While America's collective knowledge of the Korean War fades into shadowy images and memories, to the millions of men and women like my parents who participated in that war, Korea still retains a strong hold on their lives. A country in which America suffered over 53,000 casualties and where American troops still provide a defensive presence against a North Korean threat deserves to be understood as someplace more significant than a former or future battleground.
James Burke, the noted historian, author, host, and narrator of the acclaimed television series "Connections," provided the motivation that guided the research on Korean history which became the foundation for the Korean History Project. Beginning with the Korean War and looking backward led down a trail that showed how epic events never happen in isolation from the rest of the world.
The decisive triggering events in Korea's past that led to that war nearly always emerged from the interaction of seemingly unrelated circumstances. The reason why events took place when and where they did is a fascinating mixture of accident, intent, ambition, deceit, war, religious belief, and hundreds of other factors that stimulated dramatic change. East Asian history is unique in that regard, a complex and compelling subject replete with dramatic action and epic stories.
Korea in the Eye of the Tiger is not the history of a steady stream of military heroes, wise men and isolated geniuses guiding matters into the future. Contrary to what we are so often led to believe, this heroic approach to history exaggerates the influence of individuals over events and denies the impact of others without whose complicity the hero's task might well have been impossible. In real life, each member of society contributes his or her own small part to bring about change, often little-aware of the future impact of their actions.
Korea in the Eye of the Tiger is not history as an orderly sequence of time periods, because blocking history between fixed dates over-simplifies the past and completely ignores the overlapping and interrelated nature of events.
Finally, Korea in the Eye of the Tiger is not a topical, or thematic history that creates a linear view of events. History just doesn't happen that way. Thematic history puts the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in China and Japan into a sequence of developments related to Asian religions. Consider this, however. The Jesuits also brought Western knowledge that fostered intellectual activity in Asia which led to technological developments that increased the general economic welfare of the Chinese, Japanese and Korean people. The result? Improving economic conditions in Asia soon widened the gap between rich and poor and pushed religious conflict to the forefront of domestic politics. Once the Korean government discovered that Western missionaries had the backing of European military power, they came to fear Western religion and all those who practiced and promoted it. The powerful belief that Western religion carried the potential threat of foreign intervention intensified Korea's desire to remain isolated from the rest of the world.
The absolute truth of the past is irretrievable. As the second hand on the clock indifferently sweeps ordinary events into history, it shrouds them with a haze of doubt. The further events slip into the past, the thicker the haze becomes.
Over time, those extraordinary, surprising, terrifying, or ecstatic moments we swear we will "never forget" become so meaningful that we construct our own personal myths to keep them alive. In a few weeks, or months, or years we no longer know what really happened. We know only how to tell the story.
No amount of imagination can empower a historian to recapture, exactly describe and recreate some bygone event any more than a biologist can resurrect an extinct tiger specie. Still, great historic events cannot be understood without imagination.
History is an invaluable asset that collects and refines the trail of facts and clues about past events to give us an understanding of the past. Though facts are sometimes lost in the rushing tide of historical data, theory, statistics, and opinion, one fact stands out clearly; men and women walked the earth before us. They really did. The artisans, writers and builders among them left behind permanent traces of their lives - not imagined, but real. These things are knowable. If you are willing to listen, their words and ideas will wing their messages across the centuries to teach you about the long distance we have travelled through time and the seemingly unchanging nature of human events.
Each of us is born to a world already shaped by the evolution of centuries of complex historic forces. Throughout our lives each of us plays a part in a vast human drama that began long before our birth and will continue long after our death. We enter for our brief turn on a stage already crowded with other players, in a scene already set and with the action already in motion. As we search for our place, we stumble over obstacles, limited in the directions we can move because the stage setting and the actions of others are being guided by designs and directions given long ago. While we are here however, we have some freedom to move and act, to alter the wanderings of others, even to redesign and move pieces of the set.
The Korea in the Eye of the Tiger is a unique and ambitious adventure into the past with Korea at the focal point. While there are many possible journeys through East Asian history, each with its own perspective, this is a history of Korea, not the history of Korea.
Every attempt has been made to avoid historical fiction, whether it be invented dialogue or colorful details without factual foundation.
There is no political point to be made here, no side to take, no attempt to rewrite the past to soothe the memories of the living. This historical voyage across nearly 4,000 years is a story of discovery about what happened. I leave it to you to decide why.
Please drop by often to enjoy what is for me a fascinating adventure in time.