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Donald Clark’s Living Dangerously in Korea

Living Dangerously coverI’ve mentioned Donald Clark’s book Living Dangerously in Korea: The Western Experience 1900-1950 a few times lately (and it will certainly come up again), but I haven’t really summed up my thoughts on the book, something I’m trying to do a little more since falling out of the habit last year. Here are my thoughts… 

The book is pretty great, even though the focus wasn’t what I expected when I bought it. Clark, you see, is the descendant of missionaries, so he kind of focuses on that–some of it is about his own grandparents, but a lot more is about Western religious missionaries in Korea generally. While that wasn’t really my main interest, and sometimes I wished he might engage with the question of Christianity in Korea–what Christianizing a society like the late Joseon Dynasty entailed, given its Shamanic, Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian ideologies and beliefs–rather than talking about the lives of the missionaries in such a straightforward way.

Still, he does range a little beyond that. Throughout the book, he makes detours into other terrain, specifically taking a look at the fascinating White Russians–the Tsarist loyalists–who took refuge in Northern Korea (and lived out Great White Russian Hunter lives for a while, till the Korean War made that unsustainable) and the depredations of the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company. He also discusses the clash between Western journalists in Seoul and the Japanese occupation.

While he focuses on 1900-1950, there’s a little spillover on either end, by the way: it’s impossible to talk about the late Joseon by looking only at 1900-1905, and missionary activity dated back earlier, anyway… and even if one is looking only from the expatriate viewpoint, it’s a little pointless to talk about the Korean War without delving into the aftermath: fortunately, Clark does both well.

One of the strengths of the book is Clark’s well-researched verbal portraiture of a cast of bizarre and sometimes heartbreaking characters:

Yun’s story reminds me: one thing that seemed new back in the late oughts was the emergence of a lot of imagery of Korean men with white women–especially in advertising. However, several times in this book, the issue of Korean modernity seemed to be viewed through the question of interracial marriage… and prior to the Korean war, it seems for a lot of Koreans the obvious question was whether Korea had modernized enough for a Korean man to marry a Western woman.

There are other moments in the book that rather feel familiar somehow: one harrowing account of outright mob violence (actually, more like massacre) inflicted on innocent Chinese workers in a Korean city, in the wake of rumors about some abuse of Koreans in Manchuria was particularly memorable… it also felt familiar–obviously not the mob violence, but the mob mentality and the Us-versus-Them nationalism behind it.

One more thing this book drives home is how important Westerners were to the development of Korea. Sure, they built churches, and whatever your feelings about religion, it’s hard to argue that Christianity doesn’t bring out the worst in a lot of followers in Korea. But they also brought modern medicine, and built orphanages, and universities, and schools for girls… often, the first such institutions in the areas where they were built, and improvements on the options previously available to the people they served. That’s not news to me, of course… I said as much years ago:

Koreans built up Korean on blood, sweat, and tears, and almost nobody helped them.


Wait. Who founded the most beloved universities here? Who preached several of the religions so beloved by so many Koreans today — and simultaneously built so many of the earliest hospitals and orphanages? Who funded the establishment of important parts of the infrastructure that made modern Korean possible? Who placed troops here to offset the military costs South Korea would have needed to expend to remain independent of North Korea, allowing the nation to divert resources straight to economic development? Who made development loans and gave food to Korea over the lean decades after the war?

I am tempted to ask The Korean whether his mother, hailing from Jeonju, remembers Jesu Byeongwon. That was the most advanced hospital in Jeolla-do even into the mid-1980s, and it was staffed by, as one friend called them “blue eyed doctors.” That friend specifically is alive because the doctors used their advanced Western medical techniques to save her life, and used the expensive medical equipment donated to the hospital by foreigners, namely, a ventilator, to keep her alive when she was born months premature. Her father’s life was saved there several years later after a stroke, when the hospital was still one of the most advanced around. As everyone in Jeonju then knew, the doctors were not there for a “year long expenses paid holiday” but working out of a sense of common decency.

What do Westerners do? You ought to know: you live in America, don’t you? Plenty do missionary work, or Peace Corps work, or charity work, or volunteer in development programs. Plenty fight the manifestations of The Hierarchy in their own society, or push for reforms of corporate laws and the relationship between government and business.

(You will search in vain to find as many Korean medical missions to impoverished places today, despite Korea’s burgeoning wealth, as you would would have found foreign medical missions in Korea during the dictatorship era. I know this because the friend I mentioned has worked as part of one or two of them herself, now that she is a doctor too. There is no real equivalent [in Korea] of the Korean [American] Peace Corps. The Korean equivalent of the Occupy Movement consisted of a tiny fraction of the number of people who turned up to protest US Beef and their newly elected president.)

The risible claim of self-reliance … (strangely echoing the fantasy of “juche” self-reliance on the part of a North Korea that fell apart as soon as the Soviet state most responsible for propping it up fell apart) is just plain bunk. It may be popular Miracle on the Han mythology today, but it is a load of bollocks. The reality is that thousands of missionaries, Peace Corps workers, medical doctors, educators, and other professionals who came to work in Korea, along with hundreds of thousands of other people donating food, money, skills, labour, and even their lives were part of the story of how Korea developed into what it is today. Korea is not an island, not even when North Korea cuts it off from the rest of Asia land: Korea’s history is intimately bound up with other histories. That Korea — and its self-appointed spokesman, “The Korean” — prefer to pretend otherwise does not erase this reality.

Closer examination demonstrates that these grounds for discrediting the criticism of foreigners are pretty poor — they depend not only on a kind of amnesia, but an amnesia that implicitly ignores the role Western critics played in the shape and direction of Korea’s development, including in many areas that the broad majority of Koreans hold to be important. The claim that foreigners didn’t contribute comes after the prejudgment that foreigners shouldn’t criticize, not prior to it. Racialized thinking, or its relative absence, determines how closed (or open) people are to foreigners’ criticism.

This is not to discount the work and struggle many Koreans did contribute. It is only to refute that Koreans did it on their own, or that outsiders never, ever contributed to the changes. Outsiders contributed decisively, whether Koreans feel inclined to remember it or not.

Just as Korean films about the Korean War these days almost always omit any depiction of the UN Forces who fought on the side of Southern Korea, the narrative of Korea’s development has been subjected to selective amnesia. It’s not surprising, given the kind of anxieties Korean society harbors regarding its frankly horrifying, difficult, and painful history. But to allow such anxiety to wipe from the memory so much detail, and especially the interconnectedness of Korean development and foreign aid and contributions seems likely only to promote cynicism, ignorance, and a wearying self-righteousness… without promoting among Koreans any of the kind of spirit of charity that motivated those who contributed to Korea’s development when that was what was needed.

Of course, it’s impossible to separate the good from the bad, to sort the noble from the ignoble. There is colonialism there–a lot of it. There is racism, and exploitation, and ignorance, and plain weirdness… but to speak only of the bad and pretend the good that some outsiders did in Korea makes no sense. Well, not unless you’re happy living in an ethnonationalist echo chamber. As I wrote in my comment above, “Korea’s history is intimately bound up with other histories.” That’s true of every history, really.

And that, I think, is what this book manages to get across best: that these people came to Korea not only preaching, but working and building and sharing and contributing. They were very far from perfect, and some of them exploited much more than they gave… but not all of them did so. While the superficial signs of those people having come and gone have almost all disappeared, they have left an indelible mark on the society… so indelible, indeed, that many don’t even realize the mark when they are the ones who bear it most clearly.

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