Wednesday, June 30, 2010 0 comments

Book Review: Korea's 1884 Incident: Its Background and Ok-kyun's Dream

Title: Korea's 1884 Incident: Its Background and Ok-kyun's Dream
Author: Harold F. Cook
Softcover: 264 pages
Publisher: Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch (January 1, 1982)
ISBN-10: 8993699089
ISBN-13: 978-8993699081

The late Harold Cook did the Korean academic world a favor with his painstakingly detailed monograph surrounding the 1884 coup d'état known as the Gapshin Coup. Not betraying its 1972 original pressing, this gem of a book continues to enlighten, educate and inform its readers decades later after its first publication.

Born into an influential family linage at a time when their collective power was well into decline, Kim passed the high civil service exam with flying colors at the age of 22, an impressive feat for the time. A promising career ahead of him combined with close personal contact with King Kojong and a disillusionment with the rising conservative party primarily consisting of members of the Yeoheung Min family, Kim became one of Korea's foremost reformists. His dream consisted of several country-wide changes including autonomy from China and embracing open foreign trade. Kim and others felt that this could be achieved by selective Japanese assistance. This dream was secretly shared by others and manifested itself into a lofty plot that resulted in a three day failed turnover that, following the murder of prominent officials, prompted Chinese military intervention. After its failure, Kim fled to Japan.

Throughout the text, subtle hints at true leadership, if not shared leadership, of the plot's framers are supported by several sources indicating that while Kim Okkyun certainly had a role, and quite a big role, his was not likely the source of sole leadership. Park Young Hyo (朴泳孝), Hong Young Shik (洪英植), Inoue Kaoru (井上馨) and others also had their vitally prominent roles that were arguably more important than Kim's. Those looking for an insight into what Kim and his cohorts did prior to the attempted turnover will be happy to know that his visits to Japan prior to the plot were adequately documented.

Cook compiled the contents of the book from a number of English, Korean and Japanese language sources. Needless to say, this was done prior to the internet age and should be taken in such repected context. Remember that his research was limited to whatever he could personally find in libraries and thus didn't benefit from modern digital categorization as well as subsequent files discovered since original publishing. Therefore, historical inaccuracies are bound to appear in such older texts. Cook was thorough enough to chronologically arrange the story around his own objectively accurate commentary and conjecture. Humble in his conclusions and gracious in his admissions at being at a loss for solid evidence at times are among his more admirable traits. Furthermore, his writing style gently prompts the reader to draw conclusions that may or may not agree with his disposition; something that I find especially refreshing.

Unfortunately, it's not as smooth a read as one would hope for. The level of detail in the weeks and days before the December 4th plot feels drawn out and sluggish to this reader. He also builds up the plot's preparation but leaves the actual plot's sequence of events and immediate consequences surprisingly not well covered. One might finish the book asking if there was an additional chapter missing. His presentation of this tantalizing story is sweetened to almost enormous detail that it might actually scare off the casual reader; which is a shame because the story is one to share with the world. What's important, though, is that Cook presents a story that, while sometimes hard to follow due to the large cast of characters and their intricate power struggle for control over the promising hermit kingdom, is both fascinating and appealing still to a modern audience. However, lacking in any illustrations whatsoever, the occasional grammatical error, too, is undemandingly forgivable.

For what it is, it's good. Not great, but most definitely not bad. This book presents an English-speaking audience with a stunning biography and delves into one of the turning points in Korean political history. For that, it certainly succeeds. For the casual history enthusiast, it is missing in detail of the good stuff but has plenty of the stuff that you might not care about. The appendixes help to make up for these shortcomings by filling in some questions readers might have such as seating arrangement at the post office dinner party and the new government's proposed first order of business. Take it for what it is. Slightly disappointed, I can at least walk away feeling a bit more informed.

- - -

김옥균 was a bad writer. Not because he compiled his apologetic "Journal of 1884" after the fact whilst hiding in Japan and not because he wasn't a learned man; he most certainly was. He was a bad writer because he left no daily diary during which most conjecture is being made in modern times. Bad reformist. Bad.

When we're gone, how will history remember us? A great way historians determine the thought process behind a person of historical interest are by primary sources such as a journals and diaries. Okkyun left no such authentic thing. Therefore, we are left to assume on many aspects of his life. Cook did what he could with what he had at the time and produced a work that does his legacy proud. I look forward to reading his book on Walter Townsend.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010 0 comments

June Link Dump

Complicated Currents: Media Flows, soft Power and East Asia (edited by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita) is online for free. Good reading.

- Michael's Breen walks us through the 13-month-long Second Republic. A great writeup.

- How does one exactly talk about a non-traditional family in Korean? Asadal Thought candidly shares his experiences.

- What gives? I'm still waiting for a part four of ROK Drop's fascinating look at Korea's ghost airports. To be fair though, a fourth installment was never actually promised....but still... Read Parts I, II, III on your own or to get an idea of what's going on, BBC has a short video about the curiously abandoned airports.

- Laura and Lisa Ling's book is out.

- In more important news, AAK has an excellent primer for what's going on with this whole sinking of the ROKS Cheonan.

- Matt over at Gusts has some good stuff about Korea during the Japanese protectorate period.

- China unearths more Terracotta Army soldiers. Any luck of getting inside Qin Shi Huang's tomb anytime soon?

- Hye Cho's travel journal is going on display.

- China admits North Korea started the Korean War. Am I wrong in thinking that 이승만 was preparing to invade?

- The Colosseum is opening up the gladiator's waiting pit for the first time for the public. Good to know seeing as how the outside is falling apart.

- A well preserved shoe older than Stonehenge was found buried in sheep poo in Armenia. Great archeological find with a great photo.

- Amelia Earhart might have survived for months on a desert island.
Monday, June 28, 2010 1 comments

Words I don't know and other writing woes

Writing is an entire language of its own. There's beauty to be found in a few written phrases over the cacophony of spoken word. However, I'm not a phenomenal writer despite a short, illustrious and unpaid career as a blog writer. Oh the trailblazers who write for free. However, I dream of a world outside the electronic realm of publishing. I long for a collection of words bounded and printed on the deceased flesh of a dozen bleached and pressed infant trees. I want to cherish my name which has been carefully crafted upon the binding which contains stories of the past all contained in the comfort of thinly sliced bark that I ordered to be slaughtered. Yes, a relic of my upbringing, I dream of writing a book. Realistically, to receive the recognition required for a ragamuffin of my rank, I must resolve to remedy and remove reins that restrain my resounding rapport for writing about the past. That last verb counts too, right?

See? There's the problem. I get going and then I unexpectedly run into a wall. Call it a lack of functioning vocabulary but sometimes I'm searching for a word that just might not be in my head. I try not to let it get me down but it's frustrating to find myself recycling the same words. Thankfully, I seem to have some obtainable options.

There's lots of good tips out there but what I hear most from writers that I personally respect is two major tips 1) just write and 2) keep good footnotes. DailyWritingTips also has a great  many resources written in layman's terms that any writer person would benefit from. Tips include basics that I should remember but don't like how  to properly write numbers and what does [sic] mean to middle-of-the-road problems like redundancies  and even a great Latin  prefix and suffix primer for those that care.

To be a better reader, I take notes and write all over my books when I read. I underline with a pencil, write references and questions in the side margin and occasionally write a few cuss words in the header. From time to time, I come across words or events that I don't recognize. In which case, I flip to the front page before the title and make a note if the page and title of the event. Therefore, most of my books have really ugly inside cover pages. I also write down any new words in English that I am unfamiliar with or, more commonly, that I've heard, I kind of understand but would be hard pressed to produce on my own in my own work. I am a little hesitant to admit the following words but I suppose we all have room for improvement; that's just what I'm telling myself when I feel your judgmental stare at the screen. The following list is from the insides of as many books I can find laying around:

persona non grata
mea culpa
ad valorem
and my personal favorite out of the bunch: verisimilitude

First step: find an opportunity to use gauche in a sentence.
Next step: look up "gauche" in the dictionary.
Friday, June 4, 2010 0 comments

Book Review: The Foreign Destruction of Korean Independence

Title: The Foreign Destruction of Korean Independence
Author: Carole Cameron Shaw
Hardcover: 315 pages
Publisher: Seoul National University Press (April 25, 2007)
ISBN-10: 8952107705
ISBN-13: 978-8952107701

One can't help but raise an eyebrow simply over the title of this project published from decades-long respected member of Korea's foreign community Carole Cameron Shaw. A few pages into the first chapter reveals a particularly developed voice that possesses an alarming amount of indignation directed at American indifference in the events leading up to the Japanese colonization of Korea. The title alone will catch your attention but is it enough to keep you interested till the end?

A truly intricate dance of characters, the lengthy cast includes President Theodore Roosevelt, Korean Emperor Kojong, Secretary of State Elihu Root, Scholar-Diplomat William Woodville Rockhill, Japanese Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi, American Ambassador Edwin Morgan and missionary-turned-journalist Homer Hulbert among others including John Hay, Horace Newton Allen, George Kennan and Durham W. Stevens. Each played his part in the events that led up to the Treaty of Portsmouth, subsequent Eulsa Treaty and eventual colonization of Korea by the hand of Japan five years later. Each had a side to belong to; essentially one pro-Japanese and the other pro-Korean. While some stuck to their guns, others wavered in their opinions; still others failed to come out of the whole ordeal alive. The events these individuals played out beg the reader to question one of many things. For example, didn't Korea have twenty-plus years of internationally recognized independence prior to Japanese occupation? Why did Japan display such keen interest in Korea's development?

Chinese and especially Russian checking of power comes to mind. A possible takeover of Korea from supposed land-hungry Russia could threaten Japanese expansionism. Although we will never exactly know what may have unfolded had no one intervened, Shaw dutifully points out that Korea might have dealt with any upset in the balance of power in her own terms. Present-day historians continue to debate the significance of Kojong's self-imposed set of sweeping modernizations known as the Gwangmu Reform and whether they would have been enough to modernize the country without Japanese intervention. Shaw touches on this subject but spends an extensive amount of time demonstrating America's major players' indifference to Korean issues in the name of illegally improving relations with Japan. Consistent themes include America's lack of diplomatic action, Roosevelt and company's apathy for all things Korean and deliberate violations of the U.S. Constitution.

The almost cynical narration continues throughout the book and occasionally emerges seemingly louder than before where logic and fact would fit far better. Those with varying levels of interest in Korean history may perhaps question the book's validity simply based on the writing style and the far-too numerous questionable wordings such as " would soon dawn on him (Kojong) that Miss Roosevelt's visit was a trick among many, to disguise America's true intentions towards her old friend (p.143)" and "Of course Roosevelt knew this, and his refusal to meet with Hulbert can only be characterized as cowardly (p.172)". Statements like these hurt Shaw's argument not because they are factual inaccurate but because they beg for objective balance. The whole text just feels way too one-sided for anyone's benefit.

The book does contain plenty of redeeming material such as a fantastic English bibliography of personal correspondence by not just ambassadors and statesmen but also to and from President Roosevelt and a detailed account of events from 1882-1908 including the second Hague Peace Conference. Curiously though, the famous assassinations of Stevens and Hirobumi are only but briefly covered. There's also a decidedly lack of non-English language sources. However, if nothing else, the book's against-the-grain approach takes on a different perspective that might have gone unnoticed. Indeed, historical apologists seeped in Japanese doctrine have written unflattering tales of King Kojong and the corrupted yangban for their faults in driving Korea into lax submission to the Eastern emerging superpower known as the Empire of Japan. This book tells a very different story of a Emperor trying everything in his power to save his kingdom but is ultimately betrayed from neighbor to the East for her lies and deception but moreso from her ally across the ocean for just sitting and watching as the Korean voice is forever silenced.

Shaw's rather outspoken opinion can conveniently be summed up in one sentence lifted from the last chapter: "I would assert that under these clearly defined principles the burden of guilt rests upon President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Elihu Root, for entering into a fraudulent arrangement with the Japanese Government to look the other way while ill-conceived, illegal and hastily constructed statements were prepared under the guise of a legal protocol or treaty, to effect a military and violent takeover of a sovereign state to whom the Senate had pledged its good faith and perpetual friendship in 1882 (p.278)".

In summation, The Foreign Destruction of Korean Independence is worth your time as it reads quickly and entices enough to make you want to delve deeper; a good quality for a book to have, especially considering the subject. Despite its scoff-inducing knack for emotional flair, the book is backed by more than decent research. Ultimately, the book likens itself to American filmmaker Michael Moore; while thought-provoking and occasionally entertaining, it is clearly armed to the teeth with a specific agenda. Thankfully, a few objective pieces of information can be sifted through the finger-pointing and sensationalist rhetoric. I applaud Shaw for her research, writing and development of the book in hopes of paving the way for more in the future. I suppose if Shaw's intention was to get people to talking about the subject, then I say mission well accomplished.

- - -

I'm treading lightly here and I know it. Shaw spent a considerably huge amount of her life in Korea; it's hard to simply trash any author's work based on my own difference in interpretation; especially an author that spent ten years delving into a piece of Korean and American history that is little more than brushed under the proverbial rug of our collective subconscious. That being said, I maintain that her book is far from objective. It's borderline anti-American sensationalistic gossip wrapped in Korean nationalistic propaganda. For another review's opinion, members of the Association of Asian Studies can access one of the back issues of JAS that features a review by Eugene Y. Park. Search for "The Journal of Asian Studies (2008), 67:331-333 Cambridge University Press".