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Dr. Ed Poitras recalls time spent in South Korea in 1950s

Dr. Ed Poitras

The Headwaters Lifelong Learners were transported across the Pacific and taken back in time more than a half century Tuesday when Dr. Ed Poitras shared insights on the politics and economics of South Korea.

The Yale Divinity School graduate arrived in South Korea just after the war had ended, in 1953. He was to be housed with his Methodist co-workers but resisted, preferring to be in the heart of the community on a day-to-day basis.

And he chose public transportation, despite warnings he'd contract tuberculosis.

"That's how I observed life," the English teacher at a Methodist Theological School said. And gained the name Esau.

While traveling aboard a bus in Seoul, (that had been handmade from steel petroleum drums) an elderly woman carrying a Bible sat next to him, obviously curious as to his origin.

She began to stroke his arm and nod, "Just like Esau," she said, referring to the baby in the book of Genesis, born covered in hair.

Poitras shared his memories of traveling from Pusan to Seoul to observe what the war had done.

"It was a revelation."

Thirty-five miles from the city, one building was still standing in an industrial establishment. "It was the same story in the city," he said of "piles of rubble," 80 to 90 percent of the churches and schools destroyed and refugees living in congested shacks on a hillside.

One of his many roles as a missionary was to help rebuild the schools and orphanages that had been ravaged by the war.

Over the next two years, he lived in a one-room apartment, heated with wood. "But firewood was illegal," he said of one of many conundrums Koreans faced after the war.

Despite hardships, the people shared a sense of comradeship, he said, citing their wardrobes of relief or army clothing, all uniformly dyed black.

The Koreans, he said, had a "sense of frustration with being dictated by the great powers of the world in a civil war brought on by international power machinations," he said of the United Nations, China, the U.S. and Soviet Union.

"This created a sense of inferiority," he said, because the Korean were seemingly unable to orchestrate their government.

Immersed in culture

Poitras headed back to the U.S. after three years in Korea. He returned in 1959 with wife Genell to Seoul. "Our initiation to life in Korea as a couple turned out to be a time of great transition."

The city was in a "time warp," he said. They moved into a "modern" apartment building - that experienced a "major breakdown" of one form or another every month - with a "remarkable view." In the middle of the city stood thatched roof houses, he recalled.

"And six months later, we were smack dab in the middle of a revolution."

April 19, 1960 students and adults "took to the streets," the couple hearing shots throughout the first night.

By June, a military coup d'état had taken place that would run through 1987, becoming more oppressive as time went by, Poitras said.

Meanwhile, the couple was assigned to a remote area on South Korea's east coast.

"It was a godsend," he said of being immersed in Korean culture - weddings, funerals, fishing and coal mining - the way "few young Koreans would experience."

The old house they occupied had no insulation, a wood fire stove outside heating it. "Genell growing up in North Dakota was beneficial," he said of acclimation.

The couple would head back to the U.S. for a time, returning to South Korea with two children.

The country was undergoing changes, he said of the sprouting neighborhoods and colleges and universities emerging.

Some factions were trying to create pure Korean nationalism, while at the same time the military was attempting to reestablish a relationship with Japan and China, he said.

"Interestingly enough, it worked. The economy's development was something of a miracle... South Korea took off," he said.

Reunification unlikely

Poitras began writing for Korean newspapers, subsequently called in by the Korean CIA to determine his sources of information. "We became great friends," he said, grinning.

He would pen a book on Korea that would prove to be a bestseller, earning the kudos of both president Park Chung-hee, who is credited with the industrialization of the country, and his wife, Yuk Young-soo, whom he interviewed. She was killed in 1974 during an attempt to assassinate Park.

Poitras recalls attending the South Korean reception for President Gerald Ford, Park stopping on his way in to the ceremony to commend Poitras on the work.

"I read your book," Park told Poitras. "And I appreciate it."

Not long after, October 1979, Park was assassinated.

The book, which remains on the country's historical bestseller list, holds nothing "outwardly controversial," he said. "It's an admiration of Korean people."

But it addresses "not delicate political subjects." When the book was due for a second publication, during a period of martial law, military authorities crossed out two-thirds of the contents. But an unedited book was subsequently published.

By 1987, people began marching in the streets across the country, demanding a popular selection of the president. The "military stranglehold" on the country, in place since 1961, was broken, he said.

"Korea has flourished," Poitras told his audience of about 60 people Tuesday. Everyone has electronic gear - with some youth relying on them to the extreme. Institutes now exist for kids "addicted" to the Internet.

And South Korea's airport is considered the best in the world, he said. "Their infrastructure is second to none.

South Korea has a market economy which ranks 15th in the world by nominal Gross Domestic Product and 12th by purchasing power parity (PPP), identifying it as one of the G-20 major economies.

Koreans have ambiguous feelings about the intervention of foreign government. The gratitude, he said, is mixed with a feeling of "we couldn't take care of ourselves."

Many Koreans would like to see the country reunified, but the cost estimate to rescue North Korea over a 30-year period is $2.1 trillion.

North Korea bought into the Stalinist system of hierarchical society, he said. "It's an autocratic system that does not work.

"In the short term, I don't see how reunification is possible," Poitras said. "And if North Korea collapses, we'd all take on the burden."

China, he said, has made it clear that it's in their interest to keep North Korea from collapsing.

When East and West Germany united, there was an approximate 5 to 1 difference in the economies, he said.

"It's 30 to 1 in Korea."