An early bridge

May 20,2019
Kathleen Stephens
The author was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C.

I’ve been at a lot of conferences, panels and seminars in the past month. Some, like early April’s “First Harvard Korean Security Summit,” were comprehensive in scope. Other gatherings honed in on specific challenges: The way forward on denuclearization, peace regime, human rights, alliance management and all the rest — issues that demand fresh thinking and new ideas in the discouraging aftermath of the summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, and the prevailing dysfunction in Washington.

This is important work, and must include diverse opinions and voices. But it can be intellectually and emotionally enervating. Are we just rehashing, repeating and rehearing positions gone stale? How to breathe oxygen into our thinking?

For me, this kind of slump is a signal to shift my attention away from reading the latest policy paper. Instead I turn to history, biography and literature. I may not find answers to the policy dilemmas, but I find perspective, context and, sometimes, inspiration.

That was my motive for learning about a 19th-century American named Percival Lowell, best known in the United States as a popular astronomer, but someone I recently discovered had a fascinating connection with Korea.

The Lowell name is deeply associated with Harvard University. Growing up in Arizona, I was more familiar with Lowell Observatory, a historic facility near Flagstaff, Arizona. The Observatory is high in the desert mountains, where lights were (and are) few, and the stars blaze in the sky. I have vivid memories of childhood evenings spent viewing the night sky from there.

I didn’t connect the Lowell of that observatory or of Harvard with Korea until recently, when I decided to learn more about the foreigner identified as “Foreign Secretary Percival Lowell” in an 1883 photograph of the first Korean diplomatic mission to the United States. Who was this young American, and how did he go from Boston to Korea to Arizona?

Percival Lowell was the first son of a prominent, wealthy Boston family. He obtained a mathematics degree from Harvard, but then deviated from the traditional path ordained by his birth; his younger brother Abbott would go on to be president of Harvard for 24 years, and his two sisters were accomplished artists and activists in Boston. Yet Percival went off to Asia, where he spent a decade in Japan and Korea.

Percival’s books from that period include the 400-page “Choson, the Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea.” He wrote it after making an American trip “as a foreigner to my native land,” as he put it, with a Korean diplomatic delegation, and then returning to spend 1883-84 in Seoul as a guest of the Korean Court.

I don’t know what this book would be like translated into Korean; for a modern American reader, the style and tone are anachronistic, at times painfully so. But I like its vignettes that evoke memories of the Korea I first experienced in the 1970s, descriptions that still capture for me something of the Korean land and spirit I first knew.

Lowell makes detailed observations on the weather (I remember I was never so obsessed and captivated by weather as I was living in rural Korea), the heating system (and its failings), Seoul’s glorious natural setting, the glittering blue skies of winter, the vigor of women washing clothes streamside, the marvel of the Korean spring, the importance of men’s hats (“A man is much more firmly bound to his hat than to his wife”), the relative meritocracy of the exam system (“The extreme rigor of the examinations is to some fortunate mortals tempered by the accident of noble birth”) and much else.

I recall how my letters home to my parents when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chungnam in the ’70s discussed all these same subjects in great detail.

Lowell describes the centrality of food — and the superiority of Korean cuisine to Japanese. “The average Korean does not eat that he may live, but lives that he may eat. This view of life is never more painfully apparent than when one is about to set out on a journey. After everything is in readiness, and any other people would be actually on the road, the Koreans sit down to a slight collation.”
I laughed out loud, and thought of the many times I was told, “Even before going to the Diamond Mountains, we must eat.”
Lowell veers from scientific to lyrical, from frustrated to admiring, from insightful to obtuse. But he is always insatiably curious.

It was this unquenchable, wide-ranging curiosity, coupled with a mind both mathematical and poetic, that took him to Arizona after he came back from Asia, and led him to the work in astronomy for which he is best known.

In studying the stars, as in writing about Korea, Lowell got a lot of things wrong, or at least not entirely right. He believed there were canals on Mars that suggested life on the planet, and popularized that belief. His search for Planet X was unsuccessful (it didn’t exist), but led, after his death, to the eventual discovery of Pluto. And his work is credited with early detection of the expanding nature of the universe.

So it is natural that Lowell is remembered more as an astronomer than a diplomat or Asia expert. His idiosyncratic description of late 19th-century Korea is historically valuable, but probably only of limited use in helping to understand Korea or U.S.-Korea relations today.

Still, I like the reminder that the relationship between the United States and Korea has roots — and relevance — dating back long before the division of Korea and the Korean War.

Most of all I like his passionate curiosity and his unswerving desire to understand what he was seeing, however difficult. He wrote of his 19th century readership’s “prevailing impression that the Far East — China, Korea and Japan — is delightfully but hopelessly odd, and that the interest attaching to these lands lies solely in this irrational oddity” to which “we open the eyes, shut the brain and think we see. In truth, the interest in it has but just been awakened; the life of it, its strength, is yet to come.”

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