Hair of the cat's no fun

Conflict in Korea - Korea
March 31, 2000

Not so long ago, good monographs on Korea in English were thin on the ground - and this was even more true of textbooks. Now, a single month brings two fine reference works, each telling a Korean story from "a" to "z". Or more precisely, from " aak (elegant music)" to "zodiacal animals, incompatible" in Korea: A Historical and Cultural Dictionary ; and from "abductions" to "Zhou Enlai" in Conflict in Korea: An Encyclopedia .

As that divergence suggests, these two books differ in scope. Not entirely, as the energetic James Hoare - whose publication record puts many a university-based academic to shame - pops up in the dictionary too, as author of the entries on recent political history. Mostly, though, the dictionary, the latest addition to Durham's East Asia series is more about yesterday's Korea than today's. The short entry on film, for instance, ends with the arrival of CinemaScope - in 1968.

Odder, in a volume with much on music, is the absence of Korea's sole internationally known composer, the late Yun Isang. Honour is redeemed in Conflict in Korea , albeit for reasons of politics rather than culture. After being kidnapped (see "abductions") from Germany back to South Korea, Yun reacted by embracing North Korea instead. He died in 1995, still in exile.

What the dictionary is really about is an older Korea, perhaps a vanished one. This is a book full of fascinating lore: from "privy, spirit of the" to "poison, execution by", and from "ever normal warehouses" to the "tortoise incantation". But beware of cats: "Swallowing a cat-hair may bar entry to the after-life." Nor do these exotica preclude solid entries on such staple fare as land tenure, taxation or slavery. That there is much on missionaries doubtless reflects Richard Rutt's background and interests.

There are copious lists: from Choson dynasty ministries (including an office for "ales and vodkas") and rules of poetry, to the complexities of calculating dates and divination. Factional history tells its own story:

"1680-83 Hardline Westerners, 1683-89 Divided Westerners", and so on. Line drawings - latticework and other patterns, a paduk (Go) board, lunar mansions, trigrams - add a vivid visual dimension.

Perversely, Chinese characters are given, but not their Korean alphabet equivalents ( han'gul ). This is unfriendly to beginners, who would also have gained from a bibliography longer than two pages. But this is to quibble. Many books offer instruction; far fewer delight. This dictionary does both. Anyone interested in Korea should buy this book - and probably can afford to, since Curzon, whose Asia list goes from strength to strength, has issued it in paperback.

A pity ABC-Clio was not so kind with its encyclopedia, written by a diplomatic duo who already have several books to their credit. Disarmingly, they admit to writing this book because no one else would and have "enjoyed learning in detail" about the topic.

Their Korea casts a darker shadow than the dictionary's. Culture's quirks are bulldozed aside by war and a conflict still live half a century after the Korean war. Ghosts of that awful carnage stalk the land again: official inquiries are investigating alleged massacres - long drowned in silence - of civilian refugees by United States troops in 1950. This is today's Korea: also history, but a chapter whose end has not yet been written.

A tangled tale it is, but one that the encyclopedia tells with admirable judiciousness and clarity. Here, too, the details fascinate. Colombia, Ethiopia and Turkey were among the countries that sent troops to help the United Nations aid South Korea in beating back the North. On the film front, A Hill in Korea (1956) marked the screen debut of one Michael Caine.

But the big picture is also clearly painted: both in a useful introduction and in individual entries. Topics range from battles and other wartime details, to the ongoing North Korean nuclear issue, via the twists of politics on both sides of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone: not to be confused with the 38th Parallel, which it replaced). A thorough bibliography and a detailed chronology of events will further assist readers.

Time rolls on. There are no entries here on missiles (North Korean, real or imagined, fear of, role in driving US defence policy), or the Perry report, a less hysterical Washington initiative; or the bold and kind "sunshine" policy of Kim Dae-jung, South Korea's president since 1998. What is important is that the context for these recent developments is fully explained.

These books deserve to be read more widely than by the narrow circles of specialists. Do publishers ever think of the expatriate market in Seoul? - thousands strong, and often baffled by the culture and politics of their country of sojourn. Those so situated, and many others elsewhere, can learn much from these two admirable volumes.

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea, University of Leeds.

Conflict in Korea: An Encyclopaedia

Author - James E. Hoare and Susan Pares
ISBN - 0 87436 978 9
Publisher - ABC-Clio
Price - £37.50
Pages - 260

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