The first time I heard about Korea was when, as a child, I heard recordings and saw photos of the Korean Orphans Choir. I was not old enough then to understand the meaning, or significance, of the "orphans" part of the group's name—I just knew they were adorable and sang beautifully.
As time went by, I added other images to my picture of Korea—beautiful costumes, unusual language, interesting cuisine, the setting for M*A*S*H—but for a long time, the picture remained superficial and spotty. Then I struck up a friendship with a Korean woman, and I wanted to know more.
"Korea," the Western name for the country, is derived from the Koryo dynasty, and means "High and Beautiful." To the people of Korea, the land was Choson, "Land of the Morning Freshness." Today, this name is still used primarily in North Korea, while South Korea has Taehan ("Great Han," Han being another name for Korea) as its official name.
All evidence points to very early (pre-Stone Age) settlement of the Korean peninsula by Tungusic-speaking peoples who migrated from Manchuria and Siberia. They developed the Korean language and formed the dominant ethnic stock of the Korean people. As the ages passed and civilizations developed, Korea absorbed things such as law, Confucianism, and fine art from its neighbor, China, but remained culturally distinct, maintaining its own language, creating its own alphabet, and adapting or altering borrowed elements to suit its own tastes or needs.
In the 5,000+ years since those earliest settlers arrived in Korea, kingdoms have risen and fallen; the peninsula has been united and divided. Korea developed art, scholarship, and culture—and fought a lot, since everyone around them had an eye on the peninsula. The first major Japanese invasion of modern times was in 1592 (the Japanese kidnapped artisans, who were forced to teach Korea's advanced technology in Japan!). The Manchu invaded in 1627.
The rise of modern Korea began with the arrival of European traders and the rise of popular arts. Unfortunately, a series of successions to the throne by children, and the attendant battle for power among the adults, threw the country into chaos. China and Japan again started to gain control of the peninsula. When the Russians invaded Manchuria, Japan saw its opportunity, and by the beginning of the 1900s, Korea was theirs.
Japanese rule in Korea was harsh. From simply depriving the Koreans of all freedoms at the beginning of their rule, the Japanese escalated to actually trying to obliterate Korea, forcing the people to adopt Japanese names—and to enlist in the Japanese army, as World War II broke out. But the Korean resistance movement remained strong, and the Korean Restoration Army declared war on Japan in 1941.
Japanese rule ended with the end of WWII, in 1945. Now it was China's turn. Chinese and Soviet-trained North Korean troops invaded the south. Seoul fell on June 28, 1950, and most of the South Korean army was destroyed. Perhaps it was a sense of outrage at the latest invasion, or perhaps it was because the U.S. was ashamed at having acknowledged Japan at the beginning of their take-over of Korea, but whatever the reason, the U.S. now got behind keeping South Korea free.
By the time the Korean War ended, Korea was in tatters—and had lots of orphans. It was one of the poorest countries in the world. However, it was free, and elections were soon being held in the new republic. But being dirt poor and surrounded by enemies is hard, and in 1961, there was a military coup that put General Park Chung Hee in charge. General Park was not an easy ruler, but his plans for improving Korea were ambitious. He put into motion a series of reforms that were, at least initially, embraced with enthusiasm. Modernizing villages, educating children, stopping disease, building factories, training workers, and basically turning Korea upside down required sacrifice and hard work, but within one generation, Korea went from being one of the poorest to being one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
A side effect of wealth was that, soon, most Koreans owned TVs, and TV became a tool in the country's healing. People had been shipped to work camps and mines by the Japanese, had been relocated by the Chinese, had tried to escape. Survivors had been separated for decades from families most didn't even dare to hope were alive. Now, broadcasts featured people holding up photographs or descriptions of those who had been lost. In time, tearful reunions were added to the show, as the program succeeded in its aim.
General Park, like many dictators, stayed in power beyond his usefulness, and was assassinated by his own director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. Civilian government was restored, and Korea was a republic again.
Today, Koreans deal with the tension between North and South, sad at the separation, worried about aggression. They deal with the emotional trauma of having been catapulted from quaint, agrarian poverty to cutting-edge, technology-based wealth. And they continue to be successful at pretty much anything they try.
Many in the older generation view Americans, especially those who served in the Korean War, with mixed emotions—"thank you for coming, for giving me my freedom, but did you have to seduce our daughters and humiliate our men." It is good to keep this in mind when speaking with people who may seem hesitant to open up to you. However, most Koreans are outgoing and friendly, so you may never see the pain.
Bulkokee is so popular in Korea that it is virtually the national dish. You may find it spelled bulgogi, pul kogi, or other ways. The name is transliterated from the Korean alphabet, so there is no standard English spelling. The pronunciation is kind of a combination of all these variations, with the accent on the first syllable. It is a delicious dish that highlights a lot of favorite Korean flavors—especially sesame and garlic. Serve it with white rice and kimchi. Enjoy.
1½ lb. lean sirloin steak or top round of beef
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
2/3 cup soy sauce
3 rounded Tbs. brown sugar
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
5 Tbs. sesame oil
2 Tbs. toasted sesame seeds (optional)
Slice the beef into strips about 1 to 1¼ inches wide and ¼ inch thick. Combine the next 6 ingredients in a large bowl. Add meat to this marinade, coating all pieces thoroughly, then set aside for two hours at room temperature. (If marinade doesn't cover meat completely, toss meat to recoat two or three times during marinating.)
Preheat the broiler. Lay the beef strips on a lined broiler pan and broil for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the strips are evenly brown and cooked through. Remove from the heat and, if desired, sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.
Alternative ways of cooking this include grilling on a hibachi or stir-frying in a little additional sesame oil.
If you are concerned about the large amount of sodium in the soy sauce, you can substitute dry sherry or cooking sherry for part of the soy sauce.