I went to 춘천 in Kangwon province this past Monday to scout out what the state of local history was in the province and what materials I might be able to find on life there in the early postwar period (1945-50). The city library’s reference room was closed (how did I miss that when writing down the opening times the night before I left?) but I made a trip to the cultural section at city hall to get some suggestions and made a trip to the headquarters of the oldest provincial newspaper, 강원일보 where I was delighted to meet some very friendly journalists. I learnt that the only copies of the issues of that newspaper from 1945-50 are in the national library in Seoul. The only issue they seemed to have in the newspaper’s headquarters from that period was a single page of a single 1947 issue pasted onto a piece of wood in the lobby. They did, however, take me into their archives and let me make a copy of the memoir of the earliest head of their paper, who was also in charge of the special investigative committee on treasonous activities in the province in 1949, a work that I was having difficulty in finding.
The most interesting conversation I had that day, however, was not with journalists or city officials. As I was sitting in an underground shopping center, looking over a map of the city, an old man sat next to me and stared at me as I looked at the map. I have had this experience quite often in Korea and it usually leads to fascinating conversations with retired men who love to share their experiences during the Korean war, their interactions with Americans during the Korean war, their belief that Park Chung-hee was the best thing to come out of Korea since the hangul writing system, and that the coming of democracy has sent Korea off its rails.
When I noticed the guy was staring at me, I struck up a conversation. He originally answered in English but when we determined that my bad Korean was still better than his English, we settled upon Korean as our language of discussion. This doesn’t always turn out to be the case. Another fascinating random conversation I had with an old man outside the national library in 2005 was conducted almost entirely in Japanese.
The old man told me he had been a KATUSA (Korea Augmentation Troops to the United States Army) working with US soldiers in the Korean War, 1950-1953. That would explain the fact that he spoke some English. I told him I was spending the day trying to learn more about Kangwon provincial history and was told by city officials that very few materials are left from the early postwar period. I asked him if he had ever written anything down about his experiences since he was a “living historical archive.”
He said that he hadn’t but was willing to answer any questions I had. I asked him to talk about living in 춘천 from 1945-50. When he proceeded to tell me half a dozen stories I felt a deep frustration with myself that my Korean listening skills are so bad that I could understand less than half of what he was telling me.
My new friend was 12 years old when the colonial period ended in 1945 so he had attended elementary school under Japanese rule and learned some Japanese as a result. He says the next few years after liberation were horrible and he listed various trees and plants that his family tried to eat in order to live through a time of severe food shortages. He had some story about smuggling from North Korea that I would have loved to have understood. He also launched into a long and complicated story involving a cow which he seemed to love telling but which I just couldn’t make heads or tails out of.
I asked him if he had family in areas of Kangwon province which were under North Korean control in the early postwar, some of which later came under South Korean control as a result of changes in the lines of control. He said no, but this triggered a story about his life as a soldier during the war.
He told me, “I would not be here alive today if it wasn’t for the help of a Chinese officer.”
I could tell I was going to be interested in this story so as he told it, I repeatedly asked him to clarify and explain things I didn’t understand which helped raise the percentage of the story I came away with.
As far as I could gather my friend and a few other soldiers were in complete disarray in the second retreat in the winter of 1950-1 and found themselves way behind enemy lines. They were soon captured by a unit of Chinese troops who were quickly making their way south after China’s entry into the war. I have no idea to what degree he exaggerates the desperate situation at the time but the man told me that he believed the Chinese troops were going to summarily shoot the group of captured soldiers he was a part of before they continued south, rather than keep them as POWs.
Then, he says, a Chinese officer approached the group of captured Korean troops and asked if any of them spoke Japanese. My friend then began to have a conversation with this Chinese officer in Japanese. At this point in the story, my friend looked away from me, staring off into space, and recited the entire conversation he had with this officer in Japanese. Perhaps he has told this story a hundred times but I was interested in the fact that he recited the whole conversation to me in a language that he could not know that I did, in fact, understand. Essentially the conversation consisted of my new friend begging the officer not to kill him, the officer offering him a cigarette and assuring him that he was not going to let him and his friends get killed. He told my friend that he had gone to junior high school in Manchuria when it was the puppet state of 満州国, and had there learnt the Japanese language. The officer told him that they had both therefore, “suffered under the same Japanese rule.” Finally, my friend claims that the officer said that he really hated Mao Zedong. This, in my opinion, is the most implausible part of the story, for a number of reasons.
At any rate, after finishing his retelling, in Japanese, of the conversation he claims to have had with the officer, my friend switched back into Korean and told me the officer told the troops that were holding him and his friends (I don’t know how many there were of them) to release them, and continue moving south.
Hearing his perfect Japanese during the retelling of the conversation, I thought I could continue our conversation in Japanese, which I speak much better than Korean, but he didn’t seem understand anything I said in Japanese. It was as if the words in that conversation he had with the officer was the only Japanese he knew or still remembered. I asked him if he ever used Japanese after that encounter and he said, no, it was the last time he had spoken Japanese.
I was running out of time and had to get moving to find the Kangwon ilbo newspaper building so I couldn’t stay to ask him more about this story or other experiences but it was really wonderful to spend the hour or so with him on that bench outside the bookstore. Hearing this kind of story fills a student of history like me with excitement but it is so hard to know what to make of this kind of retelling. What can a historian do with this kind of material, if anything?