But Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles isn’t a traditional history text. After a handful of trips to South Korea for other purposes, Winchester decided to learn more about the country simply because it fascinated him. He knew, however, that only visiting Seoul or driving through the country wouldn’t put him in contact with the kinds of interesting people he hoped to meet, so following (more or less) the path of a group of 17th-Century Dutch sailors who had shipwrecked on the Korean coast and had been taken north to the capital, Winchester decided to walk the length of Korea’s western coast from the southern island of Cheju-do to the 38th parallel–the Line of Demarcation between North and South Korea, a distance of a little more than 300 miles.
Each chapter opens with a passage from The Description of the Kingdom of Corea, written in 1668 by Hendrick Hamel, one of the Dutch sailors, and the first Western account of the “Hermit Kingdom.” In each chapter, Winchester describes his physical journey as well as the geography and atmosphere of his surroundings, but the bulk of each chapter grows into an account of the people he meets, and the reminders of Korea’s history he finds along the way.
So the book’s as much a travelogue as it is a history. But it’s really Winchester’s enthralling portrait of a country he finds simultaneously beautiful, mystifying, and inviting. His one regret is that he must stop at the border with North Korea. As much as he didn’t want his journey to end, I didn’t want his account to, either. I don’t know if South Koreans today have as antagonistic view of Americans as Winchester suggests they did in the 1980s. This concerns me for my own potential trip there next summer, but at the same time, his book makes me more eager than ever to see some of the country for myself.