Wednesday, June 30, 2010

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.

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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.


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