Surveying Korea, 60 years after military service

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story.
Who would have thought that less than one hour after my wife and I arrived in South Korea last month, the question of “How many Jews live in Korea” would come up?
We were on a bus of newly arrived Korean War Era Veterans, guests of the South Korean government, to commemorate the 63rd Anniversary of the armistice ending the Korean War.
On the 45-minute drive to our hotel in Seoul, a young Korean tour-guide began to provide basic information about her country, but we were busy admiring the rich-green forested areas, lush rice paddies, wide modern highways, industrial plants, high-rise apartment buildings and tall skyscrapers, none of which existed when I was in Korea.
“We have two major religions,” the guide related, “Buddhist, around 20 percent, Christian, 30 percent (made up of Catholic and Protestant) and the rest, mostly young people, have no religion.” So, I assumed, “no Jews,” other than some U.S. soldiers stationed there.
My interest peaked and I decided to look into the Jewish presence in South Korea. Here are my findings:
There is a general belief that the first Jews in Korea, estimated to number 150,000 during the course of the Korean War (1950-1953), were among the 1,845,000 American and British forces who came to South Korea’s aid after North Korea’s invasion.
I had arrived after the war, serving as an army photographer (1955-1956). I learned years later that a young rabbi, Chaim Potok, had served as an army chaplain in Korea during the same time period; however, we had never met.
In addition to the U.S. military presence, which would normally include a number of Jewish soldiers, there are a small number of Jewish civilians who work and live among Seoul’s 10 million population.
Since 2008, a Chabad House near the U.S. military’s Yongsan base has worked with the chaplain to provide for the relatively small Jewish community of 100 to 200.
At present, the Seoul military base is in the process of closing, moving to a much larger base under construction 40 miles to the south, destined to become “America’s largest military complex in Asia.”
As a result, Seoul’s Chabad House will take on a more important role as it becomes the sole central focus of Jewish life, culture, and religion in this lovely, vibrant, modern city that rose from the ashes of the Korean War.

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