우물 안 개구리


Korean War Criminals

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:17 am Print

Sayaka over at Prison Notebooks has been reading up on the history of Korea’s wartime B/C war criminals for a short paper she has been writing. In addition to the main paper, which I hope we will see online at some point, she has posted a few weblog entries with some observations about what is out there:

Notes on the Works on Korean War Criminals in WWII
Notes on the Works on Korean War Criminals in WWII (2)

I’m sure she would love to hear from anyone who has seen any academic work on the topic she might have missed. There seems to be less out there in the way of scholarly research than she expected (except for the writing in the recent press related to the Truth Commission which absolved most of them of their convictions).

EALA Update: Yonsei Library and Korean Film Archive

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 8:34 am Print

I have added two entries to the East Asian Libraries and Archives wiki here at Frog in a Well.

Yonsei University Central Library

I have so far only made a few reconnaissance trips to the library and checked out a few books so I don’t know all the tricks or secrets about making full use of the library’s collections but as my year in Korea progresses I’ll be updating the wiki entry.

 Users Fool Library Application-Support Ecto Attachments Dscf1622

Korean Film Archive

The film reference library at the Korean Film archive, located near Susaek station is really wonderful and the archivists have also done a fantastic job of putting together DVDs of some of the old classic movies, and providing access to movie scripts. The library was a bit of a pain to locate, even with the map found on their website, since the “Digital Media City” is still mostly an urban wasteland but I put detailed instructions on the wiki entry.

Korean Film Archive

Cultural Content Center

Have you been to these places? Do you see some mistakes on the wiki entry? Fix them! Have you been to other useful Korean libraries, archives, or museums? Add an entry! The EALA wiki will only be as good as the information that gets added to it and updated as time passes.


There are Japanese legacies, and then there are Japanese legacies

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:11 am Print

When you’ve been a colony for a few decades, the marks of that experience don’t simply disappear overnight. We can refer to these marks as “legacies” or, as my handy dictionary reports, “a thing handed down by a predecessor.” Korea has a lot of these things handed down by its predecessor and scholars interested in the post-colonial history of the peninsula are increasingly looking at some of more interesting continuities that reach across the 1945 divide.

However, the topic of Japanese legacies (일제 잔재) is also of great interest to nationalists. For nationalists, pointing out the legacies of colonial rule serves to extend the evil hand of Japanese imperialism far beyond the fall of empire and deep into Korea’s postwar history. The viral infection contracted during Korea’s chilly exposure to subservient colonial rule continues to plague the society and can be used to explain any number of postwar ills. The diseased pro-Japanese Koreans have haunted the corridors of the postwar political world, while a militaristic miasma hangs ominously over the decades of dictatorships that followed Japan’s defeat (I think that will conclude my use of sickness-related metaphors for now).

This is, of course, not a uniquely Korean phenomenon. It points to a problem at the heart of studying the history of many post-colonial (in the chronological use of this term) histories: what can’t one blame on Empire? If Luke Skywalker and his merry band of Ewoks liberate Endor from the hands of the Empire, what aspects of, and for how long can the difficulties faced by post-colonial Endor be rightly blamed on Darth Vader and the Emperor?

This is a difficult question which deserves more than a short blog posting. I don’t mean to contest the important fact that there are a great many obviously negative legacies do remain from the colonial period in the case of Korea. They are clearly of much interest to historians. However, what makes their continued existence such a powerful political weapon not only for the cause of Korean nationalism but the politically progressive movements in Korea which have long allied themselves to the nationalist cause, is the strange idea that on one happy day in August, 1945, all of the unhappy evils of the past few decades of Korean history lined up to board the repatriation boats headed for Japan in the months that followed. In terms of Korean historical narratives, the colonial period acts as a kind of container, a repository for tragic events. As anyone who has looked at Korea’s postwar history knows, however, the tragedy did not end. To complicate the story, the new twin evils of Russian and American empire arrived on the scene. These prevented the full eradication of the “Japanese legacies” (including the pro-Japanese), prevented unification, and spoiled the newly unfurled flags of liberation.

Thus, the Korean case is in fact more complex than the class nationalist narrative. The classic narrative for post-colonial and a great number of nations which were never formally “colonies” but which were under the direct control of other powers, basically runs like this: 1) Golden age of heroic national accomplishments 2) Period of decay (also known as the “Why we got our ass kicked” chapter) 3) A period of darkness under foreign control 4) A national awakening, often under foreign control 5) Liberation and triumphant national recovery. There are dozens of national histories which have adopted this pattern. Take my “own” Norway for example, which needs only minor modifications. Norway’s nationalist history has its golden viking age, a period of decline and decay, and as Ibsen put it, our “four hundred years of darkness” under Danish domination. This was followed by almost a hundred years of reluctant union with Sweden that I like to call the “pre-dawn frost” when Norwegian nationalism fully developed and there was the great awakening preceding the final “liberation” from Swedish union in 1905. In the mid-19th century, Norway even had its own “homogenous nation” theory (단일민족논) as nationalists claimed that only Norwegian blood was truly pure and uncontaminated by that of other races. Ever since liberation the spunky Norwegians, who are easily the most nationalistic of all Scandinavian countries, yearly march about to celebrate, somewhat awkwardly, the pre-forced-union-with-Sweden independence constitution of 1814. However, still bearing “han” from centuries of using a “foreign” language and having their own national traits crushed under the weight of foreign influences, more nationalistic Norwegian scholars of language and cultural customs often speak of the insidious legacies of the dark age of foreign rule.

There are huge differences here I’m overlooking, but the point here is that the “legacies” that are reviled in both Norwegian and Korean cases gain their political power from their alien origins – they come from the outside, are implanted like parasites into the heart of the nation, and prevent it from thumping like it should. There are two effects of this process, one intended, and one side effect. The intended effect is a process of delegitimization by associating an internal opponent (pro-Japanese, conservative political forces, the bastardized Danish dialect that most Norwegians speak some form of today etc.) with a universally reviled external threat. The unintended effect is what amounts to a kind of hollowing out of agency. History almost becomes a kind of passive process observed and lamented rather than an active process that is reflected upon and learned from. Subjectivity, and with it responsibility, is deflected by (to return to my medical metaphors) diagnosing an internal cancer caused by external environmental factors and dwelling upon its inevitable malignant effects (This ironically shares something in common with the the classic postwar narrative of Japanese history on the left: the pre-war and wartime cancer was Japanese militarist cliques or fascist elements, while the people remained, by omission or oppression, innocent of anything that transpired).

These are some of the fundamental issues that I think are at stake when confronting the question of “legacies,” especially in post-colonial contexts. Sometimes, however, the issue of legacies, or in this case “Japanese legacies” has an amazing capacity to sink to the level of the ridiculous. Take, for example the Korea Times article “Japanese Legacies Remain in Society” in the August 13th issue. The first thing that amused me about this article is the way that an accurate historical observation, widely known in academic circles and even more widely, has the capacity to become “news” through the miracle of the modern press release. But what really stands out in this article are some of the things included in a category which, in Korea, is equivalent to a condemnation. I mean, there are Japanese legacies, and then there are Japanese legacies:

Though it has been nearly 62 years since the country was liberated from Japanese colonization, there are still traces of its presence in society, especially in the field of education.

Regulation on hair length, morning sessions conducted by head masters, the national flag housed in glass frames, students’ military-style hand salutes, school trips and sports events to name just a few.

I was especially shocked to learn that the flag was housed in glass frames, but I was comforted to read further down that:

However, there were signs of change. From 2001, national flags in school are hung on tapestries rather than locked away in glass frames.

My sources report, however, there are still a significant number of schools in Korea that have school trips and sports events.

The connections between things such as sports education and school trips (especially to national museums, monuments, and similar places of symbolic importance) and the rise of nationalistic education should never be ignored. As anyone who has studied sports education knows, there is a deeply militaristic side to the history of our physical education classes. Vladimir has written about this issue here at Frog in a Well already. However, the problematic implication that seems to be made when this issue gets addressed in Korean society today is that without colonial rule Korea would somehow have matured into a nation devoid of any of the hair length regulations, hand-raised salutes, and that their students would have been spared a designation as “potential soldiers.”


The Chinese Monster

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:30 am Print

Near Kwanghwamun this afternoon there were a number of nationalist Anti-China placards set up. Could China someday become the new Japan? I think it is too early yet. A few decades of colonial rule has a more lasting effect than a historiographical squabble or two.


Our happy history. Don’t travel to China!


That monster in the Han river was perhaps not created by the US military as the recent blockbuster movie suggests…It is in fact China! The poster lists the major historical issues with China: 백두산, 고조선, 고구려, and 발해.

Now you can join the Righteous Army

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:14 am Print

Seodaemun prison was open to the public today and as I write this posting various patriotic performances are underway on the grounds of a prison where the prisoners of the Japanese colonial regime and the postwar dictators of South Korea lived, died, and were horribly tortured.

Cutouts of “Righteous Army” fighters could be found near the entrance with removable heads so that any patriotic visitor could pose for a patriotic picture.



If the poorly armed righteous armies, which were sometimes hard to distinguish from violent bandits when they raided villages for food, are not your kind of independence fighter, you can also pose with other pro-independence terrorists1 found elsewhere on the prison grounds.

Kim Ku and Yun Pong-gil

  1. For a discussion on current definitions of this contentious word see this Wikipedia article or see some of the Google offerings. For more on a recent controversy over the use of this term see this article and the response of the accused, which also mentions the changes in meaning of the word across time. The response to the response can be found here. []

Comfort Women at the Japanese Embassy

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 8:39 am Print

A huge number of buses lined the central street that leads up to Kwanghwamun gate (which is no longer there, since it has been deemed a worthwhile expenditure to tear down and move the gate a few meters away from its current “incorrect” position). I have never seen so many of the ubiquitous police buses (there are usually a few dozen every weekend but today I lost count), almost all of which had their engines running, filling the air full of noxious exhaust. Hundreds of idle police officers wandered about. They were ready for protesters.


The protest they probably were not very worried about was the hundred or so elementary school children, comfort women, and other supporters who were protesting near the Japanese embassy this afternoon. The children danced in circles holding hands with a few exhausted looking former comfort women while performers sang some beautiful traditional sounding songs and led the children in chants demanding that the Japanese government give justice to the comfort women. A significant percentage of the participants were journalists snapping pictures and filming clips from angles which concealed the small turnout.




It was a jolly affair and one of the songs sung was beautifully performed. However, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the former comfort women who were dragged around by children and adults alike like participants of some kind of public spectacle.



I’m sure well they will sleep soundly after a tiring day with the crowds. I’m sure the representatives of the Japanese government will sleep equally soundly, protected from protesters by a few blocking police buses placed near their back-street embassy location.

Kim Dae-jung – the “Pro-Japanese” Traitor?

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 8:18 am Print

Leaflet being handed out near the Japanese embassy today:

Kim Dae-Jung Traitor

On every trip I have made to Korea I have come across leaflets handed out at station exits accusing some distinguished person of being a pro-Japanese traitor (친일 매국노) but I think this is the first whose alleged treason was committed during my own lifetime.

Korean Patriots and Japanese Incense

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 8:10 am Print

This afternoon I dropped by the “Independence Hall” (독립관) found near the independence gate. It was open today for the festivities. Inside you can find many rows of names of martyrs for the cause of Korean independence along with their cause of death and a comment on what kind of independence fighter they were (Manchurian guerrilla, 3.1 activist, righteous army, etc.).

Independence Hall Seoul

Tent outside independence hall

In addition to some glass cases with articles about the independence activists, there is an altar where incense burns. The smell was wonderful and the visitors respectful as they walked around the hall.

The two empty boxes of incense near the altar revealed that both kinds of incense burning were Japanese brands. Perhaps a donation from repentant Japanese corporations?

Japanese incense

Japanese incense

City Hall

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 7:58 am Print

I didn’t attend the liberation day festivities last night or the ones that continue outside city hall as I write this posting. I did drop by this morning, however, and was able to catch sight of the massive plastic redecorating of the building:

Seoul City Hall August 15 2007

We were also in time to watch what I think has to be the absolute worst martial art performance I have ever seen just outside the entrance.


We also witnessed the departure of a large group of 국민대학교 students leave on some kind of patriotic hike, complete with flags attached. I am always impressed at the willingness of young people to dress up in the same T-shirts and, in this case, to almost all use the exact same brand of backpack.


It’s August 15th

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 7:48 am Print

It’s August 15th hear in Korea and you know what that means? It is a time to celebrate Korea’s independence from its colonial master in 1945 and some argue that more efforts should be made to remember that this day was also when the Republic of Korea was officially established in 1948. As with many national holidays like it around the world, it is most of all a time for nationalism in all of its manifestations.

It is time to waste massive amounts of pink and white colored plastic to cover Seoul’s city hall with the national flower. It is a time for for a group of flag draped youth to perform some kind of Tai Chi-looking dance outside of city hall so badly one wonders if they even bothered practicing. It is time to call Kim Dae-jung a pro-Japanese traitor for bowing to an image of the dead emperor Hirohito in 1989. It is time to burn two different brands of Japanese incense at the altars of dead independence activists. It is time to pose for pictures behind headless cutouts of armed anti-Japanese activists. It is time to call for boycotts on trips to China for their government’s historiographical imperialism. It is time to confiscate the land of descendants of pro-Japanese collaborators. It is time to remove Japanese derived technical words from your military vocabulary. It is time to remove flags from glass cases in the schools because such a heinous practice is a remnant of the Japanese colonial period.

In the next few postings I’ll a few more details on the day’s events, along with some of news related to the celebrations in the Korean media.

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress