Back to home page

January 2017
Looking back on 1971-72 in Korea

From April 1971 to the end of January 1972 I was stationed with the US Army Security Agency in Korea. Our base was on a hillside on Kang-hwa Do (now Anglicized as Ganghwado, and noted as KD hereafter), an island about 40 miles northwest of Seoul. Across the Han River is North Korea. We could always hear propaganda being broadcast across the water by loudspeakers.

X marks the spot in the map above, midway between the capitals of North and South Korea.
The base was located in the upper middle of the island, the spot roughly indicated here. The population of the island at the time, according to this map (upper right corner), was about 120,000-130,000 residents.
I did not own a camera then, even though, for GIs, cameras were relatively cheap. Somme of my army friends, especially Andy L. and Terry S., were excellent photographers. The pictures below are scans of prints made from their slides in the early 1970s.
The bridge to the mainland (lower left) was finished in 1970. A view of the city, looking to the north (lower right).
I went back to Korea 25 years after I left, in January 1997, this time with a camera, but I took very few pictures, for reasons I don't understand, unless it was that it was extremely cold. Luckily I did take a few when I made from KD to the neighbhoring island of Sam-san-Do and I will add them soon.
Between 1972 and 1997 Korea changed almost completely, Seoul having been almost reshaped by changes made for the Olympics, which were held there in 1988. When you look at a Google map of KD now you see gas stations along the road those ox carts above were using.
As I expected, in 1997 Kanghwa Do was unrecognizable. The Army base was gone (Korean-based US forces were drawn down starting in 1974) and so too, so far as I could tell, was the beautiful Japanese house in which I rented a couple of rooms, although I roamed the hills above the city for an afternoon looking for it.

The magic of KD for me, as an Iowa farmboy, was that it was countryside. I could speak basic Korean, and as a result I met a few people on the island and did unusual things. For example, in May I helped farmers plant rice. I met an English-speaking doctor who was a lieutenant in the ROK Marines (toughest of the tough) and once or twice he arranged for me to stay over at a Republic of Korea Marine base on the island (against the rules). I did more characteristic things, such as teaching English conversation at a school pictured below. I did crazy things in 1997 as well, including riding a public bus, not an airport express but a regular bus, from the airport all the way to downtown Seoul and using a map to find my hotel. It was very cold and snowing. It took an hour, probably more, but it was amazingly cheap, and I even had some Korean money left from 1972 to use for my fare.

Pictures from Kanghwa-Do taken in 1971
Sights like this, carts with rubber tires drawn by oxen, guided by men in traditional clothes, and women (in the distance, right), carrying baskets on their heads, were common on the island. These children lived on KD, the girl carrying her baby sister in the traditional manner; note the straw-roofed house behind them. To the right, the shelters built for gensang plants, one of the island's important crops.
The school, where I sometimes taught English conversation.
The Japanese house

I rented a couple of rooms in a house that was built during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945).
This is me, carrying some eggs in a straw wrapper, wearing a woolen scarf I bought on Cheju Island during the summer, and heading up the muddy path from the village market to the house.
I used the desk I had made (shipped home courtesy of the US Army) when I was a graduate student. I still have it. We had a reading room,
complete with comfortable chairs and a poster for "White Christmas" (room seen from outside, to the right, below, right).

Scenes like the one below, rice in large open straw baskets, a man in traditional white clothing (on the right), a mule drawing cart, chickens being washed at a hand pump (eyed by a curious dog, at the right), could not have been imagined when I walked the street in 1997. This are views of pre-World-War-II Korea, not the land of Sam-sung and Hyundai and Kia.

Domestic life was tremendously picturesque. I still have some of these items, including pots and brassware.

Here and there in Korea
Suwon, a tourist village south of Seoul.

I believe these are pictures from KD but they could have been taken just about anywhere in the hilly countryside. I see them as winter, spring, and summer.

Urban life
The baby sitting on the street was probably photographed in Seoul.
Islands to the west
Part of the romance of KD to me was the chain of much smaller islands extending from its western shore into the Yellow Sea (a lattitude just south of Beijing. We woud catch a small ferry or a police boat from Oepo-ri for the 45-minute ride. It made for some great pictures. The views below, center and right, are winter and summer on the island, looking north.

We'd sign out a jeep and head for some village somewhere, find a yo-gwan, a small hotel with a heated floor, and spend the night. We brought the beer.

Joe O. with a pet, wintertime, near his base south of Seoul.

The base
It's long gone. I published these two pictures--in a light-hearted moment--in Before the Closet (University of Chicago Press, 1998), just a year after my second trip to Korea. On the left I am with two Korean security officers on the boat that went between Kanghwa and the outer islands. The picture on the right is the base, known as 226, showing the road that went up to the top of the mountain, where our workstation was located.
The workstation