Shadows of the Korean War and its Aftermath, Cast Over Fiction

Image © Korea Herald

Editor's Note:

Yoojin Grace Wuertz was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States at age six. She holds a BA in English from Yale University and an MFA in fiction from New York University. She’s most recently the author of Everything Belongs to Us, and joins Signature to discuss South Korea’s “economic miracle” and the costs of progress.

Growing up, my dad chided me when I left food uneaten on my plate. He ate every last grain of rice, picked up carefully with chopsticks. He was born in Seoul in 1953, six months before the end of the Korean War, which caused millions of casualties and devastated both sides of the peninsula. I was also born in Seoul nearly thirty years later. It was the same country but a different world. Every generation is a new start, but in South Korea, those decades between my childhood and that of my father would be pivotal to the economic “miracle on the Han.” South Korea would be included among the four “Asian Tigers” (with Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan) that underwent rapid industrialization and maintained exceptionally high growth rates from the 1960’s to the 1990’s.

As a young kid and immigrant to the United States, I was unaware of growth rates and GDP in my native country. I was busy trying to learn English and figure out who the New Kids On the Block were. I didn’t fully realize the implications of my father’s mealtime rituals. What difference did one grain of rice make, I wondered. My mother, like most Korean moms, fed me constantly. Food was the currency of love. Waste, like a personal rejection. It didn’t occur to me that my dad’s reverence for food might have stemmed from having experienced childhood hunger and lack. I just thought he liked food.

I never meant to write an historical novel. Like most young aspiring writers, I thought I’d write something cool and of-the-moment about my generation, my peers. College students in 1978 Seoul were far from my mind. But I became fascinated with the divided legacy of President Park Chung Hee, whose authoritarian and politically repressive policies led South Korea from an impoverished post-war economy to one of the top dozen developed countries in the world. The brunt of this “miracle,” which was less magic and more the result of an aggressively engineered push for development, happened in one generation. The generation in which my parents came of age and entered the workforce.

Park Chung Hee was president from 1963 to 1979 and his administration undertook radical steps to achieve his ambitions of “development first, democracy second.” In 1965, the government normalized diplomatic relations with Japan, Korea’s colonizer from 1910-1945. The treaty was deeply controversial, mobilizing Park’s opposition and alienating supporters. But the settlement provided $800 million in aid and loans, as well as a critical export market, which the president argued was the country’s only road to economic progress.

Next, Park solidified South Korea’s alliance with the United States, agreeing to send 320,000 troops to Vietnam, the second largest foreign troop commitment after the United States. In exchange, South Korea received billions in aid, military assistance, and subsidies. Park used his growing cache of foreign currency and influence to steer the activities of family-owned conglomerates, called chaebols, such as Samsung, Daewoo, LG and Hyundai.

My father remembers the anti-Japan, anti-Park protests as a middle school student. He recalls how the nation reacted to troops being sent to Vietnam: fear and horror gradually replaced with acceptance and even celebration as dollars flooded the cash-starved domestic market and appreciably raised the standard of living. Korean soldiers stationed in Vietnam were paid directly by the U.S. government and the money sent home must have felt like a gift, even if it was paid for in blood. In the 1970s, when student protests for democracy were rife across college campuses, my parents remember missing huge chunks of the academic year because the government forced university shutdowns.

While students and other citizens were protesting for democracy, factory workers were striking for labor rights. Their efforts, like those of student protesters, were violently suppressed but laid the groundwork for major labor and democracy reforms in the late 80’s and onward. These stories are vital components of the “miracle” narrative that puts a gloss on the human cost of rapid economic progress under an authoritarian leader.

And the flipside: not everyone resisted, not everyone disapproved of government crackdowns and emergency presidential decrees that limited freedom of the press and free speech. Many—especially the older generation, who experienced South Korea in its less shiny days—celebrated the Park government and remain grateful for his role in lifting the country out of poverty. The ends justified the means. To them, the criticisms of my more progressive generation seem soft, too well-rested on the backs of their labor.

Everything Belongs To Us is fiction, but the title refers to the aspirational thesis of this generation who believed in the power of the national, communal effort to gain what they did not have. For “us,” even though the gains and struggles were unevenly borne. Because of these sacrifices, I have the privilege of telling this story. Of asking questions. Of having been full enough to leave rice carelessly discarded on my plate.