Every detail of that day in December 1974 still stands out vividly to George E. Ogle: his arrest by South Korean police, the hour he was given to gather his belongings before having to leave his family and the country he had called home for two decades, the tears he shed on the flight out.
But almost thirty years later, the bitterness of those memories has been sweetened by the enduring justice of his cause and the respect that so many people have shown for his sacrifice. Last fall, he became only the fifth foreigner honored with an award from South Korea’s Institute for Human Rights.
“ That was the most surprising thing about winning—that so much time has passed, but there are still a lot of people in Korea who remember what we fought for,” says Ogle, seventy-four, now retired and living in suburban Atlanta.
Spurred by an interest in international relations and inspired by a visiting Korean student he had met at Duke, Ogle became a missionary for the United Methodist Church after graduating. He headed for South Korea, which was beginning to recover from its three-year war with North Korea. After a few years, he was given permission to form a specialized ministry for the country’s factory workers, who were often overworked and exposed to hazardous conditions as the government pushed rapid industrialization of the traditionally rural country.
Ogle, who grew up outside Pittsburgh, had relatives who had worked in the region’s steel mills and coal mines and was familiar with their struggles. “I carry my background with me wherever I go,” he says. “I knew the workers needed support, or they would be left out of the country’s progress.”
In the early Sixties, Ogle helped found the Urban Industrial Mission, to educate Korean workers about their rights, counsel them in negotiating union contracts, and assist their families. After several years of success, the movement was targeted by a military regime that seized control of the government in 1971.
“ They didn’t have any concept of social justice from a Christian perspective,” says Ogle, who was arrested four times for alleged Communist ties but never charged with any crime.
When eight Korean men were jailed on charges of leading a Communist conspiracy, Ogle spoke out on their behalf and called for them to receive a public, civil trial instead of a secret, military one. That stance led to arrests and, ultimately, deportation.
“ There was no way I could retreat from where I stood,” he says. The arrests frightened him, but also fueled his determination to defy injustice. “When I preached, I often saw the black jackets of the Korean CIA in the audience, which gives you a really uneasy feeling. But I felt I had to speak the truth as I knew it.”
Back in this country after the deportation—his wife and four children stayed in South Korea for three months to get their affairs in order—he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin and got a teaching position at Emory University, where he spent seven years. He then served for ten years as a Washington lobbyist for the Methodist Church on health and poverty issues and headed an interdenominational social-justice group in Illinois for five years, before retiring and moving back to Georgia to write and spend time with his grandchildren.
Ogle has written two books about life in South Korea during the twentieth century, and groups often ask him to speak about the country. He says he feels that the Korean people are better off today than when he was there, and he is gratified by the role the Urban Industrial Mission played in creating the country’s strong unions. But the growing tensions over North Korea’s nuclear activities concern him.
“ The long-range problem is that you’ve got people who have been divided into two countries by politics,” he says. “We’ve got to work with North Korea to open the country through trade and cultural exchanges. We can’t be using military threats to humble North Korea like we did Iraq. It would be disastrous for all Koreans.
“ The problems there are quite solvable if the U.S. wants to solve them.”