The man who translated history
Putting a fitting end to 41 years of service, which began in 1966, Hong, now 74, completed his final official duty last month when he paid respects at the memorial to the two murdered U.S. soldiers.
“Captain Bonifas had only two more weeks left before he was due to go home, which made his sacrifice all the more lamentable,” Hong recalled.
The two U.S. officers were supervising a mission to trim a poplar tree that blocked the view from a United Nations Command checkpoint in the Joint Security Area on Aug. 18, 1976. Several North Korean officers appeared and insisted the mission be stopped. When their demands were not met, dozens of North Korean soldiers and officers arrived, wielding axes and sticks.
The sudden attack provoked resentment in Seoul and Washington and led to enhanced combat readiness as the U.S. Army sent aircraft carriers and fighter planes to the region. War clouds hung heavy over the Korean Peninsula for weeks. The two Koreas avoided war when then-North Korean leader Kim Il Sung sent a letter of “regret” to the United Nations Command through the Military Armistice Commission. Hong said that expressing “regret” was the closest North Korea ever got to admitting an armistice violation.
For these Military Armistice Commission meetings, the party that convened the meeting would bring the evidence of violations. They would ask for the counterpart’s explanation and seek an apology. However, Hong mostly heard the North Koreans saying “It’s all false” or “The South Koreans fabricated this case.” “No matter how many pieces of evidence we would present, the North Koreans would never admit to any of the violations,” Hong recalled. “I heard them saying the words ‘false’ and ‘fabricated’ many thousands of times,” he added.
Hong said that he mostly found fabrications on the North Korean side. He recalled one incident when the North Koreans brought a carbine as an evidence to back up their claim that South Korean soldiers had invaded their territory. The serial number of the carbine, however, revealed that it was a gun that had been stolen by North Koreans from the United Nations Command a few years previously, Hong said. “We all knew that there was a very slim chance of the North Koreans admitting or apologizing for the violations, but the meetings had to be held as they were the only way to make a protest.”
The tension at the meetings sometimes led to incidents that still make Hong smile. “One rule that we had was that nobody could leave the room before we reached an agreement,” Hong recalled. The problem was that the meetings, including interpretation into Korean, English and Chinese, went on for ages. Hong remembers one that took 11 hours. “No food, no toilet and no rest for 11 hours,” Hong said. Thus it became a ritual for those who participated in the meetings to stay away from water when they knew they had a session the next day, in a effort to forestall calls of nature. “It sounds amusing now, but back then it was all part of a grim, face-saving competition,” he said. Hong was glad to see the rule disappear in the 1970s, when members agreed to have a 20-minute break every three hours.
Hong also recalls that some of the United Nations Command officers sometimes played mind games. “When a meeting was about to end, a South Korean officer would suddenly gave me a thick pile of documents for translation,” Hong recalled. “I could see that the North Koreans were obviously displeased about the additional time it would take for the new documents.” However, the South Korean officer was only teasing his North Korean counterparts. He would whisper to Hong, “Just pretend to translate.” Hong would then hand back the documents and the officer would say “Okay, let us end the meeting now.”
“The videotape was a protest against North Korean propaganda which said that all South Koreans were beggars,” he said. “The meeting turned into a mess with North Korean officers demanding that the tape be stopped.” There was one North Korean officer who did not curse at the South Koreans and he was not present at the next meeting. “I supposed he might have been purged,” observed Hong.
Hong remembers that meetings in the 1960s and the 1970s were especially uptight, as North Koreans kept embarking on armed espionage missions, including one in which Kim Sin-jo got close to the Blue House. He also can’t forget 1968, when U.S. soldiers from the U.S. Navy ship Pueblo returned to the South by crossing the Bridge of No Return, after being held by the North Koreans for almost a year.
The job of an interpreter sometimes went beyond words. In 1984 Hong remembers there was an exchange of gunfire, provoked by the defection of a Soviet civilian to South Korea, via Panmunjom. With bullets flying, Hong was with other interpreters at the Joint Duty Office, where the phone line was open between the two sides. During the scuffle, Hong’s colleague got a phone call from the North Korean side. “Stop firing,” the North Korean officer screamed ― the interpreter left the office and signaled to the UN Command soldiers and ended the battle.
“You’ve got to have the guts and nerves to put up with the pressure and tension,” Hong said. “Some people used to take sedatives.” The interpreter job was not exactly what Hong had in mind; he had wanted to be a high school gym teacher. However, he ended up majoring in English literature, found a job at a U.S. Army base and applied for an interpreter’s job. Now he’s proud that he has been part of history.
As time went by, the number of armed espionage missions by the North Koreans diminished, and the Military Armistice Commission went through changes. In 1994, the head of the United Nations Command side of the Military Armistice Commission was changed from a U.S. to a South Korean officer and North Koreans withdrew from the commission in protest. Although the UN Command and the North Korean side kept having general-level meetings, their function has turned into a supporting role, as inter-Korean exchanges have increased.
Yet Baek Seung-joo, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, spares no effort in acknowledging the significance of the commission. He noted that the commission made a “key contribution to stopping all-out war and keeping the peace.” “The commission was the last stage, where the two sides could meet to prevent the unimaginable from taking place,” Baek said. And Hong is proud that he was part of the commission, making a key contribution to maintaining peace by breaking down language barriers.
Following his retirement, Hong would like to visit his hometown of Jangjeon, a village that is now in North Korea, close to Mount Kumgang, the inter-Korean tourist attraction, but his wife has stopped him from going.
“My wife tells me that I have so many North Korean acquaintances now that they might not let me come back,” Hong said and smiled. Lee Yoon-young, Hong’s wife, said that she has good reason to oppose the trip, because of the 41 years she spent waiting and praying for the safety of her husband. “Whenever he left for his shift, I was so worried because anything could happen with the North Koreans,” she said.
Hong welcomed the recent signs of thawing in the North Korean nuclear situation, but he added, “You never know how North Koreans may change.”
By Chun Su jin [firstname.lastname@example.org]