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Authors: Simon Winchester

Korea (10 page)

BOOK: Korea
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I spent my final evening playing poker in a small house by the
, talking to a group of cheerful Irishmen to whom I had been mentioned by P.J. McGlinchey. They were missionaries, too—not all priests, mind you—and workers in a variety of fields: doctors, psychologists, social workers, accountants. Each Monday night they assembled in the little house in Cheju City and played poker and drank deep of Paddy until the small hours. There were copies of
The Listener
The Spectator
on the table, and we had boiled ham for dinner and ginger pudding and custard. I half expected to switch on the wireless and hear Liam Hourican reading the news on Radio Telefis Eireann, or hear the sweet tunes of The Dubliners or the tones of James Joyce. But the music, when I switched on the radio, was all in the same sad vein of Korea, and the announcer was saying his thank-yous and farewells for another day of listening to Korean radio. ‘
Annyong-hee kashipshiyo
,’ he said. ‘
Kamsa hamnida
.’ Outside a stiff breeze blew in from the west, and there was the pungent sourness of strong
from the house next door. Inside was a small oasis paved with the Ould Sod; beyond the thick walls of the house was the wild and mysterious Republic of Korea.


Three hundred years ago the journey northward was more trying than mine would be. ‘They put us into four Boats with fetters on our feet, and one hand made fast to a block…on the north side of the island they call Sehesure is a bay, where several barques lye, and whence they sail for the continent, which is of very
dangerous access to those that are unacquainted with it, because of several hidden rocks, and that there is but one place where ships can anchor…’

For me it was a simple trek along the bay coast, taken at six the next morning. I bought a sailing ticket and, for the heck of it and in the hope of meeting someone interesting, a berth in a four-berth cabin. I showed my passport to the policeman, said my fond farewells to my poker companions of the night before, and boarded the Dongyang Express Ferry Number Two, waiting for its daily dawn departure for the port of Mokpo. A group of smiling attendants bowed, and one escorted me to the second deck and gave me the key to the cabin he had just opened, Number 169. A slim and exceptionally beautiful girl was sitting on a lower bunk, putting on her lipstick. ‘
,’ I said, with a smile, and put down my rucksack. ‘
’ she enquired. ‘
Anio, yong guk saram
.’ ‘Ah,’ she returned, with a smile. ‘An English gentleman. How are you?’

And at that glorious moment two things happened: the ship’s engines began to rumble mightily, and the wooden piles of the quayside began to slide past outside the porthole; and a young man in a blue suit entered and touched the young woman’s hand. They had been married just two days before, he explained, and were making their way back home. Would I like some yogurt? Or to look at the photographs of their holiday on Cheju Island? I declined both, politely, and went above and out onto the boat deck. We were out beyond the moles now, and the city had become a blur of new construction, all lying at the foot of the huge green mountain, the summit of which was basted with pure white. It was a clear, cold morning, and beyond the protection of the seawalls a stiff chop had developed, and the Dongyang Express started to roll heavily. It was cold, too, so I went below. The bride was sleeping; her husband was gazing moodily out to sea. In six hours’ time we should reach the mainland.

The Boat Country

There are in the Country abundance of Taverns and pleasure-houses, to which the
resort to see common Women dance, sing and play on Musical Instruments. In Summer they take this Recreation in cool Groves under close shady Trees. They have no particular Houses to entertain Passengers and Travellers, but he who travels, goes and sits down, where Night overtakes him, near the Pales of the first House he comes at, where tho’ it be not a great Man’s House, they bring him boil’d Rice, and dressed meat enough for his Supper. When he goes from thence, he may stop at another House, and at several. Yet on the great Road to
there are Houses, where those that travel on Publick Affairs, have Lodging and Diet on the Public Account

Hendrick Hamel, 1668

The great deep-ocean trawler that, on a coincident track, lingered briefly alongside us as we rounded the south point of the island of Chindo looked tired and weatherbeaten. She had long streaks of rust staining her bright blue flanks, and the guard rails on her starboard side were bent inward from the pounding of some tremendous storm. She was—I pulled out my binoculars and could read her name on her transom—the trawler
77 Oyang
, a thousand-tonner, one of the world’s largest. She was quite well known as one of the toughest and most adventurous of Korea’s huge fleet of deep-water fishing craft.

I had seen her some long while before at the fish quay in Inchon, when her crew was readying her for a long trip in the Southern Ocean. The firm that owned her was called the Oyang Susan, the Five Ocean Fishing Industries Company, and they operated a fleet of boats that were usually scattered across the seas
from the Bering Strait to the waters of New Zealand. Now, after more than a year of occupying her business in deep waters, this particular old lady, the
77 Oyang
, was coming home to let her crewmen go to their families, to let the owners inspect her, and to allow the maintenance men aboard to work on her enormous engines. She had been fishing, as I recalled the skipper telling me in a café in Inchon, in the waters off the Falkland Islands.

The prize, in such faraway waters, was something called the cold-water arrow squid, which Koreans value with an intensity approaching worship. They dry it and serve it up with peanut paste as a concoction known as
—you can see hundreds of plastic packets of the stuff hanging from racks in the food shops—and it is said that Koreans consume half a million metric tons every year—twenty-five pounds of arrow squid for every man, woman and child in the nation. Boats like the
77 Oyang
vanish for months at a time to hunt for it in the most distant corners of maritime geography.

Korea says she has no fewer than nine hundred deep-sea fishing vessels on her registers—almost the largest number in the world, comparable only to the deep-ocean fleets of Russia and Japan. The captain of this vessel was a man named Lee Hyun Wu, my notes remind me, and he once told me that his fuel tanks would allow him to stay at sea for three months at a time: he would make passage from Pusan or from Inchon to Wellington in New Zealand, a trip that would take twenty-four days. He would then refuel and pass eastabout in the Roaring Forties, below the Horn, and into Port Stanley, the Falklands’ tiny capital. After a couple of days of relaxation and a chance to compare notes with the skippers of the other long-haulers, the Poles and the Japanese, he would take off for the fishing grounds, four days’ steaming north. Here he would sit for the better part of two months—sweeping the seabed clean of its squid colonies, filling his holds with hundreds of tons of the tentacles and ink sacs and the white, fleshy muscles so favoured by the folks back home. And then, his forty days in the wilderness completed, he would steer eastward yet again, pass below Capes Agulhas and Catastrophe, and
return to New Zealand, and to the comforting womb of the Korean mother ship. He would do that three times before receiving his marching orders by radiogram from Seoul—invariably an instruction to return to base, interrupted only by a request to take a bellyful of some other kind of warm-water fish from the Saharan waters off Mauretania, where another factory ship was waiting. Forty days later, and he would be where I could see him on this windy March morning—butting through the swells of the Yellow Sea, with only a hundred miles to go before the lights and comforts of home.

Chindo, where we met him—and he disappeared over the northern horizon within half an hour, eager to get home before nightfall—is an island I had been to a few months before. It is in no sense a spectacular island, being merely a half-drowned range of low hills, about fifteen miles long and ten miles broad, and having just one scruffy county town and a handful of fishing villages. There are oddities about it, though, one of the more spectacular occurring each March when there is a great
, widely attended by people from as far away as Seoul, for the ‘miracle’ of the Parting of the Waters. Thanks to the mutual exertions of the gravitational fields of the sun and moon, a narrow finger of sea between Chindo and the tiny neighbour island of Modo dries up for a few hours; Koreans unversed in Newtonian mechanics believe various gods to have done the trick. Legends, not unnaturally, abound, and the island fills up for days beforehand as local shamans and other practitioners of the occult arrive to see the wondrous event. The hoteliers and the sellers of
make a good deal of money.

There is a more sober reason for taking note of this otherwise unremarkable place. On a bluff above a pretty little bay is a memorial, a large cross mounted—improbable though it may sound—on the back of an enormous turtle that stands in the middle of a shallow pool. The day I was there the turtle’s gleaming white marble back was covered with thousands of red chillies, drying in the sun. But the farmer who placed them there would have meant no disrespect: every Korean I met along my route
spoke adoringly of the man for whom the memorial was built—the man who was perhaps the country’s greatest wartime hero and whose most celebrated battle took place in the waters off Chindo.

He was called Yi Sun-shin, and he was an admiral in the Royal Korean Navy of the sixteenth century. He is revered today as the man who, almost alone, administered a series of stunning defeats to the Japanese and proved that Koreans are capable of seeing off the ambitions of their most loathsome neighbours, if only they really try.

The Japanese made their first concerted attack on Korea in the spring of 1592, when the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi sent an army of 150,000 men storming through the peninsula on their way to China—Korea being thought of by the Japanese as merely a springboard or a convenient walk-way for the acquisition of the larger prize. The invading troops had already been blooded in Japan during the Warring States period, and they were armed, moreover, with muskets, of which the Koreans were profoundly ignorant. Every Korean army encampment Hideyoshi encountered was routed in hours. He took Seoul within a fortnight and was leading his armies north of Pyongyang and heading for Manchuria within the month.

It was at this point that the then fleet commander of Left Cholla Province, Yi Sun-shin, began to display his brilliance—a brilliance that has led students of naval warfare the world over to compare him with Drake and Nelson and Halsey, as one of the great naval strategists of all time.

He was forty-seven years old; he had been in the navy for just sixteen years and had been appointed to his post, defending the southern sea frontier of his country, for just a year. It was an important job and one he had taken particularly seriously since discovering that, in his view, the coast was woefully badly defended. It was, he decided, sorely lacking in the kind of strong, fast and well-armed capital ships that a country with so huge and vulnerable a coastline clearly needed.

So he set about building a new fleet. The core of the flotillas,
he decided, should be a vessel of an extraordinary new design, although based on the crude, half-armoured ships used a century before. The entire craft would have a roof built over it so that it resembled a floating house rather than a ship. The roof would be made of thick wood covered with iron plates, and hundreds of sharp iron spikes would project from it. The gunwales would be solid, too, without the wide galleries from within which the guns could be trained to left and right, and that were so vulnerable to incoming shellfire. Admiral Yi’s ships were built for maximum protection, and if that meant that to aim a cannon the ship herself had to be turned by her steersmen, then so be it. His ships may have been clumsy, but they had enormous firepower, and they wouldn’t sink. They were, in fact, the world’s first truly ironclad battleships—built two centuries before the
—and they utterly changed both the face and the tide of battle. The admiral called his craft
(turtle ships), and the thick-shelled chelonian has been both his symbol, and the symbol of stubborn Korean resolve, ever since.

For his boats did the trick. His tiny but brilliantly organized squadrons set out from their bases hidden in the south coast fjords, and they stormed cheekily up to the huge Japanese imperial fleets. Each time he assaulted the enemy’s wooden barques with his cannon fire, he crippled them; and each time the Japanese responded, their cannonballs bounced harmlessly off Yi’s vessels and splashed into the sea. Even when the more adventurous and cunning Japanese vessels came close enough for their sailors to board the
, the matelots found their passage frustrated by the iron spikes and beat a hasty retreat. One after another the Japanese forces were routed; at the great encounter of Hansan Bay only 14 ships survived of the total Japanese battle group of 73 capital vessels; and even when the Imperial Navy sent a further 500 ships across the Sea of Japan (the East Sea, to Koreans) to meet Admiral Yi in battle off Pusan, 130 of them were lost to a force of Korean ships barely one-third the size of the enemy’s.

The results were catastrophic: Hideyoshi’s army was by now in the far north of the peninsula, the supply line was three
hundred miles long, and no reinforcements, no ammunition and no food could be sent up for them. Moreover, Korean guerrillas were organizing themselves to make hit-and-run expeditions against the invading troop columns, and fifty thousand soldiers from the Ming relief army in China poured south to help. The tide was turned, and for the while the Japanese were forced to retreat, lick their wounds, and think again.

But they came back and tried once more. There had been all manner of jealousy and intrigue within the Korean court, and Admiral Yi, despite his victories (the more scholarly historical works published in Seoul refer to the Battle of Hansan Bay, perhaps not totally hyperbolically, as ‘the Salamis of Korea’), had been demoted. An unknown sailor, one Admiral Won Kyun, took over and was promptly and roundly trounced by the Japanese—so roundly, in fact, that Yi’s painstakingly accumulated naval force was reduced at one stage to just a dozen ships.

The defeat made the bureaucrats in Seoul forget the palace intrigue for a while and discuss the dilemma. Inevitably the call went out: Get Yi! The admiral, a dignified Confucian whose personal life is said to have been utterly without blemish, agreed without demur to return to his old command and then fought his most glorious battle at the spot from which I had gazed from the turtle monument on Chindo. It was on a narrow neck of sea at a place named Myongnyang, and the official name of the turtle on which the farmer had set his red peppers to dry was the Myongnyang Great Victory Monument, commemorating the events of the afternoon of 16 September 1597.

The Japanese armada of 133 ships was heading west, bound for the Yellow Sea. Admiral Yi’s dozen vessels made a ragged line across the strait, beneath the cliffs of Chindo and the long, low peninsula where the road, Route 18, now runs to the town of Haenam. It was a brave and brilliant manoeuvre—the ships came under a withering fusillade from the scores of Japanese craft but withstood it all and returned cannon fire as if all Korea depended on it. Thirty Japanese vessels were destroyed and either sank or were abandoned, burning, on the rockbound shores. The
remaining ships then turned tail and fled, back to the protection of Japanese territorial waters. It was the beginning of the end of this particular attempt on the integrity of Korea, and there is no doubt—nor was there ever any—that Admiral Yi Sun-shin was the hero of the hour.

He died during his next battle—the campaign’s last—at a place called Noryangjin. His strategy had already cost the Japanese two hundred ships when the fatal bullet struck him. His behaviour in death had a more than passing similarity to that of Nelson on the
, two centuries later and many oceans away. He knew that he had been mortally wounded, but he ordered his closest colleagues to prop him up so that none of his sailors would know he had been hit. Only when the battle was over and won did the officers involved in this final small conspiracy allow his body to slump to the deck. He was fifty-three years old, arguably the greatest of Korean heroes, the subject of heroic sculptures and paintings from one end of the country to the other. He is less well known abroad, of course, but among naval historians, who have studied the details of battles that he so carefully documented in his diaries (themselves preserved at his gravesite, some sixty miles south of Seoul), he is regarded with awe.

And there is a third reason for my having taken a more-than-cursory interest in Chindo as the island slipped further astern and as the Dongyang Express Number Two growled ever nearer the mainland. It all had to do with a dog—a chowlike animal with a short, off-white coat, an arched tail with a splash of ochre along its inner edge, and a face of great friendliness, determination and, dare one say it, chutzpah. The
, the only dog wholly peculiar to Korea, is a remarkable beast—and that, the government has decreed, is official.

The decree is something I found rather more interesting than the dog. Ever since Korea was a Japanese colony there has been a frantic desire, by government officials with nothing better to do, to classify almost anything of value as a ‘national asset’ and, moreover, to give it a number. I was already dimly aware of having seen such things: the tomb of a long-dead king somewhere
in the deep southeast had been styled National Asset Number 38, I remember, and a library of Buddhist books in a mountain monastery was National Treasure Number 32. It all smacked of rather too much organization, I thought, and anyway, I didn’t believe the numbers. I assumed they had been given randomly to make visitors think that Korea had a lot of whatever the things were—at least thirty-seven other tombs and thirty-one other libraries, for instance. But when I met my first
, and the little devil came wagging and yelping across to me, and its mistress informed me sternly that I was about to offer a bowl of Purina Puppy Chow to Natural Protected Resource Number 225, I started to take the classification system more seriously.

BOOK: Korea
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