Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Peace Corp in S. Korea (1966-1981)

The Museum of Contemporary History is currently holding a special exhibit on the activities of the Peace Corps in South Korea. The temporary exhibition is in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps entrance and beginning of contribution here. Suzanne Crowder Han, former Peace Corps volunteer 1977-1981, led the tour and gave wonderful commentary on the history and contribution of the Peace Corps and how, after the Corps withdrew in 1981 from the finally prospering country, she stayed on. Years later many former Peace Corps workers who volunteered in South Korea returned and eventually Friends of Korea was established by the returnees in 2002. At first the Friends were just former Peace Corps workers, but now others who wish to contribute and who love this land can join, especially as Suzanne says, the former volunteers can't be guaranteed to live forever. Suzanne is the Vice President of Friends of Korea as well as being Vice President of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch; she is very well-informed, highly knowledgeable and has the authority of presence in this country lasting 39 years!

The roots of this special exhibition can be traced back to the five homecomings offered by the Korean government for bringing the former Peace Corps volunteers back to the country where they served. After the second homecoming, and a very successful one, people started talking and eventually expressed interest in gathering relics and memorabilia of the former members (the only Peace Corps collection of its kind so far), to share with the public what Korea was like back then and to share their contribution in the social, medical and historical development of the country. Finally, this museum organized the collection of memorabilia and organization of interviews of volunteers, workers, translators, etc for this special 50th commemoration exhibit. Some of the memorabilia will be returned to the former volunteer contributors and others will be kept in the museum archives for future exhibitions. The museum is even open to further contributions by others wishing to expand on the knowledge already packaged in this exhibition.

The exhibition is basically divided into three parts:
I. Situation South Korea was in when the Peace Corps came in 1966
II. Peace Corps volunteers work and life
III. Peace Corps contributions and lives after departing South Korea
Between September 16, 1966 and the last leaving in 1981, a span of 15 years, 51 Peace Corps groups came to South Korea. When the Peace Corps first came to Korea, Korea was the second poorest country in the world, next in poorness only to Ethiopia.

President Kennedy was the president credited with the founding of the Peace Corps; however, others had spoken of starting such an organization but none had actually gone through with the plan. On September 14 in his campaign speech at the University of Michigan, Senator J.F. Kennedy initiated support for establishing the Peace Corps.  The following year on March 1, as president Kennedy signed Executive Order #10924, officially establishing the Peace Corps. In June of the same year, trainings for volunteers were conducted across the US.

And approximately 15,000 volunteers, the highest number, began serving in the Peace Corps. In September the first group (K1) to volunteer in South Korea arrived at Kimpo Airport with Kevin O'Donnell as the director, two days after the signing of the Korea-US agreement of September, 1966. Korea was the fifth country in Asia to host Peace Corps volunteers ... following the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and India. The volunteers received three months of pre-departure training, and after arriving in Korea, went through three days of orientation before being assigned to public secondary schools in various parts of the country. Service was approximately two years.

Two principle groups of volunteers were English teachers to improve education and health care volunteers to treat the many in poverty and poor health. After the first few groups came, the English teaching assignments became organized and teachers would have one year of service in a middle school to get exposure to the language and teaching methods and then the second year would be spent in a college somewhere where they would educate future Korean educators on pronunciation skills and how to teach the English language. Health care workers jobs were more varied. Clinics and hospitals were set up around the country and workers could be divided into specializing clinics like those for eye and ear health, Hansen's disease (leprosy), TB, maternal and child care, malnutrition, to name the larger groups. Cholera and other epidemics had to similarly be dealt with.

Suzanne worked in a health care clinic. During her first few weeks, she mainly stayed in the lab looking at specimen slides and evaluating them to reach a suitable diagnosis. This was because at the end of orientation she broke her leg. After recovering and spending a lot of time in the lab, she convinced the lab she could be useful doing home visitations in outlying villages. Bus rides, walking, and of course Korean language were essential skills. Often she would have to go to several villages in one day to do follow-up of patients who had previously been treated.

One of the stories she noted about this was especially the difficulty in finding the older women patients who had been treated. The older women were illiterate, had been signed into the clinic or hospital by perhaps a son or daughter who had used their name, but unfortunately the name the women were signed in by were not the names the women used. Literally, they had forgotten their names as once they had children, they were called "mother of 'the child'" and then "grandmother of 'a child'" and so their given names simply ceased to be used. Suzanne (group K??) and Jake (K50, the second to last Peace Corps group in South Korea), another health care worker also contributing to the tour, said that they started taking notes about the names of the women's children and grandchildren so that when they went to the village, they could ask for the "grandmother of 'a child'" instead of the women's names. Villagers didn't know the women's names but they recognized the child's names ... and so follow-up could be made on the women.

Peace Corps volunteers after their term of service was up ...

What Peace Corps volunteers did after they left. Well, surprising or maybe not surprising, many of these former Peace Corps volunteers recognized that little was printed or known about Korea and so they started filling the knowledge gap. Having already gained linguistic ability, many former volunteers became recognized as authorities on Korea, and indeed, it was principally the former Peace Corps workers who established the field of Korean studies with their continued scholarship on the country.

For some volunteers, the two years that they spent in Korea became the opportunity for them to become Korea experts. Kathleen Stephens (Korean name Shim Eun-kyung) became a diplomat and returned to Korea as the US Ambassador to Korea. Some developed their interest in Korea into an academic commitment to Korean Studies. Fascinated by Korean Culture, other volunteers have gone on to translate Korean literature, paint Buddhist images, contribute to the globalization of Korean samulnori (Korean traditional percussion performance), and stand up for the preservation of Korean architecture. There have also been those who delved into the democratization scene of Korea, participating in Korea's democratization movement.

Contributors to Korean Studies:
Michael Robinson
Carter Eckert
Laural Kendall
Donald Baker
Daniel Holt
Bruce Cumings
David McCann
Edward Schultz
And writers on Korean Culture:
Bruce Fulton
Suzanna Samstag Oh
Gary Rector
Suzanne Crowder Han
Brian Barry didn't write books but became an expert on Buddhist paintings, a training that took years and years of patience and painstaking painting the same picture over and over and over until the minutiae of it was memorized and the strokes natural as breathing. An example follows  a very LARGE painting!

Tom Coyner, former Vice President of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, also participated in the Q&A session at the end of the museum walk. He served as an English teacher in group K35, from 1975-1977. At that time, like everyone else in the country he was paid a flat $45/month, and this sum was to pay for all expenses including housing rental, food, etc. Those serving in Seoul had a small increase in their pay as Seoul was a more expensive place to live.

Some interesting facts Tom introduced to the discussion were:
  • South Korea had the highest termination rate among Peace Corps workers. He said one of the biggest reasons for volunteers to withdraw early was that "it wasn't Africa". Tom was sent to 음성 village via a wide four-lane highway. En route he really questioned about being sent to a third-world country but when the bus turned off the highway and he was able to get transportation to 음성, he realized that yes, in fact he had arrived at a third-world location.  
  • South Korea also had the highest rate of extensions for Peace Corps volunteers. 
  • South Korea also had one of the highest marriage rates between Peace Corps workers and locals. All three former volunteers for this museum visit married Koreans.

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