[Viewpoint]Koreans overcame past troubles

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[Viewpoint]Koreans overcame past troubles

As we prepare to say farewell to the turbulent year of 2008, the Zaytun Division has returned home from deployment in Irbil, Iraq. The division had been in Iraq for four years and three months. Korean military medics and engineers brought hope and courage for peace in the war-torn Middle East. They built schools, health centers, town halls and libraries. They also treated over 88,000 Iraqis.

Governor of Arbil Nawzad Hadi praised the Zaytun Division as “a gift from God.” The young troops of the 21st century were funded by the country to proudly serve in the peacekeeping mission. In the history of Korean deployment, it is a dramatic reversal of fate. It would not have been possible without the blood, sweat and tears of the ancestors of the 20th century. The lucky soldiers of the Zaytun Division must remember the “Deployment Song” and sound of hammers from the last century.

In the 1960s, you could always spot Korean national flags at ports. Soldiers onboard transport vessels waved the flags as they left, and families, neighbors and students also had flags on their hands as they sent the troops off. The ports were filled with the sound of the Deployment Song. “You defended the nation for peaceful unification, and now you have been chosen in the name of the country. The heroes of the Maengho Division, off to the faraway land of Vietnam. We always trust and follow you with all our hearts.”

The sons of Korea set out for Vietnam, leaving behind the song and the tears of the families. Though some still consider them “mercenaries for the United States,” the dispatch of Korean troops was the first time the country sent citizens abroad. About 4,000 young Koreans were killed in the war.

However, thanks to the emergency demands of the war, Korea was able to secure considerable funding that was used for economic development. The funds earned by the soldiers from 1965 to 1972 totaled $227 million, close to the $250 million Korea exported in 1966. And the funds came just in time.

In 1974, the Middle Eastern oil price nearly quadrupled. Korea spent $300 million dollars to import oil in 1973 but had to fork out $1.1 billion the next year. Combined with trade deficits, the country was nearing bankruptcy. It was the first crisis for the Republic of Korea during its course of development.

Chief of staff Kim Jeong-ryeom and Blue House secretary for economy Oh Won-cheol agonized over the situation and researched how other countries were responding. Japan’s strategy sounded convincing. As the oil price skyrocketed, the Middle East was flushed with oil dollars, so Japan wished to flood the Middle Eastern market with exports.

Kim and Oh devised a plan to penetrate Middle Eastern markets to escape the crisis. Oh wrote in “Building a Korea-style Economy” that he emphasized three strengths of Koreans to President Park Chung Hee.

“Firstly, Koreans are an outstanding workforce. Engineers from developed countries are reluctant to go to hot, desert countries with different religions and customs and hardly any entertainment. However, Korea had tens of thousands of Vietnam War veterans armed with a soldier’s spirit. Mr. President, the energy crisis is a national catastrophe, and so far, the economy has been supported by the exports of goods made by young female workers. Now, it’s time for men to step forward.

“Secondly, Korean male technicians are paid less than those in developed countries but are superbly skilled compared to those of underdeveloped countries.

“Thirdly, Korean construction companies have already mastered the know-how to complete projects ahead of schedule, thanks to the experience of constructing the Seoul-Busan highway.”

President Park seemed pleased, so Oh jokingly added, “Mr. President, we would have to do some backdoor dealing if we were to break into the Middle Eastern market. Frankly, we are good at that as well.” President Park burst into laughter.

In order to accumulate national strength and overcome a crisis, Korea has sent citizens abroad. The experience contributed to today’s Republic of Korea and the legacy continues in the Zaytun Division. Many soldiers fought in Vietnam, and so many men went to work in the Middle East. The dollars they earned enriched households and revived the country. At the time of crisis, we overcame difficulties dramatically. What kind of drama awaits Korea in year 2009?

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin
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