A slight, an exile and a day of Korean pride

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A slight, an exile and a day of Korean pride

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Kim Jong-pil began his kendo practice in the third grade and took lessons at Buyeo police precinct in South Chungcheong. The boy circled in this undated picture is Kim. Provided by Kim Jong-pil

It was on April 7, 1945, when I first headed to an elementary school in the remote Boryeong County, South Chuncheong, to which I was assigned as a teacher. Though I graduated with good grades from the Daejeon College of Education, I was assigned to teach in the countryside instead of in a city. And there was a reason behind it.

One day in October 1944, my mother gave me a package of dried persimmons, telling me to give them to the principal of the elementary school at which I was a trainee teacher. The principal was a Japanese man named Kisimura.

It was a period of economic hardship and only the privileged could enjoy sweets. With the dried persimmons, I went to the principal’s house. Standing at the door, I shouted many times that I had come. But no one bothered to come out to greet me. Finally, the teacher’s young daughter came out of her room. I told her I had gift for her father. It was only after I said the word gift that her mother came out of the kitchen to greet me and get the dried persimmons.

Upset over her attitude, I left their house - with the persimmons in my possession. The next day at school, the Japanese principal called me into his office and punched me in the face. He shouted that I had been rude the day before. Enraged, I punched him and started beating him. The man was notorious for discriminating against Koreans, whose country Japan had annexed since 1910.

I kept beating him until I was stopped by fellow teachers. The principal called the police and told them to arrest me, which they did. I was immediately put behind bars and spent a week there.

The police released me a week later. Following my release, I began showing symptoms of eruptive typhus, an infectious disease much feared at the time. Once infected, there was a slim chance of surviving. I was quarantined at a hospital with a fever reaching higher than 40 degrees Celsius. Of 29 patients diagnosed with eruptive typhus at that hospital, only two, including myself, were cured while the rest died.

The scuffle with the Japanese principal was what led to my teaching assignment far from the city in South Chuncheong. The seaside town that I was assigned to was where my father worked as a land surveyor in his early 20s. I happened to work in the same town as my father did and at the same age.

My father had seven children and used to tell us over dinner about historical figures from Korean history. He also taught us calligraphy. During my elementary school years, I was eager to read whatever books I could find. I liked reading biographies of historic figures such as Napoleon and Plutarch’s Lives. During my middle school years, I made a promise to myself that I would read one book per day. Keeping that promise, I voraciously read classical novels. As the French novelist Anatole France noted, he came to know of the meaning of life not through making friends, but reading books. I agree on the importance of reading books. My perspective on the world and human nature was formed during those adolescent years by my reading.

Going back to my first year as a teacher in Boryeong, I was at home on summer break in August 1945. My mother woke me up urgently one morning. “Jong-pil, wake up. Japan just called it quits. The Emperor of Japan just broadcast his surrender on the radio.”

It was Aug. 15, 1945, the day Korea was finally liberated from the 36-year colonial rule by Japan. I got on a train bound for Seoul to see it with my own eyes what the country had now become. Stepping off the train, I saw a wave of Korean flags for the first time in my life. People shouted, “Long live Korea!” I was overwhelmed with emotion. My country had finally become an independent state. The Japanese soldiers stationed in Yongsan had already left for their homeland. The world had been turned upside down overnight.

After I came back from Seoul, I was getting certain that I should not settle for a life as a mere elementary school teacher in a liberated Korea.

In 1946, I was admitted to the school of education at Seoul National University. It was my admiration for Britain’s prestigious Eton College that led me to enroll at SNU’s education school. A famous remark by Arthur Wellesley Wellington, who defeated Napoleon, that his “Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing field of Eton” left me with a deep longing. I wanted to set up a school modeled on Eton in a liberated Korea.

On May 13, 1947, my father passed away. He died after a series of business failures in his business investments. After his passing, the financial condition of my family greatly worsened. My relatively well-off financial life was over for good.

COMPLIED BY CHUN YOUNG-GI, KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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