Book Review: Letters from Joseon

Letters from JoseonKorea in the late nineteenth century was a turbulent time. John Mahelm Berry Sill, the American Minister to Korea from 1894-1897, couldn’t have asked for a more difficult posting. In that time there would be the Sino-Japanese War, the Gabo Reforms, the murder of a Korean queen, and the subsequent refuge of King Gojong in the Russian legation.

In the fascinating and historically rich Letters from Joseon, 19th Century Korea through the Eyes of an American Ambassador’s Wife, Korean historian and freelance writer Robert Neff has given us a unique window on a bygone era in this very readable and enjoyable trip back in time. Relying mainly on the personal letters and correspondences between the Sills in South Korea and their family back in the United States, this period of Korean history comes alive as the letters offer insights into life at the American legation as well as what was happening outside the walls. To be sure, as Neff writes in the book’s preface, “these letters provide a candid view of life in not only the American community in Seoul, but also in the Russian legation, where King Gojong and the crown prince sought refuge following the murder of Queen Min.”

The book is divided into three parts which coincides with the three years that Sill was posted to Korea. In Part One, the Sino-Japanese War is the historical backdrop for the letters and correspondence, which signals the beginning of Japan’s grip on the Korean peninsula; in Part Two, the letters cover a wide range of events inside and outside the legation and ends with the murder of Queen Min; and finally, in Part Three, the letters offer insights into King Gojong’s refuge in the Russian legation and the subsequent period of unrest in Korea.

Neff keeps his commentary to a minimum, though he augments the letters with numerous notes and asides to provide readers with related information to the events and people he describes. Though Sill was not looked upon too favorably for his actions, or lack thereof as minister, Neff lets the letters tell the story and is only there to amplify any historical references.

Although scholars will find this book as an indispensable source of information about the late Joseon period, other readers will enjoy this window on Korea’s past, especially Korea in the late nineteenth century on the eve of the eventual Japanese colonization of the peninsula. Neff has carved out a niche for himself when it comes to the study of this period of Korean history. His knowledge and expertise in this area is commendable. He might not be the only Korean specialist writing about this period, but he certainly has become one of the most prominent.

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