A poor man’s Marco Polo, Hendrick Hamel was the first European to write a detailed account of Korea. The twenty-two-year-old bookkeeper was serving aboard the Dutch East India Company’s Sperwer (Sparrowhawk) as it set sail on July 30, 1653, from the Dutch settlement of Anping, Formosa. Laden with a cargo of alum, camphor, deerskins, and sugar, the three-masted barque was headed for Nagasaki, where the Dutch enjoyed rare trading rights (they were the sole Europeans allowed to trade directly with Japan). The Sparrowhawk and her crew of sixty-four vanished without a trace, and were later that year officially declared lost.

Caught in a typhoon, the ship had been driven ashore southwest of the Korean Peninsula on Jeju Island, with the loss of twenty-eight crew members. The thirty-six survivors were taken by ship to the nearby Korean mainland, then overland to the royal court in Seoul — a ten-day journey that best-selling British author Simon Winchester used as a template for a walk through the country.

Hendrick Hamel and his fellow survivors were enlisted as guards at the royal palace in Seoul, and dismayed to find that this was lifetime employment. Because Korea’s rulers feared militarily useful information getting out of the country, the Dutchmen — like other foreigners with the same ill fortune of washing ashore — would have to spend the rest of their lives in Korea. When found to be plotting an escape, the Dutchmen were punished and exiled to the southwest of the country, where they worked as labourers, which paid so little they had to supplement their income with begging. Some of them married local women and had children.

In 1666, after nearly thirteen years in Korea, Hamel and seven of his crewmates (by this time only sixteen of the survivors were still alive) managed to escape in a small fishing boat to Japan and from there returned to the Netherlands. Hamel’s account of the Hermit Kingdom was published in 1668.

I first came across Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles when looking for what had been written about Hamel’s time in Korea. Winchester, however, doesn’t explore the Hamel story in much depth, and his book is not an “in the footsteps of” kind of travelogue. Apart from several passages giving a brief account of the story, he goes with the lazy option of starting each chapter with a lengthy quote from Hamel’s account (without explanation or particular relevance to the section that follows).

Winchester first visited Korea in 1985 as a journalist doing a story on the massive Hyundai shipyards in Ulsan. Fascinated by how the war-ravaged nation had so quickly turned itself into an economic powerhouse (and no doubt with an eye on the upcoming 1988 Seoul Olympics) he decided to gain a deeper understanding of the country. Returning in the early spring of 1987, Winchester spent two months in Korea, of which several weeks were devoted to walking the length of the country.

Korea is an easy yet informative read. It’s packed with interesting encounters and details about the culture and history; of the latter, standouts for me were a profile of sixteenth-century naval genius, Yi Sun-sin; a history of Korea’s unique writing script; and a recounting of an uprising and massacre in the city of Kwangju in 1980.

Although the book is in some respects dated, Winchester’s visit is a window into a pivotal time in modern Korean history. These were the last days of the authoritarian military government. Protests by students and workers preceded and followed Winchester’s walk through the Land of the Morning Calm. With the 1988 Olympic Games — supposed to be Korea’s coming out party à la Tokyo in 1964 — in peril, the regime relented: Elections were held and lasting democratic reforms introduced.

One of the things that has not changed since that time is the stand-off with North Korea. In an update to the original book, Winchester has added a lengthy preface (written in early 2004) detailing several trips to the northern capital of Pyongyang. He admits feeling “a slow-growing affection of the place, even a kind of stubborn admiration” for its “innocent gentility” and “the essential purity of the Korea-ness.”

In a passage that could have been written by a Canadian liberal arts undergraduate, he says:

I feel about North Korea much as I do about today’s Cuba — that however grim and impoverished and unfree it may be, there is some credit to be given for the fact that it has as yet not been entirely swallowed up by the globalized Coca-Cola culture of its neighbours, that it labours still to be entirely free from influence from America, that it manages, however weirdly, to limp along without much help from the world beyond.

I find it repugnant that a Westerner enjoying the prosperity and freedom to travel to a land where the people have neither, praises their captivity as some kind of noble authenticity. It might be a totalitarian hellhole where millions are starving, but, hey, at least they don’t have McDonald’s.

The passage quoted above also catches a thread of anti-Americanism that runs through the book. Of the many American military personnel Winchester meets, he only has anything good to say about one of them, a base commander. The others are dull, ignorant, and boorish. This seems, at the very least, ungrateful, considering the hospitality they extended to him and the fact that he lied to get himself hosted on the American base. His criticism of soldiers’ interactions with the local people being primarily through whoring is undermined by his own behaviour and attitudes.

Winchester describes the Korean women he meets on his travels in terms of their attractiveness. They’re “pretty,” “attractive,” or “beautiful” in a way that suggests he’s sizing them up for the bedroom. He comes off as sleazy even with plainer women (the ones without the aforementioned adjectives), such as when he enters a café where two “girls” were preparing lunch. He’s the only customer, and one of the girls, “comfortably chubby,” overcomes her shyness and starts feeling his arm hair, then moves on to his chest hair. “I found this all a great joke and thrust my own hand down her dress, discovering much the same as I had in the Room-Salon, only more. [Winchester is referring to an earlier episode when he was feeling up a busty bar girl.] She wasn’t in the least bit offended….”

Winchester — aged 42 and between wives at the time of his trip — uses this brief encounter to launch into some whimsical generalisations:

Korean women, I am bound to think, present a most bewildering and complicated mixture of emotions and attitudes. One woman can at the same moment be delightfully shy and yet alarmingly forward, liberated and yet coquettishly deferential, sexually ignorant and yet wantonly promiscuous, aggressive and argumentative and yet strangely sulky and passive. So very different from the Japanese — so friendly, so curious, so studiously attentive. The baser side of me would often think that for stimulation and curiosity value alone there could probably be no greater woman than the Korean, but life could at the same time perhaps be pretty hellish, I have no doubt.

In fairness to Winchester, though, commenting on the attractiveness of women is an easy trap to fall into, especially when there’s a language barrier and impressions are based primarily on appearance. (Note to travel writers: proofread for perviness.)

Another common pitfall for the travel writer is including too many fellow foreigners, and Winchester is also guilty on this score. There are some great conversations with the likes of a Cantonese manager of a honeymoon hotel and an Irish priest on Jeju Island, but many of the others would have been better replaced with Korean voices. Case in point is the epilogue, which consists of a long discussion with a high-level European representative (who has to remain anonymous for diplomacy’s sake but who we are told has had access to leaders on both sides of the 38th parallel). This mystery man puts most of the blame for north–south tensions on the Americans and the South Koreans: “the generals in Seoul are utterly intransigent, and that is with the knowledge, connivance and probable support of the Americans. So long as the Americans call the shots in South Korea, there’ll be no political movement. Things will simply get worse and worse.”

We also get a repeat of Winchester’s comments in the preface: “But the people in the North seem, in a strange way, to be purer in their Koreanness. They are still gracious and kindly.”

Despite my criticisms of Korea, I’m still recommending the book. The Hendrick Hamel story is a fascinating one, however briefly told; and for all his faults, Winchester is not a boring writer. Think of a good-natured, occasionally lecherous tour guide. Even though you may suspect a fair bit of what you’re hearing is peppered with personal bias and bullshit, there’s no denying he is an accomplished storyteller.