Understanding Korea: Past, Present and Future

Understanding Korea: Past, Present and Future


Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Speaker: Dr. James F. Person
November 17th: 10:15-11:15 am

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James F. Person is Director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He has a PhD in modern Korean history from the George Washington University, where he also teaches courses on North Korean history. His dissertation explored the evolution of the political and ideological systems in North Korea and Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing and Moscow from 1953-1967. His recent publications include “’We Need Help from Outside: The North Korean Opposition Movement of 1956” (Cold War International History Project Working Paper No. 52), and “New Evidence on North Korea in 1956” CWIHP Bulletin 16. He is currently completing a book manuscript on the pivotal 1956 August Plenum of North Korea’s ruling Korean Worker’s Party and the political and diplomatic fallout. 

To prepare students for the discussion with Dr. Person of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, please consider having students watch the movie (or part of the movie): 
Ode to My Father

The discussion with the Korean Foundation will include themes addressed in the movie.  Watch the Trailer!  This movie is available for streaming on Netflix.

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Movie Summary:

During the Hungnam Evacuation of 1950 in the Korean War, when thousands of refugees in what would become North Korea were transported south by U.S. Navy boats, a child, Deok-soo, loses track of his sister, Mak-soon. Because of this, Deok-soo's father stays behind to search for her, telling his son to take the boy's mother and two younger siblings to the port city of Busan, where Deok-soo's aunt runs an imported goods store. Before leaving Deok-soo and the rest of his family, the father makes his Deok-soo promise to be the head of the household in his place.

As the firstborn, Deok-soo becomes his family's breadwinner from an early age, doing all manner of odd jobs to support the family. In the 1960s, financial need forces him to travel to Europe with his best friend Dal-goo, where they find dangerous work as gastarbeiters (guest workers) in German coal mines to pay for his brother's tuition at Seoul National University. There, Deok-soo falls in love with a fellow migrant worker, the nurse Young-ja. After a mining accident, Deok-soo leaves Germany because his visa expires. Young-ja returns to Korea months later and tells him she's pregnant with his child. Soon afterward, they have a modest wedding, begin a life together, and eventually have two sons.

A few years pass, and Deok-soo's aunt dies. Deok-soo's uncle, now elderly and in need of money, decides to sell the imported goods store, a move Deok-soo disagrees with. Deok-soo decides to leave Korea again in the 1970s for war-torn Vietnam, partly to fulfill his sister's wish for a big wedding by earning enough money to purchase the imported goods store from his uncle. Young-ja is worried, knowing the dangers of war, but Deok-soo convinces her to see it his way, partly by roping his best friend Dal-goo into going. Despite his assurances to his wife that he's safe, Deok-soo returns to Korea with a lame leg, the result of getting shot while helping villagers escape from the Viet Cong.

Deok-soo runs the store with his wife, and life goes on until 1983, when major broadcast stations in South Korea run TV programs in which relatives separated during the chaos of the Korean War are reunited. Deok-soo is contacted to be featured in one of these shows due to the hope of an elderly man from his hometown who claims to be his father. On TV, the two realize they are from the same hometown of Hungnam, but they are not father and son. Deok-soo's family is distraught over the mistake, but soon afterward, the same program brings Deok-soo back to TV in the hope of finding his long-lost sister, Mak-soon. A Korean-American woman who was adopted as a child by an American family during the Korean War is featured on the show. Deok-soo converses with her through the broadcast, and realizes she is indeed Mak-soon. An emotional reunion ensues, when his sister returns to Korea. Deok-soo's mother passes away soon after the reunion.

In the present day, an elderly Deok-soo finally decides to sell his aunt's imported goods store, which up to this point he stubbornly refused to do despite the store's losing money. In a flashback to the Hungnam Evacuation, Deok-soo's father promises to reunite with the rest of the family at the store, thus explaining why Deok-soo bought and held on to the store so long. In the final scene, Deok-soo tells his wife that it's time to sell the store, wistfully remarking that his father is probably too old at this point to be still alive and reunite with him there.