By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Novelist Martin Limón lives quietly near Seattle. In his imagination, however, he’s often traveling to South Korea, where his series of military thrillers starring Sergeant George Sueño are set. The newest series title, “The Ville Rat,” set in the 1970s, follows Sueño and his trusty sidekick, Sergeant Ernie Bascom, as they juggle the murder of a Korean lady, a military shooting requiring a military trial, and an ever-deepening dark pool of corruption and intrigue.
Limón deftly crafts his characters and plot, but he also draws upon his own Korean military duty for his novels’ ambiance. “After a year and a half at Fort Lewis, in June of 1968,” he remembered, “the Army sent me to Korea. At the time, we had about 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam, 500,000 in Europe, and 50,000 in Korea. I felt lucky. After disembarking at the heavily fortified Kimpo Airfield, we were bussed to the Army Support Command in Bupyeong.”
“It was a beautiful summer day and the acres of rice paddies blazed green,” Limón said. “White cranes rose lazily from the shoots and one little boy rode on the back of an ox. The homes were made of mud brick and the roofs were thick with overhanging thatch.”
Roots of Japanese colonization of Korea began in the late 19th century with foreign invasions and ended with Japan’s World War II defeat. In 1945, Korea was divided into north and south along its 38th parallel north. Two separate governments were established, both claiming legitimacy. South Korea’s turbulent modern history included U.S. military administration in the immediate post-war period, the establishment of the Republic of Korea, growing antagonism with North Korea, and military rule.
Limón’s first stint in South Korea in the last 1960s occurred during its Third Republic period, one characterized by the beginnings of economic and technological growth. It was during this time that South Korea transitioned from an agrarian society to an industrialized one.
“After growing up in Southern California, where the economy was booming,” he said, “traveling through the Korean countryside was like going back in time. I felt as if I had been transported to a world described in the Brothers Grimm. All of us were quiet on the bus, overwhelmed by what we were seeing, glad that we weren’t being shot at.”
Limón did try civilian life for a time, but admits he found it “boring.” He re-enlisted. Back in South Korea, “In the early 1970s, I started studying the Korean language. This made me unusual amongst my peers. As the editor of a unit newspaper for the First Signal Brigade, I traveled extensively, since we had communication sites scattered up and down the spine of the Korean peninsula. I was also later in the artillery, stationed at a fire base just a kilometer or two from the Demilitarized Zone and the North Korean army. In later years, I worked in an intelligence unit deciphering aerial reconnaissance, keeping an eye on North Korean troop movements.”
Asked about the major misunderstandings between American about Korean culture, Limón invoked history.
“Most people don’t realize how ancient Korean culture is. After 4,000 years, they see things through the prisms of Buddhism and Confucianism, and Western views such as democracy are merely grafted on top. Also they suffered much during the 20th century, through 35 years of brutal Japanese colonization and later the Korean War that killed an estimated 10 percent of their population.”
In 1910, Japan annexed Korea (although Korea did not agree on the legality of the Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty, as its emperor did not sign it), and Japan controlled Korea until Japan’s surrender to Allied Forces in World War II. Under the 35 years of Japanese rule, Japan repressed Korean traditions and cultures.
Pro-independence rallies that took place in the early 20th century were quashed by Japanese law enforcement, with thousands of Koreans killed by Japanese soldiers and police.
“And then the poverty, which was still rampant when I arrived in 1968,” Limón said. “What the army did was toss a whole bunch of us teenage knuckleheads into this world and let us loose. Problems, as you might imagine, ensued.”
He wrote plenty of military journalism, but got into novels in an odd manner. As he prepared to leave Korea for the last time, he related,“I knew I had to do something to keep from going nuts back in the States. I was browsing through the post library and stumbled on a book called (no kidding) ‘Maybe You Should Write a Novel.’ When it said that you don’t need any formal education to start writing but could base your stories on your personal experiences, I was sold. I knew I wanted to write about my years in Korea. A memoir wouldn’t work, and I wasn’t inclined in that direction anyway.”
“I realized that a crime or mystery story would allow me to search both the U.S. military and Korean society from the highest level to the lowest, from a cocktail party at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence to a mugging in a back alley of the red light district. That was the genesis of my two Eighth Army criminal investigators, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom.”
The author plans to release a new Sueño novel, “Ping-Pong Heart,” in July 2016. Asked his favorite things about the Seattle area, he remembered “how much I enjoyed my year and a half at Fort Lewis [in the mid-1960s]. My favorite thing about the Pacific Northwest is the four pronounced seasons [which reminds me of Korea]. My least favorite thing is that Olympia Beer went busted and the climate seems to be warming. I love overcast and gloom. It encourages me to stay indoors and write.” (end)
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.