I attended a talk and luncheon by him in Washington, D.C. on December 7th, 2015. It was hosted by a university's Korea Studies program. The crowd was fewer than twenty people, most of whom were Asian foreigners. I couldn't tell their countries of origin and didn't have a chance to talk to them. Most were graduate students. (Everyone had sandwiches and cookies but of all the attendees I was the only one to take a can of regular coca cola. Several had diet coke. What to make of that?).
If I recall correctly, Kirk said that he first entered Korea in 1972, previously having reported from Vietnam and elsewhere. He ended up, over his career, reporting on Korea a lot (though by no means exclusively), and is still going strong on that topic in the 2010s. I had previously run across the name Donald Kirk in the Korea Times, one of the English-language newspapers. It still runs his column. I occasionally bought the Korea Times and have written about this newspaper elsewhere on this site.
I must say that I was greatly impressed with Donald Kirk. He struck me as a quality investigative journalist of the classic variety. He was also energetic and vigorous. He looked younger in person than in the photo above (attached to his Korea Times columns). Seeing him in person, had someone told me he was in his 50s, I'd have certainly believed it. (He is in his 70s.)
Kirk's talk was about Jeju (of Korea) and Okinawa (of Japan) and their many parallels. The new parallel is of military base controversies on both.
I took notes during the talk. Here are some of his remarks I found most interesting:
- Donald Kirk's book is called Okinawa and Jeju: Bases of Discontent. (This title is a pun, as will become clear below, I think.)
- Kirk spent six weeks in Okinawa and Jeju, on a grant from some group in the USA, doing research for the book.
- Okinawa and Jeju are both the southernmost points of their countries, different in culture and language from their mainlands, different identities. Both islands have always resented control by the mother country. Kirk didn't say this explicitly, but I think meant it. (Few Koreans, I think, would ever entertain the idea that Jeju "resents" Korea, and certainly few would say it. Donald Kirk, being an American, has the freedom to do so.)
- Okinawa was only taken by Japan in the late 1800s. Previously, it had been an independent kingdom.
- Jeju was conquered much earlier, but always maintained its own identity and strong local dialect.
- After independence in 1948, a revolt on Jeju against the Korean government was put down with 30,000 killed.
- The Jeju of today is completely changed, now an enormous tourist spot with 90% of tourists now Chinese (Kirk's estimate) and previous "national feeling" may be swamped to an extent by that. The young raised in Jeju can speak with standard Korean accents now, of course.
- (I asked about the Jeju Revolt during the Q-and-A: "What would you say were the causes?" I wanted to get at whether it was "really" a communist revolt, as was claimed at the time, or what? It's hard to trust answers you get on this from Koreans, because it is politically sensitive. Kirk didn't have a specific answer. He mentioned political, labor problems. He graciously asked the Koreans in the room for their opinions. No one spoke up.)
- (Someone else asked why there is no secession movement on Jeju. The questioner, an Asian of nationality unknown to me, said that Okinawa did have one. Kirk answered that in his view the Okinawa secession movement "didn't amount to much" when held up to the light of day.)
- Kirk pointed out that Jeju is the only Korean province given special "self-governing status" (제주특별자치도).
- The left-wing governments of Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Mu-Hyun, governing 1998-2008, did things to appease Jeju like officially apologizing for the Jeju massacre of '48.
- Both Jeju and Okinawa now have military base controversies which likely will be around for a while. Okinawa has long had a large U.S. presence, and South Korea is currently building a naval base on Jeju, to open next year.
- Why is South Korea "militarizing" Jeju? Firstly, Kirk discussed the Ieodo Rocks (이어도), which are claimed by both China and Korea. Occupied by South Korea. China has not pressed this claim, unlike its many other claims to islands and rocks quite far from its borders. China has aggravated nearly all its maritime neighbors with its bold territorial claims, except South Korea.
- Kirk said that South Korea is trying hard to maintain good relations with China. To this end, Korea won't support any SE Asian states in territorial disputes with China.
- Despite this deference-to-China policy, South Korea has quietly built up the Ieodo Rocks in a manner similar to what it has done with the much-more-publicized (especially in Korea itself) Dokdo Rocks in the sea between Korea and Japan, occupied since 1952 by South Korea but also claimed by Japan.
- South Korea has built facilities, including a helipad, on Ieodo (picture below). These rocks are completely submerged but rise near enough the surface to allow such facilities.
- If China ever presses the Ieodo Rocks claim, the South Korean Navy would be in a better position to enforce its claim with the Jeju base. The rocks are 150 km southeast of Jeju.
- The second reason for the Jeju naval base, Kirk says: North Korea. A strong naval base on Jeju could better intercept North Korean vessels. This is the official position and is valid.
- Kirk says that former president Kim Dae-Jung opened the shipping lanes around Jeju to North Korean commercial ships. This surprised me. This ended with the end of the Sunshine Policy. Kim Dae-Jung was a longtime South Korean left-wing political dissident, elected president in 1997, and was interviewed several times by Kirk during his long career, which included a period of exile in the USA (mostly spent in Northern Virginia, according to Kirk).
- Some Koreans are protesting the Jeju naval base. They say it will hurt the environment.
- Kirk says he interviewed one of the main protest leaders at the Jeju naval base protests, a certain Korean Catholic priest. I cannot recall what specific remarks he made about this priest. He said his name was Moon.
- Kirk doesn't buy the notion that the protest is environmental in nature. He gave the example of the plan to completely destroy a particular island in Busan Harbor so as to allow more maneuvering space for ships. No protests at all for that doomed island.
- The real force behind the protests on Jeju, Kirk says, may be anti-American Left (this is my term, not his). The protesters, if you talk to them, allege that the base "will become a U.S. base". The base is a U.S. plot, they say. Kirk says there is no basis for this claim, no indication the U.S. has anything to do with it.
- Opposition on Okinawa to the military bases does relate to the U.S., as one of the largest overseas U.S. bases in the world is on Okinawa, but Kirk says that it is not so simple on Okinawa as "Get the foreigners out." Okinawans do not yearn, at all, he says, for a handover to the Japanese military (and there may again soon be one to speak of). They probably prefer the U.S. to Japan. The Okinawa protesters just want to be left alone with no bases at all. (This does seem to suggest that Okinawa "national feeling" is strong, even if Kirk says rumors of a secession movement have been greatly exaggerated.)
- I asked a question about what Kirk's view was on prospective U.S. military withdrawal from Korea and/or Japan, whether it was possible or likely anytime soon. He replied that Jimmy Carter had had a plan to withdraw U.S. forces totally from Korea in the late 1970s, but "he was talked out of it" after taking office. Kirk then said that today Donald Trump, who has said the same thing (Korea can pay for its own defense; foreign commitments a waste of money; bring U.S. troops home), if elected, would also be talked out of it. I wanted to follow up but didn't have the chance. Who "talked Carter out of it"? Why? Who would talk Trump out of it? Why?
Note: I implanted one fact above that didn't come from the talk I attended, but from an interview with Donald Kirk I listened to separately. It is that Kim Dae-Jung lived mostly in Northern Virginia during his political exile in the USA, 1980-1985. Kirk has mixed feelings about Kim Dae-Jung, and many negative things to say, while conceding his political skill. Kirk's perspective on the much-praised, Nobel-anointed Kim Dae-Jung was nice to hear: This interview was reposted to Youtube here. (Korea and the World podcast, October 2015).