Korea (South Korea)

by Simon Winchester
Non-fiction

KoreaAfter China, what could be more appropriate than a visit to the “Hermit Kingdom” of Korea? So close geographically, so distant in culture.

My Problems With This Narrator

Let’s get this out of the way right now. Simon Winchester comes across to me as a misogynist with a fetish for Asian women. His habit of thrusting his arm down the blouses of Korean women he has just met is distasteful. I also didn’t believe that he turned all the prostitutes away who made advances to him, or that he was so attractive to them. His narration reminded me uncomfortably, at times, of the expats I knew in Tokyo, many of whom had landed in Japan because no woman back home would look at them. Some of my coworkers had an appalling lack of personal hygiene; a few had very bad manners. One had sexual proclivities that were disturbing. Another one claimed he was never going back to California because he had a felony warrant out for his arrest. (How did he get out of the U.S., one wonders?)

And, the author has acquired the anti-American prejudice that some travelling Brits get when exposed repeatedly to Ugly Americans (in his case, the Ugly American Soldier), but this is unfair. We’re not all tourists — some of us are travelers. Other than that, I quite enjoyed the book.

Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles

Winchester begins by telling the story of a group of Dutch sailors from the good ship Sperwer, in the employ of the East India Company, who washed up on Cheju Island, in Korea, in 1653.  Twelve years later, eight of them arrived at the Goto Islands in southwestern Japan and were transported to Nagasaki, where the Dutch had trading rights. Nagasaki was in fact their original destination, but when they’d landed in “the Kingdom of Corea”, they were transported to Seoul to meet the King, then pressed into the army. After an escape attempt, they were exiled to the southwest where, after a decade, they managed to steal a small fishing boat and head for Japan.

Winchester recreates, in part, their journey, by walking across Korea, including the now-honeymoon destination of Cheju Island.

His perspective is interesting because he’s old enough to have watched the Korean War on television. To me, it’s ancient history. It happened before I was born. Winchester expected Korea to be some grim recreation of his imagination instead of the bustling, hustling, Asian powerhouse that I experienced on my two visits to Seoul in the late 1990s. I came to Korea from Japan, so that was my basis for comparison. He came to it from the war. So I learned a lot about the horror of the Korean war, which I’m sure still scars the psyche of the people of both Koreas. There were some pretty ghastly incidents.

Ah, North Korea.

The preface to the second edition has tantalizing bits of information about Winchester’s visits to the north. He was not crazy enough to try to walk there as he knew he might never come out. His trips were by air and he had an official “minder” the whole time. No photos. His journey felt unfinished because he couldn’t go all the way…but of course, that isn’t his fault.

However, I was left with a burning desire to watch some documentaries about North Korea, which I understand are available on Netflix.

I had forgotten that North Korea is a “Communist” country. It took the strange rhetoric captured in the book to remind me. Oh, those Cold War days. It doesn’t SEEM Communist anymore, maybe because the 80s are over or maybe because of the cult of personality around the Kims. They are evil. I hope one day they’ll fall like the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately there always seem to be more @**h#les waiting to take their places.

My Book Group

This book was chosen by Tom. Tom’s wife is Korean. She comes from Tegu, a few hours from Seoul. In the book, Winchester hints that the “true Korea”, the old, real, Korean culture, may exist in the North but is getting stomped out in the South by globalization and technology. It’s too bad. Tom said that the North has an innocence about it and that the South is like America on steroids. America x 100, I think he said.

Yung Sun says she misses the extended family life that Koreans have, and that after 36 years in America she’s caught in-between: No longer Korean, but somehow not American either. It’s a hard place to be. She would like to be a real Korean housewife, with hobbies instead of a job, just looking after the kids. Well, her son is grown but that’s not the point.

Americans are isolated. We are spread apart. This has caused me a lot of psychological pain in the past. Yung Sun says that in the small country of Korea, your relatives are never that far away. Unless, of course, they’re in the North. But because you have so much extended family and are always in their business and they in yours (my words), you don’t really have time for outsiders. I feel like in America we make friends our family and our course, our pets.

The Food

What’s a book group without food? Yung Sun cooked an amazing feast for us…barbequed spareribs; dumplings with Kimchee; glass noodles with mushrooms, egg, and meat; kale and carrots in a mustard sauce, and oh, what that woman can do to celery. I think it had sesame oil soaked into it. I couldn’t stop eating it. Celery. Really!

We toasted the book with soju and finished with rambutan tea. Yeoung Sun says they take the heart of the fruit and soak it in honey before making the tea. She knows a lot about diet and its effect on health, and of course, the traditional Korean way of eating seems much healthier than the American one. No surprise there. And yes–tea AGAIN! It’s amazing how many of the books I’ve read so far have revolved around tea.

Chuck’s Take

One of our members is a retired college professor. Chuck said there were rumors, after the North Koreans signed the armistice in 1953, that President Eisenhower had threatened them with The Bomb in order to get them to do so. Kind of ironic, now that the Dear Leader is waving it at us.

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