There is also a subtle sense of bitterness and sadness among these people whose country, like Ireland, carries a heavy historical burden. An old man we spoke to on a street in Seoul reminded us, apropos of nothing, that in Korean, birds and bells always cry rather than sing or ring. When we asked our translator, Hwang Kee Hak, 29, a bright and outspoken fellow, how his countrymen could forgive the Soviets and invite them to the Seoul Olympics after they'd shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007, he said philosophically, "If the Korean people remembered all of the atrocities visited on us in the past, we would be crazy mad at almost everybody in the world. KAL 007 is just another spot on the history of Korea. We can overlook it, just as we must overlook the other terrible things that happened to us over 5,000 years."
Korea's history, indeed, has been one of strife and grief and hard times. The word Choson, the Korean name for their country, means Land of the Morning Calm. Yet for 5,000 years, an uncommon number of Korean mornings have dawned on scenes of war, riot and assassination. Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom until just after 1900, and much of the violence there was the result of home-grown hostilities among warring tribes and feuding lords. However, Korea kept to itself during those centuries and produced a unique character and culture, including a language that's printed in a 24-character alphabet, which was invented by King Sejong and a group of scholars in 1446 A.D. It is admired by linguists as one of the most logical of alphabets and is celebrated annually by Koreans on a national holiday called Hangul (alphabet) Day.
The influence and interference of foreign powers—mostly from mighty China and expansionist Japan—also have left indelible marks on Korea. It has been used as a pawn in the power plays of stronger nations so many times that the most commonly repeated Korean proverb is: "When whales fight, it is the shrimp that get hurt."
However fiercely the whales may have fought over Korea in the past, one of its worst centuries so far is the one we're in now. The Sino-Japanese War came to a bloody end in the 1890s when Japan routed a weak Chinese army that had occupied Korea and installed a cabinet to run the country. Korean patriots despised the Japanese, and a group of them turned for help to Russia, not as a friend precisely, but to counterbalance Japan's aggression. After a time of confusion and conspiracy, a brief and uneasy truce between Japan and Russia was reached. Korea was allowed to live in nominal independence for a little while. Then, in February 1904, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur on China's Liaotung peninsula. This triggered the Russo-Japanese war, in which Korea quickly tried to declare itself neutral. No such luck. The Japanese rolled across the peninsula. When Russia surrendered in September 1905, Japan declared that its forces must continue to occupy Korea to preserve its independence.
In 1910, this deceit was dropped when Japan annexed Korea as a colony, an act that erased a sovereign nation from the world map. There was no global protest over this territorial grab, because the other "civilized" nations viewed the Japanese as more sophisticated than the poor, backward hermits of Korea and believed that the Japanese occupation would help bring these ignorant wretches into the 20th century. What followed has been described by some Koreans as an attempt at "cultural genocide." Systematically and unswervingly, the Japanese set out to erase all things Korean.
For example, in the 1936 Olympics, Sohn won his gold medal as a member of the Japanese team. Another Korean, Nam Seung Yong, won the bronze medal in that race. However, both runners were listed as Japanese—and they still are in the record books. Looking back, Sohn says, "I was a man without a country. And under those conditions, a man cannot really be a man. You cannot know how terrible this feeling is until it has actually happened to you."
By 1937 the Korean language—and its beloved alphabet—had been replaced in schools and public places by Japanese. Korean history was no longer taught. Koreans had to adopt Japanese names. The Japanese took an estimated 1.5 million Koreans and turned them into forced laborers during World War II. The killing of Korea was well underway, and if the Japanese hadn't lost the war, the disappearance of a way of life would have been inevitable.
Understandably, Koreans went wild with joy on V-J Day. They were free now, independent, ready to take their place among nations once more. Ah, but the whales were at it again.
The U.S.S.R. had entered the war against the Japanese a mere six days before their surrender. At the time, the U.S. settled on a plan whereby the U.S.S.R. would supervise the Japanese surrender in the north of Korea, while the U.S. would be responsible for the Japanese surrender in the south. Hurriedly the U.S. suggested the 38th parallel as an arbitrary line cutting Korea roughly in two and to America's great surprise, the Soviets agreed.
The original plan had been that the two powers would occupy Korea jointly, with Soviet and American forces mixed together throughout the country. But once the Soviet Army had dug in at the 38th parallel it refused to disperse, and another dark period in Korea's long, sad history began.