[BOOK REVIEW]Russian historian offers views on Korea’s past

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[BOOK REVIEW]Russian historian offers views on Korea’s past

If readers look at the pictures in Andrei Lankov’s latest book to get an idea of what its chapters are about, chances are that they will become confused.
A 1948 photograph showing a car converted into a horse-drawn carriage during a fuel shortage appears in a chapter about the mock-kidnapping of widows by bachelors looking for wives.
Both are interesting, but that’s where the connection stops.
There is also a picture of two old men smoking cigarettes in an essay about the rise of milk consumption.
Some photos match the words that surround them, but there are too many exceptions.
That said, “The Dawn of Modern Korea” is worth the time of anyone interested in Korea’s recent history. From culture and technology to religion and education, the book’s 97 essays tap Lankov’s history columns that have appeared in Seoul’s English-language press. The book and columns share the same title.
Lankov begins by chronicling the arrival of Christianity in 1784 and ends with an account of immigrant labor in the 1990s.
One of the early and interesting stories details the arrival of Western medicine. A failed revolution in 1884 left a powerful government official critically wounded. On the advice of a foreign advisor, Dr. Horace Allen, a missionary doctor, was summoned and the official recovered. This convinced the monarchy of the value of Western medicine, and King Kojong offered Allen a house that belonged to an executed revolutionary to set up the first hospital.
A more recent story tells about the rise of Korea’s universities. The Japanese opened the first college in 1924 to educate the growing number of Japanese nationals living in colonial Korea.
The first class included 125 Japanese but only 45 Koreans. After Korea regained control in 1945, the institution was closed and replaced by Seoul National University.
College attendance took off after the Korean War, rising from 34,000 in 1952 to 1 million in 1990. Lankov points out that the university hierarchy in Korea is more pronounced than in most countries. Traditionally, all important political and business positions in Korea have gone to graduates of the top 10 schools, he writes.
“The system is harsh and this is why it is criticized so often. It seals a person’s fate while he or she is still a teenager. Failure at the entrance examinations can make many career choices a virtual impossibility,” he writes.
The essay on immigrant workers in Korea does a good job of tracing the workers’ history, but it paints a rosier picture of modern Korea than the situation warrants. The discrimination foreign workers experience and their vulnerability due to their often illegal status is barely touched on.
“Despite widespread discrimination and occasional tension, it seems that in general these people are more accepted by Koreans [than in the past]. A major role in their acceptance has been played by Korean leftist groups which have done much to help these people adjust to Korean society and protect their rights,” Lankov writes.
While the bulk of the book is historical fact, the author is not afraid to inject his opinions, which sometimes run counter to popular Korean sentiment.
In a story about the rise of foreign adoption, Lankov says that between 1955 and 2000, 140,000 Korean children were adopted by families living overseas. In 1985, Americans alone adopted 8,837 Korean children.
Many Koreans see this as a national disgrace, but Lankov says the children are in many cases better off. In 2002, the government set a quota of 2,000 overseas adoptions. Koreans adopted just over 1,000 children that year, he says, while an estimated 28,000 children were living in institutions.
“Many of them would find happier lives overseas, but nationalism prevented this from happening. This is a common problem with nationalists: While caring about the abstract ‘nation,’ they are more than willing to sacrifice the happiness of its individual members for the sake of their grand schemes.”
Lankov has lived in Korea as a scholar and student for years. This compilation of essays is a much welcomed addition to the chronicle of this nation’s recent history, which Lankov says is the greatest to have occurred so far.
As he puts it, “Only a handful of developing countries have managed to break away from poverty and repression and almost none of them have made this break with anything approaching Korea’s speed and efficiency.”

The Dawn of Modern Korea

Author: Andrei Lankov
Genre: Korean History
Publisher: EunHaeng NaMu

By Christopher Carpenter Business Editor [jccarpen@gmail.com]
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