Friday, June 27, 2008

The More Things Change...

...the more they stay the same, as they say.

Read the words of the late Horace G. Underwood, whose words I am reminded of lately, and who had far more direct and passed-down experience in this country than I could ever hope to possess. It's spooky how similar many expats' experiences are in the present day to what this man, who quite literally stood at the center of modern Korean history as it was being made, had from decades ago. (HT to Dylan)

From the Korean-American Association Library


"Refill the Reservoir" - Dr. Horace G. Underwood

For over one hundred years there has been a deep reservoir of basically friendly relationship between Korea and America. Of course there have been ups and downs in that relationship as historical factors influenced either or both countries, but the basic pool of good will has until recently been sufficiently deep that many people take it for granted and have seen no need to take measures to preserve it. We have assumed that the minor flurries of disagreements would soon die down and the basic friendship would remain. Unfortunately, in recent years, the minor disagreements have more and more been publicized and deliberately distorted in what seems like a planned campaign to discredit the relationship between our two people.

The time has come when friends of Korea and America must wake up to the deteriorating atmosphere and take steps to stop the drain on the reservoir of good will. Incidents will no doubt continue to occur, but efforts should be made to put them in context, to insure that both sides of the story are given equal publicity, to call people's attention to acts of kindness and assistance, not just conflicts.

The SOFA agreement is often criticized by ill-informed people for its "unequal provisions", but are they really unequal against Korea's rights and interests? SOFA requires that all U.S. service personnel accused of Korean crimes be tried in civilian courts, not military ones. Yet it is my understanding that any Korean soldier accused of a crime is kept by the military and tried by the military. This does not sound to me like American troops are getting equal treatment to Korean soldiers.

It is often claimed that compared to American troops in Japan and Germany American in Korea are prosecuted for only a very small percent of their crimes. The fact is that in Korea traffic violations are classified as "crimes" but not in Japan and Germany. If traffic violations are not included, the situation in Korea is similar to that in other countries, but people continue to claim that it is no equal. This well known to the Korean government officials negotiating SOFA, and I understand that the media know it, too, but neither the press nor the government says anything. The explanation is always left to an American spokesman, which many choose to think is just an American excuse. I am told there are similar problems about other provisions, but the Korean spokesmen seldom help clarify the situation.

Aside from SOFA, there is certainly very unequal treatment by the media. When an American officer was murdered in Itaewon last year there was minimum mention in the Korean press and I have never heard a report on the arrest and trial of the murderer. But when an American soldier murdered a prostitute there was great outcry over several days and many follow-up stories of the arrest, trial and imprisonment.

When the 8th Army mistakenly dumped a small amount of polluting material through the sewage system that is designed to handle such pollutants, there was a great outcry. A U.S. Army spokesman apologized and promises were made to be more careful, but even recently day there have been demonstration over the matter, and the newspapers report that someone is going to sure the officer in change. Yet when the Korean Army dumped 200,000 gallons of pollutants directly into the river there was only a simple news story, I have never heard that the Army apologized or that anyone was punished, or that environmental group held protests outside the gate of that unit.

There are on-going protests about bombing ranges used by the U.S. Air Force, but no protests about bombing ranges used by the Korean forces. The Korean military maintain a major firing range right next to one of the very popular summer resort beaches, firing over important fishing grounds, but if there have been any protests they have never been reported in the news media.

An American soldier on the subway was assaulted by a Korean passenger for touching a Korean woman-who was the soldier's wife!-but the news stories all blamed the soldier.

American military personnel are participating in the Habitat for Humanity program this summer, but were told they would get no publicity unless Korean troops were working with them. The American troops are glad to be joined by the Korean soldiers, but such an attitude by the press is hardly "equal treatment".

Far more than in the past, there seems to be a deliberate campaign to publicize fault of the Americans, but too many friends of America seem content to depend on the reservoir of good will, not realizing that it needs to be refilled from time to time. It is like the drought we are experiencing this year. Every year the water in the reservoir goes up and down depending on the weather, but there has never before been any real doubt that the water would be there when needed. This year, however, the reservoir are getting dry and extraordinary measures must be taken. Many farmers are urging that new reservoirs must be built for the future. So it is with Korean American friendship: we seem to be going through a very serious drought. The reservoir is getting dry and we must start taking extraordinary measure.

The Korean-American Association, and even more important, the individual members of the Association, must start taking positive steps to re-fill the reservoir. Where we have access to the media, to scholars, to private groups we must counter this constant draining of the reservoirs by refilling them. We must work to have both sides of the story told, to be sure that favorable items are publicized, to counter the bias that is all too evident in today's society.

In the 1950s and 1960s American soldiers disliked being assigned to Korea. many of them had bad experiences and even back in America there was a low opinion of Korea. Many in the American community in Korea were very disturbed by this and took measures to try to change opinions. I often spoke to both individuals and to groups to help them understand the country and the people. Where possible, I would explain the situation they were experiencing, but always I would tell of all the good things about being in Korea. I have no idea of how many minds I changed, but it is important for every one of us to speak up, to explain how the problem arose and to remind people of the good things that have happened. If we just sit back and no do nothing we will soon find that the reservoir of good will is dryer than the reservoirs thought they could depend on.

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