Thor's Korea Diary
Pusan was a Haven
@3 February 2001
A piece preceding this, Them & Us, Pusan and the Rest of 'Em, reflected somberly on the city and its people. Here a reader, Whalen Wehry, has responded with a sunnier recollection, and also some comments about the history of Korea.
Just a quick note to tell you that I am enjoying your articles on PUSANWEB. The perspectives you bring from China, which flavor your writing, are refreshing.
I did some historical research for my historical novels THE YOBO and SEOUL, and Pusan has always played a key role in Korean history and affairs. As a young Westerner stationed along the DMZ in 1967, I found the lingering war paranoia throughout Korea to be less prevalent in Pusan, which was never razed by the 1950 war. In fact, Pusan opened her food lockers to fleeing refugees, and there seemed to be a warm spot in the hearts of other Koreans for Pusan people. To me in those days, the climate and the beaches and the prosperity of Pusan made it seem a place of luxury compared to the rawness of Seoul and the fortified areas north of Seoul. Back then, it was said that if a young Korean man went to Pusan and worked hard for a few years, he could actually hope to purchase an automobile.
We must remember that in the 1880s, China pushed for Korea to open to the West, but only as a buffer state, while simultaneously stating that it had no control over Seoul, yet insisting that Korea was nonetheless a vassal of China. And the opening began when Commodore Shufeldt, with Japan's grudging help, sailed into Pusan and browbeat Korean officials into meeting with him.
We should not forget that China's envoy to Korea in the 1880s and 90s, Yuan Shi Kai, openly boasted that he was the sovereign in the old Kingdom whenever it pleased him to so assert himself, until the Japanese smashed the Chinese military and economic presence and domination in Korea in 1894, sending surviving, battered Chinese troops scurrying back across the Yalu River.
Tsarist Russian military and economic forces were then driven by Japan from the peninsula in 1904-05. You are right, Russia was a bit player, but only because her policy of lust to possess Korea was outrageously uncoordinated. Up in Inchon, Western Power warships went into battle stations, ready to protect that port from Japanese plans to violate Western treaty provisions. History overlooks the fact that WWI could have started there.
Keep writing, Thor.
Whalen M. Wehry
Thanks for the encouragement, and for your very interesting background information. I have tried to warn people that the Korea Diary is thought-in-progress, subject to self-contradiction, and maybe at least partly garbage. Any corrective challenges are therefore particularly welcome, and as a handhold for less critical readers I like to append critiques if possible to my own speculations. Would you allow me to add your e-mail (with or without your contact address) to the posting?
Yuan Shi-Kai, hmm, he was such an opportunist that he would have declared New York harbor as Chinese sovereign
territory, given half a chance (not so far fetched when you think of Western claims on China). I'm sure you know that he later went on to become first president of a unified Chinese republic after ditching the hapless Qings, then double-crossed Sun Yat-sen and tried to have himself declared the new emperor of China... Korea was just another stamp in his curriculum vitae. He overplayed his hand, and did a huge disfavour to Chinese influence in the peninsula.
Japanese penetration seems to be often interpreted as a Machiavellian plot from go to wo. Maybe. It was certainly the Japanese, in their new Meiji-Western modernised guise, who really "opened" Korea, not Americans, Chinese or anybody else. Shufeldt had a tough time getting anyone in Washington to take Korea seriously, didn't he? Japan of course has always taken Korea very seriously indeed, but their vision in the 19th Century also went through a devolution. I suspect that Japanese policy, like the foreign policies of all governments then and now, fluctuated with personalities, with national moods, and was not always co-ordinated. It is hard to believe for example that the ministers in Tokyo really knew what their envoy in Seoul was up to when he conspired to have Queen Min beaten to death.
Maybe I'm wrong. The trouble with interpreting history, or current affairs, is that so much turns on the motives you
attribute to the players. History is supposed to lay the motives bare in the bleak light of outcomes, but that bargain turns out to be a phony. People understand a version of the truth that they prefer to understand, no doubt me included. All I can do is offer my particular inclinations...
It would be great to read your books. Getting access to anything in English here is strictly accidental though.
Best wishes, Thor
Good Morning (over here), Thor,
If it helps give insight into Korea in your opinion, feel free to use the contents in any of these emails.
If a reader will click on PusanWeb's "Writings" section, they will be able to read the restored draft of THE YOBO, and portions of the draft of SEOUL. While they are fiction, both works are built around historical facts. It was James Clavel who said that quality historical fiction can get closer to the probable truth than most politically and ethnically filtered versions of history.
THE YOBO was published in 1984 in a chopped up version that lacked continuity. The restored version currently appearing free on the web is the original manuscript, and has continuity.
Should you decide to read SEOUL on PUSANWEB, let me know first and I will send you the missing opening chapter that an agent has advised me to place back into the story.
As I waded into what happened to Korea's last dynasty, and later the Korean War, I was overcome with the tragedies, and my esteem for the Korean people kept rising.
How sweet (and sometimes bittersweet), when cultures kiss.
I very much hope you enjoy Pusan.
* Note on personal names:
all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.