Looking Back, Part 2

Kimchi pots outside a traditional house

Michael is an Irish Catholic priest with many years serving in South Korea. This is from an interview in 2007.

Michael’s story

The night Park Chung-hee was shot [October 27, 1979], I was at a party at Konguk University, where an ex-Peace Corps guy was celebrating his birthday. I took some English students to meet the foreigners and speak a bit of English. A friend was visiting from England, looking into setting up a program for justice awareness, and after the party we stayed up talking about injustice in Korea and the Philippines. In the morning I was taking a shower when he rushed in and said that Park Chun-hee had been shot just as we were coming home from the party. I thought he was joking. I got dressed and went out. Everything was quiet. In those days whenever an incident happened, people passed out free, quarter-page sheets bulletins from news agencies. The news was just that he was shot. Curfew was moved from midnight to an earlier time.

At that time I was running a center for Catholic students, a place for them to come together, where they could do debates and discuss literature or whatever. Across the street was a station for the police and the KCIA. One of these guardian angels, a Mr. Hong, was watching to see who came and went. About a week before he’d come over because of a flyer on the wall about an educational event on secular developments in Europe. One of the students had told him it had to do with communism. Just saying the word “communism” made you a red at that time, and informing on others was quite common. I’d had to go over to the police station and explain myself. On the morning after Park was shot I saw Mr. Hong a few other guys on the street, and they looked at the ground. They were ashamed that Park was shot by the KCIA chief. I shouldn’t have done it, but I said, “You guys were accusing me of communism, but we didn’t shoot the president, and there were no troops coming over the border. It was your guy that shot the president.” After the assassination everybody was very quiet, and the KCIA didn’t come around the center. Because of the curfew everybody was afraid. The news came out slowly how he was shot and all of that.

Before the funeral a friend and I went down to the south to Naedamsa to see the fall leaves. On the way back there were very few cars on the road, and those cars were all being pulled in by the police. It was kind of a free-for-all for the police to accuse drivers of speeding. I’m sure they were lining their own pockets because the king was dead and they could do whatever they wanted.

We watched the funeral on television. A motorcade and the coffin with a whole carriage all made up of yellow and white flowers. It was a beautiful sight, and the daughters and the sons and the officials were all in mourning clothes. It was very solemn. Whether people were for Park Chung-hee or against him, they had a lot of sadness about his being shot that way.

All along we’d been told that the North Korean communists were going to come down and shoot the president. And now there was a lot of fear. What was going on? Then in the election Pres. Chae was chosen, but he only lasted a short time. Then there was the coup of December 12 when Chung Doo-hwan took over. I remember being over at the center a few nights before, around curfew time. There was me and a New Zealander. We heard this rumble like a whole movement of army trucks moving. We ran to out a small little window that onto the main road, the one that went across the bridge. It looked like the whole army.

Seoul apartment blocks in 1975


I first came here in September, 1969. I was amazed by the throngs of people on the road and everywhere. Seoul was still undeveloped. There was a lot of poverty, a lot of old Korean houses with tile roofs, which later on were preserved as a kind of national treasure. In the countryside at the time there were mainly thatched cottages with no indoor plumbing, and some of the rural areas didn’t even have electricity. There were some paved roads, but especially up in the mountains there were still very few. The roads were set up by the army, part clay and part gravel, so they could get around in their black jeeps. The few private cars were mostly in Seoul. You could see lots of punctured tires on jeeps and cars and buses.

The electric trams had just gone out before I came here, but there was good bus service, with a conductress at each of the front and back doors. They took the fare as you got in and hit the side of the bus to tell the driver it was time to leave, and then they’d announce the station. When the bus was really crowded they had to turn their back to the crowd, take hold of the barriers and push the people in with their behinds. In 1974-75 the girls who worked on the buses had demonstrations—they had no unions. They were protesting against being strip-searched at the end of the line by men. At his Christmas mass, the Bishop at Wonju [who went to jail for protesting against Park Chung-hee’s declaring himself President for Life] said if they are stealing money there was nothing sinful about that, they were just taking what they should be getting anyway.

Yushin Constitution in 1971 [Revitalizing Reform Movement] brought in the Saemaul, or New Village, within much needed cleanliness, getting rid of the dirt and squalor in back alleys, having people take responsibility for cleaning up around their houses. There was a big push to get rid of a lot of old things, and a lot of good houses probably were destroyed. Yushin was also about saemaum, or New Heart, New Attitude. It was tied up with politics and control and the old Confucian respect for elders. In reality it did a lot of good.

In ’69 when I came, Seoul was mostly one and two-story buildings. In the back alleys there were open sewers, especially the outskirts where poor people lived. It was all squatters’ area. People who had failed in the city and were in debt, they moved out to those places. No running water, living in boxes in the summertime. Then people were moved out of the poor areas, probably just loaded on the back of trucks and taken further out of the city. By 1979 saemaul would have replaced the thatched houses within the official inner city with houses of concrete block, but probably not out in the outskirts where squatters lived. After the reforms they’d put a metal roof, but that can be really hot in the summer and cold in the winter. So they’d keep the thatch and put that on top of it.

In the early ‘70s, there was a big market in textile production. The sweatshops were keeping wages down in order to produce as much as they could and send their products to and Hong Kong. There was an organization for young Catholic workers which had branches in the factories, and we would celebrate mass at a table in the middle of the factory floor. There were at least three, if not four platforms stacked on top of each other, where the girls sat cross-legged in front of their machines. The idea was to get as many girls as possible and as many machines as possible into a small space. At first one of the big issues the girls were fighting for was one day a month, and then much later they got one day a week off. Of course, the factories and those sweatshops had all kinds of goons working for them. The girls were protesting about being beaten or raped—threatened at least. If you complained about anything, were branded a communist. Nobody wanted that, but at the same time you had to fight for your rights. With the textiles there was a lot of dyeing. When I was mountain climbing, I’d see dye coming down all the streams—blue, and pink or purple with the overflow from the factories.

Working conditions were bad, in crowded rooms with bad air. There was a lot of tuberculosis. Girls had problems with their eyesight from being on the sewing machines for a long time. I know because we ran a night school which started in 1975, with girls from the factories or guys who worked in these fitting shops. In the late ‘70s they started demonstrating. If they’d sit down or go slow work or no work, the factory with the help of the government would send in the goons. In a few incidents these goons brought in buckets of shit and threw it on top of them. The demonstrators were sent to jail for a while.

In the center for Catholic university students, we organized a night school for kids up from the countryside who had no middle school education. They came after work, at 6:30 p.m., for a year and a half to do middle school education, Korean and math and English and history. School finished at 10:30. There were very dedicated university students teaching the program. Some volunteered extra time to help those who were slow. It was a model school in some ways. As the school got very strong, we had up to 40 students. A lot of them had to drop out, but we had a graduation celebration in the countryside with own school song. Some of our students went on to the university after that and became teachers in the school. That went on beyond ’79 and into the ‘80s. Then after ’82 teachers were coming in who wanted to focus on the class struggle, democracy, change and labor laws. We had a big struggle among ourselves. One teacher said, “These students want to go on to high school or the university. That’s what we’re here for.” By 1986 enrollment was way down. There were maybe 15 teachers and 4 or 5 students. So the school was closed.

In the 70s there was a photocopy machine in every church. The political activists would copy their book of rallying songs with Catholic hymns. Farmers’ bands were banned. They used to have them at festivals. They took harvest stories and used them to make modern day plays with masks representing the factory owner and the workers and all that. They’d practice and put it on in front of Myoung-dong Cathedral, but then it got so widespread that the government stopped it.

After the Kwangju Incident in 1980 (Link), students found out that they alone could not take on the government. A lot of them started to go into the factories to create awareness. You could say that was part of the reason the Kwangju Incident started. So now the university students wanted to take over everywhere, including the churches. A Korean priest took over the center and closed the whole office. Movement decisions were made outside, like where there was going to be demonstrations and what the issues would be this month and next month. Of course phones were tapped, and there were KCIA informants everywhere.

I lived for nearly two years on an island off the south coast where there was no phone, no electricity, no roads. The boat took over seven hours, stopping at all the other islands. Especially in the summertime they’d be crowded, people getting seasick, carrying chickens and things like that. It was one of the beautiful spots in Korea, but I watched a lot of people perish out there. Sometimes the skin scabs would break out from malnutrition. We were doing relief. Yellow cornmeal came in from American agencies. People were hungry so they had no choice but to eat it, although some people exchanged the cornmeal for rice. We ran a kitchen as part of our middle school, and we gave the kids a hot lunch. Although we were living on an island, it was the hardest place in the world to find fish. Any fish that was caught was exported directly to Japan. Very few of the people could afford to buy it themselves.

Many of the mountains around were bare after the Korean War. After 1968, every May the big thing was to go out and plant trees, green belts around the cities. About 1968 or so the troops came from the North trying to assassinate Park Chung-hee. So places around Seoul were out of bounds, and army camps were brought in. That preserved the trees because people were stopped from cutting them. In the wintertime the women went down and collected the pine needles, and carried on their heads big loads of pine needles, which they made into bales and used as firewood. Collecting branches was allowed, but you were liable to be accused of cutting trees and fined if somebody needed a bit of money. In the countryside you’d see smoke coming up from the houses for the evening meal. The fuel was either straw or pine needles.

The army ruled the roost. I remember having an argument with them, hot-blooded Irish that I am. In the summertime I used to go out with the students to work in the countryside with the farmers. Afterwards we’d go to the seaside for a few days. Once we were staying in a hostel with a courtyard, and the students wanted to have a campfire. The army said they couldn’t. So the students argued back and cajoled, and finally they were told,

“OK, build a campfire, light it, take a photograph and then put it out immediately.”


“Well, the North Korean boats will see it.”

We were inside a square building with only a small door coming into it. This was completely illogical. It was all about control, really, and a lot of it was done by young soldiers out of envy and jealousy for university students who were enjoying themselves.

The beaches were barricaded off by wires and guarded by soldiers, but some of them were opened up in the summertime. The students used to go there with tents and music. One night I was there with a group of students, and a soldier came in and turned off the music with no explanation. One of the students said, “He’s on guard duty, so how dare we enjoy ourselves.”

Another time there was a school sports competition, and on the third day in there were army trucks set in position all around the playing field. They were going to be there for two weeks for army maneuvers. Nobody apologized. The soldiers were the same age as our students. They put a truck on the basketball court, and they were driving onto the soccer goal area. We asked if they could wait just five minutes, but of course the guy wouldn’t move the truck off the soccer field. It was a strange game trying to move around a truck to score a goal. The army wouldn’t give an inch.