Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book #5: The Dawn of Modern Korea

Andrei Lankov's The Dawn of Modern Korea is a great book for two reasons. First, Lankov is one of the most knowledgeable writers about any aspect of Korea, the endless dance with North Korea being one such subject. When he says something about Korea, there's a very good chance it's true. Second, the book is different from virtually any other history of Korea written in English (and presumably most of those written in Korean) in that it doesn't give us the narrative of war and politics.

Instead, The Dawn of Modern Korea is great for its look into how ordinary life in Korea modernized. The usual stories of politics are relegated to the backdrop. Lankov went to some lengths to find information about ordinary life over a very tumultuous period in Korea: the hundred years or so that spanned the end of old Korea and the Joseon dynasty, the Japanese colonial era, the Korean War and the three decades of dictatorship that followed.

What was striking about the book were its themes of life in "traditional" Korea, so drastically different from its modern counterpart. Whereas today we know Korea as a relatively liberal, Westernized open society, Korea at the turn of the twentieth-century was astonishingly conservative. It's not just that the miniskirts of today were not found in the past, but also considered inappropriate was shopping, eating out at a restaurant and staying out late, all hallmarks of urban life in twenty-first century Korea.

A constant theme throughout the book is the absence of cars. The number of cars in Seoul can be roughly tracked to the modernity of Korea. Whereas today there is one car for every three people, as late as 1980 there was one car for every 150 people. This helps to explain why taxis are so cheap in Korea.

Eating at a 24-hour restaurant, commonplace today to the point that you haven't really gotten the full Korea experience if you haven't had a full meal between 3 and 6 am, was unheard of. There were virtually no restaurants in pre-colonial Korea, partly because no one had the money for it, partly because it was considered culturally inappropriate.

Staying out all night is also a relatively recent phenomenon. Starting in about 1400, leaving the house between 10 pm and 4 am was forbidden as a public security measure. This practice in one form or another continued up until independence, when the Americans instituted it for its obvious advantages, and subsequent Korean dictatorships utilized it very well. It was only lifted with Korea's democratization.

In a similar vein, traveling outside the country was also forbidden for some time. Men could only travel for business, education or if they were over 50, an idea Lankov attributes as being portraying men as soldiers first and foremost, but also an attempt to keep currency within the country. If men couldn't go, women certainly couldn't go alone, and as a result, nobody went. It's not clear, however, how all those Koreans managed to immigrate overseas.

The idea of Seoul as a powerful metropolis is also a relatively new one. Today, the Seoul area makes up about half of the country's population. As late as the 1890s, some areas just outside Seoul were considered risky for solo travelers because of tigers. Considering that Seoul of those days was roughly bound by Bugaksan, Inwangsan, Namsan, Naksan, an area that's today only the core of Seoul, this means much of what's today Seoul was territory for tigers not too long ago.

The growth of Seoul is simply astonishing: its population was about 200,000 around the start of the Japanese colonization, reaching 1 million by its end. It then multipled tenfold between independence and democratization in 1987. This helps to explain why the first apartment buildings in Seoul were a disaster at the start: nobody wanted to live that high up in the 1960s, it was strange disorienting.

Korea's astonishing economic rise can be viewed, interestingly, through the disbelief of outsiders. When a country with a GPD per capita of $100 decided to start producing steel, the world thought it was insane. After all, Korea neither had the facilities, nor the education, nor the raw materials. At considerable risk, Korea used reparations from Japan to build a steel mill in Pohang. The Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) is now often the world's biggest depending on the year, but at its inception, it was a project that no one would touch.

The now clogged Gyeongbu Expressway between Seoul and Busan is similar. When first built in the 1960s, the world refused to finance it: it was pointless to build a highway to connect a dirt-poor country where dirt roads weren't an issue since no one even had cars. In the event, General Park's gamble paid off in both cases, along with several others, though it obviously came at considerable cost. This is still a country where you input your national ID number (SIN for Canadians, SSN for Americans) just to buy a movie ticket.

If you live in Korea, have lived in Korea, live in Asia, have lived in Asia or simply enjoy contemporary history, I guarantee you will enjoy this book (it's much cheaper in Korea, I bought it for 13,000 at Kyobo). The writing style is simple, engaging and the book is organized in short chapters that are vignettes or anecdotes of history rather than a long, purportedly academic undertaking of the subject.

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