AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
Women make kimchi, a traditional fermented South Korean pungent vegetable dish, to donate to needy neighbors in preparation for the winter season during Kimchi Festival at Seoul City Hall Plaza in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 3, 2017.
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Women make kimchi, a traditional fermented South Korean pungent vegetable dish, to donate to needy neighbors in preparation for the winter season during Kimchi Festival at Seoul City Hall Plaza in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 3, 2017.

Venturing into another country’s culture is a delicate move. Just because I was a resident of South Korea for 14 months a long time ago, I won’t pretend I know everything about the little country that grew from the ashes of a brutal war in the early 1950s to become an economically-stable player on the world stage today.

The Korean War began June 25, 1950. It lasted until July 27, 1953. In that span, more than 5.7 million U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines served in the armed forces. By the time the 37-month bloodshed ended, 33,574 American GIs were killed in combat; 2,833 died in accidents or illness; and 103,284 were wounded in combat.

It was a horrible price to pay. But South Korea is a free and prosperous country today because the U.S. and its allies from United Nations countries thwarted the spread of communism. The U.S. continues to have a sizable number of troops in South Korea and in nearby Japan, prepared to resist any attempts by evildoers to spoil one of the most remarkable recoveries in world history.

But the war in Korea is not the basis for this column. Instead I’m typing words about an important piece of South Korea’s culture that I never would have imagined more than 65 years ago. My old buddies in our infantry medical unit would be astonished if they learned of my subject matter for the column.

The good people of South Korea will understand that I’m going about this mission with good intentions.

Today’s story will take you to South Korea for an imaginary meal of kimchi, a favorite food of Koreans.

I cooked up the idea while reading an article written by a New York Times reporter about South Korea’s first astronaut, when Yi Soyeon blasted off into space in a Russian spacecraft one April day years ago. The flight was launched from the same pad that sent Yuri Gagarin and Sputnik into space. The pride and joy of the South Korean people watching a 164-foot high rocket arcing into a cloudless sky was overwhelming.

This storyline may seem crazy and uninteresting to many readers, but the old soldiers from the Korean War still standing will understand because they’ll remember the South Korean people and their taste for kimchi. kimchi is made mostly with cabbage and other vegetables with a variety of seasoning, including chili peppers (I learned this from a book about it).

The New York Times reporter dutifully noted the combinations may be a good fit for consumption on Earth, but not in space. Once kimchi conquered space, the warriors of Korea likely shook their heads in disbelief.

Preparing a meal of kimchi suitable to eat in space wasn’t easy. Three top government research institutes spent millions of dollars and several years of work perfecting a version of kimchi that would not turn dangerous when exposed to cosmic rays or other forms of radiation, and would not put off non-Korean astronauts with its pungency. Russian space officials first had to approve the space for kimchi that was made available for the flight.

kimchi has been the main staple in the diet of Koreans for centuries. According to the New York Times, South Koreans consume 1.6 million tons of it a year. The key in making the dish for the space flight was to produce a bacteria-free kimchi while retaining its unique taste, color and texture.

To give you an idea of the importance of this project, a South Korean scientist began working on it well in advance of the space flight. He started with samples of kimchi provided by his mother.

I never tasted kimchi, but I was around South Korean military people and civilians enough to recognize it every time they breathed. Our modest diet in Korea came from Army cooks and field rations.

South Koreans lived a much different life during the war. Bombings, artillery shellings, fires and open field warfare put it in ruins. Families were separated from loved ones. Thousands were homeless and impoverished. The country’s infrastructure was a mess. There were no water or sewer connections. Roads, bridges, schools and hospitals were in terrible shape.

Men, women and children used triangle-shaped A-frames to transport their skimpy possessions on their backs. Women tied cloth around their waist for a make-shift baby-carrier for small children. Sewage was scooped into “honey buckets” and moved to a creek or rice paddy for disposal.

Other than kimchi, rice and fish made up most of their diet. People lived in small huts built from straw and scraps of wood.

Our small medical detachment was responsible for treating American troops, but we often devoted our efforts to the droves of South Korean folks who had health issues. This is where my buddies and I got whiffs of the spicy kimchi breath. My closest buddies — Jim Young and James Nixon — vowed they would never eat kimchi. I don’t recall taking the same pledge, but I do know rice was not on my mother’s food list when I returned home.

Medics usually accompanied the infantry patrols when they went scouting for enemy positions at night. We didn’t have night goggles back then and the patrols would inch their way along the narrow and winding dirt trails in land we didn’t know existed to try and scope out enemy positions. Sometimes the pointman got close enough to detect the smell of kimchi on North Korean troops.

It’s gratifying to see a once hapless country on the verge of falling into the hands of a ruthless communist dictatorship rise from the embers of despair and hopelessness to become a thriving nation. South Koreans are a happy bunch. They’ve hosted two Olympic Games since the devastation of war.

And kimchi conquered space. The marketing of kimchi couldn’t have found a better advertisement than a spacecraft menu. kimchi has forever bean globalized.