Peter joined the U.S. Army in 1981. He had studied Taekwondo extensively for years, so when the time came to discuss his deployment, he asked to be stationed in Korea where the discipline of Taekwondo had been developed during the 1950s and ’60s. The recruiter’s eyes lit up, and he assured Peter that sending him to South Korea would be no problem. It turned out that no one asked to go to Korea, for reasons Peter would later discover.
The land of Korea lies cloaked in ominous mystery. It has often been called a “Hermit Kingdom” because of its isolationism, particularly in the north. Koreans have been called the “Jews of the Orient,” perhaps for their aggressive approach to commerce and international politics. However, Korea has its own appeal. There have been astonishing revivals in Christian churches there. South Korea is called the “The Land of the Morning Calm,” a designation conferred on it by an emperor of China’s Ming Dynasty in 1934 because of its “spellbinding natural beauty of picturesque high mountains, clear waters and splendid tranquility, particularly in the morning,” according to the Times of India.
Peter joined the Second Infantry Division, which was the main force protecting South Korea from the North. Each infantryman was required to serve for a minimum of three months in the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which was the hardest, most dangerous duty because of the constant threat of renewed aggression from the North. The soldiers in the DMZ would absorb the brunt of the attack. “They would get slaughtered at first, until reinforcements arrived,” Peter told me.
He arrived in the DMZ in the winter of 1981 and quickly noticed that most of his comrades were unhappy there. Few of them shared his ardor for the martial arts, and even fewer of them respected the Koreans, who had begun immigrating to the United States at a time when America was still deflated from her demoralizing experience in Vietnam. Most troops doubted the prudence of our international adventures and resented the Koreans, who were seen as an unjustified burden. In addition to this, most of those who were serving in Korea had wanted to be deployed elsewhere.
However, the more immediate cause of the enlisted men’s discontent was the weather, which was constantly wet and cold. Peter’s division was situated in Dongducheon, which, unlike Seoul, was bleak and undeveloped, little more than a sprawling collection of farms. The impoverishment of the people was profound. The locals constantly pitched the Americans to sell them whatever they could. Although the DMZ was markedly more dangerous than the other
deployment areas, with regular reports of shootings and skirmishes, Peter never had any engagement with the enemy.
The daily experience of the Korean winter had considerably dampened Peter’s romantic enchantment with the idea of serving there. His stint in the DMZ took place during the cold, windy monsoon season, when it rained every day and warmth was a memory. In order to keep their sleeping bags dry, the men had to drape their parkas over them. They had no tents. Each day, they marched through trees and drenched thickets, cursing the ubiquitous water. Peter was once reprimanded for huddling briefly in the supply tent to warm up.
One evening, they made camp at the foot of a hill. Peter set his rucksack on the ground, crawled into his sleeping bag and went to sleep. It rained hard all night, and when he awoke the following morning, he found that the rain had run right into his rucksack, soaking his fresh clothes. He went into the day’s march wet, and soon his feet were like blocks of ice in his boots. About midday, they ran into a batch of Korean Army regulars. One of the Koreans reached into his rucksack and pulled out a pair of dry socks and handed them to Peter. It was an almost otherworldly act of kindness; the man may well have had to deal with wet feet of his own as a result. The gift of dry socks was like gold.
Peter’s unit went on a two-week war game in a region called Pohang. The exercise was intended to build team spirit and keep the men in top form. Most of the exercise consisted of all-day marches through the land. Each squad was assigned an indigenous guide called a KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army) to help them deal with the language barrier and any other regional problems they might experience.
Though the KATUSA guides were there to help, they were generally treated badly by the American soldiers, who referred to them as “bucketheads” and made them carry heavy loads. The KATUSAs were mostly from well-to-do families who had wanted to spare them the harsh experience of the Korean military, which has no code of military justice, and in which brutality is routinely practiced.
About a week into the march, the leader of Peter’s company, a Second Lieutenant named Bill Mulkey, managed to get them lost. It was 1981; there was no such thing as GPS, and even their compasses were of limited use, since there were no detailed maps of the area. To make matters worse, their deviation from the course had left them without provisions. They were completely separated from their food supplies. At the time it was announced that they were officially lost, they had already gone without breakfast and lunch. Toward dinnertime, exhausted, they reached the outskirts of a farming village. As they prepared camp, the KATUSAs went ahead into the village to request assistance from the farmers, explaining that the American troops were lost and hungry.
Everyone in Peter’s company was astonished when the villagers “came running” with heaping carts of meat, drink and kimchi to feed the famished soldiers. These were dirt-poor farmers, barely scratching out an existence from the tired soil. But there was no mistaking the generosity of the Koreans. They were delighted to share what they had. They handed out the food with smiles all over their yellow faces. Whatever illusions Peter’s comrades had about these “Jews of the East” vanished that evening as the villagers showed up in force to help. Whether their
benevolence was something intrinsic to the culture or an expression of their appreciation for America’s intervention in the North-South conflict (or both), all the disparaging slurs were buried in a moment. These hungry GIs had spent the last two months making fun of kimchi and the “bucketheads” who were unfortunate enough to have to eat it. Now these same men “were pigging out on that kimchi!” Peter recalls. The Koreans kept the food coming until the soldiers couldn’t eat any more. They had fed the entire First 38th Infantry Company―four platoons, with 30-40 soldiers in each of them.
Peter remembers that “after that day, everything changed. The Americans were humbled.” Even the GIs who had hated the Koreans now treated them well. The KATUSAs were brought into the Americans’ social circles and even invited along on excursions to the local watering holes. The soldiers around Peter’s pay grade were making $600 per month, which was more than enough to pay for nightly trips to the “Vill,” and now the KATUSAs were the guests of honor. It was quite a departure from the status quo for people who earned the equivalent of about $15 per month.
Around this time, camouflage fatigues were replacing the solid green uniforms. However, each soldier had to buy his own. After the outpouring of good will, Peter and his comrades took up a collection to buy fatigues for the KATUSAs, so great was the impetus to include them. All this was a welcome development for Peter, who had felt misgivings about the hardness many of his fellows had directed toward the Koreans.
There seem to be many misconceptions about Koreans among Americans. Not only are they a generous people, but they are clever and industrious. With almost no natural resources and a minuscule territory, South Korea has created a flourishing economy that ranks 15th worldwide by nominal gross domestic product. Its urban centers are as modern as any industrialized city, particularly Seoul, its flagship city.
Peter’s time in Korea showed him the power of benevolence. The formidable socio-cultural barriers between the Americans and the Koreans melted under the gentle force of human kindness. There was little question that Peter’s comrades had learned a lasting lesson. He ponders the sad mystery of cultural hostilities that persist in spite of such demonstrations of goodwill. At the end of the day, he clings to his own discoveries and embraces a peaceful stance toward his human neighbors, near and far. For what is the world, if not a vast neighborhood?