Education About Asia: Online Archives

Living Dangerously in Korea: The Western Experience, 1900–1950

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ISBN: 1-891936-11-5

Reviewed by Michael J. Seth

Donald Clark has written an engaging account of the small number of Westerners who lived and worked in Korea during the turbulent first half of the twentieth century. This period saw the end of the five-century-old Yi dynasty, the four-decade-long occupation of Korea by Japan, the Second World War, the division and occupation of the country by the Soviet Union and the United States in 1945, and the outbreak of the Korean War.  The book is essentially two intertwined tales: the unfolding of Korean history from the viewpoint of the Western community, and the story of the expatriates themselves, often as caught up and confused by the tumultuous history of the period as were most Koreans. The Westerners Clark describes include diplomats, business speculators, soldiers, and refugees from Europe and North America—but he focuses primarily on American Protestant missionaries, the largest foreign community in the country, numbering in the hundreds.

It is written in two parts. The first and longer deals with the period from the arrival in Seoul in 1902 of Charles and Mabel Clark, Presbyterian missionaries from Minnesota, to the evacuation of the Americans from Korea during the period before Pearl Harbor. While many missionaries became deeply acquainted with Korean culture, most, even the best intentioned missionaries, lived in foreign compounds separated from both the Koreans and the Japanese by language barriers. We see the Westerners’ general disgust for what they regard as the “wretched” state of Korea under the aristocratic yangban class. Although a few became champions of Korean independence, most welcomed or at least accepted the change brought by Japanese colonial rule. Yet relations between the Western expatriate community and the Japanese colonial rulers were often tense. This points to some of the anomalies of Japanese colonialism. While the Japanese were bringing the kind of “progress” to Korea that most Europeans and Americans recognized and appreciated, the Japanese officials often viewed Westerners with suspicion. The activities of missionaries in particular came into conflict with Tokyo’s imperial vision, and the autonomy of Christian churches, schools, and other institutions conflicted with the increasingly totalitarian nature of the colonial regime.  Tensions between Westerners, especially missionaries, and the Japanese grew more strained in the 1930s as the later sought to force Koreans into Shinto worship, and the oppressive nature of the colonial regime became more pronounced. After 1938 the Japanese took control of mission institutions, and Christian organizations such as the YMCA had to break their international ties. Korean Christians with Western connections suffered surveillance, persecution, and sometimes arrest. Western missionaries were so carefully watched that their best assistance to Korean converts was to avoid them.