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A life stranger than fiction

A life stranger than fiction

Spy-turned-scholar Jeong Su-il publishes Silk Road encyclopedia

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Published : 2013-12-06 20:07
Updated : 2013-12-06 20:07

Jeong Su-il speaks about his research on the Silk Road in an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Ogin-dong, Seoul, last week. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
In 1984, a foreigner named Muhammad Kansu arrived in Korea with a Filipino passport and a fully grown mustache. The man, claiming one of his parents was Lebanese, spoke Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean fluently.

As an international student, he earned a Ph.D. in history at Dankook University, and then started teaching there as a professor. He earned recognition for his extensive knowledge of Arabic culture and history, as well as his fluency in foreign languages ― up until it was revealed in 1996 that he was Jeong Su-il, a spy for North Korea. 

“The Cyclopedia of Silk Road,” by Jeong Su-il (Changbi Publishers)
Now 79, Jeong is one of the very few scholars in the country specializing in Silk Road and Arabic studies. He recently published “The Cyclopedia of Silk Road,” a result of his 15 years of research and 40 Silk Road visits since 2005. Jeong handwrote the first half of the 1,092-page book while in prison from 1996 to 2000. He completed writing the definitions for 974 Silk Road-related terms there, out of 1,907 included in the book.

Writing in prison

“I think I spent 16 hours writing every day in the jail cell,” Jeong told The Korea Herald in his office in central Seoul last week. “And I would sleep for about eight hours each day. I wanted to use the time I had as an opportunity to write the book.”

As a political prisoner, Jeong wasn’t allowed to keep more than eight or nine books in his cell. He would write to his wife asking her to bring him the books he required, many of them in Chinese and Arabic. For five years, she would bring him new books in exchange for the old.

The handwritten manuscript of “The Cyclopedia of Silk Road,” which Jeong Su-il wrote while in prison from 1996 to 2000 (Jeong Su-il)
“My wife knew Korean and English, but she did not know how to read Chinese or Arabic,” Jeong said. “So whenever I asked her to bring books in Arabic or Chinese, she would spend a lot of time looking for the books in our study. Sometimes she would bring the wrong ones. Regardless, it would’ve been impossible to write it without her support.”

From Yanbian to Egypt to Pyongyang

Jeong was born to ethnic Korean parents in today’s Yanbian, a Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin province, China. His life as a nomad, stranger than fiction, interweaves with his lifelong research interest: the Silk Road.

Jeong spent his first 25 years in China, then 15 years in North Korea and another 10 years in other countries, including Egypt and Morocco, before arriving in South Korea as a spy.

Jeong’s great-grandfather was a farmer who fled from poverty in today’s North Korea to China during Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula (1910-1945). For many Koreans in Yanbian who were descendants of the Joseon’s expat nationalists behind the anti-Japanese independence movement in early 20th-century China, the Korean War (1950-53) and the division of the country were heartbreaking.

Growing up, Jeong only attended ethnic Korean schools, and did not study Chinese until the last semester of high school in 1952.

That year, Jeong said, China announced that it would open the entrance exam for the prestigious Peking University to all students nationwide. Jeong prepared for the exam and studied Chinese for a single semester, and became one of the only two ethnic Korean students from Yanbian to be admitted to the university. “The whole town was excited when I was offered admission,” Jeong recalled. “I was young and reckless. I wanted to see the bigger world.”

Jeong graduated with honors from the school’s Eastern Studies program, where many students were trained to be China’s “future diplomats,” and was selected as one of the first Chinese students to study abroad on a government scholarship. He chose to study in Egypt.

While at Peking, one of Jeong’s professors was the late famed Chinese Indologist and historian Ji Xianlin. It was Ji who suggested Jeong study in Egypt. “It was also professor Ji who introduced me to “Wangocheonchukgukjeon,” a travelogue on India written by a monk from Korea’s Silla Kingdom (B.C. 57- A.D. 935),” said Jeong. “He suggested reading it after learning I was an ethnic Korean.”

After studying at Cairo University, Jeong worked as a Chinese diplomat for five years in China and Morocco, until he moved to Pyongyang in 1963 ― where he started working as an Arabic studies professor. He was recruited as an agent in 1974, and arrived in South Korea in 1984 after having lived in Tunisia, Malaysia, Lebanon and the Philippines. All of his living siblings still live in Yanbian, while his three daughters are in Pyongyang. He visited his family in Yanbian in 2011, the first time in 50 years.

“I am a nationalist and I have no problem saying that to people,” said Jeong. “I would’ve been successful in China if I stayed as a Chinese national, but I have always considered myself a Korean. As a young intellectual I wanted to contribute to my people. I have no regrets. I never wished I was Chinese.”

Connecting Gyeongju and the Silk Road

Jeong gained his South Korean citizenship and passport in 2005, and traveled overseas about 40 times to visit Mongolia, Latin America and other regions for his Silk Road research.

The scholar argues that the Silk Road’s Northern Route in fact started in Gyeongju, the capital of Korea’s ancient kingdom of Silla in today’s North Gyeongsang Province, in contrast to the popular belief that the route started at today’s Xi’an in China.

“A lot of Silla relics are from the Roman Empire,” said Jeong. “Cups that have been excavated in Korea are similar to Roman glasses. There are records that Silla had enjoyed pomegranates from Persia, today’s Iran, since the eighth century. Much of Silla’s earthenware had grips, which many scholars believe was a Roman influence as well. An eighth- or ninth-century Nestorian stone cross and a statue of the Virgin Mary were discovered in Gyeongju’s Bulguksa Temple in the 1950s.”

The newly published encyclopedia, which was released with support from North Gyeongsang Province, provides definitions for a total of 1,907 Silk Road-related terms, along with 8,015 index entries. Currently, the biggest encyclopedia on the Silk Road, published in Japan, only comprises 192 terms, and the one in China does not include many terms regarding its sea routes, according to Jeong.

“What create civilization, I believe, are ethnic groups,” Jeong said. “And the Silk Road is what enabled the interactions between different ethnic groups and civilizations. I wanted to prove that such interactions and cultural exchanges took place on the Korean Peninsula. I believe Silk Road studies can provide a meaningful vision for the peaceful coexistence of nations and societies.”

Jeong said his knowledge of the Arabic culture and language certainly helps him when he does his research. “Many know about the East and many know about the West, but not a lot of people know about the middle ground between the two,” he said. “But I somehow got to learn about it.”

Goals and wishes 

Jung Su-il at the Ganges, the transnational river running through India and Bangladesh, during a visit for his Silk Road research in 2010 (Jeong Su-il)
Jeong said he wants to write a total of 22 books on the Silk Road and exchanges between ancient and contemporary civilizations, including one on his research findings from a visit last year to Latin America, as well as a separate book on North Africa.

He became interested in the similarities between the culture of indigenous peoples of Latin America and the one of Koreans, after learning that some argue that today’s Koreans share similar DNA with the Manchus of China and the aborigines in Latin America.

In Paraguay, he witnessed aborigines playing a game that is exactly the same as Korea’s traditional board game yutnori. In a museum in Argentina’s Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, he found an old world map which had a line that specifically connects the Korean Peninsula to Argentina, across the Pacific Ocean.

Jeong, who said he believes his daughters in Pyongyang “must understand” his decisions, said his one wish is the unification of the two Koreas. “I considered South Korea as my country, too, and I really wanted to learn about it,” Jeong said when asked about his experience arriving in Seoul for the first time.

“It took me 10 years to come to Seoul from Pyongyang,” he said, referring to when he became an agent in 1974 and when he arrived in Seoul in 1984.

“And Pyongyang and Seoul are only about 250 kilometers apart.”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)

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