Pyongyang Review of
Books: Jack London
in Northern Korea,
Part 1

Retracing the author's 1904 dispatches from Korea during the Russo-Japanese War

Jack London in 1905


One-hundred and thirteen years ago last week, American author Jack London (1876-1916) filed his first dispatches from Korea as a correspondent covering the ongoing Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) for the San Francisco Examiner. Embedded with the Japanese army, the war’s developments would take London northwards from Seoul to northern Korea, following the battle lines across the Yalu River into Manchuria. Over the next few months Pyongyang Review of Books will retrace London’s experiences as they relate to places located in today’s DPRK.

London’s news reports from Korea dealt primarily with matters directly related to the war and his time was “…to prove frustrating for the writer, given the Japanese army’s cast-iron insistence on keeping correspondents away from the battle zones” (Tagliaventi, 2016: 71). Yet London was obviously taking more extensive notes on Korean culture and history and his time would a lasting impression on him, with Korea reappearing as a major theme in The Star Rover (1915), one of his last novels. His accounts are a fascinating look at northern Korea from an American perspective totally unrelated to late 19th century/early 20th century missionary activity or the Korean War (1950-3).

Part 1 - Arrival in Korea

With tensions mounting in the Far East by early 1904, it soon became obvious that the showdown between emergent Japan and old-power Russia would occur on Korean soil, similar to the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) a decade earlier. The San Francisco Examiner, eager to have their man in Korea before the conflict began, first sent London to Japan to obtain requisite papers from the Japanese government, a journey complicated by the heightened tensions and, unbeknownst to him at the time, preparation for war.

A Wednesday, February 03 dispatch from Shimonoseki, Japan recounts London’s frustrating attempts over the previous days to find passage aboard a steamer to Chemulpo (Incheon), the port city of Seoul, including his temporary arrest for taking photos. “War was immediately preceded by a withdrawal of all vessel scheduled to sail from Japanese to Korean ports,” London wrote a month later of the journey, “I managed to get a third-class passage on the least vessel which departed” (London, 1904)

Japanese fleet at Dalian

By Sunday February 07, London found himself in Pusan at the extreme southeast of Korea and having to work his way up the coast by various means, first traveling by steamer to the southwestern port of Mokpo and then by Korean fishing boat up to coast to Kunsan on the way to Chemulpo. While London was traveling up Korea’s southwest coast, the Russo-Japanese War began with a surprise strike by the Japanese navy on the Russian fleet based at Port Arthur (Dalian), China in the late hours of February 08. Japan’s declaration of war followed on February 10.

London arrived in Chemulpo on or around February 14 by fishing boat and wrote “…masts and funnels of the sunken ships greeted me as I entered the harbor,” from the naval battle that took place there to clear the way for the arrival of the Japanese army. Soon “[d]aily transports from Japan arrive, drop anchor in the outer harbor and men, horses, mountain artillery in string, towed by launches, cross the inner harbor to the short and depart by train to Seoul, twenty-seven miles away” (London, 1904)

London followed the men and material to the Korean capital of Seoul where “…we were advised by the Japanese Minister and generals to remain there until the Headquarter Staff should arrive…. But the Headquarters Staff did not appear, nor did our permits to accompany the army appear” (London, 1904) He would have to wait in Seoul until early March, where he reported on rumors of war advancing ahead of a Russian Cossack force, which had descended from Manchuria at Wiju (Uiju) and seized the city of Anju on the Chongchon River, strategically located north of Pyongyang. London writes:

Ping Yang [Chinese for Pyongyang] is in a state of panic so far as the natives are concerned. The Koreans seem to feel that this is to be a great battleground again [referring to the Battle of Pyongyang during the Sino-Japanese War]. Then thousand of them already have fled the city and others are leaving hourly. From further north, in the direction of the Yalu, tens of thousands of refugees have been driven out. The fear of the Russian has become a blinding terror. But, beyond the fear of the Russians, there is no anti-foreign feeling in Northern Korea (London, 1904b).

The Russian Cossacks scouted south, resulting in skirmishes with Japanese units at Pyongyang (see print below).

Skirmish at Chilsong Gate, Pyongyang.

In contrast, London reports little fear of the Japanese army among the Korean populace, describing them as serious, orderly, and splendid. “‘But if they were the Russians’ – say the Koreans, and the Europeans and American resident ominously shake their heads” (London, 1904b). It is a historic irony that these Japanese armies, after their victory over the Russians, would stay to occupy Korea until 1945. The next time Russian soldiers would return to northern Korea, they would be greeted as liberators.

In Part 2, we will follow Jack London as he begins his trek “…north to Ping Yang and from Ping Yang still north,” (London, 1904c)

The Pyongyang Review of Books (PYRB) is a modest literary review of books from the DPRK and Korea related topics. Regular visitors and browsers of Pyongyang’s bookstores.

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