Read Korea Online

Authors: Simon Winchester

Korea (26 page)

BOOK: Korea
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Friendly conversation about your job with merchants or bar girls may not be innocent. When questions proceed much beyond the point of ‘Do you work at the base?’ you go beyond innocent conversation. The appropriate response to these questions should be noncommittal or intended to direct the conversation in another direction. Many of these people understand far more English than they let on. Also, you cannot tell the difference between our ally, the South Korean, and our enemy up north.

If you think you were the target of collection activity, you probably were. If so, immediately notify the Air Force Office of Security Intelligence. Enjoy your visit, but remember to leave your job on base.

 

One of the homegrown precautions taken at Kunsan is a strictly enforced ban on any American serviceman living, sleeping, visiting, or even walking in a three-mile-wide
cordon sanitaire
around the three open sides of the base (the fourth side being the Yellow Sea, and jammed solid with mines and other high-explosive deterrents). Americans may drive—though only on ‘Route 26, the designated major curfew control area route’—and under certain circumstances ‘visit orphanages, churches or schools’. Otherwise, everything from the base wire to the three-mile line is off-limits, to avoid any American falling prey to subversive temptations.

 

The archway-gate for Silver Town, which I had seen as I was walking in, turned out to be three miles exactly from the main gate. The town, which sat astride a small hill like an old Andalusian fortress-village, and had a population of maybe a thousand, had sprung up ten years before at this nearest legitimately on-limits point along Route 26. No one called it Silver Town—no one knew why it had been called that in the first place. Now everyone said simply A-Town. It was busy every night; but this was Friday night, and, moreover, it was the last night of the Team Spirit exercises. ‘Hookers’ prices have doubled since these bastards came in,’ grumbled one captain. ‘So there’s no alternative—got to do some serious drinking and go down and get ourselves some of the giggle-sisters.’

So we climbed into a
kimchi
-cab (‘When these guys crash they make themselves into human
kimchi
, they go so fucking fast’). ‘
Atashi
,’ said Joe. It was the only Korean word he knew—an overfamiliar way of saying ‘uncle’—and the drivers, indeed everyone to whom he said it, winced when he yelled it, but took his money anyway. ‘Hey!
Atashi!
A-Town. Disco. Pronto!’ And we roared off in pursuit of the giggle-sisters. A sergeant, who was on his fifth tour in Korea, explained: ‘Call them that because even when you’re screwing them, they giggle. Tell you what I call this place—“The Land of Sliding Doors and Slit-Eyed Whores.”’ Everyone in the car guffawed, including the driver, except that his eyes betrayed him and deep down he wasn’t smiling at all.

As we drew up at the A-Town taxi stand the sergeant yelled out: ‘Pick your wheels, boys! One with the valve closest to six pays.’ I chose the left-hand rear wheel, and the tyre valve sat precisely at six, had the wheel been a clock face. I paid up the four dollars, which might account for my dyspeptic frame of mind as we set off into the jungle of neon ahead.

Silver Town was a throbbing square of discos, bars and cheap cafés, its narrow streets filled with a turgid river of American servicemen and the Koreans who chose, either cynically or by force of economic circumstance, to service their baser needs. Every bar was the same. There was a rickety stage on which, to the deafeningly unpleasant, cat-scratching din of a cheap sound system, sullen-looking women in dingily erotic costumes danced for five minutes at a time. The flashier bars—the Paradise, the Hollywood, the Korea à Go-Go—employed a cast of perhaps six women, so the clients would have to watch the same girl perform every half hour; the cheaper places had only three girls, or two, so the sweat was still glistening on girl number one when she clambered onto the stage to dance again as girl number three. In the cheaper places the girls were slatterns indeed, and the turnover in the audience was rapid. ‘Christ, let’s go down the road—these girls are dogs!’ Air Force women were in the crowd of onlookers too, many of the more attractive ones attached,
limpetlike, to the Team Spirit pilots. Disgruntled nonfliers would always complain about this phenomenon—that better-looking girls would join the Air Force for the sole purpose of finding a pilot for a husband and behaved like star-struck groupies whenever a new squadron came to town. A flight of FB-111 bombers had come in from Japan for the exercise the week before, siphoning every pretty airwoman off the base. My companions that night—none of whom had ever been in a plane, let alone enjoyed the mystique of piloting one—grumbled endlessly about the unfairness of it all. They took out their
angst
on the Korean women up on the stage.

‘Fuck me!’ exclaimed a corporal, on seeing one particularly corpulent woman stagger through her routine. ‘She’s so ugly she’d blow the buzzards off a fish wagon.’ He specialized in one-liners that were some way removed from Noel Coward. He wore a T-shirt that proclaimed: ‘I’m so horny even the crack of dawn isn’t safe’, that might have been a better joke had I not seen the same shirt just six months before in Olongapo, the Philippine equivalent of Silver Town, where the U.S. Navy men play when they have time off from Subic Bay. ‘Hey, Mack,’ the corporal said, turning to me. ‘Know how you fuck a fat woman like her? Roll her in flour and hunt for the wet spot!’

I smiled at the fat girl, and she came and sat next to me during her break. ‘You look bored,’ she said. I told her I was very bored indeed but that I felt obliged to stay with my hosts, who were all now drinking through straws from an enormous bowl of porridgelike punch (it was said to be a mixture of
makkoli
, vodka, whiskey, triple sec, brandy, beer and crushed ice, and was guaranteed to lay you flat on the floor in fifteen minutes). She said she was bored, too; she knew she wasn’t attractive enough for the pilots, ‘So I just get the maintenance men, and they can be very bad people, very cruel.’

Her name was Miss Koh, she was twenty-three, she came from Seoul and had ambitions to be a dancer. ‘I feel ashamed of myself, really,’ she said. ‘You know how important it is for us to find a husband. Doing something like this ruins us. I don’t know
why we all do it. At first it’s the money. But it gets boring soon, and because you’ve done it, there’s not else things you can do. My mother thinks I am waitress. I am sure she really knows what I do. It is very shameful.’ She gave me her telephone number in Seoul, ‘because you say you like Korea,’ and promised that if I called her she would show me the city. She wrote her name in
hangul
in my Alwych. ‘I hope to see you again,’ she wrote. ‘Good luck.’ As she finished writing she got up from the table and said quietly: ‘I don’t want you to see me here again. This makes me shamed. I want you help me proud my country. This is no good.’

She pointed to her colleague who was even now drawing a chair leg between her thighs, to the raucous yells of a hundred airmen, including my hosts, who had by now drained the bowl of porridge and were demanding another. A security policeman had come into the bar on his rounds; he was an immense black man with strangely manic, staring eyes that gazed fiercely into the middle distance. ‘He’d crack your fucking skull like a walnut,’ said the sergeant and giggled.

We left an hour or so later. The lieutenant nearly got himself arrested for pissing on the back wheel of a taxi. He then insisted on insulting the driver all the way back to the base and stopped and made everyone piss on a cherry sapling that he said had been planted a few days before. (Early each April, Koreans go on a massive tree-planting binge, to help replace the forests that were stripped bare by the Japanese colonists during World War II.) The driver remained quiet, impassively dignified through it all, like a parent watching his wayward child pass through a trying stage of its adolescence. I felt very saddened by it all and very much the prude.

(A handbook given to all servicemen when they enter the country contains a preface that all are entreated to read: ‘As American guests of the Koreans we should strive to project the best national image possible. We are each judged as individual representatives of our country, and must act accordingly.’)

The next morning I had my final breakfast on base with the liaison officer, a grease-smooth Korean called Mr Kwong, who
wore a double-breasted waistcoat under his suit. I was fascinated by the performance by which he kept producing cigarettes, one every five minutes, from deep within the waistcoat. Some form of kinetic magic was at work: he simply pressed the top of a pocket and the white tube slid automatically into his hand, no wires or magnets anywhere in view.

He had worked at Kunsan for twenty-five years. He was a schoolboy during the war and remembered vividly being in the city when the North Koreans overran it in August 1950. American infantrymen retook the city and occupied the base (their current title to it derives from its being one of the spoils of war) in late September. ‘The Communists had put all their political prisoners in the city jail. When they knew the Americans were going to recapture the place, they simply poured gasoline all around the prison buildings and set the whole place on fire. They were brutal people—strange to think they were Koreans.’

(Or perhaps not so strange. Many people I met said that Koreans had an astonishing capacity for violence. Colonel Kramer had served in Vietnam with Korean paratroopers. ‘Know how they used to deal with any Vietcong they caught? They’d draw lots to choose on a poor fellow who they’d then skin alive. They’d stake him outside to die. A body without skin is a terrible thing to see. They’d show the other Vietcong prisoners what they’d done and then let some of them go. Their idea was they’d go back to their units with stories about how tough these Koreans were and scare them to death. They don’t monkey around, these guys. Anything mean and nasty, they have the capacity to do it.’ The Japanese, it was always said, would use Koreans as guards and torturers in their concentration camps—in the same way that the Russians would employ Buryats from Mongolia and Siberia to perform the least pleasant tasks of battle or occupation. The Mongols, like the Koreans to whom they are related, have a reputation for being easy to brutalize. If you were a British or an American prisoner of war and you saw a Korean coming for you, you knew you were in trouble.)

Mr Kwong was very much a Korean nationalist. He loathed
the Japanese for what they had done during the colonial period (which included, ironically, building Kunsan Air Base in 1938), and he was determined his son should grow up with a loathing for them, too. ‘There is a programme on our KBS television, a soap opera I guess you’d call it, about life under the Japanese. It is the only programme I force my son to watch. It is too easy for young people to forget what those Japanese did to us. We can never trust them again. They seem friendly now, but deep down they are not. They have plans for us, just like they’ve always had. They are not good for the Korean people. I dislike them—in fact, deep down I have to say I really hate them for what they have done. They took away our language. They took away our names and made us take Japanese names. They took away our king. They stole our treasures. They ruined our land. No, I can never forgive them for what they did. You in the West seem to have forgiven them for what they did to you. Me, I can never forget what they did to Korea. I am determined my children will never allow it to be forgotten.’

And yet, did I sense in him a growing unease about the American pressence, too? It was difficult to know. On the surface Mr Kwong was very much a base employee, almost an American himself, the owner, indeed, of a couple of bars that were much used by the airmen. ‘You’ve got to remember that three-quarters of the population of this country has never experienced a war. You can understand why there is a feeling of growing anti-Americanism, of growing anti-militarism. The young students-they don’t know what the Communists did to us, they can’t really see why the Americans are over here, and why we need so many troops in our own forces, and why they have to be called up and pressed into the services. I may not agree, but I can understand.’

Just then two burly and unshaven airmen walked past. One wore a patch on his jacket that said ‘Munitions Storage—We tell you where to stick it!’ The other had a T-shirt with the words: ‘Kill ’em All. Let God Sort the Bastards Out.’ Both were sporting newly stitched shoulder patches showing what appeared to be a
small plane—the fuselage looking remarkably phallic—beneath the rubric ‘One Hundred Successful Missions to A-Town’. Mr Kwong shook his head with distaste.

‘That’s what I just can’t take. Don’t they ever learn? We need to be respected here, and they’re not respecting us. They still treat us like we’re some backward Third World country, and you know we’re not. We’re proud, we’ve got good reason to be. But this…’ He gestured with despair. I said I hadn’t found anything very offensive about the two passing airmen. ‘Maybe not, maybe I react too much,’ he said. ‘I have worked for twenty-five years trying to bring the two communities together. I organize them to go out to meet families. I try to persuade them to learn a bit of Korean, to eat some of the food, to understand why they’re here. But they don’t want to know. And it’s the way some of them treat our women, and our men too. Some of them just have no respect for us. The way they see it, they’re top of the pile, and everyone else is nothing. It makes me mad.’ He stubbed his cigarette out angrily, then performed his sleight-of-hand act, and another was instantly alight in his mouth and he was puffing on it furiously.

‘Still, getting the communities together works in some ways. We have about three hundred marriages a year between Korean girls and American men. There are still a lot of girls who want to get out while they can, and an American passport’s a good way to do it. But in other ways it’s not so easy to get girls down here. We’re getting to be a much richer country, you know. Girls won’t come and dance and do all the other things they have to as hostesses in places like A-Town. They don’t have to. They can get other jobs now. You take a look—the average age of the dancers down there is going up. The girls aren’t very pretty. And there’s still this stigma of getting involved with a foreigner. Korea is racially very pure, still, more so than Japan. There’s a feeling that we shouldn’t dilute our stock if we don’t have to. I tell you, I’ve got a difficult job down here; it gets more difficult, too. I earn my money, that’s for sure.’

BOOK: Korea
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