Wednesday, July 28, 2010 1 comments

Book Review: Syngman Rhee: The Prison Years of a Young Radical

Title: Syngman Rhee: The Prison Years of a Young Radical
Author: Chong-Sik Lee
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Yonsei University Press (May 2001)
ISBN-10: 8971415363*

This pleasantly surprising text about the early life of Korea's first president is everything it claims to be and much more. Instantly readable for a wide audience, Professor Lee beautifully weaves Rhee's story into world happenings of the time with brilliance. In addition to providing a personal look at Syngman Rhee's budding career in journalism, the book delves into the lives of prominent figures around young Rhee including King Kojong, Yun Ch'i-ho and Seo Jae-pil. The author fills in some blanks left by other notable biographers on the fascinating backstory on one of the most complex politicians in modern history.

In essence, the book follows Rhee's early childhood education and finishes on his trip across the Pacific Ocean to start his formal education in America. As the book's title suggests, though, the bulk of the content surrounds his five year, seven month-long life in prison dating from January 9th 1899 to August 7th 1904. However, we also get to see sufficient progress he made as a student of the English language as well as a writer for progressive-orientated publications. Considering his yangban upbringing and remarkably impressive strides made as a boy studying classical Chinese, Rhee's time in prison, including his conversion to Christianity and numerous self-imposed writing projects like an English-Korean dictionary, was productive. His undeniable fame in his mid-twenties was enough to grant him plenty notoriety. Such a man of this caliber simply did not exist in Korea elsewhere at the time save for the aforementioned Yun Ch'i-ho or Seo Jae-pil. Rhee's story is done justice here.

Quite refreshing is the author's tendency to provide meaty footnotes for nearly every page. Also noteworthy is Professor Lee's candid admission of Rhee's hot-headed nature and his painfully naive early viewpoint of Japan and her intentions with Korea as well as Lymon Abbott-inspired Christian doctrine. Despite Rhee's final legacy being that of disgrace and shame preceding nation-wide protests, his early career is objectively covered.

What does stick out as possible faults to this otherwise unblemished book is its obvious short length and a predictably negative interpretation of King Kojong's legacy. Suitable examples of Kojong-bashing include a comment on the space of time between the Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War: "Through his diabolical ignorance and stupidity, Korea's ruler had idled away the precious decade reducing it to no more than a prize to be plucked by the victor" (p.82). However, when considering that the book's subject was a staunch independent activist bitterly angered by a corrupt, rotting government that not only squandered a centuries-old dynasty by financial mismanagement and domestic complacency but also fell victim to foreign dependence and eventual forced colonization. Of course, this is also the same government that was responsible for his extended incarceration. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the author supports Rhee's own disdainful thoughts on Korea's king: "Rhee regarded Kojong to be 'one of the weakest and most cowardly emperors of a 4,200-year old succession of sovereigns.' The record of his reign speaks for itself" (p.115).

Overall the book is one to pick up for anyone with an interest in either the beginnings of the Korean presidency or Korea's early modern time period. For the story it has to tell, it's certainly worth picking up regardless of Rhee's debatable legacy. What's most important to note is how closely Rhee's life story follows Korea and her struggle for independence from foreign powers. For that, it's a no-brainer. If you can find it, buy it.

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* For one reason or another, this book's ISBN gets confused with the 1983 reprint of Underwood of Korea. Not sure what's going on with it but even Amazon's got a mess of a listing for the book. Perhaps the problem lies with the publisher.

Having only a relatively minimal knowledge of the Korean presidency I can say that this book answered a lot of questions I had about 이승만 as an activist. Moreso, it has has piqued more interest about his life. I suppose it's the stark contrast from his upbringing, education and goal only to have to dishonorably step down from a dream position for gross unethical conduct and all around political tyranny. I was also intrigued to read that Seo Jae-pil served as a kind of role model for young Rhee. Must follow up on this one.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010 1 comments

Book Review: The Five Years' Crisis, 1866-1871: Korea in the Maelstrom of Western Imperialism

Title: The Five Years' Crisis, 1866-1871: Korea in the Maelstrom of Western Imperialism
Author: Yongkoo Kim
Hardcover: 170 pages
Publisher: University of Hawaii Press (November 25, 2001)
ISBN-10: 8989443016
ISBN-13: 978-8989443018

With a name like that, how can it not be a lopsided look at the opening of Korea? Despite a well-meaning disclaimer that the author "...has tried to maintain a balanced view on this unfortunate period in history by guarding against chauvinistic interpretations of Korean diplomatic history that impute all the mishaps to foreign powers, as well as against so-called colonial versions which deny the autonomous capabilities of the Korean people" this brisk 170 page book falls flat on its bold claim as is about as unbalanced as it could be in such a small amount of space. Not that early encounters with Korea from Western powers weren't decidedly all from unsavory people relatively unrepresentative of their respective countrymen in general, the book clearly takes a defensive and anti-foreign stance against foreign interaction. Earliest examples include the persecution of Catholics which prompted French intervention in 1866.

Don't let the subjectivity of the writing to lead you to think that the book isn't worth your time because it most certainly is. It's a concise read full of embedded translations of proper nouns into 한자, helpful notations and good footnotes. In its original form, the book was the first chapter of a much larger Korean language work titled "세계관 충돌과 한말외교사 1866-1882". In the current English language form, it's just enough to entice interest and provide an excellent primer for the events surrounding the eventual opening of Korea. It's a bit lacking in some details such as the details of the Oppert incident. However, regarding the curiously inept Oppert, we do learn that "Once again, the Korean government was assaulted by international predatory imperialism." (p.90) and that "this extraordinary incident was planned by hooligans who dreamt of making a fortune at one stroke, their financial backers who willingly bankrolled these hooligans, and a corrupt Catholic priest." (p.91) While I can't say that Ernst Oppert was anything less than a naive would-be thief, the rest of the book follows this slanted viewpoint hinting of piracy, nativity and western ethnocentrism. For some cases, this prejudice is warranted but it's a bit gratuitous to paint events past as a whole in this color.

Despite the obvious nationalistic stance, the book does have other minor flaws. The most curious of which is the indiscriminate abbreviation for all Western first names. For example Father Stanislas Feron reads as S. Feron. This pattern seems to be almost uniform regardless of each person's historical preference or title. The other minor issue regards another abbreviation this time in the footnote section. Supposedly long winded titles like British Documents of Foreign Affairs are reduced to BDFA possibly to save space. It's purpose is clearly lost on this reader because after each footnote, I'm left with no other choice than to return to the beginning of the book for the code breaking abbreviation guide. Hurray for brevity.

However, as far as where it counts, I feel this book, while lacking in length, stands up as credible. Professor Kim poignantly claims that "it was because of this [Oppert grave robbing] incident more than any others that the Korean government further sequestered itself from the Western world." (p.91) which I feel is more historically relevant than the usual finger-pointing inciting occurrence of the General Sherman. Furthermore, the author's inclusion of French and American sources including private letters should help give credibility to the man's work as it is indeed a well-researched book despite a few literary slaps in the Western face from time to time. It's got the content where it matters and the biasedness is easy enough to spot.

Professor Kim has produced a very readable English translation of his 2001 Korean work "세계관 충돌과 한말외교사 1866-1882" albeit in peacemeal form. It's inviting enough to pick up the second installment hinted in the conclusion of the first book; tentatively titled The Kyorin Order and Korea but was actually published as Korea and Japan: The Clash of Worldviews, 1868-1876 six years later. With the first installment's 15 dollar price tag and somewhat disappointingly lack of detail, even the extraordinarily helpful appendixes, glossary lists, Hanja-to-English definitions, world timelines and such make this one a toss-up. I'm glad I read it but you might want to spend your money elsewhere if the subject isn't your thing.

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Courtesy of Robert Neff, we recently were granted an up-close look at the grave robbery site in its present day form as well as a more fleshed out back story of the players involved.  For more on the incident and Oppert, the somewhat dated yet still accessible Korean History Project has a nice writeup. I look forward to getting into the next book.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010 0 comments

Book Review: Korea Bug: The best of the zine that infected a nation

Title: Korea Bug: The best of the zine that infected a nation
Editor: J. Scott Burgeson
Softcover: 374 pages
Publisher: EunHaeng NaMu; 1st edition (September 8, 2005)
ISBN-10: 8956601097
ISBN-13: 978-8956601090

Too much hype and not enough substance. The curiously titled compilation of the best articles from the author's self-published zine that supposedly infected a nation largely lets down despite claims of being representative of the underground expatriate community. What the almost four hundred page long book amounts to is being mainly a collection of translated interviews with albeit interesting people in Korea though it lacks a certain credible charm.

Granted, the source material for the book is rather dated, much clocking in at over ten years since originally published, yet the interviews still hold some insight into admittingly rarely untouched realms of published content. Burgeson should also be held in high regard for being a good writer, which he most certainly is despite the bulk of the book being essentially a transcription of taped interviews. Also worth prasing is the book's meaty introduction most of all for its fascinating and amazingly detailed look into the history of zines in Korea. Lots of good history to be found which he admirably and thoroughly covers with careful attention.

However, the occasional personal references to drug use and the like are off-putting and distracting. Burgeson also comes off as surprisingly old hat in his discontent for the internet and its new wave of expats who self publish effortlessly on blogs and forums. A trailblazer like himself would seemingly welcome the new addition of expat writers to the scene if not it threatened by his own niche on writing about Korea, it seems.

Bug is a decent read worthy of a quick glance at best. For those who care, his best form is found in his ability to research, dissect and write about obscure topics in a delightfully deadpan manner. However, having had read the best of his old zine, I don't feel like I've missed much of the rest. Taken with a grain of salt, it's an alright read at best. Frankly, I've seen better on blogs.

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As much it seems I'm ripping apart this final project of a seemingly long dead zine, I don't mean to say that it's garbage; it's just not this mind blowingly infectious like the back of the book praises leads it on to be. Perhaps I'm one for humility but then again maybe his style just rubs me the wrong way. How else am I supposed to revere the musings of a guy who hocked the original source material on the streets of 인사동 and smoked pot with the best of them? Maybe I got the guy wrong but such candidness seems inappropriate; but then again, maybe writing about irreverence is what the author intended and perhaps therein lies the appeal. Actually, I'm pretty sure that is his angle and for that, he plays the angle quite well.

I will say that while his introduction might be a bit longer for other readers' tastes, I found it to be very agreeable. Of course, it's about a topic that very much interests me so objectivity be damned. Burgeson's guided tour into short lived self-published zines put out by Peace Corps volunteers is surely nostalgic for those who remember such times. Burgeson truly is a good writer; something that no casual but negatively inclined book review can deny. This is especially true of his first chapter exposing five strange books written about Korea by "honkies". A job well done in combining truly perplexing books and cleverly aimed commentary.

As mentioned in the review, his glaring weaknesses outshine the possible informative and entertaining writing style. Of course, seeing as how this review is written electronically on a blog, I have a natural biasedness towards embracing the internet and blogs in particular. However, I do acknowledge that internet anonymity will likely never take over the centuries-long tradition of written print, but that's exactly my point. Electronic media is still in relative infancy and thus to do anything but at least recognize it for its potential and future is to be automatically labeled as old school. I have no false notions that the iPhone, Kindle or Blogger writing platform will replace the feel and respectability of a hardbound text anytime soon but the future is uncertain. What can be said for sure already is that self published print zines are a dying, if not already, dead media along with more resource laden and ad revenue-driven magazines who haven't adopted or adapted to an electronic delivery business plan. But then again, perhaps I'm jumping the gun a bit. After all, the book that I just got around to reading was published five years ago.

Just my two cents. Having never met the guy, I can't really say I understand where he's coming from but I do commend him for having pursued something that he believed strongly in. If only my Korean was good to read his newest publication 대한민국 사용후기, I could get a better look at the author's intent. For what it's worth, the man seems to be able to balance quirky controversy and witty intellect with the best of them as evidenced by his promotional video. Whether it's your style of humor or not, I get the distinct feeling that Burgeson's got tough skin and is plenty happy with his work.
Saturday, July 17, 2010 0 comments

July Link Dump

- the U.S. Capital Building is deteriorating. Anyone have 216 million to spare?

- Coinciding with reading a great memoir, here's the Underwood house that was bombed.

- A great piece on Namdaemoon's reconstruction.

- Treason? Interpretors? Frogs stuck in wells? Count me in.

- AAK's got a guest post about the 1997 IMF Crisis. I attempted the same subject a while back.

- Nixon wasn't the only one thinking about nuking North Korea apparently. Remember how tense it was back in 1994?

- So, let me get this straight: laughably low salary and tragically high suicide rate? why on earth would anyone want to be a Korean celebrity is beyond me.

- The news in Korea this month is depressing as all get out. Proof in English here and here and here.

- Japan might be doing something to compensate Korean forced laborers. Might.

- Floodwaters got you down? Song dynasty China fixed that problem a while back.

- Korea's Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has closed the book on the 노근리 incident it seems. I think we can all agree regardless of who is to be blamed, it was a tragedy.
Monday, July 12, 2010 0 comments

Book Review: Korea in war, revolution and peace: The recollections of Horace G. Underwood

Title: Korea in war, revolution and peace: The recollections of Horace G. Underwood
Editor: Michael J. Devine
Hardcover: 370 pages
Publisher: Yonsei University Press (2001)
ISBN-10: 8971415622
ISBN-13: 978-8971415627

The personal recollection of the grandson of easily one of the most famous foreigners in Korea, this memoir contains his own personal accounts of all the major events surrounding his equally famous life. Absorbing and easy to read, Underwood's family history hardly needs any introduction outside of Korea. Originally published in 2001, just three years before the author's passing, H.G. Underwood and Michael Devine sat down to finalize a collection of audio interviews, email correspondence, and privately published childhood recollections that have coalesced to the publication that can be found today. The third of out four generations of Underwoods to be named Horace, H.G. Underwood lived a most fascinating and fulfilling life fit for any Hollywood movie script. From his precociously innocent upbringing as a mischievous child in Seoul to his teenage life on furlough in the States for high school and college, his astoundingly well-rounded career in the Navy and subsequent vital contribution to translations and peace negotiations during the Korean War, to heading one of Korea's most prestigious private universities, H.G. Underwood did us all a favor by writing his memoirs. Devine surely should be applauded for spearheading the editing process.

As discussed in the introduction, the Underwood family isn't exactly the most creative or original in terms of naming of children. First up on the table is the author's place in the hard to follow Underwood family tree. Horace Grant Underwood (1859-1916), grandfather to the author, was among one of the first Protestant missionaries to come to Korea in 1855. His only son Horace Horton Underwood (1890–1951) was also involved in missionary and educational work, especially with Yonhi University, predecessor to Yonsei. The oldest of five children, Horace Grant Underwood III (1917–2004) shares his legacy as in countless ways including translator, negotiator and educator and was an avid boat and ship enthusiast. Frustratingly enough, the oldest of the author's own three children, is also, yes, no joke, named Horace Horton Underwood (1943- ) and was also a Yonsei English professor as well as a successful business consultant. It should be said that of course there are members of the Underwood family that don't fit the predictably cookie cutter naming convention but the ones that are named Horace are the most difficult to trace in common conversation. Not to mention that the eldest Horace also interacted with former missionary turned businessman and politician Horace Newton Allen (1858 - 1932). It's easy to get your Horaces mixed up.

Without delving too much into detail, H.G. Underwood's story is mildly uninteresting in the beginning and end and is delightfully detailed and fascinating in the middle. His life was full distinct prestige but he wrote quite humbly which as a reader, I appreciate. Sprinkled throughout are thoughtfully placed photos enhancing the fireside chat style of his tales. Oratorically moving, his prose is concisely to the point and leaves little room for bird walking. His attention to fine detail combats the curiously high number of minor spacing and marking errors present.

I encourage those who have heard of the Underwood family but are a bit confused as to who did exactly what in Korea when and where to pick up this book. Through this memoir, a good footing can be grasped to better understand this immensely influential family and their achievements. If for nothing else, it follows a unique perspective trace of Korean history from the end of Japanese colonization to modernization and everything in between. It's well worth your time.

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Ever since reading his awe inspiring contribution in the final chapter of Richard Harris' Faces of Korea, I have been interested in the Underwood family and H.G. Underwood in particular. His memoir was refreshing to discover and I can't help but hope that other pillars of the foreign community follow suit and publish their own memoirs. Those needing another reason to pick up this book can read a light but glowing review by longtime Duke physics professor M.Y. Han.

H.G. Underwood's funeral was one to notice for Koreans let alone the foreign community. After reading, I can't help but be even more curious as to why the Underwood family left Korea. Anyone caring to fill me in out of my own personal curiosity is encouraged. It didn't have anything to do with 양화진 by any chance, did it? Was it a decision made without hard feelings?
Friday, July 2, 2010 0 comments

2010 RAS Garden Party

The Royal Asiatic Society - Korea Branch annually holds a garden party alternatingly at the American and British Ambassador's residence. This year's meet-and-greet at the American residence featured an entertaining yet surprisingly short traditional Korean musical performance from a group whose name I didn't catch as well as the annual RAS book sale. A historical site of its own, Ambassador Stephens' residence, known as the Habib House, is located just behind 덕수궁's back gate.

The original house long demolished, the property that housed that housed the original American legation was purchased in 1884 by Lucius Foote for approximately $2,200 at a time when his annual salary was but only $5,000. The American legation whose famous low ceilings caused understandable discomfort to six foot plus tall Horace Allen. Decades later during the Korean War, the grounds were occupied by North Korean forces in 1950. Despite enemy presence, surprisingly not a single item was reported to have been stolen. Years after the war, due to its age, countless add-ons and general poor upkeep, there was only so much dried mud that could hold up the building. Then current Ambassador Philip Habib insisted that a new building be built in the traditional Korean style. Completed in 1976, the house that stands today was never inhabited by the man who oversaw its inception. The house was dedicated in Habib's honor upon his death in 1992. The plot of land that houses the Habib House has many more stories to tell; some of which that I am butchering now. I encourage those who have access to either visit it one day or research it.

Finding the way-too-nice-to-be-an-ambassador's-residence was painless and after being greeted by the friendly security guards, a serene locale is discovered amongst downtown Seoul's depressingly numerous concrete block buildings. A true oasis in the desert, the Habib House is one of many spectacular views on the premises.

Shaking hands with people that are way out of my league and certainly more distinguished than I felt both surreal and pleasant. Some in atterndence were young ones like myself and others are complete rockstars in my world in terms of books written, lectures taught and decades spent studying and teaching Korea and her history. Makgeolli flowed lightly but steadily as the early evening fortunately moved on rain-free. I regret that I didn't take enough pictures but it was a predictably entertaining get-together. Other than buying way too many books from the book sale as I did, the event was free of charge to members; nice considering the locale, catering and spirits. If you didn't go, you missed out.