To adventurous Western writers and journalists in the late 19th century, the opening of Japan in 1868 was an opportunity too good to pass up. Japan represented a lost civilization, and by the end of the century, readers in Victorian England and Teddy Roosevelt’s America had become fascinated with this ancient and highly civilized land that the modern, industrializing West knew next to nothing about.
Korea, by contrast, was considered a backwater. But geography had placed the Korean people between China and Czarist Russia on their northern borders, and the growing power and ambition of Japan just across the sea. When another power in the Pacific, the United States, invaded Kangwha Island in 1871, it marked the beginning of a long period of domination by and struggle against direct and indirect colonization by foreign powers, the results of which would keep Korea divided 135 years later.
On hand to record the struggles were a wide array of Western, Korean, and Japanese correspondents. Some, like famed author Jack London, came to Korea because that’s where the action was. London, however, arrived too late to cover the main battles of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and finding only frustration he ended up entertaining Seoul’s foreign residents with a reading of his most famous work, “Call of the Wild.”
Other correspondents, especially those in Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953), saw plenty of action. Correspondents like Keyes Beech of the Chicago Daily News, Bill Shinn of The Associated Press and Maggie Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune put their lives on the line to report a war few in the West were interested in, while the AP’s Max Desfor won a Pulitzer Prize in 1951 for his haunting photography of panicked refugees in Pyongyang.
Japanese reporters, notably Korea expert and Tokyo Shimbun correspondent Yuji Yamamoto, provide a glimpse of modern Japan-Korea relations, but the bulk of “Korea Witness” deals with the Korean War and the U.S.-backed military dictatorship in South Korea that followed it.
Korean correspondents like K.C. Hwang, Shim Jae Hoon and Paul Shin, who all worked for foreign media, incurred the wrath of a succession of military dictatorships and often reported at great personal risk. It was these men, and a few Western correspondents, who managed to tell the outside world about the uprising against the dictatorship in Gwangju in May 1980, one that was brutally suppressed by the South Korean army a week later, killing over 200 and injuring nearly 2,400.
The majority of the reports in “Korea Witness” are of the tragedy and violence that marks most of 20th-century Korean history. But there is also admiration among the correspondents for the courage, resilience and hard work of ordinary Koreans, who, by the time of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, were starting to shake off their troubled past.
Former New York Times Tokyo bureau chief Henry Scott-Stokes notes just how much Seoul has changed in the two decades since the 1980s, with women in growing positions of political power and an economy that was vibrant enough to recover from the Asian financial crisis of 1997.
If South Korea is no longer the mystery as it was in London’s day, North Korea remains the Hermit Kingdom. Foreign correspondents from the West and Japan have rarely managed to gain much access, but the late President Kim Il Sung granted a 3 1/2-hour interview to 20 foreign journalists just three months before he died.
Other reports from North Korea, though limited, offer glimpses into what life was like just after the Cold War. That they still, more than 13 years later, represent the only detailed, independent accounts the world has about North Korea is a tragedy.
The correspondents who contributed to “Korea Witness,” and those whose dispatches are included, constitute a Who’s Who of the 20th century’s most famous Asian foreign correspondents. The book is aptly titled, as many of the witnesses to the dramatic events of Korea’s postwar history are still around, living in South Korea, Japan, or the United States.
Students of both Asian studies and journalism will be enthralled by the excellent storytelling contained within “Korean Witness.” However, in their desire to let the writers express themselves to the fullest, the editors admit they did little rewriting. While readers with a good grasp of 20th-century East Asian history will not mind this, a bit more in the way of background introductions or followup would have given the book the wider audience it so richly deserves.