Books connect British envoy to Korea

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Books connect British envoy to Korea

For British Ambassador to Korea Martin Uden, the pace of change in Korea is not at all overwhelming. This is his third time in Korea as a diplomat, and the way he sees it, the country may have changed on the outside, but “it is still the same place at its heart.”

“It is still Korea as it were,” the 55-year-old envoy said. And one way he keeps himself firmly rooted is by collecting old English books on Korea and learning history through them.

Even as he spoke in a recent interview with Yonhap, the envoy held a faded English-language missionary magazine in his hand, showing a photo of Josephine P. Campbell, an American missionary, and her Korean Sunday school students at Jonggyo Church in central Seoul.

The ambassador’s first overseas diplomatic posting was in Korea, in 1978, as a second secretary. He came back in 1994 as a political councilor and again in 2008 as the ambassador.

He started collecting books as he was leaving Korea in 1981. Now he is the proud owner of more than 500 books about Korea.

“I was thinking about what I could do to keep up my interest in Korea because I knew I wouldn’t be back for many years. And I decided to start to collect secondhand books on Korea,” he said.

“At that time, you could get some of these books in Korea since they were republished by the Royal Asiatic Society. But they were quite expensive in contemporary terms.”

He then tried to obtain them secondhand.

“An advantage in the United Kingdom is that there are many secondhand book shops all throughout the country. Every little town in those days had a little secondhand book shop. So it was very nice for me when I traveled around England, Wales and Scotland, I could go into the book shops and see if they had anything about Korea.”

But building a collection was very slow, he said, because the kind of books he was looking for was rare.

After 15 years of collecting, the envoy decided to compile an anthology of the books he owns. Titled “Times Past in Korea,” the anthology was published in England in 2003.

His personal favorite is the one written by Isabella B. Bishop, a 19th century British traveler, geographer and author.

Bishop’s first visit to Korea was in 1894, and she traveled around Korea and even visited Korean immigrants in Manchuria and Siberia over the following years. Her travel essay, “Korea and Her Neighbours,” was a best seller in Britain at that time.

“She had a real love for Korea and wrote a very good book about it which has been reprinted many times. It is not a rare book, but I think it’s one of the best descriptions about Korea,” he said.

The Internet age has brought changes to the way Uden collects books.

Instead of walking around to find books, he now simply visits eBay, the online auction site, to buy them.

“I can buy even quite expensive books on eBay with complete confidence that I will get what I want,” he said, adding he purchased nearly 200 books this way.

The Internet has also expanded the range of materials available.

Pointing to the U.S. missionary magazine published in 1905, he said, “I expect there’s probably fewer than 10 copies of the book in the world although there may be some left in museums or libraries.”

He paid $10 to buy it on eBay. “Before the Internet, I could not find this,” the envoy said.

Uden is set to leave soon, as the British government named his successor, Scott Wightman, last month. Uden’s book collection is going with him, but it will stay in Korea in digital form.

Gyeonggi’s governor, Kim Moon-soo, has been scanning every single book Uden has to keep them at the provincial museum.

A British banker, who is on the board of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, has also shown interest, wanting to buy the collection and donate it to the university, Uden said.

For the ambassador, the lack of interest by Koreans in their own history is rather puzzling.

“It’s remarkable how little interest there is in Korea in this. It’s only the foreigners who buy this stuff,” he said, and only a few university libraries in Korea spend money to collect old English language books about Korea.

To his successor, Uden recommended learning about Korea and Koreans the way he did.

“I think the main thing is to get to know Korea in a way that I think I have,” he said. “He will find that it is very rewarding and very interesting to be out to do that.”

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