The Peace Corps in Korea

by Dan Strickland, 22/04/2010


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US Peace Corps volunteers were in Korea from 1966 to 1981. The first groups came as English teachers at all levels, middle school to college, although the early focus was on filling the gap in high schools, where the absence of native English speakers was felt most keenly. Very few Koreans had ESL training at that point, and the college Volunteers addressed that lack. After several groups of Volunteers had successfully served, the Peace Corps asked about other needs, and public health groups were developed. These were initially very broadly trained, and assigned to either myun or gun government public health centers (pokunso).

As time went on, Volunteers narrowed their scope more specifically to the tuberculosis project, where the Korean workers were constantly overwhelmed. Additionally, most later health Volunteers were most often assigned to gun level health centers - in part because of the greater volume of work, and in part because the myun workers were the lowest level in the public health hierarchy, lowering the Volunteers' effectiveness. At the gun level they were working with a (usually) male colleague and were directly supervised by the provincial TB control officer. Later health Volunteers shifted to leprosy work.

Other projects undertaken by the Peace Corps Volunteers included 4-H projects, forestry, and specialties such as audiology or x-ray repair and maintenance. The reforestation of Korea truly started with two forester volunteers, Charlie Storrs and Ron Taylor, in Peace Corps Korea group 18, 1971 - 73.

While the job is essential for Volunteers, the Peace Corps Act reads "The Congress of the United States declares that it is the policy of the United States and the purpose of this chapter to promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower, particularly in meeting the basic needs of those living in the poorest areas of such countries, and to help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served and a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people. "

Peace Corps in its training and publicity always emphasizes those other two goals ahead of the job: better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served and a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people. Indeed, these have proven to be the most enduring of the Peace Corps' legacy in the countries where Volunteers have served.

The first Peace Corps Korea Director, Kevin O'Donnell, went on to become Peace Corps World Director, as did his successor Don Hess. Both of them fought hard to keep forces in Congress from shutting down Peace Corps. Eventually Peace Corps was withdrawn from Korea in 1981 at US initiative. A later Korea Country Director, Jon Keeton, worked for Peace Corps as an assistant director and was instrumental in opening the former Soviet republics to Peace Corps. There is currently a couple, Frank and Carol Kersting, who were Volunteers in Korea 1971 - 73, who are again, post-retirement, Volunteers in The Ukraine.

Another former Peace Corps Korea Volunteer, Kathy Stephens, in 2008 became the first former Peace Corps Volunteer to serve as US Ambassador in the country where she volunteered. Ambassador Stephens has reconnected with several of the Peace Corps language staff from her term as a Volunteer, and is studying Korean with them. She often gives speeches in Korean, very unusual for a US Ambassador.

In 2008 Korean President Lee issued an invitation to all former Peace Corps Volunteers to revisit, including all expenses except airfare. The Volunteers have been coming back in groups of 60 - 100, often including family, starting in fall of 2008, at the rate of 2 groups per year. The program is expected to continue through 2013, so that all the roughly 1,800 Volunteers have an opportunity to revisit. A highlight of the visit for most is the day spent with KOICA staff and trainees.

KOICA as part of its mission oversees the Korea Peace Corps. Young Peace Corps Volunteers often are cynical about the value of their work, and doubt the usefulness of job or any lasting effects. However, old Volunteers have been brought to tears to see the Korea has, because of the Peace Corps Volunteers' example, developed their own Peace Corps, and are now the second-largest such organization in the world (after the US Peace Corps), sending abroad all over the world around 30 - 40, 000 volunteers yearly. For the old Volunteers to have the opportunity to spend a day with these young KOICA volunteers in training, to see their enthusiasm and hope, and to hear that this came about as a result of the Peace Corps, is a very emotional and gratifying experience.

Note: The photo was taken in front of HwaSun (Cholla Nam Do) Gun Pogunso, 1971, shortly after the author arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer. The man to his left is the Gun TB worker*, to his left is the Eup TB worker*. On the right end is the X-ray tech, and the young women in front were student nurses.
*gun is a political subdivision of a province, while eup is a subdivision of a gun.

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