By Yang Sung-jin
It was a risky challenge. Writing about the history of the Choson Kingdom — in the form of a weekly series — had never been attempted. There were no maps, no navigation tools and no one to consult with.
Back in December, 1997, then Korea Times culture editor Han Dong-soo (now political editor) first floated the idea of starting a series on the Choson Kingdom, using the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty developed by Seoul Systems Co., a venture firm.
Yet it was quite an elusive concept. Questions as to how to find the proper materials and put them in the context of current Korean social and political situations remained unanswered.
Even Seoul Systems officials could not offer an answer, although they expressed a willingness to join the project to make the proud history of Korea known to foreigners in English.
Preliminary meetings were held, specific methods discussed and research works prepared.
In the process, researchers of the Korean Studies Database Research Institute (KSDRI) tightened their schedule to set a guideline about the series and scan the CD-ROM to produce relevant materials.
Putting together the Annals article with today’s Korea, however, was easier said than done. If an article leans toward a negative note, it could give a biased perspective to readers who are not familiar with the historical context of the Annals article.
For instance, both Korean and foreigners are likely to assume that the disputes which occurred at the court were mostly over selfish and nearsighted factionalism.
But the Annals told a different story. Countless articles were inspiring and marvelous in terms of their content, logic and historical insight.
When the first installment was printed in the first week of February, 1998, the much-anticipated problems began to rear their heads.
The most unwieldy issue was the time-consuming process. Although KSDRI researchers (Lee Nam-hee, Goh Yoon-hee and Chae So-yeon) would give a brief background session about a specific topic, it was not easy to grasp what was behind the numerous Annals articles.
If a topic was too broad, the CD-ROM search produced too many (often thousands) articles. If the topic was too narrow, there were only a couple of articles which did not meet the standards for a thematic piece.
Worse still, determining a theme was problematic. A political scandal, economic crisis and international disputes could be good topics, but not all of them had a similar precedent in the Annals.
Nonetheless, The Korea Times and Seoul Systems continued the series, touching on almost every subject — politics, social issues, economic structure, bribe taking, draft dodging, artists and sex.
Eventually, the weekly series, which appeared in Tuesday editions of The Times, developed its own format and attracted the attention of foreign history buffs and those interested in the history of Korea.
Some of the installments were circulated on the Internet by overseas Korean studies researchers and Times readers in Korea sent feedback articles on the series.
Recognizing the role of the series as a guide to the historical treasure trove of Korea, The Korea Times established a special section devoted to the “Click into the Hermit Kingdom” series on its homepage.
The Annals series installment was written on every Sunday. Major political, social and economic incidents reported in the media were examined for a thematic topic. Once a topic was decided on, basic research followed.
History books, encyclopedias and reference articles were scrutinized while KSDRI researchers offered specific guidelines and did historical background research about a specific incident.
Without the enthusiastic devotion of KSDRI researchers, the Hermit Kingdom series might have hit a snag even in an earlier stage.
Once the preliminary works were completed, what followed was a search for pertinent articles in the CD-ROM Annals. Those articles were sorted to fit a chosen topic.
The two-year serialization of the Choson Kingdom is, however, only a small part of what today’s media and historians can garner from CD-ROM title.
The inspiring thought, breathtaking writing and admirable personalities of the Choson Kingdom remain still undiscovered.