KOREA FOCUS
Times Past in Korea
Martin Uden

British Ambassador to Korea


When I left Korea after my first posting here in 1981, I realized that I had already bought a lot of books about Korea to help satisfy my curiosity about the country. But I didn’t find they answered all my questions, and I also wanted to continue a link of some sort with Korea. So I decided to expand my knowledge about Korea’s history and culture by collecting old books about Korea in foreign languages (principally in English).
 
In Britain, we have a great advantage in pursuing this hobby in that just about every small town has a second-hand bookshop, and some have even more. One town in Wales – Hay-on-Wye – is almost entirely given over to bookshops, with the old castle, school and cinema all converted to become bookshops.
 
So as I travelled in the UK, I could go into shops and see what I could find. Very often there was nothing about Korea to be found. There really aren’t that many books written about Korea before 1950, especially compared to the number of books about China, Japan, or India. But even though the supply might be small, so too was the demand. I quickly discovered that very few people indeed were collecting old foreign books about Korea. This had the great advantage for me in that the prices were quite low.
 
The advantage I have had is determination and time, since I really didn’t have much money. The earliest books on Korea, before 1810, are extremely expensive. I recently saw one about the first British Royal Navy visit to Busan on sale at $45,000. But after 1820 more Navy ships came to Korea and the ships’ captains wrote about their experiences. So from then on it is possible to collect the impressions of early foreigners – sailors, diplomats, adventurers and missionaries.
 
Over the years I found that I was getting more and more books like this, and when the Internet arrived, I was able to collect more books online. I also find far more old magazine articles, which are very hard to find individually but occasionally are for sale by booksellers online or on eBay. 
 
Of course books are carefully written both for contemporaries and for posterity. As such the views in them are considered and reflect the knowledge and prejudices of the time. That in itself is almost more interesting than the actual events they describe, since the foreign observers would sometimes misunderstand what they saw and heard in Korea, and no doubt would add their own worldview in interpreting and writing about their experiences. 
 
We still do that today, and probably in generations to come, people may wonder at our naivety or our sophistication just as we may when we look back at the old books I have collected. But these contemporary records still bring alive the times that are past and that we will lose if we do not preserve them. In part, that has been an important reason for me to bring together these volumes.
 
I realized that I had one of the largest private collections of old books about Korea (over 450 now) and wanted to share this in some way with others. I decided to write a collection of extracts from these books and articles, and put them together in the form of a diary, with an entry for every day of the year. I was surprised to find it relatively easy to persuade a publisher in the UK to agree to publish it, but it did involve a lot of work in scanning the texts, correcting them and writing the introduction.
 
In addition I had to translate some pieces from French and German and then finally prepare the index and proofread the book a number of times. In the end it was published in 2003 under the title, “Times Past in Korea.” The first edition has sold out, but the publisher has reprinted it in paperback, so it is much cheaper now.
 
I am still collecting books. I go into bookshops whenever I can and look on the Internet every week, very often finding what I think are bargains about old Korea. And I want to share my collection further if I can and I very much hope that I might find in Korea an institution that would wish to own the collection and keep it available for students who wish to use it. It is surprising to me that very few Korean universities have good collections of these interesting old accounts of Korea as it was.
 
I would recommend to any Korean interested in their history to consider following this path and collecting old items like this. For me as a foreigner it has been a privilege to read these stories and look after these treasures, so I am sure it would be even more fascinating for Koreans to do this.
 
* Ambassador Martin Uden has been serving in Seoul since February 2008. This is his third stint in Seoul, first as a second secretary from 1978 to 1981, and then as political councillor from 1994 to 1997. Married to Fiona Uden, a former professional dancer, in 1980, Ambassador Uden has two sons.
[Dong-a Ilbo, November 14, 2009]