Donald N. Clark, a leading figure in Korean Studies, is that rare breed of academic able to write broadly, write well, and for the general public. His books include Christianity in Modern Korea, Korea in World History, and Living Dangerously in Korea: The Western Experience 1900-1950. Although recently retired from teaching at Trinity University in San Antonio, he remains active in the field.
You dedicated Living Dangerously in Korea to your missionary grandparents and parents. Your parents were actually born in Korea and spent most of their adult lives there. Moving back to the States in their retirement must have been hard.
They spent twelve years (1941-52) in mid-career in South America, where I was born. Otherwise in Korea. When they retired in 1973, it was at a time when missionaries clearly were being pushed out, and they were glad to leave under their own power to retire in Minnesota first and then California. At the time I thought it odd that they showed no interest in going back. In fact once retired, they never did go back. Eventually I came to understand that they knew the time had come to leave, and that there was altogether too much fawning by Koreans over old retired missionaries who often did go back for honorary degrees and banquets and effusions of thanks. My parents were very humble people who tended to be embarrassed by events like that. Plus they really liked living in their retirement community in Southern California.
What are your strongest childhood memories of South Korea?
Generally the bitter circumstances of the Korean War’s aftermath, the suffering of Koreans all around me, and the remarkable privilege of being an American child living in a cocoon of safety. Six weeks of every summer I spent with my parents at our cabin at the missionary resort of Taechon Beach on the Yellow Sea, and, together with my school friends from the foreign community in Seoul, enjoying paradise at the beach. Korea was left outside the resort gate.
In high school, though, I had a great teacher who convinced me/us that we were living in an interesting place and we ought to pay more attention to what was happening all around us. I describe her influence on my cohort of missionary kids in the introduction to LDK. It changed my life.
Western protestant missionaries living in China used to sometimes flee the worst of summer by gaining altitude – going to hill stations like Moganshan – or by gaining latitude and heading to Korea or Japan. How much geographical fluidity did the missionaries in Korea enjoy?
Korea missionaries were free to travel to China and Japan and my grandparents infrequently visited Peking and Shanghai as well as Kyoto and Tokyo. For summers as I explain in the book they developed some very nice resorts in Korea itself, so they didn’t much go to Karuizawa or Moganshan.
Although my own family lived briefly in Japan, by the time my parents became missionaries themselves, the war years were upon them and as far as I know they did not have many chances to gallivant around China before 1937 or after 1953. We did sometimes take opportunities to stop over in Japan on our furlough trips. I remember my father took great pleasure in showing me/us sights in Japan where his father had taken him in the 1920s.
Are there any Western accounts from the Japanese colonial era that you’d like to recommend?
I wrote the book specifically to fill the void between missionary memoirs, which are sort of interesting but historically ill-informed and unreliable, and scholarly tomes that fix on one or another slice of the period to the exclusion of much else. So yes, there are many of both kinds that are good to read for their own reasons, but few/none that attempt the Western experience through the whole period.
How long did it take to write Living Dangerously in Korea?
I wrote it in stages, with chapters developing from scholarly papers that I delivered at conferences all over the world. The first one was in 1988 and the book was finally published in 2003, so that’s about fifteen years.
Did a lack of access to North Korea cause any difficulties in writing the book?
Eventually I did get to North Korea, twice, in 2007 and 2010, but there was no trace of missionaries or their former properties and I quickly learned that it was not a good thing to go around telling North Koreans that I was descended from missionaries in Pyongyang. For reasons that I explain in the book, North Koreans have a narrative that really blackens the missionary movement and puts it that they were exploiters and abusers of Koreans. Nobody I ever met in North Korea was aware of, or would even listen to, stories of the pre-war successes of Christianity in northern Korea, or of the institutions that missionaries created. It’s been forgotten on purpose.
I did attend services at one of the few churches in North Korea on those visits. There is a state-recognized Christian church, but it is not an easy thing to be associated with.
I recently read John Caldwell’s The Korea Story (1952). He was in Korea with the U.S. Information Service from 1947 until his resignation in early 1950. Caldwell was very critical of the State Department bureaucracy, and contrasted their clumsy, top-down approach with the effective grass roots work missionaries were doing at the local level. (Incidentally, he married his translator, Elsie Fletcher, the daughter of American missionaries in Korea.)
Although I never met John Caldwell, our family did know the Fletchers and my parents went to school with Elsie. I never liked John’s book, its self-righteous tone, or its Cold Warrior attitude. I read it when I was in high school I think and I thought he was a twit at the time. Some of the things he put out as triumphs for democracy included massacres of Koreans by U.S. forces and their Korean “allies.” He was a “China Hand” and his viewpoint was filtered through the eyes of someone from the China lobby. Beware of Chiang Kai-shek acolytes who, being booted from China, came to South Korea to transplant their crusades.
What are some underrepresented areas of Korean Studies which you think would be rewarding for writers or graduate students to explore?
As someone who helped build the Korean Studies field during my career I am greatly gratified to see the number of academic centers, programs, and positions that have sprung up at universities in the last 50 years. However, I lament their lack of influence on the public discourse about Korea, since the main story is about nukes, danger, and media hysterics. Korean Studies scholars are notoriously provincial. There need to be more public intellectuals writing op-eds. The public ignorance about Korea is stunning, and it enables the reckless nature of the “mentally-deranged dotard” in the White House.
However, it’s still in the nature of academic career building that young professors with new Ph.D.s in Korean things are encouraged to publish their narrow specialties and to have little effect on the public discourse about Korean affairs. Publishers and other “consumers” welcome books about “danger” and “nuclear options” but little else. A book about peace in Korea would not enjoy much public attention.
What advice do you have for students hoping to major in Korean Studies?
Pursue your interest in Korea by studying abroad there and treating it like a liberal arts major. Meanwhile do your general education, become a good writer and communicator, take your math and accounting courses, and remember that a B.A. has room in it for a major that you do for your own pleasure and enrichment. You will probably not have a Korea-related career, but it is a richly interesting place to study, and you can learn a lot about a lot of things—business, religion, history, art, politics, and whatever—by studying it.
Which teachers and fellow academics have influenced you the most?
My high school teacher Hope Diffenderfer, and my two Harvard mentors Edward Wagner and John K. Fairbank.
One of the most striking things for visitors to South Korea is the popularity of Christianity, as evidenced by the many church crosses on the skyline. Why were the missionaries so much more successful in South Korea than elsewhere in East Asia?
I wrote a short book about this (Christianity in Modern Korea, 1986) that was commissioned by the Asia Society in New York to address just this question, short enough (under 100 pp.) to be read by visitors to Korea on the long plane ride over.
Any recommendations for books about the missionary experience in Korea?
There are many, but the genre seems meant to inform Sunday School classes in the homeland rather than to examine Korea itself. I hasten to say that most missionary memoirs and propaganda books have their value, their gems, their first person accounts, and such. But they too often objectify Koreans, generalize, and perhaps lionize the missionaries for my taste.
Can you recommend any novels set in Korea in the time period covered by Living Dangerously in Korea?
The best one, which deals with a Christian family in the Pyongyang area, is Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood, by Richard E. Kim.
What are some of your favorite fiction/non-fiction works?
Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War (novel about the Vietnam war)
Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers (about the Dulles brothers)
Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Brothers at War, the best book about the Korean War.
Do you have any recommendations for general books on Korea or the Koreas?
Again, if it’s not too bold, I was asked by the Association for Asian Studies to write a short volume that would be readable and useful for general readers. The title is Korea in World History (2012) and it’s part of the AAS’s “Key Issues in Asian Studies Series.”
I understand you recently moved from Texas to Seattle. How’s retirement and life in the Emerald City?
I lived 38 years in Texas in San Antonio teaching at Trinity University. I love Seattle, lived here before that, and always wanted to return. The place is beautiful, energetic, progressive, and I have lots of friends and family here.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m preparing for the spring semester of 2018 as a faculty member aboard the Semester at Sea ship that takes 650 college students around the world in 110 days taking classes aboard the ship and stopping in 10 ports on an itinerary that exposes us to the wreckage of the post-colonial age in what is sometimes referred to as the “Third World”.
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Living Dangerously in Korea: The Western Experience 1900-1950 is available from Camphor Press and various online retailers. Clark’s other titles can be found on Amazon.com.