by Grace Lee, ETA ’15-’16
I sat down, preparing for the English Bible study to begin. It was my first week living in Sejong and I was elated to see an elderly gentleman sitting across from me at the table.
“Are you from the South?” He asked.
“Yes, I am from Georgia.” I was a little surprised. “How did you know?”
“You have a Southern accent. I graduated from Columbia Theology Seminary school in Atlanta.”
From that moment on, I knew I wanted to learn about this 86-year old gentleman and Korean War veteran. I had partly come to Korea in order to interview the elderly community. My own grandparents passed away in 2009 and 2014. I could not ask them about their personal upbringings before their deaths because of the language barrier, but I yearned to talk to them. After my parents’ divorce, they remained a strong presence in my life and prepared me to live a prosperous life in the US. I knew their immigration story and of their successes with their hotel business. However, I knew that their stories started long before they immigrated to the US. Understanding that story meant understanding more of my Korean heritage. This is why any chance I have to speak to an elderly person here is a special connection for me.
And here I was, sitting in front of an elderly gentleman who spoke perfect English. I could not let go of this great opportunity.
After sharing my goals, he said “Grace, you are the only person who I want to share my story with.”
He told me that I could tell his story to you. But, he had a wish. He wanted me to use his friend’s name Mr. Jung in this article, instead of his own name. He wishes to honor his friend, though it is only a name. I decided to honor him by complying with this wish.
For five consecutive weeks, from September to October 2015, I sat down with Mr. Jung anywhere from half-an-hour up to one-and-a-half-hours at a time to hear his story. When I listened to Mr. Jung, nothing else mattered and nothing else existed. Although he was soft-spoken, I felt charisma through his words. They had a subtle, yet sweet conviction where you knew each one held wisdom. When he spoke, I concentrated.
“Grace and Suffering.”
Mr. Jung came from Jeollabuk-do, a small southwestern province in Korea. He prayed to live until he was 65 years old. The life expectancy of Koreans was 37 years during 1925-1930 and rose to 52 years during 1955-1960 . He is now in his 80s.
“Until [God] calls me, I have to pay back grace that he’s given me,” he said. “I still have one more Grace of God…next to me.”
His last statement gave me goosebumps. I felt humbled to be in his presence, graced by hearing his story.
“Escaping from the Mud”
His father died at a young age and left nothing for his family. From first grade until the sixth grade, he spoke Japanese in school because Japan occupied Korea at the time. He didn’t have enough time for studying though because he and his friends worked for families whose sons were drafted for the Japanese army. Mr. Jung worked diligently.
Growing up, the Japanese educated Korean students to hate America and England.
“We must destroy the Americans and those from England,” they told him.
He and his classmates believed that the Japanese would win the war and destroy their enemies’ countries.
“They educated us that way,” he said.
Continuously, he and his classmates chanted: “We must destroy the Americans and those from England.” But while publicly declaring his animosity towards the British and Americans, Mr. Jung privately disagreed with his public outcries.
I’m pretty sure that my grandparents had the same experience as Mr. Jung. They immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. But, I never heard about or felt any distrust or animosity towards the American or British people from them either. Like my grandparents, Mr. Jung empathized with foreigners and showed no prejudice towards them. But at the time, he had to keep those thoughts to himself.
Living in the countryside, the Japanese in the community knew that he had little money. Wealth disparity was common in the living conditions amongst his friends. From 1911 to 1937, Korea was dealing with economic problems. When the Japanese gained a large access to Korean farmland, Korean farmers were immediately forced to become sharecroppers. The Japanese governement owned all the industries and made it difficult for Koreans to get their own businesses running. They charged Koreans at least 25 percent more in interest fees than they charged Japanese people. This was one example of the hardship Koreans faced.
One day while walking to middle school, some Japanese people said, “Even strong cow is in the mud.” Their statement made him believe that he could not escape from the mud, his poverty-stricken life, no matter his strength.
With the help of his aunt, Mr. Jung moved to Jeonju. He had been a Christian since his childhood. His aunt knew a better life was waiting for him with the missionaries. By 1940, ninety percent of missionaries had left Korea because of the harsh persectutions they were facing during Japanese rule. However, some had stayed. The church took a lead role in helping mend the country of its suffering. By the church being advocates for democracy, Christian church members fought for the rights of Korean people.
Mr. Jung had been told by his aunt that he could help the missionary’s cook, so he went and worked faithfully and honestly there from 1946 to 1950, learning English while he worked.
“[The missionary] helped me escape from the mud,” he said.“From that time, my life was changed. He would continually feel grateful for their kindness, for caring for him as if he was their own son.
When Japanese rule over Korea ended in 1945 after 35 years, he felt amazing. He had great hope for the future. “만세,” he shouted.
“By Grace of God, I AM who I am”
When the Korean War started on June 25, 1950, Mr. Jung entered into the military on July 11th as a 19-year-old student. As the “Red Army” (North Koreans) invaded South Korea, half of his classmates volunteered to join the army, including Mr. Jung. They had little training, but they went to the battlefield.
On August 4, 1950, they arrived at a grass field in Daegu during the night. They received a M-I rifle and a steel helmet — only two arms. This was an improvement. When they had walked from Suncheon to Jinju – 61.9 kilometers – they only had their hands to fight with. At the break of dawn on the following day, about 1000 soldiers went into action at Jayang and Yongchun near North-West Daegu. They needed to protect the Busan Perimeter, the front lines.
One of his fellow comrades was not only his schoolmate, but they were in the same grade in the same class. Under pine trees in night during the rainy season, without rain coat, they shared body-heat side by side. They also sat side by side in their classroom. Mr. Jung aspired to become a doctor while his friend dreamed of becoming a pastor. His friend’s calling was something Mr. Jung deeply respected about him; preaching the gospel held higher importance than his career of becoming a doctor.
On August 15th, Red Army forces invaded a mountaintop where Mr. Jung’s 30-men platoon had occupied. While being mentally prepared for an attack by the enemy, the first wave of bullets surprised the platoon. An enemy soldier shot him in the shoulder, the bullet just grazing his skin. If the bullet had hit one of his bones, he probably would not be alive today. He heard an explosion nearby. Chaos and gunfire followed, distracting him. He didn’t notice until later that metal debris had lodged in his leg. To this day, it remains there.
“This is the grace of God,” Mr. Jung said. Almost losing his life, caused him to realize how precious each and every day is here on Earth.
“I Am Sorry”
Even after the war and his climb up from the mud, Mr. Jung’s thoughts would still turn back to those days.
On the same day Mr. Jung was wounded in battle by the bullet and leg injury, he lost a dear friend, his classmate he sat next to at school.
“He died there.
I came back alive.
He wanted to become a pastor.
Why did he die, an able friend, versus me?”
He did not understand why his life was spared when his friend had a higher calling to share the gospel of God to others. While he questioned the series of events in his life, his faith over the years grew as he realized that life has bigger purposes than our mere circumstances.
Every year, Mr. Jung visits the cemetery of his friend and comrades to pay respect to his brave war brothers who saved Busan, the last stronghold of the Republic of Korea. In 2007, he attended a ceremony of digging up the bones of the soldiers who were his friends. He hoped to finally find the bones of his friends from more than 50 years ago. Unfortunately, they were not able to recover them. From a poem he wrote called We Are Sorry, he shared his reflections at our Bible study. The poem spoke about his longing to see his friends soon and his sincere apology for not discovering their bones yet.
“Thank you for sacrificing for our nation to sanctify its history,” he said. “Each day that passes by, is one day closer to meeting again. When we shall meet in the afterlife, let us talk more about our strength and perseverance through our war days.”
The experience with his friend has been a good occasion for him to remember how the grace of God is meaningful to his life. Grace does not offer earthly fortune; it just provides the comfort that you are always with God.
Gradually, he started to think, “I am useful to him [God], since I am still alive.”
I share the same faith towards God. I see God present through my everyday situations. When Fulbright placed me at Mireu Elementary in Sejong, I felt God working in my life. This was the same school I visited before my placement. Without living in Sejong, I would not have met Mr. Jung and he has been one of the most influential people I have met during my grant year. Throughout the day, I am always talking to God, asking and thanking him for the small sequence of events that happen daily. So as long as I seek God and seek his truth, life is better because I am not walking through my troubles or joys alone.
“I am free”
At the end of my last interview with Mr. Jung, he said joyfully, “I am free. I am happy.” He wants to acknowledge his sincere gratitude towards Americans. From the bottom of his heart, he is thankful to the United States Armed Forces. They helped save the Republic of Korea from the Red Army during the Korean War.
I believe his faith in God transformed him, from having parents who raised him in a Christian household to living with gratefulness for all the experiences he has overcome. While circumstances caused some unstable situations such as living under Japanese colonialism or being a solider in the Korean War, the one thing that has seemed to be constant is God’s faithfulness in his life. Just talking to him, I thought his relationship with God is the most important relationship he has, besides the one he shares with his wife who he has been married to for more than 50 years. He found the light from within, through the love of missionaries and forgiving the Japanese for their rule against Korea.
Now, Mr. Jung calls me his “Christian granddaughter” because of the spiritual and personal connection we share with each other. While I am not blood related to him, to have him see me as his spiritual granddaughter is very special to me. Because of his health, I could not continue meeting with him on a weekly basis. But, I was able to see Mr. Jung on July 6th when he attended our Bible study. It was the first time seeing him since January. He walked through the doors and my spirit immediately lifted. He was still rocking his pink polo shirt, light blue pants, and signature hat. His leather bag only continued to show how classy and timeless his fashion sense was for a senior citizen. I smiled.
Mr. Jung has become a very special part of my journey in South Korea. He gave me a glimpse of how my grandmother and grandfather may have lived during the Korean War. He shared the economic and personal struggles of living under Japanese occupation, his time as a soldier during a war that divided Korea, and how his faith is the most important thing in his life. At the most recent Bible Study, I was asked to share my testimony with the group, to share what I have learned living in Korea the past year. I couldn’t go about 20 seconds before I found the tears strolling down my face.
He was sitting in front of me.
“Thank you for giving me a relationship I never had with my grandparents,” I said. “ Living in Sejong has exceeded my expectations and one of the reasons is because of being able to meet you Mr. Jung.”
Afterwards, the pastor’s wife said to me, “I feel you found God’s love in Sejong.”
I surely did, and it was not only through my students, my homestay family, and friends. I found God’s love by meeting Mr. Jung. Like himself, there are elderly people who are waiting for someone to listen to their story. I have learned that they are the key to learning about history in the present instead of simply reading it from textbooks. There are wonderful life stories ready to be shared. Through Mr. Jung, I have gained a glimpse of the soul of Korea, stories and experiences that have built the foundation of the Republic of Korea.