Love for Korea over 4 generations
A blue-eyed medical doctor speaks native Korean with a Jeolla-do (Jeolla Province) provincial accent.
He leads 40 staff members and 70 resident doctors. His name is John Linton, a medical doctor and director of the International Health Care Center at Severance Hospital, part of the Yonsei University Medical School in Seoul.
At first glance, In Yohan, as he is known in Korean, looks just like another non-Korean resident of Korea. Deep inside, however, he is a warm-hearted Korean who loves this country more than anyone. This is rooted in his ancestors, who lived in the country more than 100 years ago.
Linton’s ancestors forged a deep relationship with Korea over four generations and spanning 119 years. His maternal great grandfather, Eugene Bell (1868-1925), was a missionary who conducted missionary activities in the southern region of Korea, including Jeolla-do (Jeolla Province), starting in 1895 when he arrived in Korea from the U.S. John Linton’s grandfather, William Linton, became a son-in-law to Eugene Bell. Descendants of the Bell and Linton families continued their missionary work in Korea, building educational institutions, such as Daejeon University and the Honam Theological University and Seminary, and medical centers, helping to take care of those who suffered from tuberculosis, Hansen’s disease and any neighbor who was in need. They underwent the pains of recent history — such as poverty, Japanese colonization and war — alongside their neighbors.
Linton’s love for Korea can be seen in the title of his autobiography, “My Hometown is Jeolla-do, My Soul is Korean” (2006). In the book, he says, “Koreans are optimistic people who try to live a happy, joyful life, even though they go through hard times. I am proud that I have the temper of Koreans running through my veins. Eighty percent of my early years, in which I was growing up, is the warm emotional bond ofjeong, felt by Koreans everywhere.”
As for why he chose to become a doctor, he said, “On a road down which not many people wish to go, I wanted to make an effort to help others in difficult situations with my talent and skills. That is my fate, as a son of missionaries, and the way I can pay back the love I received from Koreans.”
With his brother Stephen Linton and other descendants of Eugene Bell, John Linton established the Eugene Bell Foundation in the U.S. in 1995 and in Korea in 2000 to provide humanitarian support for North Korea. In November this year, the Eugene Bell Foundation visited North Korea for about three weeks and agreed with the North Korean authorities to build three hospital buildings for tuberculosis patients in Pyongyang by 2015. John Linton has so far visited North Korea 29 times and emphasizes humanitarian support for the North. Earlier this month, he received the Order of Service Merit of Human Rights Award of the Republic of Korea for his contribution to protecting human rights, marking the 66th anniversary of the declaration of world human rights.
Korea.net sat down with Linton to learn more about his life story, thoughts about humanitarian support for North Korea and social activities.
– You speak native Korean with the local dialect of the Jeolla region, which young Koreans might find difficult to understand. As a Korean, what does Jeolla Province mean to you?
It all began 119 years ago when missionary Eugene Bell arrived in Korea through Jemulpo Port. Since then four generations of my family have forged a deep relationship with this country. In late Joseon times (1392-1910), American missionaries of both the Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches conducted missionary activities in the northern and southern parts of Korea. My grandmother, who was born in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, had a really strong affection for the region. I was born in Suncheon. For me, Suncheon is the center of my universe.
– Your ancestors suffered all kinds of hardships on the Korean Peninsula, where people could barely manage to stay alive with coarse and miserable food. Some of them even passed away because of epidemics and infectious diseases. What do you think caused them to undergo such difficulties for more than 100 years?
I believe Jeolla Province accepted us. People treated us all the same. In fact, it was extremely hard for them to live in the country when they first got here because of the poor surroundings, lack of supplies and local endemic diseases. My great grandmother died young in her 30s because of an endemic disease.
In 2009 when I attended an assembly at the Aeyangwon, a church, hospital and rehabilitation facility for sufferers of Hansen’s disease in Yeosu, the patients expressed their thanks. I told them, “I thank you for opening your hearts to us so that we were able to help you.” Actually, I owe so much to Korea. I also cherish my Korean identification card which I got thanks to a government permit as a special naturalized citizen a few years ago.
– Controversies were raised over the recuperation facilities for missionaries on Jirisan Mountain a few years ago. Didn’t you feel sorry for or upset at Korean society?
That was the only one time I felt really hurt and disappointed about Korea. Some people criticized us for damaging nature, but there was no such damage.
Those facilities were used by missionaries in the early 1900s. They stayed there from June to September when endemic diseases were running rampant. They stayed at Nogodan Peak on the mountain, free from viruses and epidemics, to teach Korean language to foreigners and to translate the bible into Korean for missionary activities. William D. Reynonds, Jr. (1867 – 1951), a missionary and linguist, translated the bible into common Korean and set up the grammar system of the Korean language.
I was really sad and hurt and would have left an unmanned island, but I did not want to leave Koreans. So I thought of going overseas where many Koreans live, but I did not want to leave Korea.
– What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of Korea and Koreans? What are their problems, in your view?
Koreans are strong when facing difficulties. I highly value their crisis management capability. On the other hand, however, they try to solve the problem in the “25th hour.” When a crisis occurs, they would rather not solve it immediately. They also tend to handle the matter at the last minute in a dramatic manner. This is a very interesting characteristic.
They also pursue both the Western value of standing out individually and that of the East, which emphasizes a sense of belonging as part of a group. They are very enthusiastic to achieve everything in both their hands.
– Apart from medicine, you have an active presence in the inter-Korean relationship and in other social issues. Your interest and affection for inter-Korean ties is stronger than that of anyone in Korea. In your view, what is an idealistic standpoint for the authorities and the people of the two Koreas?
Unification is inevitable. I believe both Koreas need to be unified to recover the true meaning of the “Korean Peninsula.” For this, both sides need to change, but I hope the South can change first, as they are better off than the North.
I also believe we need to treat more warmly ethnic Koreans from China and North Korean defectors. In the Roh Moo-hyun administration, I proposed to former President Roh that the country accept ethnic Koreans from China by providing work permits and medical insurance, because their good impression and experiences of South Korea will be passed on to their families and relatives in North Korea. They say that bad news travels fast, but good news travels even faster. Think of catching a butterfly. If you try to catch one, it will never be caught. However, it will sit on your shoulder when you least expect it. As such, their good experiences in and impressions of South Korea will be naturally spread across the North. In fact, immigration procedures for ethnic Korean in China have recently been eased. When South Korea accepts them warmly and when they can feel it, their good words will spread, which will make them feel that, “The time for unification is coming closer.”
– Some people on the conservative side criticize aid for North Korea as “being poured overboard.” What is the most important point in the provision of aid to the North?
Firstly, the term “pouring overboard” is not the right word. This is never “pouring overboard.” The amount we provide to the North is less than one sixtieth of what West Germany provided its eastern neighbor.
In South Korea, there are about 120 tons of rice stacked in storerooms and people are considering to use it as animal feed. In the North, people are starving to death. I believe dying of hunger is a vice and a violation of human rights. I personally hope we can send half of it, let’s say 60 tons of rice, to the North. Why not send it to them on a grand scale?
Six or seven years ago, when we provided humanitarian aid to North Korea on a large scale, I went to the North with four ambulances and medical supplies worth KRW 2 billion. I felt triumphant when I departed for the North. However, when I delivered the medical supplies to hospitals in four cities — Pyongyang, Wonsan, Hamheung and Cheongjin — I felt small and my heart became heavier. There are about 250 hospitals in North Korean counties and more than 60 rehabilitation facilities for tuberculosis patients. What I brought for them was too small for their needs.
At a beach later that day, I grabbed a handful of sand and told my North Korean guide that, “What I brought to you is less than this handful of sand.” I cried. The guide comforted me.
Think what will happen after unification. Most South Koreans are better off. Think what North Koreans will feel when they come to the South and see us. I believe we need to help them before it gets too late.
– You said in your book that, “Eighty percent of my early years, in which I was growing up, is the warm emotional bond of jeong, felt by Koreans everywhere.” Can you tell us any memorable experiences of recalling this unique Korean affection?
When I was a teenager, I attended the Taejon Christian International School. In the dormitory I met Choi Gi-ho, who was one year older than me. One Saturday, I went to his room to borrow some clothes before going out. He was not there, but I found a very nice suit. I put on his suit and even his shoes and out I went. I had fun and realized later that I did not even leave a short note saying that I borrowed his clothes and shoes. I was worried that he would be very angry with me. When I went back to his room, however, he even smiled at me and never got angry. I felt how much care and affection he showed me. He might have thought, “You have worn my clothes anyway. Enjoy your time.” I realized this is what jeong is.
– You highlighted the “morals of an ondol bang” when you recently received the Order of Service Merit of Human Rights. How was your childhood like that of a Korean, though you had the appearance of a non-Korean?
As the youngest of six children, I learnt wisdom, knowledge and morals from my seniors in an ondol-heated room. The most important lesson from them was about what the character of a person should be. They told me that others’ faults cannot justify my bad behavior. I believe such lessons are still important today.
– Is there anyone who gave you an important moment in your life? Who is your role model, if you have one?
Reverend Son Yangwon (1902-1950) is the one. He refused an offer to become a school principal from Kim Gu (1876-1949), the last president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea. He did not leave the Aeyangwon church and hospital for shelter during the Korean War (1950-1953). He stayed to protect the leper patients. He lost two sons to the Communist forces, but adopted the man who killed his sons as his son. He was later shot to death. For me, Reverend Son is the second greatest human after Jesus Christ. He is my mentor and the mirror of my soul.
– Do you have any wish you want to realize in your lifetime?
When I get to 65, I want to go back to my hometown of Suncheon and spend the rest of my life there. Suncheon is such a beautiful town. Even the Heungseon Daewongun (1820–1898), the father of King and then Emperor Gojong (r. 1863-1907), praised its beauty when he wrote, “地不如順天,” which means, “There is no better place than Suncheon.” Suncheon is such a place. When I retire, I wish to go back to my hometown.
– What does Korea mean to you?
I would put it in the one word, jeong. This has much wider and deeper meaning than merely “love,” which the Western world says, or the “worldly love” between a man and a woman. Jeong covers the weaknesses of others and highlights their strengths. It makes people exist together. For me, Korea is jeong itself.
For more information about the Eugene Bell Foundation’s humanitarian aid to North Korea, please visit the foundation’s homepage (https://www.eugenebell.org).
Article by Yoon Sojung, Lee Seung-ah
Photos: Jeon Han
Korea.net Staff Writers