[THIS WEEK IN HISTORY]Joseon isolationism; a ban on ‘dangerous’ books

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[THIS WEEK IN HISTORY]Joseon isolationism; a ban on ‘dangerous’ books

April 5, 1871
On this date, the United States and Joseon Dynasty had the first contact that would lead to a head-on military confrontation. Named Sinmi Yangyo, meaning “an invasion by the Western power in the year called Sinmi,” this collision in the late Joseon Dynasty started when a five-ship U.S. squadron carrying over 1,230 soldiers anchored in the Yellow Sea near Ganghwa Island, a gateway close to the capital of Joseon, today’s Seoul. In the late 19th century, the world powers of the United States, Britain, Japan and Russia were willing to pay any price to take the Korean Peninsula to use it as a strategic base. Both French and British ships fought their own battles, but failed to open what was known as the “hermit kingdom.”
The U.S. Navy, led by Admiral J. Rogers, came to investigate the “General Sherman incident,” which happened in 1866 in Pyongyang. The General Sherman was a merchant ship that traveled up the Daedong River without permission, and was attacked and destroyed by angry Pyongyang residents, leading to heavy casualties and the murder of the crew.
The squadron also was tasked with obtaining a trade treaty, which was the last thing on the Joseon court’s mind. The court first sent a delegation to the ship for negotiation, but the offer was curtly turned down when the Americans said the delegation was too low-ranking.
The ships then advanced to Sondolmok, a gateway to Ganghwa Island. This was enough to provoke the Joseon court, which sent an army to attack the American squadron, and so the battle began.
The U.S. landed marines at Chojijin port and proceeded to occupy nearly all of the island. It was initially a lopsided victory for the Americans ― more than 350 Korean soldiers died with more than 20 injured, while only three U.S. marines were killed and 10 injured, according to records.
However, after the most furious battle at Gwangseongjin port, an enlarged Joseon army made a surprise night attack from the mainland and forced the U.S. forces to retreat back to their ships. About 40 days after the initial contact, the squadron sailed back to China without achieving its goal of opening a port in Korea.
Following this incident, the Joseon Dynasty reinforced its isolationist stance even more, showing one of the earliest forms of anti-Americanism in Korea.

April 9, 1989
Books with titles like “Understanding Korean Society” and “Philosophical Essay” do not really sound dangerous, but to the military regimes that held power until the early 1990s, such books carried the danger of “ijeok,” or “benefiting the enemy,” namely North Korea. Books penned by either pro-North Korean writers or freedom fighters against the regimes, not to mention card-carrying socialist publications like “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx, were banned in those days.
Carrying such a book could land one in jail, proof of the regimes’ true intentions. Police officers used to check college students’ bags to see if they had “banned” publications. Every once in a while, the government conducted special raids to seize such publications and books, as the Roh Tae-woo administration did on this date. With the cooperation of prosecutors and intelligence officers, the government combed publishers’ offices, student unions’ offices on campus and bookstores near universities. The crackdown went on for four months, with the government ransacking everywhere, confiscating more than 10,000 copies of 51 books. More than 26 publishers were arrested on the charge of “aiding the enemy,” when all they did was publish social science classics.
Time’s have changed, however, and the ban in most cases is gone. Today, at downtown bookstores, books like “Das Kapital” are readily available, many of them being beloved, steady sellers. Last week, prosecutors decided that the “dangerous” book “Taebaek Sanmaek” (Taebaek Mountain Range) did not “aid the enemy.”


by Chun Su-jin
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