[KS] Korea's Inhospitable Shores

Robert Armstrong chonan99 at hotmail.com
Mon Aug 1 06:37:57 EDT 2005

I would like to take note with Prof. Burgeson's comments on the "Hermit 
Kingdom" when he wrote:

"[A]nyone who has read early travel literature by foreign visitors to Korea 
(Choson) like Hendrik Hamel and others knows that it was official policy to 
detain permanently foreign (mainly non-Chinese and non-Japanese) sailors who 
were shipwrecked on Korean shores so that they could not return to their 
native lands and disseminate information about Korea (and thus attract more 
unwanted visitors)."

There are more than enough cases during the 19th century that clearly shows 
this was not an official policy.  In fact there are possible cases of 
earlier explorers in the early 17th century that were also not treated in 
this manner.  Cases that come to mind immediately are:  The Two Brothers in 
1855, The Surprise in 1866, the Mary in 1881, Benicia Portica in 1878, and a 
couple of other British ships during the same period.  Likewise we can argue 
that when the two French Frigates grounded off the coast of Korea during the 
1840s that they were not attacked by the local population - this might be 
because of the large number of French.  The French whaler in 1851 which was 
destroyed off the Amherst Island group had 29 French survivors - 9 managed 
to escape and returned to Shanghai for help - which came in the guise of the 
French Consul.  When he arrived on the island to rescue his men - he found 
that they were well treated and in fact were being prepared for a journey to 
the mainland and then on to China - overland.  The earliest possible account 
that the Westerners were apparently well cared for and sent to China was in 
the early 16th century - but were returned because their nationality was 
questionable - they were said to be Portuguese, but China did not recognize 
that.  They were returned to Korea and what became of them is unknown.

Having said this - there are a great number of stories in which Korea's 
hostility to Westerners have been repeated - often very slanted in 
perspective, and probably with some hidden agenda involved.  Other than 
Hamel's incident, the General Sherman is a prime one - but was the General 
Sherman at fault for its destruction - probably. The Russians were alleged 
to have been attacked in the Wonsan area during the 1850s while conducting 
surveys and ended up killing one of the Korean villagers which caused the 
Russian admiral to land a party and demand an apology - upon receiving 
satisfaction he invited the Korean officials to visit his ship.  Newspapers 
carry stories of crews going ashore (mainly on Cheju) and attacked and 
killed by Korean natives, and there are some (inaccurate) accounts in 
Japanese newspapers in which Western ships' crews were attacked at Pusan 
just prior to the opening of Korea to the West.  The West often gave these 
isolated incidents as reasons for demanding Korea open up and sign treaties 
with the Western nations to guarantee the safety of their shipwrecked 
survivors - but clearly the facts must speak for themselves that shipwreck 
survivors or castaways of all nationalities were well treated.

If you read the accounts you will find that in most cases the Westerners 
were treated well by the Koreans they encountered and were often given gifts 
of food.  If the Westerners attempted to go into the interior they were 
warned that Korean laws prohibited intercourse with outsiders and they 
merely attempted to block the intruder's entry with gestures - rarely, if 
ever, by force.

Robert Neff
Residing in the former "Hermit Kingdom"

>From: "J.Scott Burgeson" <jsburgeson at yahoo.com>
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>I am not an expert on the usage of "The Hermit
>Kingdom" as an official term in the past (I would
>argue it was more of a popular nickname used mostly by
>Westerners than anything else), but anyone who has
>read early travel literature by foreign visitors to
>Korea (Choson) like Hendrik Hamel and others knows
>that it was official policy to detain permanently
>foreign (mainly non-Chinese and non-Japanese) sailors
>who were shipwrecked on Korean shores so that they
>could not return to their native lands and disseminate
>information about Korea (and thus attract more
>unwanted visitors). Many of Hamel's shipmates died as
>a result of long captivity and Hamel was only able to
>write and publish his book by bribing and buying a
>boat from a local Korean and escaping to Japan. In
>such an inhospitable and unwelcoming context, calling
>Korea a "hermit" nation is in fact a rather benign
>term, given its largely religious and peaceful
>    I am writing to call into question the calavier
>usage of the extremely overused term "Orientalism." It
>has been a long time since Said theorized and
>introduced the term, and it seems to me that it has
>become both reified through overusage and, ironically,
>become rather vague and hence drained of meaning in
>many of its polemical deployments. Even Drabble
>misuses the term in her essay, describing Untold
>Scandal as an "Orientalization of French material,"
>when in fact the film is more accurately described as
>an Occidentalist fantasy localized in the Korean
>context (absurdly, in my opinion). In 2002, I lectured
>at Seoul National University on the subject of
>contemporary Korea's "hybrid identity" and in a
>rebuttle a Korean Studies professor on the faculty
>there attacked me as an "Orientalist" without
>addressing any of the actual points I had raised
>directly. The ironic fact is that I had been invited
>to Seoul Nat'l because of a book I had just published
>locally (in Korean) in which I discussed Orientalism
>and Said in great detail in the book's first long
>essay and did not dispute Said's main argument. In
>fact, his charge of Orientalism was simply a disguised
>defensive nationalism, a politically correct fig leaf,
>if you will, and so his usage of the term was more of
>an instrumentalization to suit his purposes than
>theoretically rigorous. But like charges of racism, it
>is hard to answer such attacks when one is a
>(supposed) member of the "oppressor" group (actually,
>I'm a minority in Korea with few rights, but that's
>another story entirely).
>    South Korea is now a developed country and desires
>greatly to be treated on equal footing with other
>developed nations, mainly of the West. Treating Korea
>as a victim and defending every criticism of it in a
>nonrigorous, kneejerk way as racist, imperialist,
>Orientalist, etc. is actually a denial and rejection
>of Korea's basic desire to be treated as an equal of
>other nations of the West (and the world). It is time
>to drop both the post-colonial defensive nationalism
>(since South Korea is now a post-post-colonial nation)
>and to be much more judicious in bandying about such
>loaded and overused terms as Orientalism. Indeed, I
>would argue that the term itself belongs to history
>and newer terms are needed for this much more complex
>time--what Negri and Hardt call the smooth, borderless
>Age of Empire--that we now all live in.
>    --Scott Bug, recovering Orientalist
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