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"60 Years After" Photo Journal Commentary



Within a period of only 60 years, South Korea has risen from the ashes and near-total devastation of the Korean War to possess the 11th largest economy in the world. For a country that is slightly smaller in size than the state of Virginia in the United States, this feat is nothing short of amazing and is a tribute to the hard work and indomitable spirit of its people. With admiration and respect, this photojournal is dedicated to the people of South Korea.

I was first introduced to South Korea in 1977 as a soldier in the United States Army. Following previous assignments in the United States and in Germany, two of the most modern countries in the world, the assignment to Korea was a shock to the senses. I quickly discovered when I first stepped off the airplane at Osan Air Force Base that rice paddies were fertilized with human manure and the countryside stank miserably. Outside the central district of perhaps a scant half dozen metropolitan areas, South Korea still existed and operated much as a third world country. Western goods were scarce and the black market for basic Western items like cigarettes, whiskey, shampoo, soap, and chocolate of any sort was still in full swing. Homes were made of mud brick and had thatched reeds for roofs. Dirt and gravel roads were the norm. Carts pulled by oxen were prevalent. Air conditioning was almost non-existent.

After my departure from South Korea in 1978 at the end of my assignment, I did not return to the country until late 2001, a period of almost 24 years. I naively expected the country to be much the same as when I departed. I could not have been more mistaken. Much to my amazement there was hardly anything I recognized. Mud brick homes had been replaced by high-rise apartments and condominiums, the vast majority having air conditioning systems. Dirt and gravel roads could hardly be found, having been replaced by asphalt. Rice paddies were fertilized with organic materials or, in some cases, modern chemical fertilizers, and the aroma in the countryside air had become that of fruit tree blossoms of numerous varieties. Apparel and accessories by Vuitton, Gucci, Armani, Prada, and such ilk abounded. A visit to the village outside the Army compound near Pyeongtaek where I had been stationed revealed that the only item recognizable was the front gate of the compound which was [and is] still operational.

But while the people of South Korea are now enjoying newly achieved economic prosperity, it did not come without political and personal sacrifice. Dissidents have always been active throughout Korea's history. Political scandal has often seemed the order of the day and high ranking government officials seem destined for corruption. In 1961, eight years following the end of the Korean War, the country came under martial law with General Park Chung Hee as the leader. [His daughter, Park Geun Hye, was elected president by popular vote in late 2012 to become the country's first and only woman president.] Even though the country was under martial rule, Park’s vision for his country and the policies he implemented unquestionably put South Korea on the road to ultimately becoming the economic power it is today. Most Koreans now believe he is one of the two greatest leaders the country has ever had, sharing that lofty position with King Sejong who mandated the creation of Hangul, the Korean alphabet, in 1440 A.D. Park is certainly held as the best leader since the armistice that ended the Korean War in July 1953. However, even Park suffered many Korean dissidents and was ultimately assassinated by one of his own men, the leader of the Korean Intelligence service, in October 1979. Two previous unsuccessful assassination attempts had already been made by other people. In the latter of those two attempts his wife was killed. Subsequent South Korean presidents have been scandalized for bribery and favoritism, and have even committed suicide amidst such turmoil.

Regardless of who deserves the leadership credit, there is no doubt that South Korea has achieved heights that naysayers might have thought unattainable. South Korea has one of the highest rates of per capita online connections and cell phones of any country in the world. 98% of young people have smart phones. The Internet broadband service in South Korea is the fastest in the world. The country now has the largest ship building yard in the world located in Ulsan. Busan is home to Shinsegae Department Store that is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest department store in the world. Haeundae Beach in Busan holds the Guinness record for the most beach umbrellas [more than 8,000] on a single beach. According to Guinness records, Yoido Church in Seoul has the world's largest [Christian] congregation with around 150,000 people attending [Sunday] services and a membership of an estimated one million people. Busan has become the 3rd largest international cargo container transshipment port in the world. Seoul hosted the summer Olympic games in 1988. Pyeongchang is scheduled to host the winter Olympic games in 2018.

While modernizing to the point of being almost overwhelmed with Western influence, Korea has expended great effort to maintain and/or rebuild some of its traditional villages for historic and tourism purposes. Nakaneupseong Village in the Chollanam-do province in the southwestern portion of the country, Yeongdong Village near Gyeongju, and Hahoe Village near Andong are only three such examples. Life there is conducted much as it was one hundred or more years ago.

Realizing just how much South Korea has changed in such a short period of time, and realizing the country is likely to change as much again in the future, I decided to develop a photo journal to document the way things exist in the present as seen through the eyes of a foreign guest who has been associated with the country for many years. The majority of the photos in this journal were taken over a period of approximately five years preceding the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. My attempt was to travel around the country and photograph its diversity, its natural beauty, its wealthy atmosphere with its few remaining indigent homeless, its contrasts of ancient and ultra-modern, and samples of its flora and fauna.

Since South Korea is approximately 70% mountainous, many of the photographs have mountains in them. Korea is a peninsula so some of the photographs have coastal water in them. Buddhism remains very strong in Korea and there are countless temples throughout the country, therefore some of the photos show a Buddhist influence. In an effort to closely match the scene I saw or the mood I felt when shooting the photographs, I have taken the artistic liberty of slightly modifying some of the photos in Adobe Photoshop or similar post-processing software, or simply changed them from color to monochrome photos, fully understanding that such tinkering might not be acceptable to the photojournalism purist.

Let me say finally that none of this photo journal would be possible without two very special people. First is my dear wife, Park Seong Ik, a South Korean citizen and resident of Busan. She is my best supporter while also being my most avid and helpful critic. And second is my dear friend, Cho Ki Ho, who has patiently carried me around the Korean countryside to countless locations in an effort to increase our photographic skills while making photographs of a country that is perhaps one of the world's best kept secrets. They both have my greatest respect, admiration, and eternal gratitude.


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