In Defence of Stamps


Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make the difference. There was a time when I would check the post every morning in the hope that there would abe a letter for me. I would ask my mother why was there never anything for me, and wistfully she would respond “well if you sent a letter to someone then maybe you would get something in return”. My obvious response was to drop my shoulders and curl my nose and skulk off muttering about some injustice or something.

I didn’t realise it until probably now that my mother’s response was probably something similar to what I know now. Personal letters or emails are wonderful, but they rarely come, or at least their infrequency is dwarfed by the sheer quantity of spam and bills. And even if I jump to the twenty-first century and talk about emails it doesn’t get much better, in fact it worsens.

Throw into your inbox all your newsletters, online transactions, receipts, work related mail, social network updates and notifications, and whatever else streams in between nine and six daily, and probably continues throughout the night if you recieve mail from across the timezones, email loses all the charm it had, if it ever actually had any in the first place.

I’ve come across a few articles recently where someone disconnected from their email for a year and found out how wonderful the world is, or something to that effect. There are also countless amounts of surveys or reports proclaiming the effects and costs laid on the corporate world from people checking and responding to overburdened email accounts.

I should also elaborate on the state of my email inbox at the moment, with over 3,600 unread emails and counting, many of which will not change or improve my life if they ever are opened. This amount started to grow from about six months ago when I suppose I just got tired of deleting them. There may be some important mail in there I should have read, but if it was really important they would have emailed back, right?

Sure enough you could argue that social networking has removed our need to email so frequently, and of course email has removed the necessity of writing letters, just regulary mail services removed whatever messenger network was there before. Perhaps there is someone out there busily considering the medium to overtake social networking, and good luck to them.

For all our complaints about social networking though it won’t go away, and neither will email, and incidentally neither will regular mail. We will see how and why we use these forms of communication change though, and some day we will be as nostalgic for old-fashioned tweeting or email writing as we are now for a hand written letter.

Modernity and modernising has always been about making it easier and more efficient to do things. To compliment everything modern there is always the old way, deemed in some respects old fashioned and antiquated as equally as it is is considered traditional or vintage. Speed and efficiency is undoubtedly the defining and divisive factor in establishing the difference.

Who is to say that there is actually anything wrong with, for example hand writing a letter, walking down to the post office, queuing up to buy a stamp, and then popping it in the post box, and heading off to finish the rest of your business? Compare this to standing on a bus grasping a railing one hand as it trundles through town, whilst tapping uncomfortably the tiny letters on the screen of a smartphone, including the backspace repeatedly, and clicking send, whereupon your email is sent directly to its recipient who is likely to be experiencing something similar in another part of the planet. Either that or it will be waiting for them when they wake up in the morning.

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Speed is everything. Even more important than money, seemingly, because somehow the idea that time equals money has proliferated and began obliterating everything that once stood for something, and by something I mean a person’s job and livelihood. Nostalgia is making mighty waves promoting the way things were and how the world was better before we had a full communication suite trapped inside a small black device which fits into our pocket. Conveniently, there’s a fair amount of nostalgia available online, or at least you can book it or order it online. How fortunate are we?

There is a tremendous amount of modern speed which does seem unnecessary. In Korea, I feel like every building over three floors must have a lift, buses bull through red lights, there is ultra fast internet for all users, deliveries are made at low cost and arrive the next day, and there is one of the fastest high speed rail systems in the world in a country where it only takes five hours to drive from one corner to its furthest extremity on the opposite side of the peninsula. Yes, I know that the clogged expressways undoubtedly encouraged this development, but they’re not always clogged. Speed equals progress, development, and of course convenience. This is good and the goal we should be setting for all of ourselves.

Don’t think that I’m critical of Korea here, a similar list could be drawn up about any country. In Korea and especially Seoul it seems that everyone and everything has to be where they should be now, and not tomorrow, and certainly not soon or over the next few days. Seoul is the only major city I’ve lived in so I can’t reasonably compare it fairly, but I’ve heard enough comparisons with such poster cities as London and New York to recognise the same obsessions with this instant. For all I may feign complaint over, the convenience of Korea is by far its most redeeming factors after living here for over eight years.

But let me ask you would you go back to slower and less convenient times? I wouldn’t. It’s not solely because I have a recognisable addiction to things been done instantly, or because of the convenience, or the cheaper cost, it’s because it’s better. Whether we are better people is an unnecessary observation, as again nostalgia feeds on these grievances. For all that I or others may raise about a modern obsession with speed, I don’t see myself slowing down, let alone stopping.

What I would do though is ask myself or others to think a little about what is really necessary? For starters, much of the devotion to doing things quick stems from the time is money notion I mentioned earlier. To do things quicker and more efficiently will save us more money in the long run, right? Well in many respects yes, but at the same time this is not always the case.

Take stamps for example. Mail or post is in its own right a fairly new phenomenon, and while the effort of writing a letter and posting may be considerably less efficient and signicantly more time consuming, it already seems to be becoming a redundant service that is poorly equipped to compete with the efficiency of email and multi-facetted social networks. Barcodes instead of stamps do little to help this cause.

If you want to post something you need a stamp. This something could indeed be a letter, but it is more likely to be some kind of a form, application, or parcel, but still you need to pay for it and since the Penny Black the preferred way has been to use a stamp, although of late some innovative soul discovered that barcodes are much more effective.

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I’m sure there is some reason for utilising barcodes as a means of determining the price of postage, and I suppose it’s probably a smart reason, right? I think though that maybe the world would feel a little less like a factory floor if we had less barcodes and numbers defining so much of our lives. Mail is such a small thing that perhaps we could be left enjoyed one of its redeeming traits, the small intricately painted and uniquely designed stamp.

At all corners there are numbers and codes pigeon-holing us. The favoured tool of streamlining our bureaucracy, giving a number not only makes us easily findable amongst the rest of the rabble, it removes the face of its owner, leaving if we’re lucky a male or female looking silhouette behind the digits.

Now comparing the barcode for a stamp with an national ID number is a bit severe I admit it, but I hasten to add that I don’t see any problem with regular old stamps. There was something to them which if anything make our connection with mail or post a little more tenable. They had a connection with not only the sender, but also the receiver.

There is a little more than nostalgia attached to this notion that stamps have a bit more attachment to people than barcodes. There is a novelty to them, and not just from the perspective of a stamp collector, from the point of view that we can try to make out the details, however intricate, of a stamp. We can see a little something that is special to another country. We can read the script and possibly have an idea what the currency is, and of course there is the feeling that it was not applied by a machine in a dark basement. Let’s be honest, when it comes to stamps there’s always that human element we can all recall, the taste of the glue on our tongues from licking the back.

The stamp has more personality in its own personalised way. In Ireland stamps come across as a celebration of the nation, which is odd for a country which doesn’t flaunt its patriotism as much as you may imagine, with pictures of flowers, birds, animals, historical figures, architecture, and indeed special events and occasions such as the Special Olympics, and fortunately never (or perhaps rarely) living politicians.

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It’s unfortunate that in Korea I haven’t seen a stamp since I was here in my first year in 2005 when I tried to send some postcards home. The stamps were small Rose of Sharon, the national flower of Korea, bright in their purpleness and backed by green leaves, and as typical a stamp as you could get. Some years later I went to send Christmas cards home, and each individual envelope was popped up on the scales, and a barcode sticker with its varieties of code was printed out and stuck on the top corner.

Much of this only sank home recently when I received and sent plenty of letters and parcels. I felt that, here was a little way of sharing the rest of the world. But at the same time it was a way of keeping a small industry and interest in the world alive, where we would be encouraged to look at the finer details of the wrapping of the objects which arrive in our letterboxes.

There is little argument against it, other than speed, perhaps. Yet, if you want to take it from the perspective of the consumer or the sender, you can be sure that when they go to the post office they still must queue up, and they still must put their letter on a scales, and the person will probably still tap a few things on a computer, if anything just to get a receipt.

Stamps are little things, but when we add up all the small things we find we have something greater. Efficiency will not make the world a better place, and in changing through development we often forget to stop and look at what it is we are changing. Stamps are small and insignificant but like most of the things which change without us knowing it will be long after they are gone that we notice we can’t tell one barcode apart from the next one.

The Koreans of Europe


No two cultures are the same but every one is similar, right? You could certainly say that about much of Europe, where thousands of years of breeding, trading, warring, traveling, and sharing across ever-shifting borders has caused a mixology of international characteristics of which one can be difficult to discern from the other.

In Asia, it is a little more difficult to separate the differences because the continent has suffered less fluctuation of its borders, and in terms of today’s map, colonialism for the most part decided on today’s borders. But still you can throw in the changes, regardless of actual influence, of international trade, development, colonialism, the sharing of ideas, television, and migration, and the wind at the weekend if you wish, and you will soon realise the stark similarities between peoples and cultures there.

Now that might seem like a simple notion, and it is, but if you take away cliché comparisons such as the idea that your culture and my culture are very musical, or that we have a distinct cuisine, or family is central to the social contract, then you have to get off your armchair and take a look a little closer.

When I first came to Korea from Ireland I was fascinated by the notion that the Koreans were called by someone as the Irish of the east. I thought to myself as I spent more time here that this was something to connect me with the country, that it was something stronger than the bonds which other nationalities might ascribe to their connections with Korea. But those reasons for which Korea is lauded for its Irishness really didn’t appear to be that strong.

Of course there are very strong reasons for calling Koreans the Irish of the east, such as our tenacity for drinking, our colonial history, the fact our country is divided by a significant border, we’re stuck between two significant world powers, we both have a distinct national cuisine, and we’ve a social structure which focuses on both age and gender hierarchies… oh wait forget the other two.

You see, the whole comparison thing between Ireland and Korea seems to be done by someone who sat down with Wikipedia one day and got this notion into their head that Ireland and Korea are very similar. I suppose they are in some respects but in many respects they are far from complimentary. For example if you considered the alcohol consumption aspect you run into problems. Anyone who has ever drank knows that there is an etiquette to drinking, sometimes very formalised and other times apparently informal, but there is always a way to drink. When we think about drinking, in countries that drink a lot, how we drink and what drink is far more important than how much (because we already know that’s a fair amount).

Now if you’ll excuse me if I turn to some reliable Wikipedia statistics. In terms of thirst Ireland and Korea are ranked quite closely together , but you can’t help but notice that Ireland is not the only country on the top half of that list with a dark history linked with its geopolitical situation. Yes, being fond of a drink is a stereotype both countries fall into, but it is by no means an exclusive club, and if anything it hardly characterises the entire culture and people (but in fairness it probably does).

There are of course many similarities between the people of Ireland and Korea. In the same respect, similarities exist across the entire planet and to single them out as unique to Korea and Ireland, or indeed only to Ireland and to Korea would be selling things a little short.

Take for example Italy, or indeed Italians. For the past four weeks I’ve been teaching Italian high-school students in a summmer camp just outside of Dublin. This isn’t the first time I’ve done it, and if I do come back to Ireland for the summer I use this work as a means of earning a little pocket money for the adventure. It’s generally good fun, and interesting from a teacher’s perspective to meet students from another country where English is also considered very important for university and employment prospects.

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A building on the university campus where I taught for four weeks under typically Irish summer skies.

First impressions present Italians as completely the opposite as Korean students. They are lively, opinionated, and vocal, very vocal. The stereotype of a Korean high school student is anything but this, and I come across the remnants of their much discussed experience in the university students I teach. They are generally shy, reserved, and for the most part quiet, very quiet.

Now I recall that when I was in university that we were also quiet but that was probably more out of fear that we would be asked a question. We were not afraid that we might get the question wrong, but because we knew we would have no idea of the answer to the question asked. Anyone who ever took a foreign language class in secondary school probably cannot recall the classroom being abuzz with Irish/French/Spanish/German/whatever. I think that this is probably close to the same case with the majority of Korean English language students.

Yes, for a person who goes from teaching very quiet and reserved students to a class of lively and mostly enthusiastic students, with the added benefit of being western (even more western than myself I’d hasten to add) it is easy to offer immediate stark contrasts, many of which are likely to have been formed from well established national stereotypes. I’m sure if I stood at a bar in Itaewon or Haebangchon and professed that in fact Koreans were not that different from Italians, and they were in fact more like Italians than actual Irish, I would be shouted down for such a ludicrous assertion.

Before I go into detail here, please take into account my experiences. Firstly and most importantly, I don’t really know Italians in any way as well as I know Irish or Korean people. Most of my experience with Italians stems from teaching them over a number of summers in fairly relaxed situations, and I’ve never even visited Italy, let alone lived there, like I have being doing in Korea since 2005. I think that it’s also important to explain about the students I have been teaching; for the most part they all appear to be middle class, relatively well schooled teenagers, mostly of high-school age as far as I could discern. With these things in mind please ascribe your own prejudice to the study sample.

Anyway, this isn’t a scientific expose, but more a reflection on my past experience teaching Italians in Dublin on my summer holidays, which may also have some significance as you read this words. I did come across some worthwhile comparisons which allude to national character more so than the demographics and historical comparisons which plague Irish-Korean analysis.

At the top of the pile has to be food. Now don’t expect me to give a foodie’s detailed description of each respective nationality’s cuisine. That’s near impossible for me, for now at least. What is significant is that each country is obsessed with food (yeah I know, what’s the big deal?) but more importantly, with their own national cuisine. It could be reasonably argued that a large portion of each country’s economy is powered by its tenacity for its own cuisine. Ireland, unless you count the local chipper on a weekend night, would not fit in here.

I know how good and how diverse Korean food is, and while it may have its critics there is little doubt in how much Koreans miss Korean food when they leave the country. Yes, we can all poke fun at the flocks of ajjumma with instant noodles and gochujang stuffed into their suitcases as they travel, but can you blame them when much of what they know in terms of food is Korean food (and Chinese take-away). Expecting them to revolutionise over the space of one-flight, probably in a tour group full of similar minded folk, is probably asking to much. Anyway, they’re happy so what does it really matter?

It’s always easy to point the finger at people who do things differently, and especially in Korea where many are particularly reserved. I know that it’s easy to praise younger people who are keen to experience new food from around the world, but again it’s equally easy as one who enjoys variety but dislikes expense to notice that much of the international cuisine enjoyed by many young Koreans is indeed spaghetti with seafood and a cream or tomato sauce, or worse, the evil brunch made up of a sausage, an egg, some salad, and some other concoction. Despite this attempt at snobbery you’ll do well to find Koreans who don’t have a list of Korean dishes they crave after so many days away from a suitable supply, and if all else fails you’re bound to find somewhere to stock up on the always reliable ramyeon. I’d warrant that Italians aren’t that far off, at least the ones I was teaching weren’t.

Now granted that the restaurant in the university they were staying in was far from haute cuisine, which could have influenced their thoughts. but a day didn’t go by without some lamenting for “Italian” pasta, or “Italian” food. Their own food of course, which many will tell is fantastic, and rightly so – much like Korean food – but it still bothers me a little when people who apparently obsess so much over food, when given the opportunity to try something other than the stainless steel served chicken and potato slop they’d been divvied out the first port of call for sustenance in Dublin was either McDonalds or Bugger King.

Travel broadens the mind and when it comes to food this is especially the case. Koreans, in their defence, were not really allowed to travel up until the 1980s, and even then it was not on their own that they all began to encroach on the UNESCO heritage sites of the world. This way of traveling is only slowly leaving the mass conciousness of the the country, and independent travel is becoming a thing, especially for university and post-university aged people who are eager, for the most part, to acquire stronger English and also to have a good time before they end up having to sell their soul to a full-time job.

And I suppose my wonderful Italian students, many of whom had only traveled with their parents (I did a survey) and even then only to neighbouring countries on school excursions or lanugauge exchanges, would be far from an acceptable sample to base my argument on, but I can’t help but find this issue which has been recurring over the past number of years when I have taught Italians in the summer.

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One of my classes of Italian teenagers from all over Italy, with their certificates of completion…and me, grinning stupidly!

The other area which struck me a bit more thunderbolt like, and is something which is certainly a recognisable trait in Korea, and that’s image.

What always struck me is that the youngsters I’ve taught have always been for the most part, despite the bags under their eyes from self-imposed sleep depravation, very well groomed and image conscious. I won’t say whether they were well dressed or not, but they did obviously take the time to wear what were nice clothes and spend some time fixing their hair in the morning. Now they were teenagers so you can’t expect too much variety from their attire, but that being said even though they were away from their parents they didn’t come in with their clothes hanging off them, unwashed and smelly.

I had a conversation about Irish fashion with these students one day and we went on about how Irish people dressed and whether or not we were considered stylish or not. The general consensus was that it was hard to know because they hadn’t seen too many Irish people, and when they were in Dublin it was hard to know who was Irish and who wasn’t. I told them next time just listen to them.

The conversation developed over the coming days as I tried to get more information from them on their experiences. It turned out that they were impressed by Irish dress sense (not style or fashion mind you). In Italy, I was told, people always had to take into consideration their appearance among others. That their look was always being scrutinised, and that there were in fact many ways to dress in Italy which were socially unacceptable, especially for women. Does this sound familiar to my readers from Korea?

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My final class of Italian teenagers before they packed their bags and headed back to Italy.

I told them that this was also the case in Korea and I gave them some examples, such as keeping shoulders covered, not showing too much skin or clevage, and some others. These youngs adults explained to me that they were impressed by the general social acceptance of one’s own way of dressing. I explained that sure enough plenty of people probably thought they were stupid looking or whatever, but they empathised that this did not stop them wearing what they wore, and it was accepted that this is how some people dressed in public.

I explained to the Italian students, as I was a little misled at first, that don’t be put off by the people on the street who seem scruffy and who don’t apply as much time in the mirror as they may, they probably spent just as much time making sure they looked suitably unwashed. They understood this, but what was important was that they were allowed to do this.

I know that Herself has expressed the same feelings about living in Ireland also. She enjoys being in Ireland because there is less pressure to dress a particular way, and to meet a certain standard. This is not to say that she dresses less fashionably or doesn’t apply herself with as much care, it’s just that she has more options in the wardrobe than she would have in Korea. Of course image is important for every country, and Ireland is definitely the case.

I found this to be, well honestly, fantastic from an Irish perspective. I don’t think the Irish go out and win too many acclaims from the armchair fashionistas of the world, but too me this seemed to be something to be proud of. Now, I’m sure if they were in another part of Ireland this idea would be slightly less obvious, but still the more I think about it the more likely it is the case….maybe.

I know that in this rather drawn out comparison between Korea and Italy may seem to have holes all over it, and I don’t doubt that my arguments and assertions here are quite week. Let me reiterate, they are mere observations, and I hope when you read this, like when you read anything else I read, it gives you the inclination to search around a little more to find another opinion.

What I will assert though, to conclude, is that if anything my loose comparison here should be seen as a way of firstly drawing attention to the ridiculous notion that two countries would be so alike as to be compared as twins. But more importantly I hope that I can give you a decent example of how similar every human being is, and that despite thousands of miles seperating us our different upbringings and cultures do have similarities which are indistinguishable, and even when that is not the case, the differences are what make being a person interesting. In the end let us forget that all our blood is red.

Looking Up


You come to Korea from where I’m from and you can’t stop looking up. Always up. At the sky without so many rain clouds, at the trees forever in a constant pattern of change, and at the buildings which stretch above everything I’ve ever known. It takes a lot of concrete and steel to make a megalith as complete as the Korean urban space, and event then it never seems complete. There is always some mason tapping away at some finer piece chiselling another groove in the pursuit of perfection.

And inside every groove lives another person, perhaps with their family, perhaps not. There are over 48 million people in this country, and it is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet. You would think that you can never escape elements of the human here, but it is possible. You just need to close your eyes and try.

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Suwon where I live is small compared to other cities in Korea. I think I get confused when I hear the population and think of whether or not a city is big because I am prone to making comparisons. Like suggesting that a city of one million people is not big because there are plenty of cities around the world with populations over great than ten million souls. Comparatively we will never be happy with the populations of cities as we will always find one which is greater by some degree in some means of classification.

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Even then a city as an urban space cannot be properly understood at any one moment as it is forever changing. Its people die, businesses close and open, some policy creates some new complaint or cause for celebration. You know how it is. A guess can be made at the next best option but the streets that make up the urban space always aim to surprise, and I can only blame the people who make up the inhabitants of cities for this very welcome phenomenon. 

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Cities with their intensive concentration of people, constantly viewed by some as anti-human, are as human as everything else humans decide to make a part of their lives. Since I’ve come to Korea I’ve thought of both cities as both the anti-thesis of humanity and as the epitome of what humans live for. It is now that I understand or accept cities for what they are. They are an animalistic reaction. Cities are the home of the herd, and it is the herd which comes together as a means of supplying itself with more food, increasing protection, and to make finding mates a simpler process so as to increase the chances of the survival of the species. The highrise in Korea is nothing more than stacking more people in to provide higher odds of survival.

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It is no surprise that few homes come in the shape of a cylinder or sphere. Soul after soul compressed into blocks of concrete and steel without the honeycomb simplicity and complexity of a bees hive, but still everything continues to spread. I look up. It can’t be helped. Stack after stack of rooms on top of rooms, lives lived and thrived inside, happiness and tears, arguments and heartbreak, and more memories than atoms in between each neatly organised and tidily ordered set of walls. Each stack of rooms neatly slotting in between its neighbour, some growing from others, some torn down and new seeds laid for new rooms to grow eventually. There are a few dead with carcases shrouded in plywood and graffiti.

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But you will never know this if you live in a place like this, and I mean really live. Don’t stare at this grand blue print of a metropolis and dissect each block with demographics. Know each window hides a face and a past and a story and a future. And know that without any one of these this place would not be the same.

Is it Safe in South Korea on worldirish.com


I was asked to write an op-ed by worldirish.com, a news website from Ireland which connects stories and activities of Irish interest from around the world, about the ongoing crisis between South Korea and North Korea. Most importantly, they were interested in the situation here and the international media’s response.

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The line which divides North and South Korea at Panmounjeom.

While I believe I carry the same opinion as many expats, and even experts here, my biggest concern at the moment is that I am not wrong about what I wrote. I wouldn’t be alone in this regard.

Here’s the article:

Is it Safe in South Korea? An Irishman’s Reflection on Living in the Country

To back me up a little, here are some links which will support my reasoning:

North Korea News is all Hype

Is North Korea Being More Restrained than we Think?

High Tensions on Korean Penninsula – interview with Andrei Lankov – Lankov’s closing statements here are most significant.

Signs of North Korea Easing Off War Message at Home

Map: This is How Far those North Korean Missiles Can Actually Reach

South Korea has Already Won

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The Korean Penninsula

If you’re interested in actual news sources worth following, I find that both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post are reliable and don’t over embellish the reality, and both actively report from Korea with journalists who are aware of the ongoing situation and history between the two countries.

From Korea, most of the major dailies have English language editions online, but I would recommend Yonhap News, the Korean wire service, and the Hankyoreh as it is no where near as conservative as some of the other more famous papers.

Twitter is an invaluable resource during times like this, and if you’re on twitter and interested in following some people on the ground who live tweet updates regularly, Mashable put out an article recently with a list of very worthwhile follows with a good variety of opinions.

I hope that this post helps any of you to understand the situation a little better and will let you rest at ease somewhat.

An Origin of Korean Discontent


A thought struck me as I was taking a shower before work this morning. With the renewal of tension along the North-South Korean border it’s a sharp reminder of the results of history, and what we’re looking at here, could be considered as one of the final plays in the game of the Great Powers. It, like so many skirmishes before, is taking place in a distant field which effects the lives of people so far away they don’t even look real. Well as one of these people I can assure you that it’s quite real.

Since Korea opened up to outside influence in the late nineteenth century, much like many other small kingdoms, was turned into a pawn in the chessboard of empire building. This process set Korea up to be misused and abused by forces outside their control, and today we are experiencing the continued results of this.

Unlike Ireland, which is also a product of imperialism, modern Korea is a result of the lobbying and gamesmanship which didn’t effect Ireland as it was already well entrenched in the British imperial model of manipulation and exploitation. The imperialism that changed Korea was quite different.

A pre-colonial 1851 map of Japan and Korea – note how little is known of the Korean coastline, compared with Japan. (image courtesy of antiqueprints.com)

Following the arrival of the Japanese (note: not a great power, more on this later) in Korea, and later reactions by the French and American navies on Korean territory, Korea gradually opened up its borders and allowed foreigners to enter Korea. Many came as diplomats, government officials, businessmen, and of course missionaries.

If you visit Seoul and spend some time close to Seoul City Hall, take a wander around the streets and occasionaly you’ll happen upon an old European styled building. Several are pre-Japanese rule and can give you a sample of how these new people began to shape a new Seoul with their influence.

Korea, and especially Seoul began to change rapidly. In fact some Irishmen were heavily involved in this enterprise, notably John McLeavy Brown who functioned as chief of Korea’s customs and as treasurer. While McLeavey Brown was functioning here it’s important to note the Japanese influence in Korea was on the increase.

I’ve read a few articles on this situation and for some reason they seem to point the finger at Japanese imperialism, but let’s not forget what year this was, and who McLeavy Brown was representing; he was the representative of the British Empire, not Great Britain or the UK, the British Empire, and this was a time when they were really the Empire.

Of course Britain was one of the Great Powers, the others of course were France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and to a lesser extent Italy. Britain, on the world stage, were by far the most significant entity by a large stretch. The British Empire had significant interests in the Far East, especially in China, but also trade with Japan and I can also assume with Korea.

One of the Empire’s biggest concerns was securing the safety of their Indian Empire which was constantly under threat due to the distance from London, but also from the encroachments by the Russian Empire to the north. Much of the eastern expansion of the Empire was to protect their key valuable south Asian empire. Due to this constant pressuring on the extremities of the British Empire, they established Port Hamilton on Komundo, which is between Yeosu and Jeju Island, in 1885. The base didn’t last long but there are still some remnants in the shape of a cemetery.

The Great Game – Russia and Britain at the turn of the twentieth century.

However, the British didn’t last long here despite the dangers from the Russians to the north in Vladivostok. As a means of establishing security and relieving the pressure on the Royal Navy which was significantly stretched in this area, an alliance were sought, and it was to Japan that the diplomats looked.  In 1902 the first Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed in London.

Not only did this allow the British the security of an ally in very distant place, it also signified the rise of this up until then very small and provincial empire in the east. More importantly it was Japan’s first real foray into colonialism.

It seems to me that this alliance escapes mention, and that Japan’s first major colonial venture did not go unsupported, and was in fact guided and assisted by the greatest power in the world at that time, the British Empire. This was a period long before the United States came to power – itself busy with its own internal colonialism – and a time when China, a huge empire in its own right, was crumbling under the pressure of the Great Powers commercial expansion in its territories.

In fact the only power at the time capable of rivalling Britain was the German Empire, but this had grown disillusioned with colonialism and was concentrating on its own prominence in Europe. This was a very different Germany of course to one you may confuse with the Third Reich of World War 2 infamy. The other European powers, namely the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the French, and the Russians, were in notable decline by the beginning of the twentieth century.

With the signing of the Anglo-Japanese treaty, Britain essentially gave its blessing to any Japanese expansion that did not conflict with British interests. In 1906 the Japanese secured their prominence by defeating the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War. The Treaty of Portsmouth was Japan’s prize in this conflict, as well as a renegotiated alliance with Britain, which effectively guaranteed the Japanese complete and unhindered access to the Empire of Korea, which eventually led to Korea being annexed in 1910. With this Korea became another coin in the trading of nations which epitomised the colonial bargaining and pillage of the Great Powers.

Japanese soldiers near Incheon during the Japo-Russo War, 1904 (image courtesy of wikipedia)

Like Morocco and the rest of North Africa, modern day Cambodia and Laos, Nepal, Afghanistan, and so many more territories during that period, European colonial powers carved them up with a pen on a map and distributed them like pieces of cake. Korea’s real carving though would have to wait another forty years.

The dividing of the far east by colonial powers was a colourful affair. (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

To add insult to injury, Korea was again left to the mercy of the dividing pen at the end of World War 2. Korea was not liberated, nor did it win its independence, this was gifted with the collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945, and this played an important factor in defining the nation’s future. Korea again was set as a buffer between the US and the newly arrived Soviets, who essentially moved the majority of their army from one side of the world to the other following the fall of Germany in a desperate attempt to prevent US hegemony on their Asian doorstep, and they achieved this.

Korean’s watched again as external forces dictated their immediate future, but this time their country was not occupied but it was divided in two. I think it can be safe to say that we know the outcome of this.

The demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.

In the twentieth century two events sealed the fate of this small peninsula. These events, despite the internal mechanisms which may have fought against them, came from outside Korea and were perpetrated by imperial powers. Today both North and South Korea rely heavily on the assistance of their major allies, while those who initially began the process of determining their fate over 100 years ago have relinquished their hegemony.

Much of their rhetoric can be traced to this, perhaps. South Korea insists on standing strong, determined not to let what it has fought hard to achieve be lost in conflict. South Korea has clearly learned its lessons from the past, and while of course now a wealthy nation with much influence in international affairs, has the military support of the United States behind it, the British Empire of our time.

North Korea is not without its lessons also. It’s anti imperialistic rhetoric will certainly ring clearly in the ears of those who live there, as I do not doubt that imperialism is a regular topic in history class. And we all watch as both rattle sabres again, demanding precedence but without much of an idea whether or not one will lunge.

Such is the way the world operates I suppose, but I think this history is worth considering when we try to understand the thinking by both nations at a difficult and tense time like this.

 

This is a rather rough account of my general thought – I don’t really have any further reading links other than the odd Wikipedia one which I used to confirm dates and treaty names.