우물 안 개구리

Postings by Vladimir Tikhonov

Contact: noja [at] froginawell.net
URL: http://www.geocities.com/volodyatikhonov/volodyatikhonov.html

Passing of Professor Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak (1918-2009)

Filed under: — noja @ 1:11 pm

On April 16 this year, my teacher and the man who basically created the Korean history studies in the former USSR, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak, has passed away. His death greatly saddened everybody in the Korean studies in Russia and many other parts of the “post-Soviet” space, and was marked by obituaries in some South Korean newspapers (Tonga Ilbo, Hangyoreh, Seoul Sinmun and a handful of others). Not that much, however, emerged on Mikhail Pak and his scholarship in English, and his death seemingly did not attract that much attention in the Anglophone academia. In order to convey some understanding about what Mikhail Pak and his scholarship meant to me and many of my colleagues, I decided to put here the obituary commissioned to me by Acta Koreana. It is expected to appear in Vol. 12, No 1, in June this year:

Obiturary: Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak (Pak Chunho), (21.06.1918–16.04.2009)

Vladimir Tikhonov (Pak Noja, Oslo University)

In the world of the Korean Studies in the successor states of the former USSR, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak was widely recognized as a ”living legend”. He is known as the scholar who made the historical studies on Korea into a legitimate field of its own in the Soviet and Eastern European academia. He is also credited with creating a systematic, analytical framework for understanding Korea’s ancient and mediaeval history, which largely defined the way Korea’s past has been described in the Soviet and post-Soviet academic world since the 1950s onward. His lifelong enterprise, the fully annotated, academic translation of Samguk Sagi into Russian, firmly put Korea on the map of the Russophone world history studies, giving the non-Korean studies majors a direct access to a first-hand source on Korea’s ancient history and thus largely succeeding in “de-ghettoizing” the Korean history field as a whole. A caring pedagogue, whose extremely liberal approach and respect for the individuality of each and every student looked like a rare bright spot in otherwise quite authoritarian world of the Soviet humanitarian academia, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak tutored several generations of the Soviet and post-Soviet Russophone Korea specialists, who further developed his approach to the Korean past.

Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak (Korea name: Pak Chunho) was born on June 21, 1918 in a large Korean village, Yanchihe, in the border region of Russia’s Maritime Province, to a family of a well-educated second-generation Korean immigrant. His native village, Yanchihe, was famed in the 1900-1910s as a breeding ground of the nationalist movement, and his family was on close terms with some of its leaders, including a legendary Korean self-made man and one of the chief sponsors of the 1907-1908 ‘righteous armies’ movement, rich trader Ch’oe Chaehyǒng (1860-1920). In the 1920s and 1930s, in Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s formative years, the leadership of the Soviet Union-based Korean national movement was firmly in the hands of ‘national Communists’, the people who envisioned future, independent Korea as a beacon of Asian socialist revolution, but also struggled to preserve Korean cultural legacy among the émigré community. One of these ‘national Communists’, Kye Pongu (1880-1956), a former activists of the early 1900s ‘enlightenment’ movement who became, after Russia’s 1917 October Revolution, one of the closest comrades of a renowned Korean Communist leader, Yi Tonghǔi (1873-1935), was Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s teacher of classical Chinese and Korean history in the early 1940s. At that time, both met in Kzyl-Orda in Kazakhstan, where so many Russian Koreans were forcibly exiled in 1937. In many ways, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s scholarship and personality were animated by Russian-Korean Communists’ ethos and élan – by their deep attachment to the Korean cultural legacy as the nucleus of the “cultural nation”, and by their quest for social justice and modern development. The forcible removal of all the ethnic Koreans to Central Asia in 1937 added a sense of urgency to this commitment. Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s translation of Samguk Sagi, started in early 1950s, was partly motivated by his ardent wish to transmit the Korean traditional culture to the new generation of Soviet Koreans, who no longer could study their language and legacy in the place of their exile and had to read Korean sources in Russian. In this way, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak was definitely a Soviet-Korean intellectual with a deep sense of ethno-cultural commitment. His later engagements with the Russian-Korean associations of the 1990s-2000s (he used to chair the All-Soviet/All-Russian Association of Koreans from 1989, and remained its honorary chairman until his death) was a logical continuation of his passion for the case of Korean national culture. He also retained the Marxist beliefs of his youth, albeit in more critical and self-reflective form, until his death.
The sense of mission as a guardian of the endangered Korean tradition aside, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak as an intellectual was largely formed by MIFLI (Moscow Institute for Philosophy, Literature and History). He studied there in 1936-41, side to side with such future luminaries of the Soviet culture as novelist K.Simonov (1915-1979) and poet A.Tvardovsky (1910-1971). MIFLI was renowned for its commitment to erudite cultural education – Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak majored there in Latin for three years, before switching to East Asia and eventually to Korea – and for its tradition of non-dogmatic, open-minded Marxism, which contrasted a lot with the growing fossilization of Stalinist ‘Marxism-Leninism’ elsewhere in the USSR. Creativeness in applying the Marxist formulae to the Korean material was amply showed by Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak when, after getting his junior doctorate in 1947 with a dissertation in late 19th century Korean political history, he was appointed in 1949 to teach Korean history at the mecca of the Soviet scholarly world, Moscow State University (MGU).

In mid-1950s, in several articles published in the most authoritative historical journals of the USSR (some of them were then republished in Chinese), Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak directly challenged an influential Marxist interpretation of Korea’s ancient history by a group of veteran Korean Marxists who ended up becoming a nucleus of North Korea’s humanitarian academia, including mighty Paek Namun (1894-1979), North Korea’s long-time Minister of Education. While Paek Namun and many others viewed 1-7th centuries Korea as “slave-owning society” – thus mechanically applying the classical Marxian model based on the experiences of the Mediterranean society, to the Korean case – Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak suggested that Korea at that point was at the “early feudal stage”. Korea’s “early feudalism” as viewed by Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak, was characterized by a pronounced role of the state-centered redistributional apparatus and much more developed bureaucratic organization that the feudalisms in contemporaneous Europe, and also demonstrated lots of “transitional” traits, archaic clan-based communities inherited from the pre-class era still remaining the backbone of the societal structure. While the wholesale characterization of all the developed pre-capitalist state societies as “feudal” is hardly acceptable for today’s historian, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s challenge to the mechanical application of the “slave-owning mode of production” dogma was hugely productive. Eventually, the North Korean scholarship moved to recognizing the 1-7th centuries proto-Korean states as “feudal” as well (but the “slave-owning society” was applied to Ancient Chosǒn rather than discarded). In the USSR, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s disciples – including such prominent historians of ancient Korea as Roza Shataevna Dzharylgasinova and Sergei Vladimirovich Volkov – were now free to describe the first states of the Korean Peninsula for what they really where, namely agrarian bureaucracies ruled by the aristocratic classes. At least at the Korean historical studies, the deadly grip of the Stalinist orthodoxy was almost not felt, since anybody who did not wish to custom-tailor the Korean history to the rigid model of “primitive communism to slave-owning society to feudalism” could resort to invoking Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s authority. This authority was firmly buttressed by the scrupulous textual research. Silla Chronicles of Samguk sagi, translated and published in Russian in 1959, brought him the prestigious senior doctoral degree (Russian version of habilitation – 1960). Then, the successive translations and publication of the Koguryǒ Chronicles and Paekche Chronicles (1995) and the whole text of Samguk Sagi (2001) made him one of the best-known experts in the Korean historical texts study in the whole world.

A Soviet/Russian-Korean national activist and one of the greatest living specialists in Samguk Sagi and Korea’s early history, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak was also a great manager of scholarship. Much of his organizational talent was demonstrated after the Soviet collapse in 1991, when much of the humanitarian scholarship in the former USSR became a victim of a headlong “transition to capitalism” followed by general disorder and impoverishment. In 1991 he managed to attract South Korean sponsorship and to establish an independent International Center For Korean Studies (ICFKS) at Moscow State University, which, to this day, published more than 30 monographs on Korea, played host to many important international conferences and provided access to a well-stocked Korean research library to growing numbers of students and researchers. Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s authority – cemented also by several South Korean governmental medals he received in the 1990s and 2000s – was crucially essential for ICFKS fundraising in South Korea, and, by extension, for the survival of the Korean studies as such in post-Soviet Russia. It remains a matter of serious concern whether ICFKS, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s most-loved brainchild, will be able to continue its activities on the same level without its founder’s unparalleled charisma.

Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak died on April 16, 2009 at his own home, while checking his granddaughter’s draft translation of yet another Korean classic, Samguk Yusa. He died with a Korean classical work at his hand – a death which represents well the very essence of his life.

KTX female attendants – “contingent labour” fights back

Filed under: — noja @ 1:33 pm

There was a time in Korean labour movement history in the 1970s when it were the female workers who actually led the most militant part of the struggle. The reasons were obvious – while the wages were held generally low and grew on much lower rate than the economy as the whole (in the 1960s, the growth rate for economy were whopping 10%, but for real, inflation-adjusted wages in the manufacturing – modest 2,4% on the annualised basis), the female wages were always lower than the male ones, and military-like systemized bullying on the part of the male supervisors used to make factory life a miserable, constantly humiliating experience. Accordingly, some of the most moving struggles of the 1970s took place on the female-dominated textile factories – KyOngsOng Pangjik (1973) and Tongil Panjik (1978) strikes being the best known ones. In the latter case, the striking female workers were eventually assaulted by their male colleagues (?), beaten and showered with human excrements. Their response? On the Easter, 1978, they came to the public worship place on YOUido Square and succeeded in taking microphone for 5 minutes and shouting to the city and world – “우리는 똥을 먹고 살 수 없다!”. Of course, more beatings and arrest followed immediately, but the phrase ended becoming a tale-telling slogan of the female labour movement.

Now, I feel sometimes that the 1970s are returning, in a way. After 1997 crisis, females were first to be sacrificed on the altar of Washington consensus and “national interests” – put on contract (many of the contracts for tellers at the large malls, for example, are for 3 months or even 1 month), send to work on much worse conditions for a subcontractors, to which large part of the tasks was now “farmed out”, “re-employed” by some shadowy intermediary with proporationate part of the salary being withheld “for introduction”, and “flexibilized” in a million other methods, too diverse and creative to describe here. Now, 70% of Korea’s female workforce is “contingent” and “flexible”, on short-term contracts, subcontracted or supplied by “manpower agencies” – a world record of sorts. The women fought back, and the most protracted and bitter of all the struggles witnessed so far by the 2000s is the marathon strike by KTX (express train) female attendants – now well over 500 days and showing so far no signes of coming to an end. Below is the text of the appeal for their sake, prepared in its English form by a group of Korean female professors and sent to me by Prof. Na YungyOng (Culture Studies, Yonsei University):


On March 1, 2006, approximately four hundred women who work as train attendants (similar to flight attendants) on the KTX “bullet train” began a strike to demand the end of discriminatory and unjust outsourcing practices of the Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL). Despite KORAIL’s promise that workers hired under short-term contracts via an external company would be granted permanent status as direct employees of KORAIL after one year, the KTX Crew Workers Branch Union’s demands for direct and permanent employment have yet to be met.

To date, the KTX Crew Workers’ Branch Union’s struggle is the longest and most bitterly waged fight by women workers in the history of Korea. For over 500 days, women who work as train attendants on the KTX bullet trains have held public rallies and marches, occupied buildings, lectured in classrooms, and conducted outreach on the streets and at train stations throughout the country. KORAIL’s continued refusal to meet the union’s demands for gender equality, safe working conditions and secure employment have led union leaders to engage in desperate measures to expose the unjust and unequal conditions under which they are forced to work. After exhausting every tactic, 31 union members began a hunger strike on July 2, 2007. As the hunger strike surpasses its 14th day, many union members have been rushed to the hospital..

Despite KTX’s sleek and high-tech image as the fifth fastest “bullet train” in the world, it is the site of blatant sexism and labor abuse. Of those train attendants who are irregularly employed under outsourcing agreements, the majority are women. In contrast, their male counterparts who perform comparable duties are directly employed by KORAIL as “team leaders.” Simply by being women, KTX train attendants are subject to lower wages, harsher working conditions, and heightened job insecurity. In addition, women workers face the perpetual threat of dismissal if they speak out against unfair conditions and sexual harassment in the workplace.

According to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, KORAIL’s treatment of KTX female train attendants is a clear example of gender discrimination and a basic violation of human rights. The National Human Rights Commission has strongly recommended that striking KTX women workers be granted fair and just conditions of employment. The South Korean Minister of Labor, the legal community, various media outlets, 500 university professors, 300 members of the literary community and a wide cross section of NGOs including the Korea Women’s Association United, Lawyers for Democratic Society, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, Korea Women Workers Association United, and the People’s Coalition for Media Reform have also called upon KORAIL to reinstate the striking workers as directly hired employees, not as contingent workers contracted through a third party. However, KORAIL continues to disregard this overwhelming public outcry.

KORAIL, the nation’s largest public enterprise and employer of over 30,000 people, refuses to abide by the most basic and fundamental standards of fairness and equality. KORAIL’s actions violate South Korean laws that prohibit all forms of discrimination, as well as international standards established by the ILO to protect the rights of workers. KORAIL is also failing to comply with the international standards that the company itself pledged to uphold when it joined the UN Global Compact in May 2007.

KORAIL’s blatant violation of the basic principles of democracy and human rights deserve international criticism. KORAIL’s actions are indicative not only of the pervasive inequality facing contingent workers in South Korea, but also of systemic gender discrimination in South Korea. We urge the international community to stand in solidarity with the KTX Crew Workers in its brave fight for justice. We respectfully request your signature on this petition letter in support of the KTX women workers. This letter will be sent to President Roh Moo-hyun and UN Secretariat General Ban Ki-moon, as well as to the CEO of KORAIL.”

The letter of the appeal is enclosed below. Dear friends, if you think that the cause of the KTX workers is worthy, I beg you to sign it and return with you sign to ktxworkers@gmail.com (please, indicate your position and affiliation). More info in Korean is available at: http://ktxworkers.blogsome.com. This thing is URGENT, since only the Almighty knows how long the hunger strikers will be physically able to hold on.

“Anti-americanism” – an important law of thumb

Filed under: — noja @ 8:54 am

I guess it is not only my experience – looking upon the past and getting oneself surprised about “how could I say/do this?” 15 years ago, when I was a 3-year student, on exchange at Koryo University, I once suggested in a discussion with my advisor at that time, Prof. Cho Kwang, that the presence of the American troops in South Korea might have benefited the smooth development of Korea’s capitalism by bringing stability and defraying the security costs South Korea was in no position to shoulder in the beginning. Further, I lamented that no GIs were forthcoming to the USSR, in the pains of (what I considered at that time) “transition to democracy”. Prof. Cho was in a sort of consternation on having heard this revelation from his 18-year old charge, but, being possibly the gentlest person I have ever met in Korea (and, frankly, elsewhere as well), just limited himself to saying that foreign troops is not something a normal nation-state is supposed to depend upon. Well, if I were to hear something like my 1991 apologetic account of the GI presence from somebody today, I am afraid my reaction may be much harsher…. An interesting thing – in the USSR back in 1991, the positiveness of the attitude towards the former cold war enemy was in reverse proportion to the intensity of the Stalinist denunciations of “American imperialism”. Folks back then used to read Pravda assuming that the truth was the direct opposite of what was written – the sort of attitude NYT and WP readers seem to be seriously lacking. For many people around me, America was a sort of great unknown – and was assumed to offer some solutions for “our” problems – while the evils of Stalinist system were more than well known. And today, after 15 years, the malnutrition and chaos of the IMF-dominated early 1990s, after the ruins of Belgrade and Baghdad… I am afraid that if some bolder tourist company in Moscow would recruit clients for a week-long hunt for some unlucky GIs in cooperation with a business-minded Iraqi resistance group, the business would prosper. The euphoria of the early 1990s is gone, and a stubborn, strongly emotion-laden enemy picture has taken its place – after 15 years of getting better, more direct knowledge about what a combination of McDonalds with McDouglas (and also Harvard University – where many of the consultants for the “Yeltsin reforms” happened to come from) may mean for “the rest” of the world, and after a decade of economic growth, which, at least, gave a part of the urban middle classes an option of NOT going to the Russian branches/affiliates of the assorted Mcs hat in hand looking for a job.

So, a rule of thumb is here – a decade of more of being directly subject to GI presence/”shock therapy” on Dr.Reagan’s precepts/”vicarious assaults” (many people in Moscow or Beijing assumed that the bombs pouring upon Belgrade were pouring upon them too) and more + some degree of capitalist well-being (a more or less definite position inside the world capitalist system) = outpouring of the “anti-hegemonic sentiments”. Not to be confused with anti-imperialist/anti-capitalist ones – as the majority of those (reportedly up to 10 thousand) Muscovites who telephoned Iraqi embassy back in 2003 asking whether they may be of any help in the Defence of Baghdad, had no intention of defending Grozny against the assault of their “own” thugs in uniforms a couple of years before that. In fact, strongly nationalist/masculine/militaristic “anti-hegemonism” is largely destroying the ground for the real anti-imperialism/anti-capitalism – just like the way it happens with the NL (“national liberation”)-dominated Korean left today.

Back to Korea! The same rule of thumb applies here as well. Before 1945, when the “white men’s burden” was mostly borne “in the Korean field” by several hundred of missionaries, and for the majority of Koreans, even for those with some education, “America” was more of a myth than reality, “anti-Americanism” in Korea – if we do not count the official Japanese Imperial declarations against “Anglo-American beasts” after 1941 – amounted to very little. Well, Yun Ch’iho (1865-1945) bitterly complained in his diary about being racially insulted and gravely assaulted while in the US in 1888-1893, and struggled not to lose the newfound faith in the Protestant God in the sight of the dog-eats-dog realities of God’s “chosen country” – but he chose to follow a typically American combination of Protestantism and Social Darwinism, and did not explicitly criticise the US in his published Korean writings until it became a trendy issue at the beginning of the Pacific War. An Ch’angho (1878-1938) was in a perfect position to know what racism against “Orientals” meant, as he, unlike Yun, lived in the US as a migrant worker/activist, not as a student, but he chose a typical middle-class, Protestant trick of blaming the victim for its own victimization – and mostly criticized Koreans’ supposed lack of “hygiene”, “moral strength” and good manners, not the institutionalized racism of the host country. Pak Honyong (1900-1955), Korea’s great – if misled – Communist, made some good salvos against the American Myth back in 1925:

“세상은 米國建國의 역사를 보고 淸敎徒的 殉道의 정신과 英雄的 行爲가 충만하다고 찬미하나 그것은 표면만 본 皮相的 관찰이 아니면 그짓말로서 정확한 史實을 숨기는데 불과하다.
米國의 역사는 「土人虐殺」로 그 첫페이지가 열린다.
米國에 처음 이주한 歐洲人은 新領土의 森林과 荒野에 사는 土人을 放逐하고 土民을 학살하고 土人의 住家를 약탈하는 일이 彼等에게 上帝가 준 「神聖한 事業」이엿다. 원래 土人은 歐洲人의 移住에 대하야 적극적으로 능동적으로 방해한 것이 아니엇다. 그런데 和蘭人, 佛人, 英人, 西班人들은 基督敎의 博愛主義를 신봉하고 맘대로 土民의 住家를 蹂躪하고 粉碎하고 彼等을 虐殺 屠戮하고 그리고 서서히 彼等에게 愛의 福音을 선전하엿다.
神을 사랑하고 사람을 불상히 녀긴다는 淸敎徒는 토인의 土地를 약탈하고 土人의 가옥을 태우고 土人을 죽이고 토인을 죽이지 안해도 土人을 속이어 彼等의 富를 맨드럿다.” (“歷史上으로 본 基督敎의 內面”, < 개벽>, Issue 63, Nov. 1925, pp. 67-68)

“The first page of America’s history begins with the ‘massacre of the natives’” – NOBODY said this in such an open way in the whole 30-40 year-long history of Korea’s modern intelligentsia before Pak, and that may be one more reason to appreciate the contribution of the Communists to our modern ideological development. But then, the same Pak happened to believe in September 1945 that the invading GIs are “our liberators from a democratic country” (the Soviet Stalinists, who worked with him at that point, are partly to be blamed) – until the “democrats” sent him fleeing in September 1946. So, the pre-1945 “anti-Americanism” was a bookish exercise at best, without a systematic, independent approach, or sometimes just a simple personal reaction against mistreatment. In 1950-70, we have some intellectuals coming to the understanding that the externally imposed hegemonic power greatly limited the possible range of development for the country (the brilliant poet Kim Suyong, for example), but that did not come to the mass level even among the intellectuals – Korea was still too poor to allow itself the luxury of standing up to its Big Brother. And the breakthrough came, as is well-know, after Kwangju 1980 – when Korea accumulated enough experience with the “democratic liberators”, and when its middle classes became confident enough to question whether they needed their erstwhile benefactors any more. That is how I explain the origins of the “NL mood” among quite a big stratum of Korea’s educated (I do not necessarily speak about hardcore “chusap’a”). And I am sure, this phenomenon – just like back there in Moscow – will stay and flourish here, given the fact that the New Rome still did not learn to retreat gracefully.

“Resistant collaborators” and “collaborative resisters”

Filed under: — noja @ 11:01 pm

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.

English craze as a modern Korean tradition

Filed under: — noja @ 6:06 am

Even having seen for around 15 years how one’s ability to follow the CNN anchors’ pronounciation habits functions in South Korea as the modern equivalent of the old treasured skills of Chinese poetizing, I still often feel baffled by the degree that the English craze has reached. On one plane, you have badly informed moms having the tongues of their kids operated on so that they can ideally conform to global standards; on another plane, my old Korean alma mater proudly proclaims that it will switch 60% of its teaching to the most scientific language in the world in 5 years. Korean history isn’t going to be exempt from this new duty of linguistic globalization , and it really feels eerie – after all, it was permitted to teach 조선사 and 조선어 in Korean even in during colonial times when Japanese remained the principal language of teaching, after the Law on Korean Education was revised in 1921-22 in what is considered one of the Government-General’s main concessions to the nationalistic spirit shown by the March 1, 1919 events. Although that too changed after the mid-1930s in many good schools, and I remember having seen the notes for Ewha lectures prepared by the later Prof. Yi PyOngdo (이병도) during that time – they were all in Japanese, of course. Anyway, it looks as though in these times cultural self-colonization may be much more thorough and destructive than anything forced from the outside by the classical “gun-boat” imperialists.

However, whatever I might have felt looking 7 years ago at my Kyunghee students making “study circles” for the collective reading of Newsweek (for me, it sounded like making a voluntary association for studying Pravda in the good old Stalinist days), I guess we have to acknowledge the enormous importance of English learning is a part of what may be called Korea’s “modern tradition”. It is quite obvious for the pre-colonial and post-colonial periods, and less obvious, but no less true for the colonial days. For pre-colonial and colonial Korea, building one’s cultural and social capital by learning English was by no means simply a feature of the life-stories of missionary school graduates like Yun Ch’iho and Syngman Rhee: what is really interesting is the role English played in the lives of the members of the fledgling modern elite who had no Christian connections.

It is largely unknown, but even early modern Korea’s greatest opponent of “동화적 모방” (‘assimilational imitation’ – that is how the “exclusion of national spirit from the modern education” was termed in one of Taehan Maeil Sinbo’s awe-inspiring editorials), Sin Ch’aeho, learned English on his own in the mid-1910s, while in China – and read Carlyle’s opus on hero worship, as well as Gibbon’s meditations on imperial declines and falls (“decline and downfall” being only too timely a topic for a militant nationalist like Sin 3-4 years after 1910), in their originals (변영로, “국수주의의 항성인 단재 신채호 선생”, – < 개벽>, 62호, 1925). Then, there is the inspiring story of the three Pyŏn brothers, Yŏngt’ae (변영태: 1892-1969 – Prime-minister in 1954-56, by the way), Yŏngno (변영로: 1897-1961) and Yŏngman (변영만: 1889-1954). All three – no conversion story involved, to my knowledge – began learning English by themselves, although Yŏngno was greatly helped by the YMCA services, and Yŏngman owed a debt to the pre-colonial School of Law Officers (법관 양성소). And all three were talented to the point of linguistic – and literary – genius. Yŏngno wrote his first English poem in 1914, and Yŏngman tried hard to create a new, novel genre of Chinese classical writing, influenced by European, primarily English literature.

Interestingly enough, English was also an OBLIGATORY subject in the colonial Advanced Normal Schools after the 1922 reform – it was taught 5-7 hours a week on average, while Japanese was taught 6-8 hours (강내희, “영어 교육과 영어의 사회적 위상”, – 공제욱, 정근식 편, < 식민지의 일상: 지배와 균열>, 문화과학사, 2006). So, lots of modern English loan words in Korean entered the language, in fact, much before 1945, although their spelling varied greatly. All this may provide, in fact, some interesting food for thought concerning the relationship between a global subsystem called “Japanese Empire”, and the British/American-dominated world-system as a whole…

“Mass-based dictatorship”? A little info on S. Korea’s welfare policies in the 1960s

Filed under: — noja @ 10:59 am

In South Korean academia, one of the most long-standing and productive discussions (I have been following it for around 3 years now, but it may have begun even earlier) is that between Prof. Lim Chihyŏn (임지현, 한양대학교), who maintains (to make a very complicated story as simple as possible) that Park Chung Hee’s regime was a “mass-based dictatorship” (대중 독재), which managed to obtain quite active consent from the mass of the ruled by showing the results of economic growth and cleverly manipulating them with nationalist rhetoric, and his opponents (prominently, Prof. Cho Hŭiyŏn 조희연, 성공회대학교), who view Park’s regime as primarily an oppressive one (without denying the fact that it used the Bonapartist tactics of socio-political maneuvers).

If we accept Prof. Lim’s views, it will basically mean that Park’s regime should be perceived as identical to, say, the fascisms of the 1930s in the more or less well-developed European countries, for example, Germany or Italy, where (not really that generous) welfare packages were supposed to placate the working classes deprived of any opportunity to pursue their own politics. Or otherwise, if we follow Prof. Lim’s line of reasoning, we will begin making analogies with the post-1956 Stalinist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, where workers were much more thoroughly co-opted by “free” housing, pension benefits and some prospects of upward mobility for the most talented and conformist minded. Of course, that Park employed some state capitalist methods with close analogies from the Soviet experience, is quite undeniable. But when it comes to the relationship with the ruled, I begin to seriously doubt whether any “cooptation by welfare” ever took place in the stone jungles of Kuro and Yŏngdŭngp’o in the 1960s and 1970s.

Look, for example, at the data given in a very interesting article by Pak Chunsik (박준식), entitled “1960년대의 사회환경과 사회복지정책” (in 1960년대의 정치사회변동, 백산서당, 1999). He shows that, for one thing, the real wage in manufacturing, although it did grow, was growing painfully slowly for workers in the 1960s – it reached a level matching the minimal monthly expenses for food (월별 최저 음식물비: 9390원) only at some point between 1968 and 1969. It was possible to pay these below-survival-level wages because there was still an enormous pool of “excess” labour – the unemployment rate in the non-agricultural sector was 16% in 1963, and still around 8% in 1971. The huge “informal” sector remained a part of slum and semi-slum life in the early 1970s, and around 15% of all formally employed were hired on a daily/short-term contract basis – a very precarious sort of life in a semi-starving society. The real wages (adjusted for inflation) grew at an annual rate of 8.5% in the late 1960s, but labour productivity grew much quicker – at a rate of 16%. If we add that prices grew at 15% annually, the picture of quite a vicious over-exploitation becomes very clear.

Since much of the Labour Standard Law (근로기준법) sounded like stories from the Arabian Nights against the backdrop of what really took place on the ground, the only tangible form of welfare was probably the workplace accident insurance – still company-based, and it applied only to 7% of all workers in 1971. State servants and army officers got their separate state pension systems in 1960 and 1963 respectively, but for the toilers of Kuro that was a story from another world. So, was Park’s kingdom really that “mass-based”? I suggest that passive (and very passive) consent was “obtained” through a combination of repression, all-out militarization, nationalist demagogery (helped by the spread of TV-sets and very high literacy by the end of the 1970s) and some limited opportunities for individual upward mobility through education in a rapidly expanding economy. The last feature does resemble the really “mass-based” Soviet model of the 1960s-70s, but the Soviet-type welfare was nowhere in sight. And the degree of the viciousness of repression was incomparable with Eastern Europe – much closer to the Latin American experience.

Patriotic School Athletics – under the Japanese and After

Filed under: — noja @ 7:39 pm

To observe that modern “physical culture” (athletics) training in the compulsory schooling system is something closely linked to the conscription system and a general culture of militarism, represents no new scholarly achievement. In fact, if you were born in the right (?) place and time, you don’t even need to be a scholar to make it into your working hypothesis: I, for my part, vividly remember the “physical culture” lessons of my Soviet childhood, which included a good deal of marching, throwing of fake “grenades”, and lots of pep talks, which all boiled down to this: “Boys, learn it here and now, unless you wish to become pariah when you are eventually called up”.

It was an unquestioned assumption that every “boy” was going to be called up at some point. And it was not the “enlightened West”, at least before WWII, which served as an inspiration for fledgling anti-militarists like me: in the British schools from the 1880s, from what I understand, physical education, compulsory as it was, was often the domain of retired military men, and took the form they knew best, namely that of the drill. And of course, I already knew in the mid-1980s, that the main model for Soviet’s aggressively militaristic “Young Pioneers Organization” were Baden-Powell’s Scouts, their underlying ideology being an omnipresent Edwardian Social Darwinism, with its talk of the imminent “decline” (of Britain, West, and whatever else – you are surely in decline unless you are constantly training yourself to kill others…), and the desire to culturally colonize the working classes by importing them into the bourgeois/aristocratic “athletic patriotism” (John Springhall, “The Boy Scouts, Class and Militarism in Relation to British Youth Movements, 1908-1930″, – Review of Social History, Vol. 16, 1971).

When I first came to South Korea in 1991, I quickly understood that all the demons that haunted us, were already here as well: the “physical education” (체육) lessons based marching and command, the assumption that schoolboys are future conscripts to be drilled in advance in school. In their criticisms of the ways “physical education” was built up in the Korean schools, the anti-systemic dissidents of the 1980s often ascribed the blame to the “legacy of the Japanese imperialism”, and especially to the militaristic craze of the Pacific War time (see, for example, 고광헌’s excellent 스포츠와 정치, printed by 푸른나무, 1988). But there was very little concrete research about how, in detail, the school physical culture was militarized from the late 1930s onward.

And now, at last, this vacuum is starting to be filled – 신주백, one of the most promising historians of the colonial/early post-colonial period, has at last published a thoroughly scholarly paper dealing with the issue: “체육 교육의 군사화와 강제된 건강” (The Militarization of the Physical Education and the Forced Healthiness), in 정근식 (ed.), 식민지의 일상: 지배와 균열, 문화과학사, 2006. From this fascinating piece we learn that the Government-General, in preparation for the introduction of conscription in Korea (which began ultimately in 1944. Once introduced, such things tend to stay for a very, very long time…), surveyed the physical condition of around 60 thousand Korean male youths in March 1942, and from this ascertained how much improvement was needed.

About 97% of those called up for the survey complied. This is a very high level of the administrative efficiency for a colony and was mainly achieved by mobilizing the “neighbourhood patriotic associations” (애국반 – they became 반상회 in South Korea and 인민반 in North Korea from the 1950s) and making the families collectively responsible for the compliance of the young males. Then, from 1942, the “physical culture” lessons in the schools practically mergered with military drills. Around 600 hours of the drills a year were supposed to be provided for all Korean males above the primary school level, and the militarized Korean Sports Promotion Association turned athletic tournaments into places where the “Imperial Army Spirit” was to be demonstrated in action. However, the “Kokumin Tairyoku ho” (National Law on Physical Strength, 1940) from Japan proper (more  here)was never fully implemented in Korea, and the physical fitness of all these Korean males of constription age were never tested in full. Korea needed Kim Il Sung and Rhee Syngman to turn the sado-masochistic dream of checking and grading the ability of every young male to throw grenades and march into the sort of grim reality we are still facing here….

Kim Hwanp’yo and his “Ssalpap chŏnchaeng”

Filed under: — noja @ 9:03 am

Several days ago, I was happy to be presented a newly published book by the publishers who had also earlier printed two of my own books – that is, by Seoul-based Inmul kwa sasang (인물과 사상). The book is entitled “Ssalpap chŏnchaeng” (쌀밥 전쟁: “War for rice”, or how should I translate it?), and written by certain Kim Hwanp’yo – a non-academic, obviously from the circle of Prof. Kang Junman (a Chŏnbuk University media scholar and famous social ciritic, well-known for his habit to “name names” while criticising people and institutions – a dangerous thing to do in our position, I would add…), who previously co-authored several essay collections of political and “cultural criticism” including one on the history of S. Korea’s official ‘anti-communism.’

This new work, a surprisingly detailed and professionally written account for somebody who is seemingly neither a historian nor a specialist in the field of agricultural economy, deals with the story of S. Korean rice agriculture, and mainly in 1960s-70s. The picture which emerges from reading it is helpful in understanding what is going on in North Korea in a sort of wider historical perspective—you get to know that S. Korea achieved self-sufficiency in rice in 1976, when it harvested 36 million sŏk of rice, and that this achievement was, in fact, quite shaky. S. Korea had to resume rice imports in 1980, when it harvested only 24 million sŏk due to a large-scale crop failure. It was happy enough to do so as it had enough currency at the time, and then became a stable client of the Californian rice cultivators – who were politically well-backed enough to press Chŏn’s dictatorship to buy their wares throughout the early 1980s, even when S.Korea did not really need them.

N. Korea, with its depleted foreign exchange reserves and without cheap Soviet fuel and fertilizer, did not manage in the mid-1990s to escape the same plight which Southerners barely escaped in 1980. The way to rice self-sufficiency under Park was a bumpy one, and involved lots of disciplinary action taken in a good Japanese imperial spirit—of the kind the Western public would probably more readily associate with North Korea. It included designating special “no-rice days” (무미일 – no rice to be sold anywhere, and presumably no rice to be eaten in home dining-rooms, although this part probably was not really well-enforced), ordering in 1963 that all rice merchants to blend 20% non-rice cereals (잡곡) into their wares, and ordering restaurant owners to do the same with the rice they served. More resembling the good old imperial days—as well as the realities of the North Korean situation—were housewifes’ “public meetings for the sake of encouraging flour-based meals” (분식권장궐기대회), which were supposed to force home kitchens to comply with the governmental policy of “분식의 날”—bread and noodles only, none of that luxury good called ‘white rice.’ These housewives who were deplorably ignorant about the ways of making good food without rice, were taught to do so in special “flour-based meal consultation centres” (분식상담소), run from 10.00 to 16.00 every weekday by the “National Reconstruction Movement” (재건국민운동본부). And they had to study assiduously. If the share of white rice in the lunch boxes of their children exceeded prescribed norm, and this heinous crime was uncovered during the regular “lunch box checks” (도시락 검사), the punishment (that is, the corporal punishment for the children) would be severe, and their children’s grades for behaviour might suffer.

This “rice economizing movement” (절미운동) ended only in the late 1970s—and the age in which newspapers explained that the high intelligence of Westerners was precisely thanks to the fact that they ate bread and not rice, became just an (unwelcome) part of the collective memory. It all shows something about the nature of post-colonial statehood on the Korean Peninsula – but the Western media did not try that much to poke fun at Park Chung Hee’s ways to discipline and punish his subjects, while very similar things (on a much worse scale, I have to acknowledge) done by Kim Il Sung, were always mocked in very good humour, were they not? I always wonder what proportion of Western—and non-Western—consumers of Samsung products are aware of what would happen to any Samsung employee who tried to unionize his/her company?

Prof. Yi Hŏnch’ang (이헌창) and his “Outline of Korean Economic History”

Filed under: — noja @ 8:56 am

A couple of days ago, I had the happy opportunity to meet Prof. Yi Hŏnch’ang (이헌창, 고려대), one of Korea’s leading economical historians. The meeting took place at a conference, which, frankly, resembled more a sort of diplomatic event, but for me, talking with Prof. Yi was enough of a reward.

I was presented with his mighty volume, “An Outline of Korean Economic History” (한국경제통사, 제3판, 법문사, 2006), and, a complete profane in the field of economic history as I am, I became completely immersed in the reading! The secret of the appeal of this book is its ambitious goal – namely, to get a consistent picture of socio-economical developments in the country from ancient times up to the neo-liberal epoch from a sort of long-term perspective. You do not have to be an economic history specialist to appreciate this kind of approach. And the last chapters, on Korea’s industrialisation and all the concommitant issues, written from a seemingly “neutral” position, but using of a wealth of data and analythic methods, offers a historisised perspective on what is happening in the country now.

For example, the unabashed ferocity which Roh Moo-hyun’s government demonstrates in sacrificing agriculture to the FTA deal with the USA seems to be partly explained by the fact that, as Prof. Yi shows, “underprioritising” agriculture has been Korea’s rulers main unstated policy ever since Park Chung Hee’s regime. On the surface, the “New Village Movement” provided the regime with a good “popular” face and village infrastructure was significantly improved (the area under irrigation jumped by around 80%, new sorts of rice were introduced, the amount of chemical fertiliser used for 1 ha jumped from 92 to almost 400 kg, etc.). But in reality, the main use Park Chung Hee saw in the villages was their workforce, which was constantly pumped into the cities by the enormous and widening income gap.

The real amount of investment in agriculture was disproportionately low, and Korea steadily became an agricultural product importer – the ratio of import dependence in agriculture being 6% in 1965 and 71% in 1995 (I understand it, it is around 80% today). The villagers became heavily divided into a minority of successful agro-businessmen and a large mass of either relatively or very poor peasants – the tenancy ratio was 28% in 1990, and is growing. By the way, many of the evicted peasants in Taech’uri, P’yŏngt’aek, are in fact tenants, who get very little compensation from the government (since, legally speaking, they owned nothing in the village) and have literally nowhere to go.

The ratio of debt to assets among Korean peasants is 12% for 2000 (only 0,7% in 1975), which is an astonishingly high figure, given the high land prices. So, Roh is now going to deal the final coup de grace to Korea’s peasantry, basically continuing Park Chung Hee’s strategic line – instead of, for example, following the example of Norway, where the import dependency ratio in agriculture is only 50%. What sort of ecological consequences the turning of some selected areas (like the metropolitan region) into huge industrial estates cum apartment villages, and making the rest of the country a sparcely populated territory will have, I can only guess….

A letter from the headman of Taech’uri Village, currently in detention

Filed under: — noja @ 9:39 am

Dear friends,

I guess I should share with you the English text of a letter sent by Mr. Kim Chit’ae (Ji Tae), the headman of Taech’uri Village, which is struggling currently against a concerted encroachment by the American military and Korea’s own government. After more than 15 thousands (!) of police, military men and gangster-like types usually hired by the removal companies (철거깡패) invaded the village on May 4th, Mr. Kim went to prison, together with several other resistance leaders. The letter, written in prison and then translated into English, was sent to me by Mrs. Serapina Cha (차미경), head of the Friends of Asia, a NGO involved in the work with “illegal” labour migrants. What is really interesting in this struggle from the viewpoint of the history of ideas, is the way how the concept of “patriotism” is being reconsidered and remade by the resistant peasants. They are no longer any sort of patriots of the South Korean state, which is throwing them from their land – they have burned down their citizen registration cards and officially announced that they would like to have their South Korean citizenship revoked. But they are the patriots of their land, their place – obviously wishing to solidarize with those living around them, and having no wish to see their mountains and fields being turned into a starting grounds for the WWIII. It reminds in some way of Zapatistas, with their attachment to Mayan land and legacy.

Here is the letter:

The Village Headman’s letter to Korean People

Dear my fellow citizens,

As the headman of the Daechuri village, I apologize to Korean people for being a clamorously controversial problem in the nation.
I have lived here with my old parents to be a farmer for 20 years. I also have been happy with my wife and two sons.
The peaceful life of villagers including my family has been destroyed since in 2003 the news came to us that many of the US military bases in South Korea would be relocated to get together here in Daechuri.
That news was a real shock to us, for the generation of my parents underwent migration forced by the Japanese colonial army and later we were forced to move by the US army. Now, are doomed to leave this place forever for the 3rd time?
Recognizing that what is called the “national project” of the consolidation move of the US base resulted from the unfair and undemocratic relation between Daechuri residents and the Korean government, and between Seoul and Washington, we sent tens of protesting letters to the Ministry of National Defense, the Ministry of Diplomacy and Trade, and US Embassy before the parliamentary ratification in 2004. They did not respond to us. We sometimes received letters of reply merely saying that we must understand that it is “a national project.”
Even though the government just disregarded Daechuri residents, we were not daunted and persisted in struggling against the government. For we knew what the truth was. More and more people began to support us.
The government sometimes pretended that they wanted to have “a dialogue” with residents. At the same moment that they proposed a dialogue with us, they encircled our farm with barbed wires and destroyed Daechu primary school, which also played a role of our community house. That is what they meant by “dialogue”. The Minister of National Defense and the Prime Minister, whoever they may be, frequently had the press conference and then the major newspaper and broadcasting companies just relayed what they said to the mass, as if it had been true.

The government must let people know what is all about the relocation of the US base. There must be nothing left behind the screen. Then, there must be taken a more democratic procedure, whether it may be a poll or a national referendum.

We want more people to visit our homepage ( www.antigizi.or.kr ) to satisfy your curiosity about what is really going on in this small village. We also suggest to the government that it kill and bury us here in our own land rather than having “a dialogue” only to talk about compansation money and the expansion of the US base, which do not interest us at all.

Lastly, we have one thing to say to our fellow citizens. Whether you support or oppose us, we believe, you are all patriots loving this country. Without the passion for the love of our nation, you would just have had an apathy to us. What we do want to say to all of you is that you must think over whether there were sufficient legal grounds for all the processes involved with the move of the US base and over the true nature of more than 600-day-length of candle demonstration. It is not only then before you suppose or oppose us. We will accept and follow the will of Korean people.

We will fight to the last. ”

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