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'White Badge' of Courage : Writing About Combat in Vietnam, Ahn Junghyo Finds Insights Into Changes in His Native S. Korea

June 29, 1989|ELIZABETH VENANT | Times Staff Writer

In another country, South Korean novelist Ahn Junghyo could have been a peaceful sort of couch potato, watching vintage American films on television, spending undisturbed days casting a fishing line into a quiet lake.

But, as the writer laments, South Korea is small--a fourth the size of California--and is easily suffused with politics. Following a series of repressive regimes, President Roh Tae Woo has instituted democratic reform, but liberalization is precarious. Roh has ties to former strong man Chun Doo Hwan and obligations to military friends remain; anti-American sentiment runs high among dissidents, as does anti-establishmentarianism.

And so the author of "White Badge," who intended his sixth book as a heavily autobiographical account of his experience as a soldier fighting in Vietnam, has found himself and his book drawn into the prevailing political currents.

Politics for Survival

"In Korea you've got to know about politics. Your survival depends on it," says Ahn, 47, here to promote his book, published last month by SoHo Press.

A noted translator, Ahn has translated 130 books into Korean, ranging from Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" to John Irving's "The World According to Garp," and rewrote "White Badge" in English himself.

With it, he provides a significant contribution to a tiny pool of Korean literature to appear commercially in this country.

In Korea, "White Badge," which refers both to the White Horse Division of the Republic of Korea in which Ahn served and to the Asian color for mourning, was hailed as the first major book about Korean involvement in the Vietnam War, and, as such, has been something of a weather vane for the changing political climate.

When segments of "White Badge" appeared in 1983 in the radical Korean journal "Literature in Action," it was considered politically dangerous.

Opposition to Korea's Vietnam involvement was suppressed under President Park Chung Hee and continued under Chun. Although about 300,000 Korean soldiers fought as American allies, with more than 4,000 killed and 8,000 wounded, it was a largely unknown war, unremembered by memorials or literature.

"Writers weren't free to write about the Vietnam War," Ahn says. "And in my book, Koreans are losing battles. You couldn't imagine Koreans losing."

When the manuscript version of "White Badge" won a literary competition sponsored by Hakwon, a large-circulation magazine, the publisher renounced the contest. "He said, 'If this is published I'll get arrested, so forget it,' " Ahn says. It was three more years before the story came out in book form.

Ironically, in the newly liberalized environment, reaction to the book has been the contrary. Dissidents and literary critics, says Ahn, feel he should have said more.

"They wanted me to have politically slanted views and write more about the mercenary issue. But I didn't have those opinions. That wasn't my idea in writing the book. I wanted to tell the human stories of fighting the war."

'Lives for Sale'

In a single politically loaded passage, added for the American version, Ahn expresses a commonly held view of Korea's military participation.

"The blood money we had to earn at the price of our lives fueled the modernization and development of the country. And owing to our contribution, the Republic of Korea, or at least a higher echelon of it, made a gigantic stride into the world market. Lives for sale. National mercenaries."

"Many Koreans still feel that way," Ahn says. "We fought in Vietnam because the Americans asked us. So we were fighting for the Americans and against Asians who look like us. And we were paid by the American government."

In Ahn's novel, the narrator, a book editor in Seoul, Han Kiju, joins the army full of soldierly fervor, only to return home from the killing as predictably disillusioned as his American counterparts. But Han's disorientation is all the more unsettling, for part of his own childhood has been spent as a refugee in the Korean War.

Thus, in Vietnam, Han is depicted not only in combat, but also befriending "the beautiful beggar children," a gentle widow, an elderly rural politician hopelessly trying to save his village from a fatal evacuation. And Han, like Ahn, recalls how he and his family previously survived by rummaging for scraps in American military garbage pails to prepare their meals of "piggie" soup.

Painful Memories

The most poignant scene drawn from Ahn's childhood describes the family's mid-winter retreat south from Seoul amid the flow of refugees fleeing advancing Chinese troops.

Unable to carry his 4-year-old sister, his mother was obliged to abandon her in a snowy field. She spread discarded layers of bedding on the snow, "set Kija upright on them like an image of Buddha . . . wrapped her tiny hands with woolen mufflers and put a rice ball on her right palm . . ." and, weeping, plodded on, Ahn writes.

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