우물 안 개구리

2/21/2006

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.

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