California Forum

What Jack London learned about North Korea and war

“So cold that it freezes salt water. O, this is a wild and bitter coast,” Jack London wrote in 1904, traveling as a war correspondent in what is now North Korea. “Sailing to Korea in a Sampan,” acrylic and pencil on vellum.
“So cold that it freezes salt water. O, this is a wild and bitter coast,” Jack London wrote in 1904, traveling as a war correspondent in what is now North Korea. “Sailing to Korea in a Sampan,” acrylic and pencil on vellum.

Jack London, the iconic California writer, was born in Oakland in 1876. His history is part of my family lore; London appeared several times, on minor charges, in the courtroom of my great-grandfather, an Alameda County judge. I’ve created murals about London in Oakland and Sacramento.

In January 1904, following London’s famous Klondike stories, William Randolph Hearst sent him to Korea to cover the war between Russia and Japan. Japan and the United Kingdom wanted to prevent Russian expansion; China was neutral. To reach Korea, London traveled by sampan around the south coast. His journals described his death-defying odyssey.

February 11: “Wind howling over the Yellow Sea … made (land) at nightfall, after having carried away a mast and smashed the rudder … in driving rain, wind cutting like a knife.”

Feb 13-15: “So cold that it freezes salt water. O, this is a wild and bitter coast … Never thought a sampan could live through what ours did ... crazy … rags, tatters, rotten … how they navigate is a miracle. I wonder if Hearst thinks I’m lost.”

Exhausted and freezing, he landed near Seoul, 35 miles from what is now the demilitarized zone. The Japanese military granted London permission to proceed to the battlefront on the border between China and Korea, through what is now North Korea. On horseback for 600 miles one way, on roads mired in mud, he shared his impressions of “Cho-sen,” a raw and beleaguered land that still is a flashpoint for world war and geopolitical ambitions, though its name translates as “land of the morning calm.”

Though London’s observations are politically incorrect by today’s standards, he was deeply empathetic and perceptive about people and power. In some of these northern villages, he wrote, “I am the first whiteman, and a curiosity.”

March 2: “Tens of thousands of refugees … regard the invaders as desperate enemies … [fleeing the Russians] in fear and suffering.”

March 5: “Incongruous white garments worn by Koreans…like so much ice drifting on the surface of a black river.” [The Korean has] “fine features” [but is] “spiritless … Whatever strength has been his in the past has been worked out of him by centuries of corrupt government.”

London used words such as “inefficient and helpless” to describe what he saw. His words sound harsh, but not from lack of sympathy. “The people expect” to be robbed by the government, he wrote. “They have never known anything else … on the part of their rulers.” London speculated that the average Korean harbored “the ferment of a new idea, the Western idea of the rights of man … But in the soul of him was the humility of generations.”

He also saw a new kind of war being fought, one more defensive and, he believed, less lethal than past wars. “Killing decided ancient warfare,” he wrote on April 30, 1904, observing a stalemate between Japanese and Russian troops at the Yalu River, on Korea’s border with China. “The possibility of being killed decides modern warfare.”

The writer’s pugnacity got him sent back to Seoul repeatedly and arrested three times. When he punched a Korean for stealing, Theodore Roosevelt had to personally appeal to the Japanese War Office to release him.

After six months in Korea, he returned home in frustration and wrote: “Granting that no revolution arises in Russia and there is no interference of outside powers, I cannot see how Japan can possibly win. Not heroics on the battlefield, but economics at home, determines the outcome of modern wars.”

He was right about economics, but wrong about the war he was covering; Japan’s victory in September 1905 shocked the world. In the modern era, it was the first victory of an Asian power over a European power. What happened in “Cho-sen” transformed geopolitics in East Asia, and fueled the Russian Revolution that year.

Sacramento artist Stephanie Taylor has a degree in history from UCLA, and incorporates history into her art and essays. Reach her at stephanietaylorart.com or staylorstudio@gmail.com.

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