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[Herald Interview] ‘Arirang Peoples’ Diaspora’: Shedding light on families and friends around the world

Aug. 17, 2021 - 13:21 By Kim Hae-yeon
A photo of late Joseon era people taken by Jack London is shown in Park Hye-ok's book, “Arirang Peoples’ Diaspora” (Geureul Ikda)
Arirang is a Korean folk song cherished as the song of “han,” a mix of emotions similar to grief and resentment flowing through the hearts of Koreans. While Arirang is recognized today as a song that represents Korea, less is known of the Koreans who migrated overseas in modern times.

“Arirang Peoples’ Diaspora” by author Hye-ok (the Korean-language edition of the book notes her name as Lee Hye-ok, following the Korean custom of women keeping their family name even after marriage), 73, delves into what happened to the people of Arirang, who moved out of Korea before the formal occupation of Korea by Japan in 1910, focusing on the period of the Russo-Japanese War from 1904 to 1905.

The book analyzes how and why Koreans became involved in both the Japanese and Russian sides of the war, and looks back on the transnational lives of Korean diasporas in the Russian Far East, Manchuria, Japan and Korea from 1895 to 1937.

The Korean edition of the book, published in late June, is based on Park’s doctoral dissertation research, with an English edition expected to come out Sept. 20 under the title “Koreans in Transnational Diasporas of the Russian Far East and Manchuria, 1895–1920: Arirang People,” published by Routledge.

“Arirang Peoples’ Diaspora” author Park Hye-ok (Park Hye-ok)
“I held on tight to a goal that I always wished to pursue but couldn’t, busy juggling an extremely demanding career and a married life with two precious children,” Park said during an interview with The Korea Herald on Aug. 10.

After majoring in history at Yonsei University, Park earned a master’s degree in library and information science at Texas A&M University-Commerce in 1973. She worked as a librarian and information technologist in several universities over decades, living in Texas, California, New York, Connecticut and again in California.

A year after retiring from the California State University as the director for e-learning in 2011, Park decided to go back to school to pursue a doctorate in the field of history, researching Korean history in particular. It had been her long-held wish.

In 2015, Park was diagnosed with breast cancer, which required surgery and radiation treatments. However, the scholar did not let go of her passion. In her research, she found out that American novelist Jack London had been dispatched to Korea to cover the Russo-Japanese War as a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner. Clues that Jack London had left in his writing led to the topic of her dissertation and ultimately to her book.

“Jack London mentioned the severe foot sore problems prevalent among ‘Japanese soldiers,’ because they were used to wearing ’soft straw-woven shoes‘ all their lives, then had to encase their feet into stiff Western military boots. This gave me a clue that there may have been Koreans in the Japanese military at the time, some 40 years earlier than when they were conscripted to fight in World War II as colonial subjects under Japanese rule.” That question pushed Park to look closer into the topic, to find out who those Koreans were, and why they were fighting in someone else’s war.

As a mother and grandmother of immigrant children, Park explained in detail how she could relate to those in a war between other countries. “I helped them (my children) grow up as an all-American apple pie while still keeping the traditions and cultures of Korea in our family life, celebrating holidays like Seollal and Chuseok. However, if any war was to break out, I knew my son would have to fight for America as his mother country.”

Park explained how second- and third-generation Koreans in the Russian Far East had to show their allegiance to their new home country of Russia, taking part in the Russo-Japanese War as spies and soldiers. “As for those who sided with Japan, they had to think of their lives under the Japanese influence for their own survival, and to keep Russians out of Korea,” Park added. 

“Arirang Peoples’ Diaspora” by Park Hye-ok (Geureul Ikda)
Park thinks it a fortunate miracle that her children, who grew up in mostly white neighborhoods and now live in a Los Angeles suburb, love Korean food and culture. “They were reluctant to learn all these when growing up, but now ask me to teach their children the Korean language,” Park said, mentioning how for early immigrants, the sense of bonding and willingness to learn about their roots has to do with how proud they feel of their old homeland in the contemporary world.

Despite the inconvenient truths of Koreans whose identities were not revealed during wartime, a shared and collective spirit supports Korean people throughout their lives regardless, according to Park.

“I believe the song of Arirang captures the Korean lives very well. People were separated by the mountains and rivers, knowing that they were looking at the same stars as their friends and families.”

Park structured her Korean book into four chapters and a conclusion, each prefaced by a verse of Arirang, encapsulating the main sentiment of the content. This was her way of dedicating the books to the people of Korea, “the Arirang People,” who have endured troubles and hardships throughout the long history of Korea.

“For the Korean version of the book, I tried hard to make it easier to read for everyday readers in Korea and abroad, including my friends and relatives. The English version published by Routledge adheres more to a scholarly tone,” Park said in a follow-up interview Sunday. Park explained that “non-history buffs” can read the parts they feel comfortable with while skipping chapters too difficult to understand.

Park wished to give a piece of advice to future scholars in Korean history studies, “Still, very few books have been written on the history of Korea in English. Please don’t give up and keep digging around, and you will end up finding loads of valuable historical resources all around!”