Friday, May 14, 2010

Book Review: Korea Witness

Title: Korea Witness
Editors: Don Kirk, Sang-Hun Choe
Softcover: 472 pages
Publisher: EunHaeng NaMu; 1st edition (June 2, 2006)
ISBN-10: 8956601550
ISBN-13: 978-8956601557

The archetypal image I have for foreign correspondents isn't exactly flattering nor is it accurate. For that matter, it's not even of flesh and blood. It's a stock news reporting character from The Simpsons. No, not everyone's beloved Kent Brockman or even that guy with the poofy black hair who reported that pork prices began to rise in early trading. No, I'm referring to the skinny guy who dishevely dons a drab 1940s style suit and brown fedora. You might remember that he was with Bart when Blinky, the three-eyed fish, was discovered in the polluted waters downstream of the nuclear power plant. Although he has only appeared in the long-running TV series less a handful of times, you might have an image of him. Then again, you might not. His name, while completely forgettable, was actually Dave Shutton and he writes for the Springfield Shopper. I make this reference because like real foreign correspondents in Korea, their names may not be familiar to you at all but their presence and stories surely have captivated you. Korea Witness is a collection of dozens of stories of how these pioneers of their field got their scoops as well as the trails and tribulations associated with reporting the news in Korea.

Chronologically arranged, this book spans the careers of several generations of journalists and their careers involving Korea and its foreign press. Stories from parachute journalists based in Tokyo and English speaking Koreans working for foreign presses share their fascinating and surprisingly shocking stories from their time. From meeting other hacks, dodging Korean war bullets and bombs, interviewing CEOs in Japanese, rubbing elbows with Korean presidents, dangerously sneaking into the Gwangju student-led powder keg, pre-email era dictating horrors, enduring death threats and surviving tear gas assaults, these men (and one Pulitzer prize winning woman) have earned their right to call themselves journalists. Their stories are just as dynamic as any Hollywood movie.

The book design is non-distractingly pleasing and thoughtfully laid out. The plentiful amount of photos embedded are often breathtaking in their own right and certainly compliment the attached article. Cleanly laid out at the end of each entry is a short summary of the author which is footnoted to help fill in certain biographical details that might help the reader better understand the author's relationship with Korea. The editors have accepted works from a wide range of writers and the book is all the better for it.

However, one early chapter about Japanese correspondents in particular feels like a rough draft of what could have been a memorable story. There's not else much to criticize other than the comparatively small amount of non-Caucasian American male voices to be heard but that's likely indicative of both the language of the book and the likely small ratio of European, Chinese and Japanese correspondents of the time.

Korea Witness is an smooth and entertaining read. If not limited in scope, it tells of a war-torn, post-Liberation, economic miracle, Olympic hosting, economic collapsing, technology exporting powerhouse that, through the eyes of the foreign press, have plenty of stories to tell. This book sums up those stories quite nicely.

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Respectfully disagreeing with Ask A Korean's ambivalence towards English language resources on Korea, these trailblazers did their job admirably and in my opinion contributed immensely to the world's understanding of Korea. Not only did it raise my awareness of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club (SFCC), but it really put some human perspective on certain events. The first hand accounts of surviving a Korean war bomb, investigating No Gun Ri, and the tragic death of 육영수 are worth the price of the book alone. Plus its got the Neff. You can't really go wrong with this one.


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