A Walk Through Korea
A Walk Through Korea
Review of Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles by Simon Winchester
As the writer of the online articles "No Source for Winchester's Hanging-Priests Calumny" and "Simon Winchester's Smooth Forked Tongue" and having been influenced by some of the negative customers' reviews, I was very much prepared not to like this book. I read it out of curiosity because of my previous acquaintance with Winchester's writing and because Korea is a subject that is very near to my heart. I instituted a monthly full-day orientation session for new arrivals into our command when I was the director of training for the U.S. Army's 20th General Support Group in Korea in 1967-68, I once taught a college May-term course on Korean culture, and my wife of almost 45 years is a native of Korea. Last October, I was the only non-native-Korean in a 3-week tour of Korea. It was my first time back in 38 years.
I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed Winchester's book, finding it entertaining, informative, and quite fair and balanced. He is very much a man of the world and a fine writer with the resultant ability to put things in their proper perspective. How anyone could read this book and come to the conclusion that he hates Korea or Koreans frankly amazes me. I recently read and reviewed The Voices of Heaven by Korean native Maija Rhee Devine and the impression I get is that Winchester actually likes Korea a good deal more than Devine does. And he did not spend an inordinate amount of his time with U.S. military people and among the sordid element of Korean society. He spent more time with Catholic priests and Buddhist monks and nuns. The U.S. air bases at Kunsan and Pyeontaek happened to be on his chosen route, the route that the first Westerners to encounter Korea took to Seoul, and his visit to the DMZ necessarily entailed associating with U.S. military people.
I also did not find his method of interspersing historical and social observations among his own daily accounts of his experience the least bit off-putting. It's a very good way to hold the reader's attention, and it's one of the reasons that I would assign the book to my students if I ever taught another course in Korean culture. The technique might be called "the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down."
Concerning his various encounters with Korean females, one must consider that he was a charming, not-bad-looking tall man in the prime of his life walking alone. This glorious male-female thing, like the spice of the food, the seasons of the year, and the political emotions, is something else that seems more intense in Korea. That's one of the reasons, I believe, that their romantic dramas are so popular now throughout East Asia. And if Winchester comments on numerous occasions on the attractiveness of the Korean women he meets, I don't think he is being sexist; he's being objective, to my mind.
The book is now remarkably dated not because of the great economic changes that have taken place since the year leading up to the Seoul Olympics when Winchester made his trek, but because of South Korea's wonderful political transformation. Reading the book is a good reminder of what a short time ago it was that the country was a military dictatorship ruled by the unenlightened, corrupt though thankfully rather weak despot Chun Doo Hwan. Now I think South Korea has passed the United States on the democracy scale. They have come to grips with the bad things in their recent past much more honestly, I believe, than we have in the United States. While they have become freer and more open, we have been moving rapidly in the opposite direction, particularly since 9/11.
Finally, I do agree with one of the reviewers that Winchester probably isn't completely truthful when it comes to his sexual encounters. But then, who is? I also get the impression that he is not the sort of writer who would let the truth get in the way of a good story. When it concerns something as inconsequential as one person's experience as opposed to important history, who really cares? He is in the best English tradition, after all, when it comes to shading the truth, if, in fact, he did it from time to time. In the two World Wars of the 20th century, the Germans had it all over them when it came to military organization and weaponry. See Blood, Tears, and Folly: An Objective Look at World War ll, but no one has ever been in the class of the English when it comes to propaganda. See Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44 (Brassey's Intelligence & National Security Library) Remember, it was Winston Churchill who said, "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." Winchester, I gather, has taken Churchill to heart, and not just in times of war.
This review was originally posted on the Amazon.com site for Winchester’s book on February 22, 2014. The miracle of modern South Korea may be contrasted with the horror of Stalinist North Korea, as depicted in the new memoir by Masaji Ishikawa, A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea.
March 7, 2018