With media attention focused almost solely on the turbulent affairs and this week’s summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un of North Korea, we’ve heard a lot about topics like nuclear diplomacy of late.
But even before North Korea was ruled by some certifiable madman or another, back when the North and South were united, the intrigue coming from the West—including here in Boston—was of a similar fashion, underlined by apprehension over perceived threats, however valid.
Looking back to the early 20th century, the Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904 over, among other things, influence in what was at the time a singular Korea. Shortly after that conflict began, international negotiations impacting that part of the world commenced in Washington, DC. The Boston Sunday Globe sent a reporter down to interview Japanese diplomat Takahira Kogorō, with one topic of discussion being “Yellow Peril,” or what would nowadays be seen as purely xenophobic nightmares that Americans have about an East viewed as an aspiring imperial force. Addressing such concerns, as well as the possibility of a combined military force between China and Japan, the ambassador said that any such worries were founded in “gross ignorance or malicious desire to harm Japan in the eyes of the world.”
It doesn’t seem the Boston media paid much attention to remarks made by Takahira. Racist headlines about “Yellow Peril” persisted; in a 1917 Globe dispatch, writer Arthur Brooks Baker described his encounter with a “yellow heathen,” depicting his speech with a bigoted accent, even mentioning the prospect of indenturing the person into slavery.
The idea of “Yellow Peril” was additionally used in a more general sense, often applied to people from all Asian nations, reducing them to one threatening entity. Such efforts were co-branded with patriotism, not unlike contemporary rhetoric from anti-immigration voices. Only in the 1920s, it seems, did journalists begin to differentiate between people from different countries and regions; even then, however, the sentiments were derogatory. In the early 1920s, as America was rife with anti-Asian sentiment in part due to the threat of Japanese expansion, the Boston Post sent a reporter to Seoul for a “Trip to the Orient,” where he hailed Korean society for improvements that came under Japanese rule.
Thirty years later, the Korean War broke out between the North Koreans, backed by China and the Soviet Union, and South Koreans, backed by the US and others. In the decade that followed, the threat of atomic warfare loomed large. Reports about such situations may have changed in tone and their degree of prejudice in the time since—as have some of the allegiances, with US President Trump coddling the Russians and the North Koreans—but in many ways, in the context of past coverage, it seems America is stuck at a similarly sketchy crossroads, and is, at least to some degree, still grappling with media-assisted threats of nuclear annihilation.
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