Korean history through friendly eyes

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Korean history through friendly eyes

Pearl S. Buck is best known for stories set in China, but she wrote one novel about Korea, published in 1963. It's worth a read for those interested in Korea's difficult history during the fall of the Joseon Dynasty and the Japanese colonial period. "Korea is a gem of a country inhabited by a noble people," Buck begins, and then sets out to document that conviction. We follow a three-generation family of representative figures -- a scholarly yangban, a dedicated freedom fighter and two grandsons scarred by their inheritance and loyal to opposing sides of the 38th parallel.

Some familiar historical figures are not what we thought. Instead of the shrewd geostrategist of today's conventional wisdom, Buck's Queen Min is a haughty, blinkered woman unable to see past her attachment to China. King Gojeong appears not as the easily manipulated figure of history texts, but a wise, forceful leader overcome by superior Japanese power. In Buck's telling, Korean independence was done in by American betrayals. An 1883 treaty of commerce and friendship languished from American indifference. After World War I, Korean hopes in the visionary Woodrow Wilson were dashed, and in 1945 the Americans tarried, allowing Soviet forces to occupy half the country. Buck appears to have written the book, 10 years after the Korean War, to assure readers that Korea was worth fighting for and deserved America's continued support.

The book won't live as literature. The characters are talking heads for the forces they represent. Buck loses track of chronology, and a man who has been in the story for 60 years is "prematurely" gray. The writing is often over-wrought with ponderous portents -- a red star in the north -- and prescient foreshadowings. But the forgiving reader will be rewarded with a vivid portrait of Korea's 20th-century struggles by a deeply respectful writer.

by Hal Piper
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