Don Oberdorfer and KoreaThe death of Don Oberdorfer on July 23 in Washington, D.C. provoked a lot of fond memories among his Korean friends. I first met Don in the winter of 1974 while covering the pro-democracy movement against the dictatorship of President Park Chung Hee. It was in the period of Park’s notorious Emergency Decrees that outlawed criticism of himself, of the draconian constitution he had imposed and banning any demand for civil liberties such as freedom of speech and association. I was reporting for The New York Times, and Don used to fly in from Tokyo on reporting trips for The Washington Post. We often found ourselves shivering outside Myeongdong Cathedral, waiting for a statement from Cardinal Stephen Souhwan Kim giving the church’s stand against the Park government.
It wasn’t hard to see why Don was developing a keen interest in Korea. He had returned from South Vietnam not long before, where he had watched popular protests undermine another U.S.-supported regime in Saigon. In his book “Tet!,” analyzing the impact of the 1968 Vietcong offensive against the Nguyen Van Thieu regime, Don described a turning point in the course of the conflict. In the anti-Park agitation he was witnessing in Seoul, he was sensing serious implications ahead for Seoul and Washington.
Unlike other correspondents covering Korea at the time, Don came from a unique background. After being educated at Princeton, he first came to Korea as an army lieutenant in the war. It’s likely that experience gave him a deeper perspective on the country’s political unrest, marking a sharp difference between troubles in Korea and Vietnam. His articles on Korea were by and large sober, balanced and prudent. From time to time, he would read from his dog-eared diary of the Korean War, as if to remind himself of the contrast he was witnessing. “Korea has come a long way,” he would mutter to me.
Don was seldom caustic or corrosive in his comments on Korea, preferring gentle and dispassionate tones. He retained a deep sympathy for the political underdogs. He was particularly sympathetic of the plight facing Kim Dae-jung, who at the time was under house arrest following a botched attempt to kidnap and murder him. Even in his most critical pieces, there was always room for the government to state its views.
One of Don’s most memorable pieces was a feature on secret efforts by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency to force advertisers to boycott the independent Dong-A Ilbo newspaper, clear retaliation against its journalists agitating for the abolition of censorship. Don’s story depicted reporters fighting for professional freedom against an unseen phantom out to slaughter the free press. It bore all the hallmarks of Don’s craft: elegant writing and penetrating insights. It kept the underground samizdat machine in Seoul working overnight reproducing it. That was its sole circulation: the story was never reproduced in a Korean newspaper for regular readers.
For his sustained coverage of the plight of the media under Park’s dictatorship, Don received a Freedom of Press Award given by the Dong-A Journalists Struggle Committee in 1998.
With his gentlemanly prose, Don was mostly spared from government accusations that he was being “didactic” in his articles on human rights. But he was tough when it was needed. In one memorable episode, he slipped past police guards at St. Mary’s Hospital where Bishop Daniel Hak Soun Chi was kept following his release from imprisonment on trumped up charges of communist sympathizing. Don just walked past wearing a borrowed coat of a priest. The police were flummoxed, but secretly impressed with his trick, I later heard.
There was one other episode, and this one we shared. Shortly before his reassignment back to Washington, we had agreed there should be a goodbye party to thank his many contacts. Invitations had gone out to the usual opposition figures but also to government minders. Kim Dae-jung, under house arrest, couldn’t attend but he sent a pot of flowers. Many journalists ousted from their jobs came to say goodbye. As people mingled, we noticed officials blanching at the sight of journalists they had fired.
They stood silently in a corner uncomfortably holding drinks or hurriedly left the scene. The embarrassment was certainly not intended.
Don’s keen interest in Korea continued beyond his retirement from the Post, leading to his setting up of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University and writing his third book, “The Two Koreas.” Like his two earlier books - “Tet!” and “The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era” - it continues his narrative of historical turning points. “The Two Koreas,” recently updated by Robert Carlin and published in a Korean language edition, has become a standard reference work on Korea’s modern history. It’s a fitting gift to the generation of Koreans born after the wintry years of repression that Don recorded so skillfully.
*The author is a Seoul-based journalist.
by Shim Jae Hoon