Friday, June 4, 2010

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.

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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".


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