August 15. Koreans celebrate their liberation from Japanese colonization on August 15 every year. Known as “the day the light returned” (광복절; gwangbokjeol), 2015 was particularly notable as it marked the 70th anniversary of the event. Since liberation in 1945, the history on the peninsula has been marked by political division, a devastating war, military dictatorships, economic expansion, the establishment of democracy, a burgeoning Korean popular culture (hallyu), the Olympics, the World Cup, and Korean companies with a global presence.
Since the holiday fell on Saturday this year, the country was on a long weekend holiday -- Friday through Sunday -- with activities in Seoul and Pyongyang. In the U.S., Korean-American communities also celebrated.
Below: A Concert on Seoul Plaza on Friday Evening With K Pop Stars. Video Courtesy Kristin Krzic
Dayton, Ohio. On 광복절 weekend, I found myself at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio --- and an unexpected opportunity to reflect on the immediate aftermath of liberated Korea and the eventual Korean War.
The museum consists of three large airplane hangars, each full of exhibits from different periods of world aviation. The display that caught my attention was the Korean War Gallery.
My first thought was the time prior to the war -- the chaotic period of Korea in the late 1940’s -- the separation of the peninsula by the USA & The Soviet Union and the political factionalism on the peninsula as groups jockeyed for power --- a period historian Bruce Cumings aptly calls “The Passions” in his book Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History and depicted in the Im Kown Taek’s 1994 movie 태백산맥 (The Tae Baek Mountains). The aftermath was a war that plunged Korea into a period of tragic death and destruction.
While the display provides a decidedly American view of events, two individual displays caught my attention: the story of North Korean Lieutenant No Kum-Sok and American Colonel Dean Hess.
Lieutenant No Kum Suk: The “Original” Defector
Long before the many recent defectors from North Korea, one of the first persons to go south didn’t journey via brokers through China and Southeast Asia. He simply flew his MIG -15 fighter plane on a 17-minute flight into Kimpo airport. By the time, the American and South Korean military realized what had happened, Lt. No Kum Suk was out of his airplane trying to explain what he had just done. No's story and his plane is on display in the museum along with other artifacts. So, was what has become of Lt. No since this defection? Is he still alive? Where is he? Well, it seems he was awarded $100,000 under operation Moolah for his defection, allowed to move to the United States where he changed his name to Kenneth Rowe, graduated with a degree in engineering from the University of Delaware, and had a successful career as an aeronautical engineer and professor. Still living in Florida, Rowe’s life is described in a new book The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot -- adding to the growing literature of North Korea and defectors.
Chuck Overby: The Article Nine Society
As the years pass, fewer veterans of the Korean War are still with us. Fortunately, Chuck Overby is. Ninety years old, but still sharp in his reminiscences of his time in Korea, Chuck told me of the many missions he flew in a B-29 during the war. At the time, he said he was an extremely naive co-pilot who followed orders (He recalled that his undergrad engineering major did not include any courses in humanities or social sciences -- studies that might have led him to question some of the military's actions during the war). He recalls bombing missions that were targeted at the dams in the northern part of the peninsula during armistice negotiations -- actions that have been criticized by scholars.
After the war, Chuck started his graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin and was inspired by UW's motto "continual and fearless shifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found" -- thus in addition to engineering courses, he took classes in philosophy, politics, international relations and ethics -- all of which caused him to reflect on his service in Korea. As a result, Chuck has dedicated his life to "keeping the light alive" through his anti-war efforts in the Article Nine Society and his research on Green Technology by Design. He considers himself to be "a patriot, one protester working to change the direction of US policy and bring the public to an awareness of what is happening in their name world-wide."
Colonel Dean Hess: Operation Kiddy Car
Another story from the Korean War, perhaps more famous than Rowe's, involved Colonel Dean Hess, a former minister and Air Force pilot. Hess’s fame came not from his military service but from his involvement in “Operation Kiddy Car” – - an effort to evacuate nearly 1,000 orphans from the fighting zones on the mainland to a safer environment on Jeju-do, where he helped establish the Orphans Home of Korea.
This slice of history was made into a movie Battle Hymn in 1957 starring Rock Hudson and introduced Korean-American actor Philip Ahn. Fittingly, a blog reflecting on Korea's Liberation Day should include the note that Philip Ahn was the son of Ahn Chang Ho, the famed Korean activist (and former Los Angeles resident) who resisted the Japanese occupation. Philip Ahn was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- the first Asian-American actor to do so. A post office in LA was named after his father.
For those interested further in this topic, check out The Korean War Children’s Memorial in Bellingham Washington for background and history of the airlift, the Orphan’s Home and a possible controversy over the depiction of Hess’s role in the event.
After visiting a museum with a decidedly one-sided interpretation of the Korean War, I needed another viewpoint from someone who had been there. Thus, I turned my car 150 miles east to the hills of Southeast Ohio and turned down a long gravel driveway to enter the eco-friendly house of retired Professor Charles "Chuck" Overby, a former B-29 pilot during the Korean War.
The colonial occupation and subsequent war brought unbearable suffering to the Korean people. There are many stories of the Korean War and some accounts of the Japanese occupation that have been told. Others are waiting to be discovered -- to keep shedding light on this period in Korean War -- send a link or write a note if you know of any stories to share.
One thing for certain is the scale of the 70th anniversary celebrations on 광복절 would have been unimaginable to Koreans of those earlier times. Our hope is that future celebrations continue to take place in a prosperous Korea.