I am in a small room on Kyushu University’s campus now trying to finalize the second volume of my Russian textbook on Korea’s history, and while plodding through the valley of sorrows called “1930s” I feel all the time how difficult it is to find clear-cut, “textbook” definitions for what was “resistance” at this period (to be praised) and what was “collaboration” (to be taken to account, at the very least). Generally, my theoretical starting point is what Marx once said on the dominated—the people who are both oppressed/exploited by the existing system, and at the same time have to accept both material and discursive superiority of this system, being mostly unable, at least before the start of the modern socialist movement in Europe, to decisively break away from the ideas, beliefs and conventions of their exploiters. Modernity seems to bring a twofold change to this condition of existence—on one hand, there emerges a liberational ideology of a new and completely different kind, but on the other hand, the system of domination assumes much stronger control over the individual lives, and resistance requires much more resources, usually to be supplied by one or another fraction of the global ruling class. Take, for example, the recent glorious victory of Hizbollah partisans. I have no doubt that they do represent a genuine resistance potential of the Lebanese people and were led to the victory by a wave of mass support; but when you think about the Syria-supplied Russian anti-tank guns or Iranian missiles they used, the whole thing also begins to look like an episode in the global proxy war between the weeker “junior” Eurasian bullies and the huge “senior” Athlantic one on the playground called the “world capitalist system”—the war, in which, so far, the mightiest bully is being assiduously bleeded by his smaller, but more agile and cleverer competitors. My point here is that there is no clear, unequivocal dividing line between the Ahriman of domination and Ormazd of the resistance to it: in real life, the line gets constantly blurred, and if you wish to defeat imperialist A., you often have to tap the resources of the rival imperialist B., being also strongly influenced by B.’s mode of actions and beliefs in the process.
What relation have all these musings to my textbook business? Well, take our saint Kim Ku (1876-1949), usually supposed to be an uncompromising resistance fighter and contrasted to the “collaborators” who presumedly lacked the guts to choose the way of bomb and pistol and in the end sacrificed their integrity by working with some of the “Japanese imperialist” institutions. The problem is—Kim Ku’s way of the bomb and pistol could have been chosen only due to the fact there was “Western imperialist”-founded international settlement in Shanghai to use as a base camp (and there were obviously some reasons for the settlement police to tolerate Kim’s activities, the reasons not necessarily belonging to the realm of charity), and that both bombs and pistols were supplied by the GMD and their semi-fascistic “Blue Shirt” guards in the 1930s. And the influence of the ultra-right wing GMD ideology upon such figures as Kim Ku or Yi POmsOk (1900-1972) is something their Korean hariographers prefer not to touch. So, we have a classic situation when the strongest (regional) bully is being fought through an unequal alliance with a weaker tough. Should we continue to describe such things in moralistic terms, as if we are speaking about the fight between absolute good and absolute evil? Then, there is another “textbook” case – Yi Kwangsu (1892-1950), the epitome of both Social-Darwinist (and a rather racialized) theoretical belief in the inevitability of an incorporation into the greater Yamato nation and political collaboration with the Japanese authorities. Yet, his position as the colony’s foremost “moderate intellectual” did not save him from imprisonment in 1937 in connection with Suyang Tonguhoe case (he got 5-years jail sentence in the end, but did not serve it)—An Ch’angho’s truthful follower, he still wished to explore the possibilities of modernity beyond its Japanese variant, and was duly punished. Should we follow good old Confucian logic in making Kim Ku into an example of “loyal retainer” while punishing Yi Kwangsu posthumously by demoting him to a “treacherous subject”? Well, I personally think that we should stop (ab)using moralising categories in historical writing – but certainly without becoming moral relativists. That is, fascists/Japanese imperialists etc. were certainly atrocious – but that does not make all those who opposed them authmatically into angels, and does not mean that all these incorporated into their systems, were already moral failures by this very fact.