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US writer traverses Korea collecting important stories old and new

Richard Pennington stands at the cemetery for British sailors, who illegally occupied Geomundo Island from 1885 to 1887, in this July 2018 photo. Courtesy of Richard Pennington
Richard Pennington stands at the cemetery for British sailors, who illegally occupied Geomundo Island from 1885 to 1887, in this July 2018 photo. Courtesy of Richard Pennington

By Park Han-sol

'Travels of an American-Korean, 2014-2020' by Richard Pennington / Courtesy of Jisik Gonggam
'Travels of an American-Korean, 2014-2020' by Richard Pennington / Courtesy of Jisik Gonggam
The rattling bus and ferry rides; searches for cheap accommodation of varying quality; countless chance encounters turning into newly forged friendships despite the language barrier ― such descriptions could be seen as cliche-ridden characterizations of any travelogue composed by an enthusiastic backpacker.

But the Texas-born writer Richard Pennington takes one step further in his latest book "Travels of an American-Korean, 2014-2020" as he fills the pages with his 85 trips taken across the southern part of the peninsula during a seven-year period with political, cultural and religious anecdotes carefully told from the perspective of a sympathetic outsider.

The book is in fact the second part of his "Travels of an American-Korean" series, followed by his earlier chronicle of 91 journeys taken from the year 2008 to 2013. After visiting a number of places that already seems incredibly many even to some Koreans, Pennington said he still felt that there were a lot more sites that begged to be explored.

"There are now very few sites in this country I have not yet seen. My main purpose, even apart from writing, was to take these trips, learn, experience, meet people and gain a better understanding of Korean history and culture," he told The Korea Times.

Many of his trips are naturally accompanied by bits and pieces of the ancient and early history of Korea, often recounted in a mix of facts, speculation and legends, as well as the complex modern political history that followed the nation as it slowly grew out of war and destruction. Ancient kings, queens, generals, poets and scholars ― even Korea's version of Robin Hood represented by Hong Gil-dong, Im Kkeok-jeong, Jang Gil-san ― are regular faces in these tales.

Hongseong in South Chungcheong Province is one of many places that well represents the historical twists and turns experienced by the Korean people for more than four millennia. Its Hongjuseong Fortress witnessed the key battle fought between Later Baekje and Goryeo, with the latter prevailing and establishing the dynasty (918-1392) that reunified the peninsula, the Japanese invasion in 1592 then again in the early 1900s, the religious persecution of Christians in the 19th century and finally, the brutal scenes of the Korean War (1950-1953).

Pennington also visits the Cemetery for North Korean and Chinese Soldiers, known informally as the Enemy Cemetery, in Paju, inevitably overlooked by modern South Korea. The site attests to the tumultuous inter-Korean relations that continued after the Korean War as it holds not only the remains recovered during the war but also the bodies of those responsible for attempted attacks to infiltrate the South in the 1980s and 1990s.

But aside from the historical lessons, his journey is also sprinkled with pumba music traditionally performed by street singers, the earthly beauty of nature seen at Juknokwon, a bamboo garden in Damyang, and his NGO activities to bring back Jikji ― the world's oldest surviving book printed with movable metal type currently located in France ― to Korea.

Even though the author said he harbors a deep affection for the country, he does not shy away from discussing at times episodes that are quite troubling and have often been swept under the rug.

Sometimes, he takes a glimpse of the lives of migrant workers who have been brought in to do "3D" (difficult, dirty and dangerous) jobs. The most extreme case is brought up in reference to the Africa Museum of Original Art in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, where African employees claimed they were forced to work in slave-like conditions.

The common theme that runs through the regions of Goyang, Namyangju, Goechang, Hamyang and Sancheong is the massacre of civilians committed by South Korean soldiers against their own people during and after the Korean War.

During the period when the importance of ideology triumphed everything, the right-wing paramilitary groups and battalions took thousands of lives of those who allegedly collaborated or were compelled to work for North Korea when it invaded the South.

"Korea's transition from a Japanese colony to a fully operating democracy was not always smooth, as most people know," the author writes, adding that the government's 2005-2010 Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that approximately 100,000 such killings took place.

The grave of a three-year-old child, who fell victim to the mass killings of civilians committed by a South Korean battalion at Sancheong during the Korean War, is seen in this May 2015 photo. Courtesy of Richard Pennington
The grave of a three-year-old child, who fell victim to the mass killings of civilians committed by a South Korean battalion at Sancheong during the Korean War, is seen in this May 2015 photo. Courtesy of Richard Pennington

Because Pennington chose to write about the places he visited shortly after the end of each trip, his recounted memories and reflections feel much more vivid, seemingly taking us back to that very moment. What makes browsing the pages of the book most interesting then is to read about his descriptions of dynamic sociopolitical events that took place from 2014 to 2020 from the current perspective where we all know the outcomes.

These include his 2014 experience of the fierce confrontation at Imjingak over the flying of anti-North Korean leaflets across the border, which six years later are banned, the Sewol ferry victim's memorial service he attends less than three weeks after the disaster, which later propels the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, and the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, when a glimpse of hope between two Koreas was felt ― in stark contrast to the current bleak state of affairs.

"I sometimes went to a place just because it was new to me. But, and this is an important point, not a single one of these 85 trips was without value. Some were more exciting than others, yes, but all were edifying," he said. "I hope and believe readers will find my "asides" about Korean history and culture ― and often, American history and culture ― interesting, informative and/or amusing."


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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