Recently I came across a book of memoirs by Kim Yong-chol, professor emeritus of Sungkyunkwan University. The book, “A Lone Lighthouse Keeper: Memoirs of Kim Yong-chol,” is the author’s reminiscence of the particularly turbulent period of modern Korean history that he has lived through.
Indeed, Kim’s life is an embodiment of modern South Korea itself, and his autobiography is an important social document vividly depicting nearly all the major events that occurred in the 20th century.
When the author was born, Korea was under Japanese rule. Thus, Kim had to speak Japanese at school, deprived of his native tongue. Then the liberation came in 1945, but not without the Soviet military government in the North and the US military government in the South. In his book, Kim recollects the turbulent situation in the North at the time: for example, the rape and plunder of the Soviet troops and the omnipresent Soviet flags that overpowered the Korean flags.
It was under these stifling circumstances that he escaped the North, leaving his family behind, and arrived in Seoul safely. To him, the South was far better with the air of freedom and democracy, and yet it was equally tempestuous and chaotic politically. According to Kim’s recollections, the left and the right divided the South, and political skirmishes and assassinations were rampant.
In his memoirs, Kim points out that the US military government did not trust the leaders from the Korean Provisional Government located in China, who in their eyes were stout leftists. With the Soviet-supported regime in the North, Washington did not want another communist government in the South. Thus, the United States supported Syngman Rhee, a right-wing intellectual who was educated in America as the new leader of the South.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Kim was an undergraduate student at Seoul National University. In Seoul, he witnessed the terror and atrocities of war such as North Korean soldiers’ door-to-door searches for young men to draft and brutal summary executions of civilians. Under the terrifying circumstances, Kim barely survived.
Meanwhile, the North Korean invasion was swift. Seoul fell to the hands of the North Korean soldiers within three days and the rest of South Korea within three months, except for the Nakdong River area. Fortunately, the US intervened, bringing soldiers from the UN with them to the Korean Peninsula. When the UN troops entered Seoul later, Kim enlisted himself as a South Korean army liaison officer and served as an English interpreter for the US Army, thereby building a cultural bridge between South Korea and the States.
Thanks to the success of the Incheon Landing, the UN troops were able to push the North Korean troops to the Chinese borders. However, due to abrupt Chinese intervention, the UN soldiers had to retreat with heavy casualties. Finally, they agreed to sign the armistice, drawing the truce line near the 38th parallel.
Kim’s autobiography delineates the postwar Koran society as well. When the war was over in 1953, South Korea had to deal with many ordeals. First, she had to suffer postwar poverty and face the seemingly impossible reconstruction task as well. To make matters worse, President Syngman Rhee had to step down in 1960 and was exiled to Honolulu due to the 4/19 Students’ Revolution that protested his dictatorship.
Kim’s autobiography records the chaotic situation of South Korea at the time. For example, workers sabotaged their work and attacked their employers. Radical students and leftist politicians, too, brought forth political turmoil by calling for unification of the Peninsula and demanding a South-North Talk without any foreign power’s intervention or influence.
Some right-wing military officers were concerned about the unstable social atmosphere that they thought threatened national security. Gen. Park Chung-hee was one of them. In 1961, he led a coup and seized the power for the next 18 years until his death in 1979. Disillusioned with the military dictatorship, quite a few Koreans left Korea for the States at that time for a better life and freedom. In 1971, Kim, too, immigrated to the States with his family.
Soon, however, Kim returned to South Korea, hoping that thing would be better, only to witness and experience the unprecedented political turmoil in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Gen. Chon Doo-whan’s military coup and ensuing dictatorship. At a time when South Korean students were intoxicated with Marxism and ultranationalism, Kim taught his students to refrain from being parochial jingoists and open their eyes to the world instead.
History shapes our lives. Perhaps that is why Kim blends Korean history with his life in his autobiography. Reading Kim’s memoirs, it occurred to me that young South Koreans should read this book and learn what kind of sociopolitical turbulences the older generation had to go through. It also occurred to me that like the author of the book, we all, too, should become a lone lighthouse keeper for our family and country in these difficult times of perfect storms and high winds.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.