Steaming to America, healing the poor, a hunger strikerDec. 22, 1902
Early in the morning on this date, the American steamer Gaelic was being readied to sail from the port of Incheon. On board, 121 Koreans were headed to the New World ―Hawaii. After three weeks in the Pacific, the passengers disembarked in Honolulu to become the first Korean-Americans. Dispatched to the island’s sugarcane farms, they toiled for 14 hours a day. Today, Korean Americans number 1.43 million.
Dec. 25, 1995
Remembered as Korea’s Albert Schweitzer, Jang Gi-ryeo remained true to the Hippocratic oath until his death on this date. Dr. Jang said he decided to be a physician “to be always there for the poor who die without a single chance to see a doctor.” And he kept his word.
Born in Pyeongan province in the North, Dr. Jang was regarded as a master surgeon in Pyeongyang before the Korean War (1950-1953). Always siding with the disenfranchised, Dr. Jang was a stranger to matters of money. To patients lacking sufficient funds, Dr. Jang would say, “I’ll leave the backdoor open so that you can find your way out secretly.”
“Doctor Jang must be either a saint or a fool,” said Lee Gwang-su, a celebrated modern novelist who was treated by Dr. Jang for pneumonia.
Everything went smoothly until the hospital where he was treating wounded soldiers during the war was bombed. Fleeing the explosions, Dr. Jang ended up joining a group of refugees heading for Busan. His second son, Ga-yong, also a doctor, was the only child of his three to accompany him.
As soon as he reached Busan, Dr. Jang opened a hospital for refugees and the homeless. From that point on, the doctor devoted himself to poor patients. This dedication earned him the Philippines’ prestigious Magsaysay Award, but it did not make him rich. When he retired in 1975, he had no assets. Dr. Jang died of diabetes at the age of 85.
Dec. 27, 1995
Choe Byung-ryul, chairman of the Grand National Party, wasn’t the first politician to go on a hunger strike. Chun Doo Hwan, president during the 1980’s military regime, initiated a fast on Dec. 3, 1995. At the time, Mr. Chun was in prison after being charged with rebellion because of his 1979 coup and sentenced to death. While Mr. Choe’s grandiose motto was “saving the country,” Mr. Chun’s cause was protecting his regime’s legitimacy. Neither attracted much enthusiasm from the masses.
Mr. Chun, then 64, planned to refuse food until Dec. 31, but after his energy level plummeted and he became severely dehydrated, he was sent to a hospital on Dec. 21.
On that date, he asked for a bowl of ssaltteunmul, the leftover water after rice is washed, which was tantamount to declaring his hunger strike over. Doctors at the hospital, worried about the former president’s sensitive condition, were considerate enough to sterilize the rice water. They even offered Mr. Chun an oxygen breathing apparatus. The former president did succeed in getting a stay of execution. Breaking his fast, Mr. Chun said, “Only stupid fools go on hunger strikes. I will never ever do such a thing again.” Mr. Chun’s meaningful advice did not seem to have much effect on Mr. Choe.
by Chun Su-jin
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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