Translated from the Korean by Young Min Moon
All color photographs by Heung-Soon Im
Thanks for your letter. It’s been a long time since last hearing from you. I figure you are a busy young man. It’s been so long, I had forgotten about you as well. Summer has been very hot this year.
You asked in your letter about my memories of the period immediately after the Korean War as well as the Vietnam War. Let me share with you some of my recollections.
The Korean War, as you surely know, ended in July 1953, so it was around this time of year. I was eight years old at the time and have some memory of the social atmosphere back then. Life was tough immediately after the war. I later learned that North Korea was also completely ravaged. But, as most of the industrial facilities built during the Japanese occupation and as most of Korea’s natural resources were located in the North, South Korea was truly left to start from scratch. Still, I did not really feel it so directly, as I was farming in the countryside. Thinking back, the difficulties people faced during those years are quite inconceivable now. There were no jobs. Everyone’s priority was to not miss a meal and to survive.
The president at the time, Syngman Rhee, seemed content to rely primarily on support from the United States. Park Chung Hee, who came to power through a military coup that deposed Rhee, put all his effort toward economic development in order to make this a prosperous nation. Recent generations tend to critique Park for his autocratic ways, but my generation thinks highly of his accomplishments. He once said, “Export is the only way to survive.” Human exports – like the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, including myself, the miners and nurses dispatched to Germany, the construction workers sent to the Middle East – were also part of the scheme. Isn’t that how President Park brought about the economic miracle? Of course, his 18-year reign showed a certain level of greed...
Series of Oral Statements about the War
You must be aware that President Park was assassinated by one of his own men? At the time, people thought it was the end of the world. Just think about how Koreans had emerged from the ruins of war and struggled to make this a model nation. Take the 1986 Asian Games and 1998 Summer Olympics in Seoul, for example. I have to say that our people are truly tenacious. I, for one, certainly worked day and night, thinking of my kids. In my recollections, those were the most meaningful times in my life.
But problems were to follow. I caught my first glimpse of troubles on the news in the early 1990s. We call the Gyongbu Expressway linking Seoul and Busan “the freeway of blood,” because we built it with blood, sweat, and tears. Seeing the Vietnam War veterans demonstrating on the freeway over the side effects of Agent Orange made me reflect on many issues. For the first time I learned about Agent Orange. I then wondered if my own symptoms of fatigue and numbness in my legs might also be related to the chemical, and I thought about getting a medical check-up. In my case, I don’t have too much discomfort and have been able to lead a normal life. Also, I am too fearful of finding out if I have some major problems, so I still haven’t had myself examined. Every now and then, I hear about the passing of my comrades who apparently suffered a lot. Back then I didn’t realize it, but now I suspect they may have had diseases related to Agent Orange.
In the midst of these revelations about soldiers’ exposure to Agent Orange, I saw the first reports in 1999 in the Hankyereh Daily News about Korean soldiers having slaughtered Vietnamese civilians during the war. I was very frustrated to learn that some veterans raided the news office, breaking windows and making a violent scene. We were considered patriots at one time, fighting for democracy, so I understand how upsetting it is for veterans to then suddenly be called “professional thugs” and face accusations of slaughtering civilians, and so on. I have to point out that it was true that it was difficult to distinguish Viet Cong from civilians. It was also true that I heard things that were truly disturbing, including killings of civilians and rapes, and other indescribable things. In a war zone, after all, who acts in his right mind?
The Donut Diagrams
Have you done a lot of interviews? I imagine the veterans you spoke with about the war cited repaying debts to the United States, engaging in a peace-keeping mission in Asia, and fighting for the protection of democracy and to keep communism from sweeping over free Vietnam, and so on. Am I correct? That’s what we learned before being sent off to the war zone. Let’s face it, we were all starving, so, do you think we really held to those beliefs? We went there without even knowing where Vietnam is located. What could we have known? We simply thought we were going to a war, and it was for good reasons. That’s about it. At the time, there was a serious famine back home. Everything was very difficult. Everyone was hungry, and the army was no exception. In the early phase of our participation in Vietnam, soldiers were drafted for the Vietnam War. There was no volunteering. Those who had been there early on returned and said they were fed well, and even saved a little money. After that a lot of people volunteered. The U.S. military rations were kind of gross, but it was okay. I had sausage and canned ham for the first time. In my generation, people couldn’t eat for lack of food. Now, many people don’t eat despite the abundance of food. The world has changed, wouldn’t you agree? Immediately after the Korean War, poverty and hunger were standard. There were not a lot of high school graduates. A good majority had not even finished elementary school. Now, everyone has a high school diploma or college degree.
Tour of Former Battle Fields
There was no travel abroad just twenty years ago. You couldn’t leave the country even if you wanted to. But a few years ago my daughter arranged for me to travel abroad. Now that we are in our sixties, my generation does a lot of tours in Southeast Asia. At the time there was a travel package called the “Filial Piety Tour” which visited Vietnam War battlefields. During the war, I was stationed on a base in Da Nang, but there was virtually no trace of it. The bases in Nha Trang, Ninh Hoa, and Quy Nhon were intact. In An Khe, I saw a stone victory monument inscribed in Korean, which gave me mixed feelings. I also saw many old Korean buses still bearing Korean signs on them on the highways and in Ho Chi Minh City. At first, I wondered if it would be risky to travel there since Koreans were their enemy. But, in fact, the Vietnamese we met were kind. It was true then and now, Vietnamese people are pretty laid back. They reminded me of our own people in the good old days.
During those trips, we veterans would recall wartime memories and sing military songs. I have to confess that made me a little uncomfortable. I also wondered if the presence of Vietnamese migrant workers and mail-order brides in South Korea, with all the attendant complications, has contributed to our collective amnesia about this chapter of our past, about the suffering we caused the Vietnamese? Are we like Japan, which exploited the sufferings of Koreans as stepping-stones on their path to development? I felt uneasy and ambivalent about it all.
As I mentioned earlier, this photograph was taken at a naval base in Jinhae, Kyung Nam province. We stayed there in transit, after undergoing surgery in the Philippines, and were waiting to be transferred to a military hospital in Busan. I am the one with a big smile in the back row. It’s just a casual shot taken after lunch. There’s not much to it, really. The stars of the picture, of course, are the two guys in the front row. One guy is pulling on the other, jokingly asking his buddy to marry him. To be a bit vulgar, one can imagine how they were craving women.
In the photo only those two guys appear to be amputees. In truth, most of the soldiers, like myself, concealed their missing legs with trousers. Most of the veterans in this facility had suffered major injuries. The two guys were the cheery ones who didn’t care and chose to be photographed with their pants rolled up. Their attitude was: Well, at least we survived the war, so we can laugh. We had no idea what lay ahead for us. I wonder if the two guys are alive and well?
In my case, I could handle the trauma of my injuries when among fellow soldiers. But after I was discharged, I had nightmares for years. In my dreams I walked on my two legs, played, worked, ran around, but when I woke up I had no legs. I survived for a few years with the help of alcohol. Given my condition, at the time I couldn’t imagine getting married. I didn’t know how I could live the remainder of my life. What could I do? Being alive was truly a nightmare. But now, I have an adorable grandson.
I’ll leave it at that for today, and if I can think of more I’ll be in touch again. Hope your work is coming along well and take good care. Bye.
Aug. 15, 2012, Cheonho-dong, Seoul
* This letter is part of the project (2004-09), rewritten in 2012 for this publication. The project stems from my interest in the lives of men from the social underclass of my father’s generation. It includes additional series of photographic works, archival materials, installations, and text. The Vietnam War was seen by many at the time as an opportunity to relieve the hunger and bare existence they led. For almost half a century now, our response to veterans of the Vietnam War has been silence and indifference. I have been troubled by our collective failure to deeply reflect upon their memories and experiences, and by our tendency to make polarizing assessments of them. In the interviews I conducted, I was able to gain glimpses of these men, their lives, and their histories, which I had not been privy to through my father. Through these men, I became able to understand a little more about my father and his rather dispassionate lifestyle. I began interviewing the veterans in 2004, the year my father passed away. This letter is an imagined one based on interviews conducted with South Korean veterans of the Vietnam War.