Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Korea, Are You at Peace? Isabella Bishop

While still in Korea, I purchased a book, Korea's Cultural Roots, by Dr. Jon Carter Covell.  In it, she describes a "Scotswoman," Mrs. Bishop who, at the age of sixty-three (my age during that first year in Korea), traveled around Korea on her own in the 1890's. Covell recommends:  "...that the reader get a copy of this book, to contrast the pitiful conditions of life in the Hermit Kingdom of the 1890's with the bustling prosperity and modernization of today.”  After returning to the United States and pulling together some recollections of my stay in Korea, I decided to find out who this Mrs. Bishop was.  A Google search turned up several references to her and her work, including a book on Korea entitled:  Korea and her Neighbors (first published in 1897), which happened to be available in facsimile edition.

Isabella Lucy Bird Bishop was already a seasoned traveler and respected travel writer, known to most as Isabella Bird, when she undertook her two-year sojourn in Korea and nearby regions of China, Russia and Japan.  Bishop traveled into the mountainous Korean back-country under grueling conditions, and she was probably the first Western female to be seen in Korea outside its major cities.  As it happened, her travels occurred just as events were wrenching Korea from its 600-year-long, traditional Asian existence as an "independent" kingdom ruled by the Yi dynasty (although acknowledging China's suzerainty) into the turmoil of the twentieth century, a century of  subjugation, war, and occupation. Indeed, Bishop's itinerary during the last year of her journey was determined to a considerable extent by political events of the time, particularly the war between Japan and China of 1894 - 95. Ironically, that brief war was fought over which of those two nations had the right to protect Korea's independence!
As a consequence of the disastrous defeat of the Chinese in Korea and Manchuria during that war, Japan effectively took political control of Korea and subsequently (1910) annexed the country and ruled it as a Japanese colony for nearly a half century.  It was during the initial phases of this disastrous series of events, culminating in the Korean Conflict, that Isabella Bishop traveled to Korea.  Between the end of the Korean Conflict and the time I arrived in Korea, the peninsula and its people had suffered an additional half century of insult and deprivation:  artificial division of its land into two countries, domination by superpowers espousing very different ideologies, and oppression by Korean military dictators.  During those five decades, the United States has had military troops stationed on Korean soil.
Bishop and I both experienced chaos and confusion on initial contact with the totally unfamiliar Korean culture, followed by the more seasoned sense of acculturation and appreciation that comes with familiarity.  Isabella Bird Bishop was assisted in her travels in Korea primarily by missionaries and their organizations, and secondarily by British diplomatic officers.  By contrast, my sponsor was an educational institution (UMUC) under contract to U.S. Armed Forces Overseas. 
One might see parallels between nineteenth century missionary efforts to convert non-Europeans to Christianity and twentieth century military efforts to convert those same populations to "democratic" (capitalist or communist) political systems.

Friday, December 24, 2010


I have always considered myself politically independent, but I became involved in politics this fall.  I really wanted to see Jim DeMint defeated as senator, and I also hoped the Democrats would hold onto their margins in the House and Senate so that we could continue to pull out of the national disasters (wars and financial irresponsibility) brought about by the previous administration.  I sent money to candidates; I volunteered at the local Democratic Headquarters; I sent money to the DCCC; I called registered voters; I sent more money to the DNC; I canvassed local neighborhoods; I went to rallies for the Democratic candidate for Governor.

And it was all for naught.  Worse than that, it was a disaster.  I should know enough to stay out of politics - that is, if I really want a candidate of my choice to win an election.  I have voted in every presidential election (and in most mid-terms) since I first became eligible to vote in 1958.  And not one of the presidential candidates I voted for - in my first three decades of going to the polls - won an election.  Not until Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 did a candidate I favored actually win.  (A colleague at the time said he hoped I’d vote for Clinton, because that would be a likely sign he’d lose.)  I must be totally out of synch with the American public, or else my criteria differ from those of most folks when it comes to choosing public servants/officials.
After George Bush was elected in 2000, I was heart-sick; I had a bout of despair like I had not felt since Kennedy was shot. In a lament over the phone to my sister, I said (with the kind of understated sarcasm that few non-Midwesterners understand):  “The American people finally got the president they so richly deserve.”  I hope Sarah Palin doesn’t pull a George Bush.  It could spell doom for our country as a significant world power.  We might become the Great Britain of the Western Hemisphere, glorying in our past while drinking beer and watching our favorite entertainment.

In the 2008 primaries, I initially favored John Edwards, and when he left the race, I put my support (and money) behind Hillary Clinton.  Of course, I voted for Barack Obama in the election, and was glad he won, but I was afraid he would get macerated by Washington politics.  In this past (2010) election, I supported several upstanding candidates; two of them were defeated in the primary, including a prospective democrat who might have had a chance against Jim DeMint.  I didn’t vote a straight ticket in that election; I don’t believe I ever have.  But it was especially painful not to be able to vote for a viable democratic candidate for senator.  Other excellent candidates for non-partisan offices were also defeated, and I wondered if that was because a great many of the voters simply pulled the straight-ticket lever.
I believe it was Winston Churchill who said something like:  Democracy is a terrible form of government, but it’s better than anything else that’s been tried.*  So I guess we’re stuck with it.  But I think I’ll just try not to show enthusiasm for future political candidates.  I don't want my support to be a curse.
*The actual quote is:  No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Korea, Are You at Peace? The DMZ

The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, is a four-kilometer (2.5 mile) wide and 250-kilometer (155 mile) long gash across the Korean peninsula at roughly the 38th parallel, although it deviates in several places.  It symbolizes a wound that continues to fester in the Korean psyche, the wound of forced division of a country that had been culturally and linguistically unified, as well as forced separation of friends and relatives from one another across a politically arbitrary divide.  It is a living reminder of the Korean Conflict (Korean War), a war that should never have occurred, and never really ended. And it symbolizes the national helplessness experienced by a small country in the face of the military might of other world powers (USSR, USA and China) that wish to control its fate.  Those countries might have saved Korea from an oppressor (Japan) at the end of WWII, but in exchange, they have robbed the country of its power of self-determination, creating two puppet states, one of which continues in the North, although the South is now virtually autonomous.
Panmunjom, located in the middle of the DMZ, was the village where an armistice was signed terminating the vicious three year Korean Conflict (1950 – 1953).  This truce, brokered by the USSR and the UN, included all parties involved:  North and South Korea, the Soviet Union, the United States, and China.  But it was a truce, not a peace treaty, and the Korean War has still not ended, and will not end--at least in the minds of most Koreans--until the country is reunited.  In the intervening half century, the politics and collective experiences of the populations in the two halves of the riven country have diverged so radically that reuniting them could be as traumatic as the original rift.
After about two months in Korea, I visited the DMZ on a trip organized by the American military, intended primarily for service personnel and their families.  It was a sobering experience. Until the DMZ trip, I hadn't reflected much on the kind of political stalemate and military time bomb that still exists in Korea half century after the truce. The U.N. troops at Panmunjom, within the DMZ itself, are always on high alert, and the tension in the air is palpable. The North Koreans have dug several tunnels beneath the DMZ with the objective of providing surprise attack routes into South Korea.  Four tunnels have been discovered so far, one of which we visited during the trip; another twenty are rumored to exist.  The trek back up after an easy but slippery descent into the bowel of the tunnel was exhausting. I'm sure any soldiers passing through the tunnel would be in better shape than I was; nonetheless, given the narrowness of the tunnel, the steepness of the grade, and the uneven terrain, this would NOT be an efficient way to get many soldiers from North to South, so I doubt seriously any surprise attack is planned via that route.  Still, the very presence of tunnels creates a fear factor.
North and South Korean military troops occupy separate buildings at Panmunjom and peer through binoculars at each other and at the intrepid tourists who venture to the site. There are towers on both sides of the no-man's land, the demilitarized line or DML, about the width of a football field that separates the hostile factions. The South Korean (Republic of Korea, or ROK) soldiers adopt a Tae Kuon Do stance, fists at their sides, knees bent, shoulders hunched, as if they were crouching animals ready to strike. This is intended to intimidate the North Koreans.  Soldiers from both sides glare at each other across the distance, daring each other to make a move. There have been a few incidents in which soldiers were killed. One of the towers on the U.N. side (the only side we visited) was constructed with a Korean Buddhist temple motif: colorful roof tiles and graceful wall paintings in bright contrast to the gray reality of the half-century-long stand-off.
We also visited the actual room where the temporary truce was signed in 1953. Our guide, an American soldier stationed at the DMZ, emphasized that what existed between North Korea and South Korea was a truce, not a peace treaty, and that they were still officially at war. That was a sobering realization.
On the southern edge of the DMZ is a concrete wall, "the Korean Wall,”built by the South and intended as an anti-tank barrier.  Along the northern border of the DMZ is a heavily electrified (3kV) triple fence built by the North.  And the land between them is strewn with mines.
A small, positive result of this DMZ no-man's-land is that the thin empty swath across the Korean peninsula has become a de facto wildlife sanctuary teeming with birds, including a large flock of Manchurian cranes, and small mammals, and even some endangered larger animals such as the Asiatic black bear.  Indeed, some of the flora and fauna found there may no longer exist elsewhere on the Korean peninsula.  Environmentalists everywhere hope that, if the country is re-united, the DMZ will remain uninhabited by humans.  At present, an international effort is underway by an ecologic advocacy group, the DMZ Forum, ( to preserve this once-grim symbol of war as a monument to peace and preservation.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Women Aren’t There

I’m in the process of revising a book entitled:  Korea, Are You at Peace, based on a two year sojourn  in Korea and am incorporating into my narrative some portions of a memoir by Isabella Bird-Bishop, a Victorian travel writer who visited Korea a century earlier.  She was well-known – one could even say famous – in her time; she traveled around the world, published numerous travelogues, and was the first woman to be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society.  Indeed, her presence in the RGS created such a furor from misogynistic members that she quietly withdrew the following year.  She refused to rejoin upon being invited once again, although other women had since become members.
Still, when I tried to find her in my copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, she wasn’t there.  She wasn’t there under the name Bird, by which name she is identified by most who refer to her historically, or under the name Bishop, which she acquired rather late in life at the age of 50.  Admittedly, my version of the Encyclopedia Britannica is one we had when the children were young.  It dates to 1978.  Jimmy Carter was then president of the United States, which seems like a long time ago, although he is still a force in the world.  And Queen Elizabeth was then sovereign of Great Britain, which she amazingly still is.  
Queen Victoria, a model for many nascent British feminists, was sovereign when Isabella Bishop traveled to Korea.  Bishop was one of several noted female Victorian adventurers and travel writers, including Gertrude Bell and Florence Nightingale, who courageously navigated the non-Western world, often on their own.
I’ve checked that encyclopedia for three other women who came up in conversation and reading this past week:  Maria Montessori, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun.  I’ll admit that two of them (Montessori and Gaskell) were there, so it’s not that women aren’t represented in the most prestigious encyclopedia in the English language.  It’s just that there are very few of them, and those are quite famous.  I often start reading an article in the encyclopedia then peruse the pages beyond and behind, just for the compulsive pleasure of learning something new.  There are lots of articles on old guys no one knows about, but essentially no articles on old women nobody has heard of before.
I don’t know what the current Encyclopedia Britannica contains.  Perhaps all four of these women are now there.  You might ask:  “Why don’t you just go online and get information there?”  Of course I do, and I have.  But I like a written encyclopedia, particularly this one.  I trust it to be accurate.  But I realize I can’t trust it to be comprehensive.  And I like to simply peruse it for random information.  You really can’t do that with an online search.
But women are now getting into history through the back door, via sites like the National Museum of Women in the Arts ( and the projected National Women’s History Museum (  The latter had a small blurb on Isabella Bird Bishop and her environmental descriptions of Hawaii (“The Sandwich Islands”) in a recent newsletter article extolling women pioneers in environmental awareness and protection.
Let’s resurrect the women and save the planet.