Russian scholar digs into Korea’s arcane past

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Russian scholar digs into Korea’s arcane past

Here are some unusual Korean history facts.
No. 1: The production of Western-style ice cream began in Korea in 1958 by the Lotte Group.
No. 2: Donga Broadcasting System, not Korean Broadcasting System, was the first Korean broadcasting company in 1956.
No. 3: The Sontak Hotel was the name of the first Korean hotel in Seoul. It was built in 1902 on land owned by a royal family in Korea.
Want something heavier?
In the 1980s it was estimated that the North Korean Embassy in Norway sold liquor and cigarettes with a black market value of some $1 million (today, it would be worth about three times that value).
These odd facts may not be of terrible importance to many South Koreans. But for Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar of Korean history and a professor of Asian Studies at Australian National University, any of these detailed accounts concerning life on the peninsula are critical benchmarks in Korea’s drive to modernization. These topics become important for his weekly column in the Korea Times appearing under the title, “The Dawn of Modern Korea.”
He recently found from an old newspaper archive that the Sontak Hotel, which was run by a younger sister of the wife of the Russian consulate general, had the first Korean coffee house where King Gojong tried a brand named “Kabe.”
Mr. Lankov now teaches about North Korea at Kookmin University. He visited Pyongyang in 1985 as an exchange student at Kim Il Sung University and starting in 1989 taught Korean history for seven years at Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) State University, where he also received a doctorate degree.
In his columns for the Korea Times, he writes about life in the North based on his stay and interviews of defectors he meets in Seoul.
“I couldn’t witness the life of North Koreans in great depth during my stay at Pyongyang, because the surveillance was too overwhelming,” he says. “You could grab a random North Korean on the street and say things like, ‘It’s nice weather.’ But after three minutes, people started staring at you.”
Now Mr. Lankov, who is compiling a book about North Korean food culture, can’t go back to the North even if he wanted. Since he wrote a book critical of the North’s communist regime, he has been tagged “a reactionist” by the North.
As an alternative, he relies on secondary sources for his research. He interviews defectors, listens to travelers’ tales and digs into a database of old Korean newspapers, including articles published in the official press such as the Nodong Sinmun, a leading North Korean daily.
Virtually all materials in Europe relating to key incidents in North Korea during its critical years were secret and inaccessible to scholars. Compared to the early ’90s, he thinks the situation has changed considerably.
“I am interested in how the Stalinist ideology was practiced in people’s lives in the North,” he says. “ When I meet defectors, I ask them everything from what they do when they first wake up in the morning to what they eat for breakfast and how they go to work.”
The work, Mr. Lankov hopes, will allow him to draw a more complete picture of North Korea, a country he describes as being the “purest Stalinist state in the world” in the early ’60s.
“The problem with North Korea is that none of us have a clue where they are heading, and to get a better sense, we need to start raising uncomfortable questions,” he says.

by Park Soo-mee
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