Maps has made it much easier to write these days, because you can always refer to it to get details about a city or a place. You can quickly answer questions like, “Was there an alley back there?” So it's made writing a lot easier.

I remember when you were working on the novel and you mentioned on Facebook that you’d gathered a playlist of songs that were popular in 1990, and couldn’t help notice that some of them appear in the book, particularly during the Itaewon scenes, like Vanilla Ice’s “Ice ice baby” or Roxette’s “It must have been love.” 

That’s something that always works for me, if it's a period piece. I can refer to music, and not only does it help me when I'm writing, it also helps to push me back to that time. Some songs will always be Korea in 1990, for me, like Sinead O’Connor [Nothing compares 2 u], and [The Righteous Brothers’] Unchained Melody because of the movie Ghost. When songs are popular in Korea, they can kind of get beaten into the ground, so you couldn't go anywhere without hearing Unchained Melody. I remember in Pusan - I went down with a buddy for New Year's Eve for my first trip out of Seoul - we were near the fish market, and we passed one of those vendors selling cassette tapes, but the sign written on the cart didn’t say Unchained Melody, but “Unchanged Melody.” And I thought, “Oh, that's beautiful.”

Whenever a popular movie came out, it seemed like all the coffee shops and restaurants were named after it; there must have been about 20 “Bodyguard” restaurants in 1993. And with my students, they always had English nicknames. I’d ask, ”What do you want me to call you?” And they’d reply, “Oh, call me The Terminator,” or “Arnold” or something. You'd have a whole class and their names would reflect whatever movie was popular at the time. And during my first couple of years in Korea, I think almost every bar I went to was playing Hotel California, despite the fact it was an older song. So in No Way Out, this music appears when they’re in bars. Having playlists of these songs really helps. I like having the music from the time playing when I'm working on the story, or I’m at the gym and thinking about the story. I’ll also look on the internet and find photographs from that time and put them up on the wall in my office where I'm writing. It’s a good way to immerse yourself in that time period and it helps with writing the story.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a novel right now. It takes place in 1962. So, once again, I've been listening to music from 1962 as a soundtrack. It won't actually feature in the novel, but again it helps to puts me in that frame of mind, and helps me to paint the characters. As well, I will soon be coming out with my memoirs of living and teaching in Korea. I wrote them back in 2011, but they were mostly my musings about life in Korea and many of the articles I wrote for the Korea Times; this time around they are more focused and look at how I basically “came of middle age” in Korea.


[This is a bit of a spoiler and meant for those who have read the book.]

There is a switch fairly early on in the novel from first person to third person narration, which changes the nature of the story. It’s a surprise because it suddenly changes from being the story of an English teacher caught in a nightmarish situation to a portrayal of various aspects of Korean society as shown from the point of view of different Korean characters. 

That's what I intended it to be, because I was really torn between whether I should make it third person or first person. But if you go with first person, you obviously can't tell the story of Korea at that time because the narrator would not know anything about it because he's only been there for 48 hours. But then you switch to the other characters, and they fill in the gaps and get into the back story, which helps to understand what was really going on that time. I wouldn’t say it’s a historical novel, but there are points where it is depicting what was happening at that time.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

"North Korean Reactions to Instability in the South" and "The South Korean Political Scene "

 On December 20, 1979, the CIA released a report titled "North Korean Reactions to Instability in the South." This report came 8 days after Chun Doo-hwan's December 12 insurrection and takeover of the ROK military, and the authors of the report clearly had this on their minds, since they thought the "emergence of fighting between South Korean military factions" was a possibility moving forward. It's also clear that such intra-ROK military tension was perceived as being as much a source of instability as "widespread civil disorders". The report followed years of debate over Carter's troop withdrawal policy that was postponed and ultimately quietly shelved after new intelligence in mid-1979 showed large increases in North Korean troop numbers and tanks.

This report is also important because it was one of the files provided to CIA Director Stansfield Turner prior to the May 22, 1980 Periodic Review Committee meeting in which Chun Doo-hwan's military coup of May 17, as well as the Gwangju Uprising, were discussed by prominent Carter Administration officials. In fact, according to the Platt Memo, Turner stated at the meeting that there was a "50:50 chance on whether North Korea will do something, whether they will attack or infiltrate", which shows this document's influence on the CIA director (though it should be noted that General David Jones, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at that meeting that "We doubt that North Korea will make an attack, but are likely to infiltrate").

Here is the report:

* * * * * * 

SNIE 42/14.2-79 

North Korean Reactions to Instability in the South 

Information available as of 20 December 1979 was used in the preparation of this Estimate.

This estimate is issued by the Director of Central Intelligence. 

The National Foreign Intelligence Board concurs, except as noted in the text. 

The following intelligence organizations participated in the preparation of the Estimate: 

The Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. 

Also Participating: 

The Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Department of the Army 

The Director of Naval Intelligence, Department of the Navy 

The Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, Department of the Air Force 

North Korean Reactions to Instability in the South 


This contingency estimate addresses the likelihood of a North Korean attack on the South if severe fighting between South Korean military factions and widespread civil disorders develop there during the next two or three months. It assumes a level of instability which may not develop. 

Key Judgements

The emergence of fighting between South Korean military factions and widespread civil disorders in South Korea would prompt Pyongyang to consider forceful reunification of the peninsula.

However, Pyongyang would face a crucial imponderable in attempting to determine the US response to a North Korean attack, given the presence of US ground forces in the South and the virtual certainty of their being engaged. With the US-South Korean relationship clearly strained by the chaos in the South, and the United States preoccupied with events in Iran and possibly elsewhere, the North would probably calculate that US capability and resolve to defend South Korea had been weakened. 

In view of the magnitude of the decision facing Pyongyang and the risk involved, we cannot judge with confidence whether or not it would opt for military action. We believe, however, that the chances of such action could be as high as 50-50 under this scenario.* If the North should decide to intervene, it would most probably launch a massive assault designed to destroy organized resistance and consolidate its control over the South. 

* The Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, believes it impossible to calculate odds in circumstances that demand so many subjective judgments, including North Korea's perception of the risk of war with the United States and loss of so much of the progress of which North Koreans are so proud. He agrees, however, that there would be a significantly higher risk of hostilities. 


1. North Korean President Kim Il-song would view the emergence of fighting between South Korean military factions and widespread civil disorders in the wake of South Korean President Park's death as a unique opportunity to reunify the Korean Peninsula on his terms. In 1975, Kim publicly declared that the North would not stand idly by if "revolutionary conditions" developed in the South, a sentiment that Pyongyang has subsequently publicized. Privately, Kim has described the unsettled period between the resignation of Syngman Rhee in 1960 and the military coup in 1961 as a golden opportunity that the North was militarily unprepared to exploit. Given the significant expansion of North Korean military capabilities over the past decade, Kim is now in far better position to take such action. 

The Deterrent 

2. In considering an attack on a militarily weakened South Korea, Pyongyang would weigh the attitudes of its major allies and, most importantly, the US security commitment to Seoul. For years, Moscow and Beijing have cautioned Kim, but their influence has decreased as the North's military self-sufficiency has grown. If Kim were otherwise convinced that military intervention were in his interest, it is doubtful that China or the USSR could veto the venture. 

3. We judge that North Korea would attack the South if there were no US military presence. The presence of US ground forces, however, and the virtual certainty of their being engaged during any sizable North Korean assault must give Pyongyang pause. The North has long recognized that the presence of US infantry north of Seoul is a deterrent above and beyond the US treaty commitment to South Korea. We continue to believe that one of Pyongyang's key objectives throughout the 1970s has been to end the US troop presence in the South. 

4. The North would be aware of strains in the US-South Korean relationship flowing from the domestic chaos in the South. Pyongyang would probably calculate that US resolve to defend South Korea had been weakened to some extent, more so if a debate on Korean policy developed in the United States. 

5. The North would also consider US concerns and involvement outside Korea. It might perceive current US preoccupation in the Middle East and Southeast Asia as a factor that would decrease its degree of risk in taking military action. On the other hand, Pyongyang might consider US frustration and anger over the Iranian situation and evidence of a renewed mood of American assertiveness as ominous indicators of Washington's willingness to respond to an attack on US forces in Korea. The North would also assess US ability to respond rapidly. If the United States were to become militarily involved elsewhere in a major way, we would expect the North to see the degree of risk substantially reduced. A key indicator for Pyongyang would be the continued presence of US forces in Korea and elsewhere in Northeast Asia, or earmarked for use there. 

6. In view of the magnitude of the decision facing Pyongyang and the risk involved, we cannot judge with confidence whether or not it would opt for an all-out assault. We believe, however, that the chances of such action could be as high as 50-50.

Military Options 

7. Pyongyang might consider either: (1) some form of limited military intervention that would minimize risks, test US resolve, and add to the process of disintegration in the South, or (2) launching a major offensive. We believe that Pyongyang would reject the first course. Since the Korean war, the North has tried a wide variety of lesser measures with little success. In view of those experiences, the North might well calculate that limited action would be a net loss. US and South Korean forces might not accurately gauge the North's limited objectives; if so, the North's risks would not be lessened. In the past, the assumption of a menacing posture by the North has had a unifying effect upon the South, and Pyongyang would have little reason to judge otherwise this time. Finally, measured North Korean military action would yield limited gains at best, and yet could help to suspend US troop withdrawals indefinitely. 

8. Thus we believe that North Korean military intervention would likely take the form of a large-scale, coordinated ground, naval, and air assault against the South. Large numbers of ranger-commando troops would be inserted both immediately behind the South's frontlines and deep into the interior to support frontal attacks by conventional ground forces across the Demilitarized Zone. The North's Air Force would attempt to neutralize the South Korean and US close-air-support capability by attacking airfields and command and control and air defense sites. The North Korean Navy would support assaults on key coastal targets and conduct antishipping operations off the South's coasts. 

9. Although control of the Seoul area would be an initial objective, we believe that the North's ultimate goal would be the unification of the entire peninsula through military conquest. Our knowledge of North Korean military tactics and strategy has improved in recent years. Available information indicates that the North plans to seize all of South Korea by employing the principles of surprise, rapid movement, and destruction of as many South Korean troops as possible. Both military and civilian defectors and captured agents from North Korea speak of total victory as the purpose of a campaign against the South and deny that the North plans for a war with limited objectives. 

10. In our view, North Korea would attempt to continue the invasion and to consolidate control over the South as long as its military operations were successful. The North's increased numbers of military units, personnel, and equipment would permit sustained operations far longer than we considered possible even two years ago. North Korea's transportation net is sufficient for continued resupply unless seriously interrupted by enemy action, and if the North's storage tanks were full, there would be sufficient POL [Petroleum, oil, lubricants] to support military operations for several months. Other critical supplies are believed sufficient for at least 30 days of heavy combat. 

11. The USSR and China, as treaty allies of Pyongyang, almost certainly would respond cautiously to a North Korean attack on South Korea. Both would want to avoid a direct military confrontation with the United States; the Chinese in particular would be loath to jeopardize their developing relationship with the United States. Nonetheless, because of their mutual rivalry and the strategic importance of maintaining a nonhostile state in North Korea, the USSR and China would feel compelled to provide at least some material assistance to Pyongyang. 

12. The level and nature of Soviet and Chinese support would depend, among other things, on the magnitude of the US reaction, the extent and duration of the hostilities, Soviet and Chinese expectations concerning the outcome on the battlefield, and the importance the two countries attach to competing with each other for influence with the North Korean regime. Neither ally would be likely to intervene directly in a conflict on the peninsula unless, as in 1950, the survival of the Pyongyang regime were threatened.

* * * * * * 

On February 14, 1980, the CIA published a report entitled "The South Korean Political Scene" which examined all of the prominent political players and other groups jockeying for power, as well as the economic factors that threatened stability.

* * * * * *

14 February 1980 

Intelligence Memorandum 

The South Korean Political Scene 


The government of President Choe Kyu-ha is moving gradually towards a more liberal political system, but his task will be complicated by a deteriorating economic situation, concerns as to the military's internal stability and fears that the army might attempt to take full control of the political process. Martial law is likely to remain in force for the foreseeable future to deal with expected student demonstrations in the spring and deter labor riots that could erupt as a result of the economic downturn. Anti-government elements have so far adopted a pose of moderation, hoping to keep the political temperature down during the tense months of transition. This mood of moderation probably will dissipate as the political parties and politicians vie for supremacy. Seoul’s recently resumed dialogue with Pyongyang is likely to put further pressures on the government during the transition period.

Since the assassination of President Park last October, the new government of Choe Kyu-ha has been moving steadily toward a loosening of Park's authoritarian political system (Yusin) and a greater measure of political liberalization. Having moved quickly to remove some of the detested trappings of the Park era – such as the restrictive Emergency Measure No. 9 – and having released most political prisoners, Choe is now overseeing the drafting of a new constitution. He has said that he will step down after the new constitution is approved by popular referendum and new presidential elections are held - probably in the spring.

Choe – who lacks the decisive leadership skills and power base of Park – will be hard pressed to maintain stability in the months to come. Several factors complicate this task. First, the South Korean economy, after years of rapid growth, is now in the midst of a sharp downturn. A currency devaluation of nearly 20 percent and a 59 percent increase in oil prices last month will further fuel inflation this year, raising the rate to about 25-30 percent. Unemployment is also expected to increase during 1980. Some government officials fear that skyrocketing prices and rising unemployment will lead to labor unrest in the spring. Though the Choe government has taken economically sound measures to deal with these problems, both the pro-government and the opposition party have begun to attack the administration for its economic policies. 

The most disturbing unknown, however, is the simmering turbulence within the Army. The faction of Major General Chon Tu-hwan – the strongman who seized control of the army in a violent military action last December – appears to hold a firm grip on power, but numerous elements have been angered by his takeover. Although there is no firm evidence that there is any cohesive group within the military strong enough to challenge Chon, we cannot discount the possibility that such a group will emerge and attempt a counteraction. Should more restiveness surface, it could undermine domestic political stability, erode business confidence at home and overseas, and even encourage North Korea to launch a military thrust against the South. 

Even if there is no further instability within the military, the army will exert an influence – direct or indirect – on all major policy decisions. General Chon has steadfastly denied that he has political ambitions or that he plans to become involved in politics, but the pervasive fear that he might has served to keep political emotions in check. There is also a question as to the degree of political liberalization the military will tolerate. They clearly will not permit the election of a controversial dissident figure as president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Many civilians fear that, if confronted by a deteriorating political situation, the military will not hesitate to intervene, extending their martial law powers and perhaps even supplanting the civilian authority. 

Although the military has taken care to reduce its visibility, its influence nevertheless has been pervasive. Martial law – In force for nearly four months – has put a damper on political activity by prohibiting certain kinds of political meetings and by implementing an effective press censorship. The military will probably be unwilling to lift martial law as long as the danger of anti-government activity exists. 

Government and military authorities are also concerned over the prospect of campus demonstrations this spring. Should these demonstrations spill over into the streets, they could stimulate the unemployed and the economically disadvantaged elements to vent their grievances, thus acting as a catalyst for riots such as occurred in two southern industrial cities last October. The government has been working to mollify the students before the new school semester begins next month, but many issues remain unsolved. 

An uneasy truce continues between the two major political parties, the majority Democratic Republican Party and the opposition New Democratic Party. Aware of the dangers of exciting the political atmosphere, the opposition elements have adhered to a moderate course and have not pressed the government on a number of sensitive issues. This moderate pose will probably not last much longer, as the exigencies of politics will force the opposition and pro-government parties to sharpen their differences. As these differences begin to surface, hard-line dissidents are likely to begin to press demands that will be clearly unacceptable to the government and the military. Such intemperate activities could force the authorities to resort to harsh action to suppress dissidence, which would in turn further inflame the situation. 

Fear and distrust of North Korea continue to influence Seoul's policies. Acting on a North Korean overture, South Korea recently began a series of preparatory meetings with Pyongyang aimed at an eventual meeting of the prime ministers of the two sides. The North Korean move seems designed to put further pressure on Choe during the delicate transition period and to create an atmosphere that would facilitate the loosening of the US-ROK security relationship. Although Seoul is suspicious of the North's intentions and is expected to move cautiously, this new dialogue with Pyongyang might be exploited by anti-government politicians, who are likely to criticize any unilateral arrangements with North Korea made by an "interim government" without the participation of all political parties.

This memorandum, requested by the Secretary of the Treasury, was prepared by [          ] the East Asia-Pacific Division, Office of Political Analysis. The paper has been coordinated with the Office of Economic Research, the Office of Strategic Research and the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia-Pacific. Research was completed on 13 February 1980. 

* * * * * *

This report examines the various forces at play through the lens of threats to stability, with a mention of "the dangers of exciting the political atmosphere" amid the "fear that, if confronted by a deteriorating political situation, the military will not hesitate to intervene, extending their martial law powers and perhaps even supplanting the civilian authority" - a fear that turned out to be fully justified, though it's entirely likely, as noted in the reports here, that Chun was trying to provoke students so as to encourage instability that could be used as a pretext for a military takeover. 

At any rate, according to pages 16-20 of this pdf, with the two CIA reports above and the two CIA reports from May 1980 posted here, we can see the bulk of the files given to brief the CIA director before the May 22, 1980 meeting at the White House to discuss events in Korea. Other, more recent CIA reports from Korea (heavily censored as they are) can be found here, and reports from May 22 note that "Violence has spread to about 16 towns within a 50-mile radius of Kwangju, all in South Cholla Province", as well as the prediction that "The military would be hard pressed to deal with simultaneous uprisings of the same magnitude in other areas." When taken together with the report "North Korean Reactions to Instability in the South," summarized in the May 9, 1980 memorandum "Growing Unrest in South Korea and Prospects for Takeover by Military Strongman Chon Doo Hwan," with the statement "the emergence of widespread civil disorder in the South would prompt Pyongyang to consider forceful reunification of the peninsula", it's clear at least some  high-ranking US officials believed there was a 50/50 chance of North Korea taking advantage of events in the South to the point of, in the worst case, invading.

Below is a map I made of the towns and cities where arms seizures or demonstrations took place during late May 1980 (based mostly on information in Memories of May 1980: A Documentary History of the Kwangju Uprising in Korea, which is downloadable here).