Robert Neff

Robert Neff

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The late 19th century in Korea was a period of political and social turmoil. Japanese interference culminates in the assassination of Queen Min and King Kojong later seeking refuge in the Russian legation. At the same time, Korea is confronted with vast scale civil strife as Koreans hostile to the growing influence of foreign nations foment riots and angry mobs roam the streets of Seoul.

This is the Korea the Sills witnessed between early 1894 and the later months of 1896. John Sill, who had been sent to Seoul as Ambassador of the United States, and his wife, Sally Sill, wrote a steady stream of letters to their children and acquaintances who had remained in America. The Sills’ correspondence is a remarkable account of the lives of Westerners in Korea; the tensions between Western influence and traditional values; Japan’s gradual power grab on the Peninsula; and of the dying days of the Joseon dynasty.

Our guest for this episode is Robert D. Neff, who transcribed the Sills’ letters and undertook meticulous research to contextualize them for the general public and scholars alike. The result of his hard work is a fascinating book: Letters from Joseon: 19th Century Korea Through the Eyes of an American Ambassador’s Wife, a detailed account of life and politics during a critical period of late Joseon, as seen by the Sills.

Robert D. Neff is a freelance writer and historical researcher specializing in Korean history during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He has authored and co-authored several books, including The Lives of Westerners in Joseon Korea and Korea Through Western Eyes. His writings have appeared in various publications, including Christian Science Monitor, Asia Times, 10 Magazine, Korea Times and the Korea Herald. Robert Neff’s current research focuses on Western gold mining concessions in northern Korea (1883-1939).

You see the great white knight coming all the time [with their mission civilisatrice]. It’s a constant thing.  “You people need to be civilized!” What is civilization? It’s a matter of perspective. Korea was a very civilized country at the time – but it wasn’t western civilization.

The interview was recorded on August 27th in Seoul.