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Asian History Carnival Coming Soon!

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:50 pm Print

I will be hosting the third edition of the Asian History Carnival on Sunday, March 5. Deadline for nominations of posts — anything about Asian history written since the last edition in mid-December — is Saturday, March 4th.

You can send nominations to me (jonathan at froginawell dot net) or use the handy Blog Carnival Submission Form.

Spread the word!


New version of Yorha Ilgi discovered

It’s always exciting when something new and exciting is discovered getting dusty in a forgotten corner of a library somewhere. This time it’s an early nineteenth century version of Pak Chi-won’s (朴趾源) Yorha Ilgi (熱河日記), a travelogue of the writer’s journey to Beijing in 1780, when he accompanied his older brother on a diplomatic mission. What makes this different is that it’s written in vernacular Korean. In other words, it’s a very early translation of the original text written in literary Chinese. In fact it’s the only complete translation of the text found to date. According to the Korea Times it was discovered in the library of Tokyo University by a Seoul National University professor. We have a few of these han’gŭl manuscripts at SOAS, mostly very well-thumbed late nineteenth-century novels, but could there be a lost treasure among them?


Duelling histories? Part 2

Continuing on the subject of the new, controversial history book 해방 전후사의 재인식 (‘A new understanding of Korea’s liberation’), I wanted to link to this rather helpful article from Joongang Daily which lists the contrasting views of the book and its more leftwing 1979 predecessor (해방 전후사의 인식) on a number of key subjects. And here is my even-more-simplified version of the same list:

1. Responsibility for the division of Korea:

(1979) It was Syngman Rhee’s fault basically.
(2006) Stalin gave the order to establish a government in North Korea in September 1945, so basically it was his fault.

2. Views of the Korean War:

(1979) It is one-sided to claim that North Korea invaded. It was actually a civil war [pace Bruce Cumings] to reunify the peninsula.
(2006) The Korean war was actually an international war, part of the USSR’s strategy of keeping the US in check.

3. Perspectives on Syngman Rhee:

(1979) Rhee was an anti-democratic American lackey
(2006) Rhee was a Machiavellian politician who made progress on the political/democratic front and laid some of the foundations for South Korea’s later economic growth.

4. Evaluation of North Korea’s Kim Il Sung:
(1979) Kim Il Sung got rid of (North) Korea’s colonial semi-feudal past and fostered a new democratic state.
(2006) Kim Il Sung organised North Korea after liberation like one of his guerilla units with mass mobilisation campaigns and the like.

5. Removing remnants of Japanese colonialism:

(1979) North Korea was successful in removing the remnants of Japanese colonialism while South Korea wasn’t due to US reluctance.
(2006) Remnants of Japanese colonialism continued in both North and South after liberation.

I have to say that on most of these issues I think I fall down on the side of the latest, supposedly rightwing, book. Since I am certainly not rightwing in my views of Korean history (or anything else), it does make me wonder again whether the Korean press have really been giving the correct impression of this book. I think part of the problem here is that the left-right debate over history (and other things) is perceived in a certain way in South Korea, for historical reasons.

In the past it has been a confrontation between authoritarian anti-communism and Stalinism. The problem is that both sides in this equation have really been disintegrating over the last decade or more. Hence this attempt to create a new more ‘rational’ right that disassociates itself from the authoritarian past, is not obsessed with ‘reds under the bed’ and accepts the achievements of Korea’s democracy movement. On the other side there are also now many on the left who do not accept the left-nationalist version of Korean history that is basically an application of Stalinist ideas straight out of 1950s Soviet textbooks. I suppose the ironic thing here is that a number of the centrist/liberal politicians who are currently in power with Roh Moo-hyun’s government were closely associated with the 1979 book or the left-nationalist movement of the 1980s and so perhaps have a closer allegiance to the ideas that it contains than do people who are to their left.

For some further reading on the reaction to this book you can have a look at this article from Oh My News, which reports on a recent speech by Sŏ Chung-sŏk, head of the 역사문제연구소, or Institute for Korean Historical Studies (who publish the journal 역사비평). He makes a couple of interesting points. First, he thinks that this book has been published for political reasons and it is strange that they are specifically attacking such an old book since the work of many progressive scholars has since revised a lot of what was said in the original 1979 book. He also claims that many of the people who have written articles for the new book are not specialists annd hence their work is somewhat suspect. This sounds like a bit of a cheap point, but if you look at Sŏ’s own publications list he certainly is in a position to comment on the historiography of the postwar period.


Duelling histories? Part 1

Another couple of history-related articles from the English-language Korean media that were brought to my attention on the mailing list of the British Association for Korean Studies. They concern another controversial issue, but this time an internal one that reflects the right-left divide in South Korea. A long awaited book has just been published which aims to act as a corrective to what is seen as the prevailing left-nationalist view of Korea’s modern history. The book, 해방 전후사의 재인식 or ‘A new understanding of Korea’s liberation’ is in two parts, one on the colonial period and the other on the period after liberation. A number of current political issues make all this particularly ‘hot’ at the moment: the investigation into Japanese collaborators (headed by veteran left-nationalist historian Kang Man-gil); the government’s policy of rapprochement toward North Korea and the South Korean right’s attempt to repackage itself as a ‘New Right’ untainted by former military regimes or corrupt regionalist politics.

This from the Joongang Daily article:

A new history book by a conservative group of scholars was published yesterday, under the title “New Understanding of Post-Liberation History,” in a challenge to the left-leaning classic of the same title, minus “New,” published in 1979. The 1979 publication carried much significance with progressives and left-leaners in society, with its leftist stance on the country’s history after Japanese colonial rule.

This from the Donga Ilbo article:

European history professor Park Ji-hyang [actually she's a specialist on British history - Owen] and economics professor Lee Young-hoon of Seoul National University, Korean literature professor Kim Chul of Yonsei, and political science professor Kim Il-young from Sung Kyun Kwan University edited the newly released book. The book contains 28 thesis papers from both at home and abroad, and includes conversations among editors on how to overcome the problematic mindset of national supremacism and the belief in the necessity of the people’s revolution portrayed in the previous book on the subject, “Understanding the History Before and After Liberation.”

Having read these articles I’m quite intrigued to read this two-volume collection of articles, if only to find out what it actually does contain. The two newspaper articles seem quite contradictory – they associate the project closely with the South Korean right and particularly the so-called New Right and yet the writers actually seem to be quite broad. It’s hard to tell from this whether the book really is an attempt to give space to good history about some of the most controversial periods of Korea’s modern history or whether it is really designed to push the rightwing view of history and revive some of their favourite figures from the past like Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee.

Reading these articles it should be remembered that both of the newspapers they come from are part of the triumvirate of the rightwing establishment media, often referred to as Cho-Chung-Tong (ie Chosun Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, Donga Ilbo). That, or perhaps the fact that the journalists haven’t read the book, could be behind the slightly confusing impression.

There are also, I think, some problematic assumptions in these articles that need to be picked up on. I wondered in particular about this idea that the authors and their papers have been chosen as “writings that have no political color”. It strikes me rather that when the editors say that wanted to choose history that was not ideological they are limiting their definition of ‘ideological’ to the left nationalists. Then there is the unquestioned assumption in these articles – that South Korea has come to be dominated by a ‘distorted’ left-nationalist view of history. Now I think there is quite an element of truth to this when it comes to the academic establishment, where the left-nationalist view of history (what Noja called the ‘Kang Man-gilian’ version of Korean history a few posts back) has become hegemonic since the 80s. But this is certainly changing and to imply that this view extends throughout South Korean society would, I think, be quite a stretch. Academic discourse perhaps has proportionately more influence on general public discourse in Korea than it does in many other places, but there are also many other competing influences, not to mention a state education system that up until the 1980s, at least, was teaching a rather different version of history.

More on this in part two.


Don’t Take it Literally

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 12:28 am Print

I think I’ll continue making posts here and there based on a collection of US military documents from early postwar occupied Korea that I discuss in my last posting.

After this year’s “state of the union” speech by the US president, we were told not to take policy pronouncements he made in the speech related to reducing dependence on certain oil imports “literally.” I guess the same principle might be applied to this interesting discussion of a new US military government sponsored radio station which one US general wanted to let the Koreans have in order to “let off steam in what he called ‘vox pop program’” According to the notes for a September 16, 1945 corps staff conference:

“It was not to be a closed government station but was to be open to all political parties, including the Communists. The principle of free speech was to be observed although every applicant would have to submit a written statement of his talk before permission was granted. [The general] wanted to be sure that no seditious statements were made.” (Vol. 1 75)

A Most Unusual Invasion

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 12:18 am Print

Preparations for my oral exams this spring has prevented me from contributing much recently but I have started to take an hour away from my orals reading every day or two to hang out in the basement of the Harvard-Yenching library. I really want to skim through a few thousand pages worth of US military documents from early postwar occupied Korea. I’m currently working on the various kinds of documents in the 史官記状 sub-section in the 駐韓米軍情報参謀部軍史課 section (I need to get the official US military terms for these) of this collection, which is called the 解放直後政治社会史資料集.

I just started this and am going rather slowly to start as I’m trying to get a feel for the kind of material available. I’m especially looking for information on Korean-Japanese interactions in the early occupation period, political retribution against or at least mention of Korean collaborators, and generally trying to get a feel for this complicated period.

Besides being a really great introduction to this period through primary sources, it is really fun reading, as the various notes and reports are filled with interesting anecdotes. Expect more of my future postings to refer to this material. Most the documents so far are meeting minutes, summaries of press conferences, summaries of major events, but there are other kinds of materials too. One short single paragraph report, for example, contains a soldier’s random observations on Western books he found in disorderly piles in (the then named) Keijô University library, where all sorts of US troops were apparently staying at the time. There are also dictated translations of interviews of Koreans, including refugees from the Russian occupied areas.

Because many of the reports are minutes from meetings which often summarize discussions, one can find thrown together various topics in surprising and sometimes comical ways. My favorite discovery today has to be from a US military corps staff conference held on the 15th of September, 1945. The main topic of the conference was the training of Korean police and resolving labor issues:

“The provost marshal (Lt Col Moors) had visited ASCOM 24 and felt that the police situation was well in hand. The Japanese work detail were doing a good job. The Navy had invaded the city of Inchon and bought all the souvenirs.” (Vol. 1, 66)


Who Owns Koguryo Now?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:22 pm Print

Yonson Ahn’s article in the latest Japan Focus tracks the historiography of the Korean/Manchurian Koguryo state up to the present “textbook wars.” I’ve always found the division between the Silla-focused South Korean and Koguryo-focused North Korean scholarship quite interesting, and a very useful example for students of how contemporary politics can affect the historiography.

I don’t have a strong opinion on this, but as someone who teaches East Asia it makes more sense to me to include it in Korean history where it can get more attention, than in Chinese history where we’re already shoehorning in as much as humanly possible….


Overreading Erotica

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:07 pm Print

There’s a lot of presentist fallacies and overdrawn conclusions — just because a society has a reputation for sexual restraint doesn’t mean that it is and always was asexual — in this article [Thanks, sepoy, but I don’t do personal memes here] about sexual imagery in Korean artifacts and art, but it does have some images and facts which are potentially very interesting. Any suggestions for richer, better substantiated works or websites on Korean art (or sexuality and gender issues) which could put this stuff into proper context?


AHC #3 Coming Soon!

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:04 pm Print

The third edition of the Asian History Carnival will be on March 3rd (3/3), but we still don’t have a volunteer for host! So, if you’re an Asian History Blogger, or some relevant combination of those three things, and would like to host, let me know; the fun/work ratio is good, and the result is a permanent place in the blogging history (not to mention traffic and links!).

Until we have a volunteer, articles can be submitted to me: jonathan[at]froginawell[dot]net


Bloody progress

Filed under: — Owen @ 1:06 pm Print

It’s time to get my industrial strength can opener out and open the can of worms labeled ‘Japan’s colonial domination of Korea and modern interpretations thereof’ (a bit of a mouthful to fit on any normal sized can I admit). There have been a couple of interventions touching on this subject recently that have prompted me to think about this a bit. Most recently Frog in a Well’s own Jonathan Dresner has stepped into this discussion with a thought-provoking piece on the need for a ‘colonialogy’ – a study of the forms of imperialism and colonialism.

Korea blogger Oranckay wrote about this article (reg. required) from the Japan Times a short while ago. It is titled “Another side to Japanese-Korean history” and could perhaps best be described as the softer end of the rightwing Japanese view of history. Interestingly, it focuses on a Japanese article detailing recent research on the colonial period in English – research which is noted approvingly for its more ‘nuanced’ approach to the period:

What Akita does in it is to list, with a few comments, some of the more notable books and dissertations on various aspects of the Japanese rule written in English in recent years, some by people of Korean ancestry, to suggest that, if you take a less than overtly nationalistic stance, the Japanese-Korean relationship during those 35 years may not have been a simple one of oppressor and oppressed but one that was “ambiguous and nuanced.”

So, on Japan’s contribution to Korea’s modernization — a subject that I understand only creates anger in Korea — Akita tells us that Carter Eckert in “Offspring of Empire: The Ko’chang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism” (University of Washington Press, 1991) and Gi Wook Shin in “Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial Korea” (University of Washington Press, 1996) argue that Japan helped agricultural reform and capital formation in Korea, although it did so out of necessity. Eckert is a professor at Harvard University and Shin a professor at Howard University.

This is the sort of thing that is likely to set off once again the ‘modernization’ debate between Koreans and Japanese over the colonial legacy. No doubt it will also give rise to discussions in the blogosphere and elsewhere between non-Korean and non-Japanese supporters of one or other side in this polarised debate.

The two sides of this debate (if it can be called that) tend to line up as follows:

In the blue corner: rightwing Japanese historians and politicians who say “ok, so you didn’t like Japanese colonialism that much, but it wasn’t all that bad and we did bring modernity to Korea after all. It’s time to just get over it and accept that you wouldn’t have become a modern country without our help.”

Meanwhile in the red corner: Korean nationalists (in other words a very large proportion of the Korean population covering the whole left-right spectrum) and leftwing Japanese intellectuals who say “Japanese colonialism was awful and brutal, it brought no benefits for the Korean people, only oppression and exploitation. It did not bring modernity to our country – we did that ourselves after liberation.”

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