Korea Witness: 135 Years of War, Crisis and News in the Land of the Morning Calm
(EunHaengNaMu, Seoul, 2006)
A tribute to the many foreign correspondents who have worked in Seoul, this book celebrates 50 years of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club.
The book starts with one of the first mentions of Korea in the Western press: that august organ, the Ohio Repository, on 13 May 1824. Korea is a land of extreme exoticism:
A living mermaid, caught in the sea off Corea, half-way distant from the continent of Asia and the island Jeddo in Japan, is exhibiting in Richmond, Va. Its upper part from the waist resembles a female — the lower, a fish. Its hair is long and of a dark sea blue. It carries a comb in one hand and a sort of coral mirror in the other. It seems pleased when taken notice of — and utters a sort of wild yet not unusual sound.
Starting from there, we see a panorama of rather more reliable eyewitness accounts of Korea’s history, from the raids carried out by the Americans on Kangwha Island in 1871 through to a bang up-to-date review of Hwang Woo-suk’s demise, by Jon Herskovitz.
Inevitably there’s more material covering the post-war period. Of the colonial period and earlier there’s very little. One of the gems from the book, though, is an extract from Mary Linley Taylor’s book, Chain of Anger. Taylor was recovering in hospital after the arrival of her firstborn on 1 March 1919 — a significant date in Korean history. There was a kerfuffle on the ward, and one of the Korean nurses secretively stuffed a bundle of papers under Taylor’s bedclothes, while the Japanese were prowling around outside. Later in the day, her husband, a journalist, came to visit.
The room was almost dark when I was awakened by Bruce at my bedside. He stooped and kissed me and made an awkward attempt to pick up the baby, and in so doing, uncovered the papers which were still hidden beside me. Very suddenly, he put the baby down and hurried to the window where there was light enough to read.
“Korean Declaration of Independence,” he exclaimed, astonished. To this day, I aver that, as a newly fledged newspaper correspondent, he was more thrilled to find those documents than he was to find his own son and heir.
That very night, Brother Bill left Seoul for Tokyo, with a copy of the Proclamation in the hollow of his heel, to get it off, with Bruce’s report, over the cables to America, before any order could be issued to stop it.
This passage sets the tone for the whole book. The vivid first-person encounter with historical events as they unfurl; the battle against logistics to get the story to the editors back home in the days before faxes, emails and mobile phones (Tokyo, for a long while, was the most reliabel route); the cunning employed to avoid the censors; and the desperate urge to beat the competition to the story.
While the foreign press at times had greater freedom to report the facts of the democratic protest movements under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan than the local papers, it was still not easy to get the stories out. Reporting on the Kwangju uprising, journalists (Terry Anderson and others) were deliberately fired at on one occasion to prevent them taking photographs. And recognising that pressmen wearing the foreign press association’s armbands were trusted by the protestors, the KCIA goons took to wearing the bands themselves to enable them to get close to the dangerous commie agitators.
The strength of this book is undoubtedly the way it brings history to life. Here’s Norman Thorpe on the events on the early morning of May 27, 1980 – the expiry of the 4a.m. deadline for the people of Kwangju to surrender to the brutal military.
For years, South Korea had had a curfew from midnight to 4 a.m., and at 4 o’clock when it ended it was common to hear church bells. At 4 a.m., as I stood on the hotel rooftop, on this morning as well, church bells began to peal. Then, mixed with the pealing bells I heard the sound of gunfire, including that of automatic weapons, as the army advanced into the city.
Somehow even when I re-read that passage, a lump appears in my throat.
Less interesting, except I suspect for the members of the SFCC themselves, is the final chapter, which is a brief history of the SFCC. Other than that, this is a great book to dip into, or read from cover to cover, to be presented with a vivid picture of Korean modern history from people who witnessed it happening.
It’s invidious to mention highlights, but I’ll mention mine anyway.
- Hal Piper’s account of his post as first editor of the English-language JoongAng Daily
- Juergen Hinzpeter’s reportage from Kwangju, including his justification for taking a first-class ticket from Seoul to Tokyo.
- The photo of R.L. Dunn and his huge mound of cash in 1905. It’s $150 worth, at a time when 1 cent bought 30 strings of copper coins, each string having 1,000 coins. That’s a lot of metal.
- An example of how innocent comments can be misreported and misinterpreted: Sam Jameson’s reporting of his interview with General Wickham just after Chun Doo-hwan seized power. Wickham’s realistic and heavily caveated assessment was that if Chun was, over time, successful then the US would back him. This somehow got distorted into a ringing endorsement of Chun by the US.
Everyone will have their own favourites; and at 13,000 Won this is one of the cheaper books on Korea, so choose one for yourself.
There’s a brief article about the book in the Korea Times here.