23 February 2006

Dawson, Condemnation, and History

There has been plenty of talk in Korea and in the expat and foreign blogs watching Korea over the claims by a Pusan man that he is U.S. skier Toby Dawson's biological father. One main issue raised by western observers is that they would never have simply abandoned the search for their lost child, and they cannot see how someone would not have gone to the police. The self-claimed father, Kim Jae Su, told reporters "I didn't think reporting it to the police would be of any help, so I went around looking for him myself."

While it is hard to fathom now that someone wouldn't go to the police to find their lost child, one must look back at that time in history. Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, the police in Korea were not approachable for "little problems" like lost Children. They were tools of an autocratic and militant regime, and a source of enforcement, not a source of assistance to the "common man."

I know of other, much less public, figures (relatives included) who were lost as children, and their parents didn't go to the police. The police wouldn't have helped even if they had shown up. In one case, it was more sinister than being taken to an orphanage - the young girl was picked up by a lady recruiting for a brothel. Luckily, she was a well known little girl in the neighborhood, and was seen and her father was able to recover her before any harm was done.

This is a sad story, but it is a reflection of the significant difference in social and cultural norms in Korea in the 1970s and even into the 1980s. Remember, the Kwangju massacre occurred in 1980, just a year before Kim Jae Su claims to have lost Toby Dawson. This was not an open and friendly regime, and police were not the servants of the people.

The 1988 Olympics in Seoul ushered in some internally enforced political and social change, the Asian economic crisis in 1997 brought in more. But it has been just a quarter of a century since South Korea was deploying paratroopers against its own citizens in ChollaNamDo, and it was in this atmosphere that Mr. Kim claims he lost his son and didn't turn to the police.

I make no justification for Kim, nor do I have an opinion one way or another as to whether Dawson is his son. But there is a distinct holier-than-thou attitude among foreign observers that fails to understand the reality of daily life in South Korea 25 years ago, and if one forgets to look to history, one is doomed to repeat its mistakes.

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