Nationalist’s history resonates in Korea

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Nationalist’s history resonates in Korea


When I was in elementary school in the early 1970s, a First Sergeant Kim returned from the Vietnam War and lived in our neighborhood. The war veteran had lost his vision from a grenade that a Viet Cong guerilla had thrown. His whole family was relegated to making envelopes at home for income, and they were very poor. My first impression of Vietnam began with a tragic image.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, boat people - the refugees from Vietnam - arrived in Busan and were temporarily settled at the old site of the Busan Girls’ High School in Seodaesin-dong. I used to walk by the refugee camp on my way to middle school, and the people there often threw South Vietnamese bills out of the windows to the street. The worthless money was drifting around the street like “the bills issued by the Polish government-in-exile” in a poem by Kim Kwang-gyun. Vietnam’s image was getting worse in my mind, what another poet Ki Hyung-do described as “a dark leaf among the leaves.”

In the early 1990s, I heard news that a refugee who had settled in Korea had opened a Vietnamese restaurant in Hyehwa-dong, Seoul. The restaurant cooked original Vietnamese cuisine, using many spices that Korean customers were not familiar with. The exotic menu must not have been very popular. After a restaurant chain offering Americanized Vietnamese noodle soups was established, the independent restaurant closed quietly. The tragic image of Vietnam was amplified.

My image finally changed during a visit to London a few years ago when I found a blue plaque honoring Ho Chi Minh. (Blue plaques are signs at public places in the United Kingdom to commemorate a link between a location and a famous person or event.) It read, “Britain Vietnam Association. Ho Chi Minh, 1890-1969, founder of modern Vietnam, worked in 1913 at the Carlton Hotel, which stood on this site.” The plaque hangs on the wall of New Zealand House near Trafalgar Square.

The American historian Edwin Kiester Jr. wrote in his book “Before They Changed the World: Pivotal Moments that Shaped the Lives of Great Leaders before They Became Famous” that Ho Chi Minh had traveled around France, the United States, Great Britain and Russia when he was in his 20s, and he once was a kitchen assistant at the Carlton. The Britain Vietnam Association did not glorify him; it noted his humble past. Suddenly, the revolutionary figure seemed much more human. I could empathize with the agony of the young Vietnamese man during the colonial era.

President Park Geun-hye visited the tomb of Ho Chi Minh on Sept. 9. When she had met with businessmen of the two countries the day before, she cited Ho Chi Minh’s motto, “Respond to everything that changes with no change.”

Vietnam seems much closer now. The two countries have emerged from painful parts of their histories. Korea and Vietnam are opening a new era of change as friends.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


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