Korea has been in the news lately. North Korea threatening the U.S. with nuclear bombs, and South Korea hosting 2018 Winter Olympics.
Today, I will share with you a brief history of Korea and the story of my Christian family during WWII under Japan and during the Korean War under North Korea.
Korea has 4000 plus years of history. It started with stone age farmers. By 300 BC they learned to use iron to make tools and weapons. Then Korea was eventually organized into kingdoms. In 1392, the kingdoms were united into one country called 조선 (Joseon) that lasted until 1910 when Japan annexed Korea.
The Japanese control of Korea lasted for 35 years from 1910 to 1945. Several years before the bombing Pearl Harbor, Japan expelled foreign missionaries and closed all the church doors in Korea. Koreans were forced to walk up to the Shinto Temple and bow down to the picture of their emperor. My father, a Christian minister, refused and was taken to prison, Also Koreans were forced to speak in Japanese, not Korean. They were forced to fly the Japanese flags, not Korean flags. They were forced to have Japanese names, not the Korean names. In elementary school, my name was Yamamoto Yoshi-Mitsu, not my Korean name, Hi-Dong Chai.
August, 1945. The United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan: one, named Little Boy over Hiroshima and three days later the second, named Fat Man over Nagasaki. The two bombs instantly killed over 100,000 people. I was taught that the Japanese were fierce warriors, and they would never surrender; they would fight until the last man alive. But a few days after the bombings, Japan surrendered.
The war came to an end in August 15, 1945. The Japanese left Korea. Our young men forcefully conscripted to fight the Americans came home with a loud welcome. Our young girls who were forcefully taken to the front lines to serve their Japanese masters came home – quietly, without public notice. My brother, my best friend, who had volunteered to join the Japanese military in the hope having his father released from the prison, returned also. He left home as a carefree vibrant 15 year old boy, and he returned home as an injured 18 year old man. He died a year later from his injury.
After WWII, Korea was divided into North and South Korea. Who divided Korea?
As WWII in the Pacific was coming to a close, Roosevelt asked Stalin, “What should we do with a country called Korea that lies between Japan and China?”
Stalin answered, “Let’s divide Korea into two. Your soldiers maintain order in the south and my soldiers will do the same in the north.”
“That is a great idea,” Roosevelt agreed. “We, two countries help the Koreans until they can form their own government.
As agreed by Roosevelt and Stalin, Korea was divided along the 38th parallel line in 1945. Unfortunately after WWII, the U.S. and Russia became enemies, and the unified Korea was never achieved. And, Korea has been a divided country until this day. More than 70 years later.
After the war, while the United States struggled to help set up a democratic form of government in the south, Russia wasted no time to build up a dictatorial communist country. They put Kim Il-Sung, who had served in the Russian military, as the head of North Korea. Kim quickly took control of the country and built up its military with tanks, ammunitions, planes, …all supplied by Russia, ready to take over South Korea and unify the country under the great leader, Kim, Il-Sung, who is grandfather to the present leader, Kim, Jong-un, who has been threatening the U.S. with his nuclear bombs.
June, 1950 – Korean War
June 24, 1950, five years after the end of WWII. The North Korean army broke through the 38th parallel line, and within days, the Northern army entered Seoul, the capital city of South Korea. For ninety days, we lived under North Korean control. All the church doors were closed. Christian leaders, who might pose threat to their control, were arrested.
Relatives and friends urged my father to go into hiding, but Father refused, saying,
“I have served my God of Jesus Christ all my life. I will not run away. My life is in God’s hands.”
One early morning Father and I went out to our garden to pull weeds and water the lettuce and radishes. As we walked back to the house, we saw two young men talking to Mother at our gate. When they saw us coming, they approached Father, bowed respectfully, and asked Father to attend a Christian minister’s meeting to discuss church-related matters.
“So early in the morning?” Father questioned.
“It will be a short one,” one man said.
“Then, let me go in and change into a more formal outfit,” Father said.
“It will not be necessary,” the man snapped.
Then Father looked at Mother and me, and walked away between the two men. He never came back home since that day.
In September, 1950, the South Korean army with the support of the UN soldiers pushed back the Northern army and entered Seoul. The pictures of North Korea’s great leader, Kim Il-Sung, hanging on every street corner were torn down. Our church doors were open for worship. We could visit our friends without permits. Meanwhile, the South Korean and UN soldiers continued to push the northern army toward the Manchurian border that separated North Korea from China. Many Koreans expected that two Koreas would soon be one nation under the flag of South Korea.
Unfortunately, in November, 1950, the Red Chinese army entered into the war to support the retreating North Korean soldiers. Unable to counter the massive Red army, the UN soldiers were in full retreat. In December, 1950, Mother and I fled to the south. Without Father, we survived as best we could for two long years. Then in February 3rd, 1953. Mother put me, a 16 year old boy, on a U.S. freighter, heading for the United States of America where I would be safe and get a good education.
Let me share with you about My Mother
During WWII, Mother was tormented by the Japanese police because of her husband was a Christian minister and an educator. After the war, my mother was tormented by the South Korean police because her eldest son became a communist in the democratic south. She was tormented by the North Korean communists because her husband was a Christian minister and an anti-communist. There were tension, frustration, fear, and sorrow in my family during those years. Under such conditions, a mere mortal would have been crushed, ending up in a mental hospital or turning into a bitter person, angry at God, angry at the world, and angry at people. But Mother did not buckle. She marched on and led us onward with love and grace and with absolute faith in God.
Mother gave thanks to God when everything around us was darkness and gloom. She gave thanks to God for His love for us while I saw no love, only hatred and killing. She prayed for the well-being of others, even when our own well-being was at stake. She shared with our neighbor when we did not have enough food left even for us. During the refugee period, she fed me while she went hungry.
Throughout my growing years, I marveled at the strength of her character, which came from her absolute faith in God. But often, I wondered, how she could praise God when suffering was all around her. I wondered, how she could thank God when there was nothing to be thankful for. I wondered, how she could sing about God’s wondrous creation when all I saw around me was destruction, scorched hills by the bombs from the sky, dead bodies on the roadways piled up like trash, and children roaming the streets without their parents.
So early in my teens, I decided to share the story of my mother with the world, and in 2016 I published a memoir, ‘Sustained by Love thru the Wars’
I often asked as a child, ‘Why do we hate? Why do we fight? Why do we kill?
Why don’t we love, instead? Why don’t we play together and have a good time, instead? I didn’t have answers to those ‘whys?’ I just dreamed for peace and brotherhood of mankind.
In my adult years, I often pictured a scene where the people from diverse cultures hold hands across the vast continents and over the deep oceans, form a giant circle, look at each other with broad smiles, and sing a mighty song of brotherhood.
I know it is a pipe dream because I know from personal experience that in this world power, a country with stronger military power, rules. Japan ruled Korea because Japan had a stronger military power. North Korea invaded South Korea because it had a stronger military power. Without the U.S. intervention, South Korea would not have existed today.
So my hope is that the United States of America, whose pledge of allegiance includes, ‘One nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all’ continue to maintain it’s strong military presence to discourage those rogue political leaders hoping to expand their power throughout the world.