Seeing and being seen in Joseon Korea

001 Korean exhibit at Hanoi Exhibition in 1902
Glasses were introduced into Korea sometime in the 16th century, probably through China but Korea also made a type of glasses that may have been better than some of the Western glasses.  These glasses were made from polished crystals.  Horace Allen praised them in 1886:

“The Coreans really excel in the manufacture of eye-glasses.  I have been ashamed when trying to fit a superior lens, from a good trial case of glasses, in place of a stone lens already worn.  I could not do it; the Corean lens was the better.  They are made of transparent stone, finely ground, and are expensive, costing in the neighborhood of $100.”

A huge amount of money considering the average laborer only made 10-15 cents a day.  But not everyone wearing glasses had bad vision:

“In immaculate white he emerges from the holes and corners of every mud village.  If he is an official of importance, he does not walk alone, but is assisted by the arms on each side.  If he ventures by himself, it is with a magnificent stride that clears the street of indifferent stride that clears the street of indifferent passers, and commands only on-lookers.  In one hand is a pipe three feet long, in the other a fan; over his eyes two immense discs of dark crystal, not to assist him in seeing, but to insure his being seen.  How precious these are!  Many a man will forego the necessaries of life if only he can gain a pair of Kyung-ju (spectacles), and so cover himself with glory before an on-looking assemblage.”

You can read the rest of the article here – Korea Times November 15, 2013.

Speaking of things to see.  Many of you are aware that Korea took part in the Chicago Expo in 1893 (you can read Dan Kane’s excellent article here – including some of the controversy of the mission) and the Paris Expo in 1900 (picture and article, Korea Times May 10, 2010), but did you also know it took part in the Hanoi Expo of 1902?

We don’t know much about Korea’s participation in the Hanoi Expo save a brief note in the Korea Review:

“Korea is sending a considerable exhibit to the Hanoi Exhibition.  A French man-of-war transported the exhibit from Chemulpo.”

Fortunately I was able to find and purchase a postcard of the Korean exhibit.

But why did Joseon Korea participate in these expositions.  According to Mr. Kane,   Joseon’s participation was “an overt display of independence at a time of mounting foreign encroachment” and Chinese hegemony. It “went to Chicago as Korea, not as China’s younger brother.”  That was not the case in regards to the Paris Expo as China had been soundly defeated by the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) so perhaps this was an effort to show the world that it was equally free of the Japanese.  But what did Joseon gain from partaking in a colonial exposition?  Obviously not much recognition but it is interesting to note that during the Korean rice famine that a large amount of rice was imported from Vietnam.

You can read the rest of my article (Korea Times, November 8, 2013) and my take of Joseon Korea’s first Hallyu boy.


And finally, a place that none of us wants to be in – the Korean prisons….but what were they like during the Joseon era?

These facilities were mainly made out of logs and planks with large gaps between them that served their purpose in preventing the inhabitants from escaping but did little to protect the prisoners from the elements. The prisoners were often tortured:

Sometimes, starvation was used as an implement of torture or execution. One official was declared knowing “no more of humanitarianism than to kill thieves by slow starvation.”

So severe were his tactics that some of the inmates gnawed on anything they could ― “the straw on the floor, their clothes, and even the skin and bones of their own arms ― to satisfy their awful hunger.” Their hardened jailors, “touched with pity,” used their own money to buy refuse from taverns to secretly feed their wards.

An editorial in The Independent declared that it was a “mark of civilization that a Government should show no small personal resentment against a criminal.  He should be punished according to the enormity of his offense, even to death if need be, but the penalty to be bestowed should not be accompanied by additional penalties of a lesser nature like beating, starving or freezing….To allow prisoners to lie with fractured limbs until they putrefy can be denominated as nothing less than barbarous.  Disease is not among the list of punishment in any civilized country nor should it be here.”

Sometimes sick prisoners were passed off to the Western hospitals for treatment:

“Occasionally one sees a man with body bloated as with dropsy and rotting as with gangrene, carried though the streets of Seoul on a jiki.  He is being carried from one of the city or national jails to be thrown, perhaps, at the gate of a foreign hospital to be fed and treated by a foreigner at foreign expense, till he recovers [or] till king death releases him from pain.’’

By the late 1890s, torture, per se, and cruel punishments were abolished.  No longer were prisoners decapitated with blunt swords but were executed in a more civil manner – by hanging.

You can read the rest of the article here – Korea Times, November 1, 2013.

Picture credits – The Hanoi Exhibit (my collection), the Korean prison (wikipedia – but I disagree that it is a public domain pic).

Japan annoyed by plan to build statue of “criminal”; Korea, China tell Tokyo to screw off

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga—who, as we’ve seen before, is a bit of a sensitive sort—is upset that Korea wants to build a monument to Ahn Jung-geun in China:

“This is not good for Japan-South Korea relations,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said of the proposed monument to Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean independence activist who shot Hirobumi Ito, the first Japanese governor general of Korea, in 1909 in Harbin, northeastern China.

He said Ahn, regarded as a hero in South Korea and China, “is a criminal.”

The plan was revealed when South Korean President Park Geun-hye met Monday with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi in Seoul. Park expressed appreciation for China’s cooperation with the plan, according to the South Korean presidential office. Details of the plan are not yet known.

Considering that Japan considered pretty much everyone who engaged in the Korean independence movement criminals, this would seem to suggest he believes establishing monuments to any Korean nationalist leaders would be bad for Korea—Japan relations.

Well, anyway, Korea and China have told Japan to sod off:

Both Beijing and Seoul fired back almost immediately.

“Ahn Jung-geun is a very famous anti-Japanese fighter in history,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular briefing. “He is respected by the Chinese people as well. China will, in accordance with relevant regulations on memorial facilities involving foreigners, make a study to push forward relevant work.”

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tae-young said Japan should “reflect on what kind of figure Hirobumi Ito was during Japan’s era of imperialism and militarism and what Japan did to neighbouring nations at the time”.

Expect more of this cooperation between Korea and China in the future. I’m not especially comfortable with it, and ideally, I’d like to see greater cooperation between Korea and Japan. That said, Japan doesn’t make it easy sometimes. I’m not sure what Suga hoped to gain for Japan with his statement—scoring points with some domestic lobbies, perhaps?—but as an act of diplomacy, all it does is give propaganda material to Korea and China and drive Seoul closer to Beijing at a time when Tokyo really should be working to gain an ally.

For what it’s worth, Ahn Jung-geun was a really intriguing character. And probably a more complex dude than most folk realize.

MUST READ: JoongAng Ilbo on Korea’s victims of torture

The JoongAng Ilbo ran a very, very good story on a support group for victims of torture during Korea’s military dictatorships of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

As if the physical scars weren’t bad enough, the long-lasting emotional scars have been horrorfying, too:

Ryu was released in January 1982. Then, the aftershock of his torture hit him.

“I developed claustrophobia and social phobia,” he said.

He became so paranoid, afraid that security agents were coming to arrest him, that he couldn’t sleep in his own home.

In 1990, Ryu fell from his third-floor apartment while trying to escape down an impromptu rope made of clothes tied together, breaking his toes. He had panicked because a visitor rang his doorbell.

He couldn’t hold down a job because of emotional problems, and his wife had to provide for the family. Ryu, who has one daughter, divorced his wife 10 years ago.

Read the rest on your own.

If you read Korean, it might be worth your time to read novelist Cheon Woon-young’s book “Saengang,” which is about this gentleman. You can also watch “Namyeong-dong 1985,” a film based on memoirs of late activist and politician Kim Geun-tae, who was tortured by said gentleman in 1985.

Tears For Fears: South Korean Tear Gas in Bahrain?

teargas_BahrainAs of this year, Bahrain interior ministry personnel have ordered 1.6 million teargas canisters to use against protesting Baharainians, who have been in the middle of an extended protest, if not revolution (see Bahraini uprising).  Oddly enough, Baharin turned to South Africa and South Korea for their supply of tear gas, which has been used not just to stop protesters but to cause harm as well.  So far 39 people have died due to misuse of teargas in the protests:

. . . Based on field evidence the organisation collected between 2011 and 2013, the top teargas exporters to Bahrain are DaeKwang Chemical Corporation and CNO Tech. Both companies have shipped “over 1.5 million pieces of tear gas to Bahrain between 2011 and 2012,” which exceeds “the entire population of Bahrain, which is 1.2 million, of which 600,000 are citizens,” according to the group’s website. Financial Times cited a senior executive at DaeKwang as acknowledging the export of around one million units of tear gas to Bahrain between 2011 and 2012. (cite)

6.10__002This is odd considering the history of tear gas to suppress popular dissent in South Korea throughout the latter part of the Twentieth Century in South Korea (at right, Yonsei U., 1986, 6.10 민주항쟁), however, the money side of this situation is not bad for South Korea since “the monetary value of the planned shipment is unclear, however based on an estimate of $10 to $20 per canister, the total price could be between $16 and $32 million.”

Though the KFTU (Korean Federation of Trade Unions) does not enjoy my sympathy or respect, they seem to be enjoying a case of ethics regarding this issue:

. . .The Korean Federation of Trade Unions threw its support behind the Stop the Shipment campaign, sending a letter to the Korean Government asking them to halt all tear gas exports to Bahrain, meanwhile, in London, the UK-based NGO Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has called for a protest outside the Korean Embassy on Friday. (cite)

Glendale mayor regrets comfort women statue

Glendale mayor Dave Weaver apparently regrets the decision to put a memorial to the Comfort Women in his town:

Glendale was wrong to install a controversial monument honoring Korean sex slaves taken by the Japanese Army during World War II, Mayor Dave Weaver said during an interview published Monday on a Japanese television station’s YouTube channel.

“We opened a beehive, a hornet’s nest,” he told Channel Sakura. “We just shouldn’t have done it.”

As an added bonus, he said this in an interview with a right-wing Japanese TV station.

Anyway, it seems the Japanese trolls have been getting to him:

He told Japanese reporters from the far-right-wing channel, though, that in addition to opposing the statue because he believed the park where it’s located needs a master plan, he disliked the statue because he didn’t want Glendale involved in an international fight.

“I understand we’re the most hated city in Japan now, which I deeply regret,” Weaver said, adding that he’s received more than 1,000 emails about the memorial, the most correspondence he’s gotten on an issue in the 17 years he’s been on City Council.

Turkish readers, take note—send Mayor Weaver some angry emails, and maybe you can get him to express regret about Glendale’s Armenian Holocaust remembrances.

To make matters worse for Glendale, the mayor of Higashiōsaka sent Weaver a very angry letter, and Higashiōsaka officials are threatening to end its cultural and exchange relationship with Glendale. Oh, how will Glendale ever recover…

Anyway, if you wanted to counterbalance the 2ch trolls, feel free to send an email to Mayor Weaver at

Textbook disputes: not just for left-wingers

So, Ye Olde Chosun—and a lot of other folk on the right side of the political ledger—are unhappy with some of the left-learning Korean history textbooks that schools may use from next year.

In particular, the Chosun cites who two textbooks who make the Soviet occupation army in the north look like liberators and the US occupation army in the south look like, well, occupiers by comparing side-by-side the degrees of their respective commands (Dr. Andrei Lankov looks at this thorny issue) and another textbook for emphasizing the oppressiveness of South Korea’s post-war dictators while refusing to even use the word “dictatorship” to describe North Korea’s ruling regime.

The Chosun notes this as left-wing scholars, media and, of course, the KTU clamor for the government to rescind official sanction for a textbook by the “new right”-leaning Kyohak Publishing Company, which has been accused of a) beautifying the Japanese colonial era and b) playing down abuses by Korea’s post-war dictators, including the Gwangju Massacre. In fact, the Chosun accuses the campaign of being an leftist attempt to keep rightist views of history out of the classroom.

Personally, I think everyone’s full of shit here, but without having actually seen the textbooks in question, that’s more of a gut feeling rather than an informed opinion.

There’s more history fun on the way with the Park administration set to name a man accused by some of being a Syngman Rhee fan boy as the new chairman of the National Institute of Korean History. But that will have to wait for a bit later.

When the Japanese right get an idea in their heads…

I’m not really sure what the Comfort Women have to do with Osaka city affairs, but mayor Toru Hashimoto really likes to talk about them. Or Tweet about them, as it were:

“Japan was bad,” he told a party meeting on Monday, the Asahi Shimbun reported. “It is true that we used women to solve the problem of sex on the battlefield.

“Having said that, America, Britain, Germany and France, and even the South Korean military in Vietnam after WWII, they all used women to address the issue.

“Japan was bad, but you all should face up to history. This is what Japanese politicians must say,” the Asahi quoted him as saying.

Hashimoto’s use of Twitter has even got The Ish—who recently blasted Hashimoto for calling Japan’s surprise visits to its Asian neighbors in the 1930s and 1940s “aggression”—advising caution—really difficult to express right-wing historical revisionism in 140 characters or less.

To be fair to Hashimoto, at least he’s saying rude things politely. The same could not be said about his until-recently party colleague Shingo Nishimura, who made quite possibly the most disgusting statement about the Comfort Women I’ve ever read coming from the mouth of a public official:

During his speech, Nishimura also defended compatriot Hashimoto’s statement, saying that ‘comfort women’ had been incorrectly translated to ‘sex slaves,’ according to USA Today.

“‘Comfort women’ is erroneously translated as ‘sex slaves,’ which might encourage anti-Japanese riots and conspiracies,” he said. “We better fight back by telling them that the words ‘comfort women’ and ‘sex slaves’ are completely different and that there are numerous South Korean prostitutes roaming around Japan.”

He then put the final nail in the controversial commentary coffin, joking that he might visit his hometown of Osaka, venture into red-light districts and yell, “Hey, you South Korean comfort women!”

I believe the actual comment was something more along the lines of “Japan is swarming with Korean prostitutes.” He did get expelled from his party for that statement, and even Hashimoto was apparently appalled by it. Still, I suppose we should be thankful in a way—the feeling I’ve gotten is that these guys really believe that not only was Japan blameless for the Comfort Women, but also that the Comfort Women were essentially a Korean problem, that Korea is a nation of whores. At least Nishimura was being honest.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now comparing the Yasukuni Shrine to Arlington National Cemetery:

Abe cited a Japanese history professor, Kevin Doak of Georgetown University, who said that visiting the Arlington National Cemetery, where Confederate soldiers are buried “does not mean endorsing slavery.”

Fair dinkum, but then again, I’m unaware of anything like the Yūshūkan on the grounds of Arlington. Excuse me if I’m mistaken.

The UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is reportedly calling on Japan to take measures to prevent hate speech directed at the Comfort Women. I like the altered Korean flag in the protest photo—who said the Japanese right doesn’t do irony?

Flavour of the Month – History Is For Winners

A people must know its past to ensure its future . . .

This quote was made in reference to country where there have different cultures in the same region over a period of centuries but this leader believes that the current occupiers have written the correct version of history.
Which country’s leader made this this observation:

  1. China
  2. America
  3. India
  4. Israel
  5. Japan

If you are clever, you can find the answer close at hand.

The answer is Israel

MUST READ: Lankov on souring of Soviet-DPRK ties through 1960s

If you’re interested in Korean history, Andrei Lankov has a piece up at Sino-NK on ties between North Korea and the Soviet Union during North Korea’s early years.

Christ, and you thought relations between South Korea and the United States could be difficult. Eesh.

I especially appreciated Kim Il-sung’s attempts to kidnap dissenting North Korean students from Moscow. Of course, North Korea wasn’t the only Korea fond of this tactic.

The Comfort Woman Issue Could Have Been Resolved Last Year?

Or so say’s Kim Tae-hyo, former adviser to Lee Myung Bak in an interview with an Asahi Shimbun correspondent.

Kim is quoted to say:

The December 2011 summit in Kyoto between President Lee and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda devolved into a long, bitter argument over the comfort women issue. This is the final and most serious historical dispute between Japan and South Korea.

After the summit, Tokyo worked hard to try to resolve it during Lee’s presidency, and both sides engaged in sincere dialogue. The goal of the talks boiled down to having the Japanese prime minister express his heartfelt apology to the former comfort women–now advanced in years–and Japan paying them compensation.

Actually, Tokyo and Seoul almost reached an agreement, although few Japanese know about this. Outside the regular diplomatic channel, I had special contacts with top Japanese government officials, and we were on the verge of striking a compromise on almost all points.

Really?  Well, that’s news to me.  Kim goes on to talk about his thoughts on the joint security intelligence sharing agreement between Japan and Korea that was also nixed last year.  Anyway, interesting read.  However, I am not sure if anyone with either the Lee or Noda administrations will confirm (or deny) what Kim is saying.

Old photos of Korea make Foreign Policy

I know we’re posted a link to these photos before, but Foreign Policy picked up on a post by Korea Bang of rare color photos of Korea around the time of the Korean War.

At this point, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the publishing company I work for, Seoul Selection, has published a coffee table book of color photographs from the Korean War (Amazon) taken by war correspondent John Rich.

Korea Bang has also posted some more color photos of Korea taken during the 60s, along with netizen reactions. You can see the entire album on Flickr here.

Speaking of photos and Foreign Policy, they’ve also got a photo essay of Instagram photos from Iran. No, it has nothing to do with Korea, but I’m something of an Iranophile, and the city of Isfahan is high up in my top 10 places to visit before I kick. Anyway, my blog.