The Doric Column
February 19, 2003
On a clear day, at the summit of Mount Soyosan, you can't see forever, but you can see "the scariest place on earth."
That's what former President Bill Clinton called North Korea, and nothing has happened since to change my opinion that he's probably right, not even the current imbroglio with Iraq.
The clear day was in the spring of 1972. I was a company clerk in a medical battalion, a "Radar" O'Reilly, if you will, but from Minnesota, not Iowa, the home state of the character in the TV series M*A*S*H.
I was stationed at Camp Casey in Dongducheon, north of Seoul. Camp Casey is 11 miles southeast of the Demilitarized Zone, the forbidding strip of land, 155 miles long, separating North from South Korea. The 38th parallel.
It was a Sunday. Some buddies and I decided to climb the mountain that loomed over our barracks to the northeast, Mount Soyosan, "Little Kumkang Mountain" after the beautiful and legendary Kumkang Mountain in the North. Kumkang Mountain has become a symbol of national reunification for South Koreans.
It took us about two hours to get to the top, climbing on a variety of terrains flanked by terraced rice paddies. I remember that we navigated a scree field, which was challenging. It was as if ancient geological forces had conspired to obstruct any pathway upward except the one officially sanctioned, located on the other side of the mountain.
At the summit we came upon a helipad marked by a gigantic peace symbol, clearly unauthorized, but there it was. Then, just over the peak to the north, we found a bunker left over from the Korean War, the "forgotten war." We settled in to rest and eat the snack we'd brought along.
My eyes were fixed for some time on the stark northeastern horizon. The Imjin River coursed its way through the foothills in the distance. On the other side of it lay the DMZ and North Korea -- on the other side of "Freedom Bridge," the major link to the truce site of Panmunjom.
This was the Cold War and the enemy wasn't that far away. His proximity was the reason, after all, that we went through weekly alert drills at four in the morning. We had to be ready to "move out" within an hour, which meant I had to dress, pack my gear and field typewriter, get through the chow line, draw my weapon, and be in formation when the time came, or else. Or else I might end up typing my own Article 15. That's the article in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that gives the commanding officer the power to impose nonjudicial punishment for minor offenses. I'd typed up a lot of Article 15s for our CO.
In the bunker we talked about what it must have been like during the war. In 1952 Camp Casey was dedicated in honor of war hero Major Hugh B. Casey, who died in a plane crash near the base of Mount Soyosan. I've learned that the soldiers who saw the most action around Dongducheon during the Korean War were not from the U.S. Army but from the armies of Norway, Belgium, and Luxembourg fighting under the United Nations Command.
In the current standoff with North Korea, it is the soldiers of the Second Infantry Division at Camp Casey and others of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea stationed near the DMZ that are probably foremost in the minds of U.S. policymakers. It is they and their South Korean colleagues, the KATUSA soldiers, who would be targets of the first blow of the unspeakable, should the unspeakable come to pass. Some 80 percent of North Korea's 1.1 million-man army, the fourth largest standing army in the world, is positioned near the DMZ. Seoul is only 40 miles away.
By "unspeakable" I mean an attack with conventional armaments. It is generally agreed that North Korean artillery, lined up along the DMZ, is capable of devastating the landmass all the way to and including Seoul. How? North Korea has about 11,000 big steel tubes, hidden in caves, pointing south. Plus 600 missiles. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recently he "would like to see a number of our forces move away from the Seoul area and from near the DMZ and be more oriented towards an air hub and a sea hub." Which means more oriented toward survival in the event of an attack from the North.
I don't remember that any of us, as we chatted in the bunker, considered the possibility that we were looking into a world that did or ever would possess nuclear weapons. Such weapons, after all, were the province of technologically advanced societies, not backward Stalinist police states, even with their big armies and big guns.
Just as we were about to descend we encountered a group of hikers setting up for a picnic. Mountain hikes for South Koreans, weather permitting, are immensely popular and are often family affairs. We were probably in the midst of several extended families, the elderly among them identifiable by their lined, craggy faces. A middle-aged man sporting a hiking hat, a walking stick and a good command of English stepped forward and introduced himself. He was a chemistry professor at Seoul University. He insisted that we join in the picnic, which we did.
The aromas of Korean cooking acquired an added pungency in the crisp mountain air and seasoned my memory, a memory reasonably intact after three decades. It was a learning experience, of course. Some of the food was completely unrecognizable to me, both in its preparation and taste.
I remember a fish, deceased, floating in a thin red sauce. I was instructed to draw a portion of flesh from its exposed flank. A fish eye fixed on me as I made an incision. On another little stove potatoes bubbled in a pan of oil. Once done they were retrieved and sprinkled with sugar rather than salt, converting them from fritters to a type of deep fried "sweet" potato, I suppose, but not one I was accustomed to. I eyed the nice garlic salt prepared for another dish but didn't want to risk a culinary and perhaps cultural faux pas.
Then there was the ever-present kimchi, the Korean staple eaten at every meal. Kimchi is made by seasoning cabbages and radishes with pickled fish, garlic, green onions, red pepper and other potent spices and letting the mixture ferment in vats for about 10 days. The kimchi fermentation process, featuring more than 200 types of bacteria mixing it up, is an ongoing activity in the crock jar terrace of the Korean kitchen. Looking back, kimchi is an expression of the power of natural biotechnology, with more lactic acid bacteria at work than in the more touted yogurt. The biochemical punch packed by kimchi unleashed itself on my palate when I first tasted it.
That was in Uijongbu. Uijongbu is an agricultural and textile center located about 30 minutes south of Dongducheon on the road to Seoul. It was the home of Camp Red Cloud and the home of my office colleague who had married a Korean woman. They lived there with their little boy, Lloyd, and I was an occasional guest. It was in Uijongbu that I was introduced to Korean food, food like yaki mando (deep-fried pot stickers), ojingeo pokkum (spicy stir-fried squid), spicy-hot ramen soup, and kimchi.
Last June, a US Army tank accidentally ran over two junior high school girls on a road near Uijongbu. Their names were Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun. They were on their way to a birthday party. Two soldiers were charged with negligent homicide under the UCMJ. They were acquitted. No number of apologies before or after the trial, including one from President George W. Bush, has eased the inflamed anti-US passions now rampant throughout the country.
The backlash against the U.S. military in the wake of the tragedy at Uijongbu, though understandable in the abstract, comes hard to me. That the South Korean people could be anything but hospitable is completely foreign to my experience.
So I withdraw into the warmth and security of a memory. The memory of a mountaintop picnic.
In 1954, a year after the signing of the truce ending the Korean War, the U.S. Office of Economic Cooperation asked the University of Minnesota to undertake an educational project with Seoul National University.
The University of Minnesota Medical School, then called the College of Medicine, formed a partnership with Seoul National University College of Medicine, the leading center of medical education in Korea. The relationship still exists, and a lot of good things have been done since it began.
The "Affiliation of the University of Seoul, Korea, and Our School of Medicine" is described in a chapter of Masters of Medicine: A Historical Sketch of the College of Medical Sciences, University of Minnesota 1888-1966, by J. Arthur Myers, MD. [Warren H. Green, St. Louis, Missouri, 1968].
Myers based his chapter on an article "Korea-A New Venture in International Medical Education" by Neal L. Gault, Jr., MD., dean emeritus of the Medical School. [University of Minnesota Medical Bulletin, 33:73, 1961]
The goal of the program was to provide to the Koreans "technical advice and assistance in the development and strengthening of the educational, research, and extension programs and of the organization, administration and basic operating facilities...in the fields of medicine, nursing and public health."
Modern scientific medicine had been officially adopted in China and Korea early in the century, but it had some tough sledding to make significant inroads into the practice of traditional Chinese medicine, which rested on a corpus of ancient texts call the Canon. Then came war.
It would be difficult for anyone who works in the vicinity of a modern medical school and teaching hospital, as I do, to recognize the state of medical education and health care in South Korea after the war, based on the accounts of Myers and others. The medical staff at the Seoul College of Medicine was devastated. Many faculty had died in the war. The communist invasion forced the school to evacuate to Pusan on the southeastern coast, established as the temporary South Korean capital. When they returned to Seoul in March 1954, administrators found that the medical school buildings and laboratories were intact but had been stripped of furnishings. There were few resources and many needs.
The Minnesota group under Gault, Gaylord W. Anderson, and William F. Maloney, and others, together with departmental advisors, set about to help put the Korean school back into operation.
"Teaching, research and hospital equipment costing $741,300 was procured after the requests of the Korean faculty were screened by their own committee, the adviser, and the appropriate department at Minnesota," Myers wrote. "As a result of the project, sufficient equipment was restored to permit teaching, research, and patient care to be carried out in accord with modern scientific methods."
Korean faculty began coming to the Twin Cities to study and take what they learned back home. Senior faculty typically came to observe; young faculty usually pursued a degree program. The latter were instrumental in transforming teaching, research, and administrative methods upon their return to Seoul National University and other Korean institutions.
These young faculty were outspoken advocates of what they had learned and used their learning to deal with proponents of entrenched traditional teaching practices. Their experience in Minnesota also convinced them of the necessity of a substantial medical library, which in time became a reality. The Seoul Journal of Medicine debuted in 1960. Pathologic examination of surgical specimens and autopsy and countless other critical practices became routine, all parts of an effective cooperative system of transoceanic knowledge transfer.
If any American university is more responsible for the dramatic improvement of post-war medical practice and public health in Korea than the University of Minnesota, I am not aware of it. Seoul University College of Medicine acknowledges the contribution in an online description of its history:
"The Seoul National University Cooperative Project Contract was established in September 1954. Because of this, the University of Minnesota came to assist a great deal in the strengthening of education and research at the College of Medicine, as well as other selected colleges of Seoul National University, through a program of faculty exchange, rehabilitation and reequipment through the International Cooperation Administration Project...."
One illuminating story of a young man who came to Minnesota. In 1954, in the wake of the war, Ho-Wang Lee graduated from Seoul National University College of Medicine. Following the cooperative agreement with Minnesota signed that year, he was on his way to the University of Minnesota, which granted him a master's degree in 1957 and a doctorate in microbiology in 1959.
In the course of his research back in Seoul he discovered the virus that causes Korean hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome, an Asian killer of note and one that had claimed some 200 U.S. soldiers during the Korean War.
He named it the"Hantaan Virus" after a river north of Seoul, the Hantaan River, a tributary of the Imjin River that I had seen from the top of Mount Soyosan. In 1990 he developed a vaccine, which has reduced the incidence of the deadly disease by 90 percent. Hantaan virus is considered a potential bioterrorism weapon.
Ho-Wang Lee is president of the National Academy of Sciences, Republic of Korea, and a leading candidate for a Nobel Prize. Last year he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.
In September 2002, University physicians Phillip Peterson and Paul Quie, co-directors of the International Medical Education and Research program [IMER], signed an affiliation agreement with Seoul National University College of Medicine, continuing Neal Gault's legacy.
Peterson, an infectious disease expert who practices at Hennepin County Medical Center, was the subject of a feature article in the February 2001 issue of Minnesota Medicine, "The Tie that Binds Global Health" by Miriam Karmel:
"Peterson's eyes were opened on a visit to South Korea when he was a medical student at Columbia University. Gregory Vercellotti, M.D., who has known Peterson for more than 20 years, says Korea changed him. 'I think that experience has carried over into his life and how he practices medicine,' says Vercellotti, who is senior associate dean of the Medical School.
"A picture on the bulletin board behind Peterson's desk hints at the wake-up call he received in South Korea. In it, a young Peterson administers a TB patch test to a child who is being comforted by his mother. They are surrounded by bales of hay, a few curious onlookers, and even a cow. Peterson is practicing medicine in a barn."
The IMER program is designed to "sensitize students to the problems of limited resources and lead to understanding that ingenuity, compassion, and caring can go a long way. 'That's why Peterson was chosen as IMER co-director,' says Vercellotti. 'Phil embodies all of those values. It was an easy choice.'"
"Even The Simpsons is created in Korea, with the voices of Homer, Bart and the rest of the cast dubbed on later."
I pride myself in being reasonably up to speed on the digital revolution, at least from a 1960s liberal arts perspective.
So I was more than a little surprised to learn that the country with the greatest broadband penetration among its public is not the mighty US or tech-savvy Sweden or Finland, but South Korea.
A story published last year in Wired magazine set me straight: "The Bandwidth Capital of the World: In Seoul, the broadband age is in full swing - online games have become a national sport, and cybercafes are the new singles bars."
There is plenty of additional evidence. A recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian is headlined: "Miracle workers: In just five years, South Korea has shown the world what the broadband future looks like."
South Korea's leading broadband status was confirmed in an e-mail exchange I had with Andrew Odlyzko, director of the University of Minnesota's Digital Technology Center, assistant vice president for research, and a professor of mathmatics. Odlyzko worked at AT&T Labs - Research before coming to Minnesota. He is a recognized authority on trends in communications technology, pricing, and the history of communications.
"South Korea is indeed the most advanced country in the world right now in terms of broadband development," he wrote to me last March. "Over half the households have either DSL [digital subscriber line] or cable modems."
Odlyzko thinks that government policy plus the high concentration of the population, particularly those living in high-rise apartments, are the key factors. He directed me to a discussion paper, "A Comparative Study of Broadband in Asia: Deployment and Policy" by Asia Network Research, which also gives credit to an entrepreneurial spirit loose in the land:
"In Korea, bottom-up, grass-roots entrepreneurship and aggressive Netizenship contributed the most to its rapid explosion of broadband, coupled with accidental excess of bandwidth supply, fierce market competition and freedom-hungry citizens' activities."
Alcatel, the Paris-based telecommunications giant, attributes the Korean communications revolution to the Asian economic crisis of 1997-1998. In an article entitled "South Korea: Broadband Queen," Alcatel reporter Tristan de Bourdon writes: "New Korean President, Kim Dae-jung, wanting to revive his fellow citizen's flagging spirits and show the world that Korea was truly on the cusp of the latest technologies, needed a showcase that would transform the dream into reality. Internet fit the bill, especially broadband services."
Today, more than half of the 48 million South Koreans regularly use the Internet including some eight million broadband subscribers, more than half of the country's households. The main reason, according to experts, is that more than 40 percent of the population lives in blocks of high-rise apartments, which have been targets for connection to the national telecom grid by Internet service providers (ISPs).
And the country is likely to hold on to its first-place position: Two-thirds of elementary school children and 95 percent of high school and university students say they are regular users of the Internet, according to surveys. The effect of Korea's high Internet usage and broadband penetration on its society and economy is not known. Undoubtedly scholars like Odlyzko will be watching.
Plainly this is not the culture I left behind 30 years ago. So what happened? What accounts for it? What accounts for the fact that the "Land of the Morning Calm," then a land mostly of rolling hills and countryside, of remote villages infinitely hospitable to American GIs stopping by on the train for an overnight, is today swirling in a sea of information-bearing electrons?
What happened since I left in May 1972?
What happened is that the children of the adult generation during my tour of duty at Camp Casey -- the children of the South Korean "houseboys" who kept our barracks and did our laundry -- helped to launch their country into one of Asia's economic growth leaders in a single generation, one of the "Asian Tigers."
Their children, in turn, are the ones pictured in Wired magazine holed up in the plastic cocoons of video game parlors in Seoul, performing in front of a live audience of their peers. And the ones animating The Simpsons.
If a recent report by the Federation of Korean Industries is correct, Korea is behind Japan by 3.3 years in terms of industrial competitiveness, with the gap likely to be erased in four years if present trends continue.
These figures and the graph above represent Korea as a whole. The contribution of North Korea to the totals is, of course, meager, as is its contribution to keeping its people fed. North Korea's annual gross domestic product is about $20 billion per year, about four percent of South Korea's $460 billion.
What that means is that medicine is indeed practiced in a barn, or in comparable conditions of scarcity, north of the 38th parallel. A recent segment of the CBS News program "60 minutes" portrayed the malnutrition, desperation and deprivation rampant in North Korea, as described by the German emergency doctor Norbert Vollertsen.
Vollertsen was expelled by the North Korean government after taking Western journalists on tours of the countryside. He reported that hospitals lacked basic facilities, leaving patients vulnerable to poor hygiene and extreme temperatures.
He described the conditions last April to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific: "In every hospital I visited I found unbelievable deprivation and I was shocked to see patients and orphans in these places. There were no bandages, no scalpels, no antibiotics, no operation facilities - only broken wooden beds supporting starving children waiting to die. In the hospitals the doctors were constantly using empty beer bottles as vessels for dripping, and safety razors as scalpels - there was even an appendectomy without any anaesthesia. They insisted on the serious shortage of medical products and equipment while I found throughout my 'investigations' that there was a large stock of bandages and other medical goods in governmental storehouses and in diplomatic shops."
It is Vollertsen's account of the deliberate neglect of children, and particularly orphaned children, that strikes home.
One day, in the spring of 1972, I represented my unit in a fundraising activity at an orphanage near Dongducheon. It was a day full of fun and frolic.
Before I left, the children gave me several dozen white handkerchiefs, each embroidered with a traditional Korean scene in the corner, each carefully wrapped in cellophane, to be distributed to the men of Headquarters & Company A, Second Medical Battalion, Second Infantry Division.
I still have one, preserved in its cellophane wrapper. It's yellowing a bit after 30 years. But the spirit of its presenters, for all they had endured, remains a life-force with me.
A thank you gift unlike any I have ever known.
--William Hoffman email@example.com
Mount Soyosan north of Seoul, South Korea, the "land of the morning calm." From the summit you can look into what one U.S. President called "the scariest place on earth," North Korea. Click image for slide show of Mt. Soyosan. From Mountains of Korea.