Posted : 2017-06-23 18:02
Updated : 2017-06-25 11:35

Sunday clashes developed into full-scale war

Refugees crowd aboard fishing boats to escape Hungnam, North Korea, in December 1950. They transferred to U.S. warships and LSTs for evacuation. About 100,000 North Korean civilians fled to the South aboard military transports and merchant ships during the evacuation. / Korea Times file

Dr. Helen Kim started publishing The Korea Times during war

By Hwang Kyong-choon

It was a sunny, serene Sunday. Everything looked peaceful. We were on an office picnic playing outdoor games on the beautiful beach of Haeundae.

Unlike today, Haeundae then was a rather remote village, almost an hour by car from the heart of Busan, where I worked as a translator at the Busan Cultural Center of the U.S. Embassy.

Shortly before noon, when we ― about 30 in number ― became a little tired with somewhat hard games under the warm sun and were ready for the picnic lunch prepared by some of the female employees, a police patrolman approached us and started talking with our group's leader.

The leader then shouted, asking us to return to the bus that brought us to the picnic site that morning. We all wondered what had happened and began to leave, some grumbling while others wondered if we had done something wrong.

It soon became clear when we returned to the bus why we had to give up the rest of our long-awaited picnic. Our leader solemnly informed us that earlier in the morning (June 25, 1950) North Korea launched a full-scale armed invasion of South Korea across the 38th parallel, which had divided the peninsula since August 1945.

We all understood the situation and began talking about what would happen if the armed conflict dragged on. There had been frequent small-scale clashes between the two confronting forces across the parallel since the Republic of Korea was established in August 1948, in addition to a few serious Communist-inspired armed rebellions.

Despite our hopes, the Sunday clashes developed into a full-scale war between the two Koreas, and ill-prepared South Korean forces started withdrawing further south.

U.S. President Harry S. Truman quickly responded to an urgent appeal from the South Korean government and helped establish a United Nations Command, under which the U.S. and 15 other countries sent combat forces to help repel North Korean forces from the South.

Before the Allied forces were fully combat ready, however, the North Korean invaders occupied about two-thirds of South Korean territory within less than three months of the initial clashes.

What turned the tide of war in favor of the Allied forces was the now historic Incheon landing on Sept. 15, 1950. Seoul was recovered on Sept. 28, with President Syngman Rhee and Allied Commander-in-Chief Gen. Douglas MacArthur celebrating the day at a mass rally on the Capitol Ground.

Soon after the war started, U.S. Ambassador John Muccio moved the embassy to the wartime capital of Busan.

The town was soon overcrowded with tens of thousands of refugees from Seoul and other North-occupied areas.

Unrest and confusion raged, with rumors flying due to the lack of proper information. Some Seoul-based national news media outlets also fled to Busan but they were still poorly functioning due to a lack of employees, facilities and funds.

The embassy launched the Daily Bulletin with a couple of mimeographs. Published in English and Korean, the stencil-cut news sheet carrying war news and the latest information from within and outside the country was popular with news-thirsty citizens.

It was still the age of wireless communication and all news media depended on news disseminated by wireless means. We hired three radio operators to monitor news dispatches sent via Morse code.

According to office seniority, I was put in charge of the Korean manpower. Two American officers, one a career diplomat and the other a journalism-school graduate veteran, supervised the operation.

Due to atmospherics, the radio-received news items often carried garbled portions, which the two Americans and I had to correct into proper English sentences for translators.

It was a very hard but interesting operation and I learned a lot about journalism. I had had neither journalism education nor any experience and the journalist-turned-press officer was a good teacher.

On Nov. 1, 1950, when the Allied forces were marching north across the 38th parallel after the Incheon landing, Dr. Helen Kim, former President of Ewha Womans University, started publishing an English daily, The Korea Times, in Seoul.

Under a special arrangement between The Korea Times management and the embassy, I had the privilege of working on the editorial staff of The Korea Times for about two years ― 1951-53.

Henry Chang, a Shanghai-educated repatriate, was the managing editor. Chang, who succumbed to lung disease later in Seoul, made a notable contribution to Korea's English-language journalism.

Besides Chang, there were only three reporters, including myself. We mostly depended on Korean news agency stories rather than spot coverage because of the manpower shortage.

Bill Shinn, an AP correspondent, frequently visited our newsroom and became a good friend. Nicknamed "Scoop Shinn," he was known among the newsmen for his historic nine-hour beat on the Incheon landing.

Although there was some controversy about his cronyism and some unethical behavior as a newsman, he was a great newspaperman after all, and my journalism mentor. Leaving AP-Seoul in January 1957 for his own business, he made me his numerical replacement in the Seoul office.

Shinn personally knew many Korean and American dignitaries, including President Syngman Rhee, who naturally became good news sources. These people had gotten to know Shinn when he worked as assistant manager of the Chosun Hotel, which was once used as quarters for the U.S. Army.

President Rhee liked Shinn and often invited him to his news conferences. He took Shinn with him when he visited Pyongyang in October 1950 while Allied forces briefly occupied the North Korean capital.

In his later years, Shinn moved to Tokyo to resume his journalist life and became an active member of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan (FCCJ), serving on its board many times.

He wrote several books on the Korean War in English, Korean and Japanese. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he died some years ago.

During those turbulent war days, I experienced many valuable lessons and met many people who had much influence on my life.

Many of my friends have either died or left the country to live abroad. I deeply regret that I can no longer share the hard memories of the war days with them.

Hwang Kyong-choon is a veteran journalist. He worked as a reporter at The Korea Times in 1951-53 while serving as a translator in the Busan Cultural Center of the U.S. Embassy. He was then a Seoul correspondent for the Associated Press from 1957 until 1987. He was the first president of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club. Now he is a columnist for the Free Column Group.

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