The North Korean army recently launched a provocative artillery barrage against a neighboring tiny South Korean coastal island, increasing tensions and creating a war-scare that has once more put that most secretive of nations back into the international spotlight. Since the aims and decisions of the North Korean dictatorship remain shrouded in secrecy, outsiders have had to speculate that the hostile actions are linked to the preparations underway for the transfer of power from the ailing Kim Jong II to his son, Kim Jong Eun. In addition to issuing threats of “massive retaliation,” the South Koreans have joined with their Japanese and U.S. military allies in joint military exercises in the region as a show of strength, power, and resolve.


It would be easy under these circumstances to attribute Korean inscrutability to its dictatorial regime, but history indicates that the Koreans have had a long-standing reputation as a “hermit” nation. Thanks to the generosity of long-time Wolfsonian supporters, Jean and Frederic Sharf, our library now holds numerous rare books that shed light on this isolated and enigmatic region in an earlier era.


More than one hundred years ago, George Lynch traveled through Korea—that “hermit kingdom, the Land of the Morning Calm” which he described as “shrouded in the mysterious twilight of its isolation.” The memoir he wrote in the wake of that trip was illustrated with his own photographs, some of the earliest photographic images available of this region. Lynch copiously documented Korean culture, leaving behind word descriptions and photographic images of typical villages and cottages, peasants gambling, women ironing clothes, street vendors peddling their wares in Seoul, a Gesang or “dancing girl,” the presence of Japanese soldiers, and even a portrait of the Korean emperor. 


Tensions between the Japanese and Koreans also have a longer history than most Americans are aware. The Sharf donation also included another travelogue book Look to the East written by roving journalist Frederick Palmer and published in 1930. Palmer describes a “rural Korea” then under Japanese annexation. But in spite of Japan’s efforts to dominate the region renamed Chosen, Palmer noted that the Koreans had successfully maintained their traditions and become in the words of the author, only “very slightly Japanned.”

While the totalitarian regime now ruling North Korea with an iron fist, hardly resembles either the Korean empire or the Japanese puppet state of Chosen, one can without stretching the point see something of the “hermit kingdom” in Korea today. North Korea continues to be a country of poor peasants, remains as isolated as ever from outside influences, stubbornly determined to maintaining its traditions and resist change, and openly hostile to the perceived threat of foreign domination.

~ by "The Chief" on December 3, 2010.

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