Korea looks to give back to Ethiopia for Korean War service

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : May 15, 2016 - 16:47
  • Updated : May 16, 2016 - 10:51

ADDIS ABABA/BOLE -- More than 60 years ago, Kostle flew thousands of kilometers away from his homeland to fight in the Korean War while serving as a young bodyguard of then Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

Until he passed away a year ago after suffering a stroke, he vividly remembered the snowy winter during which the whole world turned sheer white, and how he had developed skills to fix telephone lines amid the chaos. In one heartwarming episode recounted to his son, he gave his rations to other hungry soldiers.

“He used to tell me that in the middle of snow, it was completely white and there was nothing you could see except the snow,” the son recalled. 

“The other thing was that there was food he couldn’t eat because he was a religious person, so he gave it to Koreans who were carrying them and they were very happy.”

Kostle was lucky enough to avoid serious injury during the conflict. Albeit not in the snow-white season, he had the chance to see Seoul again in 2010 as part of the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs’ “Revisit Korea” program for overseas veterans to mark the 60th anniversary of the war.

His son, the 26-year-old Fitsum, is currently receiving mechanic education at a vocational school jointly set up in Addis Ababa by the Korea International Cooperation Agency and the Korea Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

Vocational training 

Initiated in 2011, the project is designed to provide the offspring of Ethiopian veterans with job training based on Korean expertise and teaching materials. Its first class of 80 students took an eight-month course in Korea. Fitsum is part of the 60-strong third batch who are being trained at the Korean Veterans Juniors TVET (technical and vocational education and training) Institute located within the campus of the Entoto TVET College. The enrollees’ average age is between 26 and 27. 

Fitsum (second from right), the 26-year-old son of an Ethiopian Korean War veteran, and other automotive students take a lesson from a Korean instructor at the Korean Veterans Juniors TVET Institute jointly established in Addis Ababa by the Korea International Cooperation Agency and the Korea Chamber of Commerce & Industry. 
(Shin Hyon-hee/The Korea Herald)

After the armistice, the elite soldiers returned home. But many of them, having faced persecution under the communist regime that seized control following a coup in the 1970s, were left to live on meager incomes and insufficient treatment for their wounds.

“We started this program aiming to nurture the workforce essential for Ethiopia’s industrial development, placing priority on the descendants of those who sacrificed themselves for us,” said Choi Song-shik, chief of the Korean TVET program and a retired engineering expert from the Seoul chamber.

During a visit on May 4, the institution brimmed with the sounds of various machines and woodcraft tools across its six departments -- automotive, welding and plumbing, construction, electricity, garment and computer.

Garment students were vying with one another to make nicer skirts, while Fitsum and other automotive majors were wrestling with cylinders to prevent engine vacuum leaks of a brand new Sonata, with the support of Korean instructors, mostly retired vocational training experts.

“First I’m really interested in mechanics. Next to that, the chances were brought by the technology itself because Korean vehicles pass by everywhere,” Fitsum said, when asked why he chose auto.

“It’s helpful for everybody here to develop skills that we didn’t have before. All of us want to have better jobs, and hope perhaps to own a mechanic shop or work in a better place.”

As many students dream of opening their own business just like Fitsum, the college offers lessons on applying for state start-up funds, Choi noted, adding that the Ethiopian government provides 80 percent of the foundation costs of the approved proposals.

Throughout the one-year period excluding a two-month vacation, the trainees get a monthly allowance of $180 -- $80 is doled out in cash and the remainder deposited to be given as start-up capital upon graduation.

The school also helps students land jobs after graduation, cashing in on its academia-industry partnerships with nine local companies. 

LG partnership

In Bole, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, KOICA runs another TVET college in collaboration with electronic giant LG and World Together, a Korean nongovernment organization.

LG-KOICA Hope TVET College, which opened in November 2014, now involves 225 young Ethiopians including the children of Korean War veterans, and three exchange students as teaching assistants from Yonam Institute of Digital Technology in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province. Its curriculum includes academic studies and field training focusing on information and communications technology, electronic appliances and electrical engineering.

Biruk Ayalew, a 23-year-old electronics major, joined the school following his family’s suggestion. His father, who also served in Korea, died 20 years ago, and now his son is learning more about the country as member of a cultural exchange club. 

He regrets missing a chance to visit Korea while studying engineering at Dire Dawa University and expressed interest in Korean language and culture, as well as technological advancement.

“I know that Korea is one of the most developed countries in technology, mostly importantly LG and Samsung,” Ayalew said.

“In the future I want to know more about the technological developments in Korea, and would be extremely happy to go there for education. I wanted to join the club to learn Korean language and culture and know about the country.”

The college’s students only pay a fraction of the tuitions of other institutions but their performance has been excellent even compared with other TVETs funded by countries such as Germany, Sweden and Austria, its Dean Dereje Wondimalem said.

An average of 98.5 percent of the trainees pass national competence assessment exams, he noted, whereas the overall nationwide rate hovers at around 60 percent.

“We’re focusing on practical training, so the main aim of our college is to produce competent use of citizens which would contribute to the country’s economic development, due to the plan to transform from agriculture to industry as a whole,” Wondimalem said.

Sitra Salahadin, head of management support at Metro Plc, which distributes LG and other electronic products, said the retailer has had interns from the institution and has already given them “priority” in employment when they graduate this year.

“From the feedback that we got from our general managers of service and manufacturing, they were very well trained, advanced academically and grasped concepts very fast. (They were also) outstanding on the academic side and also (in terms of) actual training,” she added.

A ‘Korean hospital’ in Ethiopia

On May 6, an old man entered the Myungsung Christian Medical Center Hospital in Addis Ababa, donning a dark brown felt hat and camouflage field jacket with a button that showed the South Korean and Ethiopian national flags.

Lefargachew Abebe, an 86-year-old Korean War veteran, appeared robust and high-spirited despite leaning on a walking stick, as he awaited a free checkup alongside his old battlefield comrades, Legase Gelagle, 89, and Tefera Negussie, 8

Lefargachew Abebe, an 86-year-old Korean War veteran, receives a checkup at the Myungsung Christian Medical Center Hospital in Addis Ababa on May 6. (Yonhap)

Since its 2004 launch, the institution has been providing them with complimentary treatment and a 50 percent discount for their wives, benefiting some 1,200 every year.

Abebe, who was dispatched in 1953, had had his bronchial tubes weakened due to his copious intake of explosive powder, however he did not sustain any critical wounds in the war.

“There was a grenade and rifle attack. I underwent surgeries there to take out the fragments from my face,” he said.

“The Korean government and people are paying back. I’ve been treated for free. Because of the treatment, I’m alive today. Korea is paying back.”

Negussie said he was also in Korea from 1954 to shore up reconstruction work, and revisited the country in 2004 upon a government invitation.

Across the East African country, 246 Korean War veterans remain alive. Many of them come to the clinic when they are sick and for checkups.

In a city of nearly 3.4 million with growing medical needs, the institution rose to fame for its top quality service and medical school. Ordinary citizens and taxi drivers quickly recognized it as the “Korean hospital.”

The medical school, in particular, marks the church’s efforts to not only honor the Ethiopians’ service and give back but also prop up their capabilities to cultivate medical personnel and run the hospital.

Yet it faces a series of challenges ranging from a shortage of medical supplies and other budgetary issues to a regulatory complication that requires the hospital to pay taxes for medical relief spending, rather than ensuring tax incentives.

“We will hand it over to the country once they are ready and capable, probably between 2030 and 2050. The decision should hinge much on the medical college graduates, whether they can play their parts, which is why we put priority on education,” said Kim Chul-soo, chief executive and an obstetrics and gynecology specialist at the MCM.

“We spend nearly 100 million won ($85,400) every year treating the veteran families without charge but there’s a rising demand for further discounts as they grow older. It’s regretful that we’ve almost reached our limits … I just wish we could.”

By Shin Hyon-hee, Korea Herald correspondent (