London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Gateways to Korea

patrick-cockburnPeter Corbishley digests some recent Korean history lectures at SOAS and the KCC, and a recent book by Alexis Dudden

My introduction to the nasty side of Korean history over March and April of this year began with a heartwarming UK personal interest story from 1908. At the Korean Cultural Centre 10th March, Patrick Cockburn of The Independent (right) told us about his grandfather. His title was “Henry’s war: One man’s fight against rendition”, Henry being Henry Cockburn, a career diplomat who lost his career opposing the Japanese in 1908. The story has also been told by Chang, Chin-Sok in 19871 but here are some more accessible websites: Counterpunch | | Independent.

troubled-apologiesIf this talk was the first event in my recent encounter with Korean history the last was over the Easter weekend and was my reading of “Troubled apologies among Japan, Korea, and the Unites States” by Alexis Dudden of the University of Connecticut which outlines the complex international status of present day South Korea as it has developed from around 1908 onwards. The cover of the book shows a picture of an apple with a bite taken out of it, and in Korean the word for apple and the word apology sound the same. The message of the book seems to be that apologies between the countries mentioned are somewhat of a forbidden fruit.

Looking north through the gateway to Camp Bonifas, within the Joint Security Area
Looking north through the gateway to Camp Bonifas, within the Joint Security Area
What highlights the present precarious status of Korea as a whole is the casual and bureaucratic way in which the boundary between North and South Korea was established by USA administrators in 1945, taking 30 minutes to do so and without consultation with Koreans. In the same period the USA refused to deal with Dokdo; and so on and so on. Read the book. In fact the present situation of South (but also North) Korea is well understood in terms of the growth of both Japanese and American Imperialism. But it also seems that the continuing decline of the Chosun dynasty in the 20th Century left Korea (the whole of Korea that is) without a nationalist ideology capable of asserting the rights of Korea against control by firsly Japan and then the USA.
If the original American decision on the 38th parallel took only 30 minutes, Korea’s historic interstitial position caught between other powers is bloodily underlined by the fact that it then took 3 years of total war to confirm that decision, and establish another hermit kingdom only this time behind the most militarized corridor in the world.

The precarious existence of the latter stages previous hermit kingdom was revealed to the world by the casual assignment of Korea to the Japanese at the beginning of the 20th century.

Hur Nam-lin
Hur Nam-lin
The weaknesses however is not merely of recent origin, at least if we are to believe Professor Nam-lin Hur (right), from the University of British Columbia, talking at SOAS on the 19th of March on the seemly recondite topic of “Military Duty in late sixteenth century Choson Korea : a system for everything but defense?” The questions after this lecture brought out, at least for me, how Choson Korea lacked sufficient centralised political authority to raise troops to fight Japan after the invasion of 1592. There had been some minor resistance by independent armed groups up till 1593 but then the ‘righteous armies’ were banned, but not to be replaced by any state army of a size commensurate with the overall population and able to fight the Japanese. Wikipedia provides an overall summary of the continuing place of righteous armies in Korean history but the continuing resurgence of irregular forces in Korean history underlines the ongoing political weakness of the Chosun dynasty, after its initial political and cultural successes in the 14th and 15th centuries. As Dudden points out even the Righteous Army of 1907, apart from Heo Wi, did not have enough sense of national unity to claim that their war against the Japanese was valid under international law.

In another lecture at SOAS a week later, Dr Howard Reid (West Park Pictures Ltd) presented his ongoing work on a TV documentary on the rebuilding and the re-siting of the “Arch of Enlightenment” or the Gwanghwamun gate in the centre of Seoul. This original stood as a ‘liminal’ border between the Gyeongbok Palace and the rest of Seoul, and was built at the start of the Choson dynasty. The gate itself was first destroyed during the Japanese invasion on 1592, and depending on who you listen to, not by the Japanese but by the slaves who made up some 30-40% of the population throughout the Choson dysnasty, and whose records of enslavement may well have been kept in the gate. (My other Easter reading on Japanese Castles in Korea 1592-98 by Stephen Turnbull 2007 definitely puts it down to the slaves and not the Japanese). The gate was left in ruins, along with the specially ‘sacred’ Gyeongbok palace, until re-built by the Dowager Queen Mother 1865. And then in 1928, this time definitely, the Japanese deliberately re-built it geomantically off-key and in the wrong alignment between palace and main street Seoul. Then the North Koreans destroyed this re-creation, only for another politically significant rebuild to take place in the 1960’s by Park Chung Hee. [According to Dudden Park Chung Hee may well soon after have been in the pay of the Japanese in lieu of Japanese reparations to ordinary Koreans cf p94-5]

The reof Gwanghwamun
The realignment of Gwanghwamun gate

Howard Reid’s title was “The History of Kwanghwamun: the several births, deaths and rebirths of a national cultural icon” and as an anthropologist by training he is aware of the importance of symbols in cultural histories, as the words death, rebirth and icon in his title indicate. Howard is of course, literally, in the business of recording the construction of the latest version of the Gwanghwamun gate. As he acknowledged during questions his documentary is not a neutral element in the ongoing process of re-symbolizing the birth of the Gwanghwamun gate, although he was unwilling, or unable, to spell out the narrative he is being paid to create. Looking back in time, does it finally look like Japanese action on the Gwanghwamun gate, whether direct or indirect over the period 1592-1965, brackets Korean cultural decline? Or, given that the early glories of the Choson dynasty are symbolized by the gate, is the Korean phoenix really going to arise from the various ashes of that same dynasty and put the gate as the tourist centre of a globalised Korea? Or is the real gate to the future the re-alignment and re-opening of the 38th parallel?


  1. Chong Chin-sok, The Korean Problem in Anglo-Japanese Relations 1904-1910: Ernest Thomas Bethell and His Newspapers: The Daehan Maeil Sinbo and the Korea Daily News. Seoul, Nanam Publications Ltd, 1987 []

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