The 921 Earthquake was a magnitude 7.6 temblor, the epicenter of which struck Jiji (集集), Nantou County at 1:47am on Sept. 21, 1999. In all, 2,416 people were killed, more than 11,000 seriously injured and NT$300 billion (US$9.98 billion) worth of damage was done. It was the second-deadliest quake in Taiwan’s recorded history, topped only by the 1935 -Hsinchu-Taichung earthquake. Even though Taiwan is renowned for its earthquake preparedness in terms of both building construction and education, the quake caused unprecedented damage.
As news of the disaster was reported around the world, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs held talks with Taiwan’s government, which urged prompt assistance. The South Korean government dispatched an International Disaster Relief Team on the day after the uake struck. At the time, I was a deputy chief commander and had just returned from Turkey after responding to heavy earthquake activity there. Before deployment, I spent a whole day collecting information and identifying areas of major damage and access routes, without feeling stressed out after my previous duty in Turkey.
At the time, Taiwan and South Korea had a difficult relationship as a result of diplomatic issues. The US and Japan had already severed official relations with Taiwan, and to my great regret, South Korea followed suit. Many South Koreans felt deep sorrow and pain at the separation from our longstanding friends, but felt that although we left you, we would be with you forever. Since I understood the political situation, I knew dedicated humanitarian assistance was essential in order to consolidate the friendship between our two countries.
During the mission, we never sought comfort or rest, even under severe stress. We only thought of the people waiting for our help under the debris. We did our best because we believed that if we successfully rescued one person, that would give hope to the many who had lost their loved ones. Almost 84 hours after the earthquake occurred, we heard a faint sound in a collapsed building in Taichung.
A six-year-old boy, Chang Ching-hung (張景宏), was shouting to show that he was alive, but a thick wall blocked the weak voice of the exhausted youngster, who lost both parents and a younger brother in the same building. During the eight-hour-long rescue operation, there were several deadly aftershocks which caused the local authorities to flee, but we stayed with Chang, who was terrified of being left alone. As the last obstacles were removed, he finally held our arms and at that moment, our two countries became friends again in humanitarian love.
During our time in Taiwan, many people did us unforgettable favors and showed us love. Some provided us with vehicles and food to ease our operation.
Others delightfully said: “Our friend Korea is back!” and “We have resumed our lost friendship.”
After our action, the two countries quickly recovered their love and friendship, as well as economic ties.
A few weeks ago, one of the top Taekwondo fighters from Taiwan was disqualified at the Asian Games in Guangzhou and many Taiwanese felt anger and regret. Many South Koreans also felt that the incident was deplorable, and wanted to deliver their deepest condolences to their friends in Taiwan. I am sure that this will not harm the relationships between our two countries, which is based on humanitarian friendship. Instead the relationship will become stronger, in the same way that the young boy Chang, has since grown into a fine young man.