우물 안 개구리


Politics of Health / Medicine, post 1945

I’ve been thinking again about the broader issue of beginning to approach the South Korean post-colonial state and post-1945 medicine, recognizing the immense problems that this presents.

Even leaving aside lengthy traditons of shamans and religious healers of varying persuasions, if we restrict medicine to two loose clusters–한의학 and biomedicine–then minimally this leaves us with the need to consider at least some of the following:

a) W. Medicine as brought / conveyed by misssionaries;

b) German academic medicine / biosciences of the mid to late 19th century (esp. maybe Virchow?);

c) German academic tradition as conveyed through colonial Japanese medicine, public health, and parasitology (Meiji, Taisho, and Showa);

d) USAMGIK / 미군정 (especially the CATS lectures prepared by Winslow); also here–pre-Korean War visits by Rockefeller in the form of prominent American demographers / social scientists–among them Taeuber, Notestein, Balfour;

e) military medicine and psychiatry (here meaning the ROKA and its own internal public health practice, starts even prior to independence, allegedly);

f) Korean War era aid / efforts–UNKRA, WHO report, NORMASH, MASH, Jutlandia, etc.;

g) post Korean-War medical relief / aid projects / technical assistance: e.g., Minnesota Project, Scandinavian Teaching Hospital, CMB, AKF, KAVA, etc.;

h) Public health efforts tailored to specific endemic diseases;

i) Public health mobilizations of the Park period (FP, KAHP), including assistance from Japan’s OTCA, SIDA, and various university demography centers;

j) Vietnam War and once again ROKA military medicine (esp. 열대의학);

k) The incremental growth / provision of national health insurance (1963-1989).

This is only a partial list, but and within this diversity I have two basic generalizations:

1) Lots of continuity / overlap with previous forms of Japanese practice, especially in public health terms, that is, the large-scale mobilizations of 1960′s and 1970′s (FP, Anti-Parasite eradication).

2) Immense effort to link personal health to national welfare as related themes, especially with international aid in post-Korean War period, but even into the 70′s and 80′s.

More on this later, and for now, just recognizing the immense complexity of one little slice of time on these issues. I don’t work on the colonial period, but I suspect it’s equally complicated on issues of medicine / health, far more complicated than some would have it.


The North Flank Guard: A Military Exercise Escalated into Artillery Exchange

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:26 pm Print

This is the second of a three part series. Read the first posting here.

On November 28, a South Korean artilleryman mistakenly fired a single 155mm shell north into the Demilitarized Zone during a drill. Although the defense ministry notified its counterparts in North Korea of the mistake some two hours after the incident, it was all too late. North Korean artillery forces, fearing that the attack was the prelude to a full scale invasion, responded by firing over a hundred shells into the south, pounding a South Korean military base but also a nearby village community, resulting in four deaths, including two civilians.

This is how a military exercise can escalate into an artillery exchange. It reveals the dangers of having two bitter opponents, armed and opposing each other on opposite sides of a thin stretch of land with nothing but a fragile armistice preventing the continuation of a war that still awaits its peace treaty. While each side must keep their front line forces prepared for an outbreak in hostilities by means of military exercises, even the smallest mistake like this can result in tragedy.

Of course, this is not what happened. There was an artillery shell mistakenly fired into the demilitarized zone on November 28, and it did reportedly take two hours for the North to be informed of the mistake, but this is not the incident that recently resulted in a deadly North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean military base and a nearby village.

Instead, the island of Yeonpyeong, one of a small collection of islands which hug the North Korean coast but which, under the terms of the 1953 armistice, remain under South Korean control, came under artillery attack from the North on November 23, in the first such incident since the end of major hostilities over fifty years ago. Four people died, many were injured, and an entire community was evacuated while the village on this heavily militarized island shared the fate of the nearby bases.

That morning South Korean forces had conducted an artillery training drill but no shells struck on or near North Korean shores before the North launched its attack. Southern forces shot their shells to the southwest, in order to avoid crossing the Northern Limit Line (NLL) which has, rightly or wrongly, served as the maritime border between the two sides for decades.1 Nor was this exercise some irregular or sudden move to threaten the North, being part of a monthly drill not associated with any larger joint US-Korean military exercises. That morning North Korean forces demanded a halt to the drill, but this too was anything but new. North Korean forces regularly demand a halt to such exercises in the South, including those in the contested maritime territory around the NLL.

As far as I can tell, we are left with a picture of a morning that was business as usual: North Korea protesting South Korean drills, whether or not those are connected to the larger joint exercises, North Korea contesting the Northern Limit Line, and South Korean forces conducting their monthly drills, firing to the southwest into the sea, an act that North Koreans nearby have surely seen them do many times before. Is there a casus belli here? I fail to see it. At the very least (and I still don’t think this would be enough), the North would need to offer some clear and public indication that they will no longer tolerate any further artillery fire into the contested seas and that further exercises will result in a military response. The problem, of course, is that it is difficult for the North to make any such warning credible when they threaten not just military force, but the complete destruction of its enemies on a fairly regular basis. Even if North Korea was trying to make a unique and credible threat in its messages on November 23, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate that North Korea must itself take responsibility for.

So how has the North Flank Guard responded to this incident? Let me offer two examples: The statement recently issued by the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea2 and the Factsheet: West Sea Crisis In Korea by Nan Kim, posted with an introduction by John McGlynn at Japan Focus and also available as a PDF directly from the National Campaign to End the Korean War.

  1. The Northern Limit Line, established unilaterally by the United Nations Command in 1953, without consultation with North Korea, cuts to the north of the islands left in South Korean control. While it aimed originally to prevent southern ships from going north and serves a useful security purpose to protect the islands, North Korea has contested the line since the 1970s. It also violates the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention provisions for a 12 nautical mile coastal limit. The maintenance of the line is an important part of the unfair economic environment for northern fisherman in the area, as well as blocking direct egress of ships from the North Korean coast there. The North Koreans claim a line much farther to the south, the acceptance of which would surround South Korean islands, barring a small corridor, with North Korean military waters, an untenable arrangement. I’m very much in favor of adjustments in the line, fair coastal access for North Korea, and a fair division of the economic bounty of the region, all to be accomplished through negotiations between North and South Korea, but the reality today is that the security tensions in the region, and the fact that the region around the NLL has become a graveyard for those who died in so many conflicts in the waters will make it difficult or not impossible to make any changes while tensions are so high. The more blood is spilled in the region, the more each side will harden their views. For helpful background see John Barry Kotch and Michael Abbey “Ending Naval Clashes on the Northern Limit Line and the Quest for a West Sea Peace Regime” Asian Perspective 27.2 (2003). []
  2. They do not give the statement a separate page so I unfortunately cannot offer a permanent link to it. []


An Interpreter’s Tale

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 7:59 am Print

I have been collecting notes for a study of the treason of interpreters. This may not make it into my dissertation, but I find the topic fascinating. In the history of collaboration, interpreters often figure prominently. They speak for the occupier, they ask questions for him, they feed him the information he needs to establish and maintain power. They usually come to their position by virtue of their language abilities, but very often such abilities are the product of a long and deep intimacy with the culture and people of the occupier, either through prolonged residence or study in the occupier’s country, personal relationships, or a hybrid identity.

I'm Just the Interpreter

A Classic Image of the Treasonous Interpreter

(From the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing)

These treasonous interpreters are often portrayed as the quintessential running dogs of the enemy, groveling selfish figures standing just behind their master who sell out their nation for whatever benefits might come their way. It is not surprising, then, to find them a major target of attack by insurgents. Interpreters for the Israelis in Gaza, for the Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, for the Japanese in China and Korea, indeed everywhere, including hated German-Norwegians who interpreted for the German occupation in my own hometown in Stavanger, are often tried as traitors in the aftermath of a conflict, but are also frequently the victims of brutal assassinations and torture by forces of the resistance.

Of course, the language skills of these interpreters are not necessarily indicative of their sympathy for the enemy. Like any other collaborator who freely chooses or are, to various degrees, coerced into working for the occupation, these interpreters often merely see themselves as continuing their trade, or making use of suddenly useful skill. I think this observation can cut both ways: their constant visual proximity and ability to speak for the invader has led to a demonization of interpreters that is well out of proportion to their crime, when seen as a kind of trade of services for the enemy (as opposed to helping them run puppet regimes, for example, or carry out acts of violence on their behalf). On the other hand, as with everyone else whose continued provision of the services of labor and goods to an occupier or other enemy in wartime enable it to maintain its power, the consequences have moral implications.1 Now let us look at one case that offers what I think is a rather typical case of the most common twists and turns in the career of a treasonous interpreter.

Kim Yong Hyun

The recent anniversary of the opening of the most violent stage of the Korean civil war on June 25, 1950, when North Korea launched a full invasion of the south, found me in the National Library in Taiwan. Organizing some of my notes on North Korea there, I got distracted reading the memoir of a Korean interpreter Kim Yong Hyun.2

Kim, who spoke good English, served the US forces for a time as an interpreter for the 2nd infantry division. Then, captured by Chinese forces he eventually found himself face to face with an aggressive North Korean soldier in an interaction that could have gone much worse for him than it did.

In his answers to the queries of the North Korean, we learn that Kim had attended middle school in Japan, leaving Hiroshima only a year before the city was destroyed. His association with Japan is not something a suspect person would want to carry about given the risk of being called a pro-Japanese traitor, but as we will see, even North Korean officers could have a Japanese higher education in their past. Kim trained to become a teacher, which is a career that always risks putting him among the class of the intellectual bourgeoisie. Finally, he fled North Korea, moving to the south in February 1946. This, the North Korean informed him, made him a “traitor” and a “running dog.”

This is true, in legal terms, as North Korean law made fleeing to South Korea a treasonous crime until 1999, when a distinction was made between migrants and treasonous defectors.3 While technically, Kim could have been shot for this treason, at least at this early stage, North Korea seems to have been going relatively easy on those who “illegally crossed the border” (불법월경) or “guiding someone across the border (월경안내). In trial records found in captured North Korean documents in the National Archives in Washington DC, it seems the going rate for such a crime was 1-3 years.4 Add to this the fact that Kim had worked for the Americans, and he found himself to be a real “American running dog.” Fortunately for Kim, he claims the Chinese military refused to hand him over to his North Korean accuser.5

Despite his anti-communist tone, Kim has glowing praise for the Chinese soldiers who kept him in captivity. This is consistent with much I have seen out there on the unusually benevolent Communist Chinese policy towards prisoners (though there are important exceptions and they often lacked supplies to fully feed them. Read more in these two postings.), whether they were Japanese or Americans. They, “never gave us any harsh lectures on ideological issues. They didn’t bother our prisoners in any way.”6 That same night Kim found himself in a position that I think is the key dilemma for talented multi-linguals in a wartime or occupation situation. Called over by a Chinese officer, Kim would be offered a proposition he would have been either extremely courageous or foolish to turn down:

“Comrade,” the [Korean-Chinese] interpreter began, “Would you be kind enough to interpret in English for us.

I nodded. They ushered in an American prisoner. I recognized him instantly because he was from my own outfit – a full sergeant who was one of our platoon leaders. We nodded in mutual agreement.”7

After this first job for the Chinese, he was asked to become a regular interpreter for the Chinese, translating Americans who were being interrogated by their Chinese captors. He accepted,

Well, what can I say? The offer was too good to refuse. My instinct to survive dominated my mind at that moment. “I would be happy to oblige.”

Kim would receive good food and treatment for his work but he was at once placed in a new position as a “running dog” for the Chinese. Later he served North Koreans more directly, a camp commandant, again translating during an interrogation of an American soldier and, moreover, asked to pretend he was a North Korean officer despite continuing to wear an American uniform while in captivity.8

In an amazingly frank exchange, if true, between this prisoner and the North Korean commandant, the latter said he was a college student in Japan during the war, when he was conscripted into the Japanese military. He was eventually captured by American forces in the Philippines who, despite the Japanese propaganda suggesting otherwise, he found to be “very civilized.”9 After returning to Korea he was a professor for a time but moved north to see the workings of Communism himself. Here was a Japanese trained North Korean camp commandant in charge of the imprisonment and interrogation of American forces, which he had once himself been a prisoner of.

The story that follows traces the escape of Kim from North Korea, or rather, his return to Seoul as a “Liberated UN soldier” and his escape thereafter across the lines. He returns to work as an interpreter for the Americans, serving as a G-2 officer and interpreter under a colonel in the 73rd Heavy Tank Battalion.10

As with all memoirs, especially those which contain whole dialogues between the author and people that are based on conversations many decades earlier, the source must be treated with great care. A very familiar, at least to me, picture emerges, however: Kim memoir is a world in which characters are divided roughly between those who are “hard-core” communists, thus blinded by ideology, and the more mixed up humane characters who are just trying to get by. It is a world where collaborators survive and live on, where the Viktor Komarovskies (from Dr. Zhivago) are not the villains.11 You can almost hear that great quote by Komarovsky in the film:

There are two kinds of men, and only two, and that young man is one kind. He is high-minded. He is pure. He is the kind of man that the world pretends to look up to and in fact despises. … There’s another kind. Not high-minded, not pure, but alive.12

Update: Charles Montgomery over at Korean Modern Literature in Translation was kind enough to mention this post here and says it reminds him of a passage in a work by Kim Yong-Ik. The quote is so apt for the discussion here:

“Eating greedily he looked curiously at my concise English-Korean dictionary on the shelf. ‘The language of an occupying army is a meal ticket, you know.’ He smiled faintly” (Kim, Home Again (1945) 27).

  1. I don’t think I have ever gone into much detail on my own views of this, but to sum up my position when it comes to the “treasonous” nature of such acts: I don’t have a problem with calling things treason when they are, but for me, treason is never, by itself, morally objectionable. This should be kept in mind whenever I raise related issues here at Frog in a Well. []
  2. Yong Hyun Kim, Susanne Kim Nelson ed. Into the Vortex of War: A Korean Interpreter’s Close Encounter with the Enemy. (AuthorHouse, 2008) []
  3. As of the major 1975 revision, it was covered in the section for “counter-revolutionary crimes” in articles 52 or 53 of the criminal law, which apparently states that fleeing to a foreign country is punishable by death and confiscation of all property. Institute of North Korean Studies. North Korea’s Criminal Law (1991). In Sup Han has a discussion of the recent changes to this law over time, In Sup Han “The 2004 Revision of Criminal Law in North Korea: — a take-off?” Santa Clara Journal of International Law 1 (2006), 130. []
  4. See RG242 SA 2005 6/43. By contrast, a case of “Reactionary attempted rape” (反動 強姦未遂) I saw there got 1 year and 6 months. []
  5. Yong Hyun Kim Into the Vortex of War: A Korean Interpreter’s Close Encounter with the Enemy (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2008), 46-48. []
  6. Ibid., 48. []
  7. Ibid., 48. []
  8. Ibid., 56. []
  9. Ibid., 60. []
  10. Ibid., 82 []
  11. Of course, those familiar with Korean literature need not look to Viktor Komarovsky or the Good Soldier Švejk. Reading Kim’s memoir I was reminded of the fantastic character of Kapitan Ri (꺼삐딴 리) in the short story of that name by Chŏn Kwangyong, who managed to survive under Japanese, Soviet, and US regimes. []
  12. Is it in the written version as well? It has to be one of my absolute favorite lines. []


Korean War in art

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 7:27 pm Print

"Crimson Harvest" by Gobau
Japan Focus has an article detailing and displaying Gobau’s Korean War art which has a plethora of arresting images. Gobau worked from the Republic of Korea side: North Korean forces are not shown in a good light, but South Korean forces don’t get a pass on their purportedly anti-communist atrocities.


BAKS 2008

Filed under: — John P. DiMoia @ 9:07 pm Print

     I just returned to SG this past weekend from BAKS (British Association Korean Studies) 2008, and wanted to post as the film panel in particular intersects nicely with something posted earlier this summer.  For those interested in a brief summary of the conference as a whole, please see Philip Gowman’s take at: http://londonkoreanlinks.net/2008/09/12/baks-conference-report-looking-forward-looking-back/.

     To return to the issue of film, the Tuesday afternoon panel (9 / 9) offered a number of interesting film clips, one of which featured two scenes from “Homeless Angels” /  집없는 천사.   To be fair, I would have to see the entire film to say more; but for now, I agree with a basic reading of the film which reads the placement of these Korean orphans in terms of a paternalistic Japanese state and ithe attempted formation of new imperial subjects through tutelage.  The scene I’m referring to specifically in making this claim comes near the close of the film, and features one of the characters saluting / reciting while the Japanese flag is being raised: in effect, the perfomative force of the scene is roughly equivalent to a recruitment pitch.

     The speaker / presenter also raised an interesting point in conjunction with this film–and I want to be careful, as I’m operating here on jet lag, and may be conflating points made across the entire panel–pointing to the recurring popularity of the trope of the displaced orphan, with (1) “Boys Town” featured as one of the earliest films approved and shown by USAMGIK, and with the subsequent appearance of (2) Douglas Sirk’s (1957) “Battle Hymn.” 

     While I’m not comfortable with making sweeping juxtapositions from the standpoint of history–would want to know much more about the circumstances underlying each of the three films before making any links–the loose observation in the previous paragraph does lend itself to some interesting comparative questions.  Namely, what were the economic / social / political / communitarian ideals informing the practice of dealing with refugees (particular orphans) during and in the aftermath of the Korean War?  I’m familiar with an overall take that places New Deal reformers, broadly construed, in Japan and Korea for the respective occupations, but does this suggest potentially that 1930′s American-style social welfare practices were simply mapped onto the issue of dealing with refugees and orphans?  Can we complicate this further with the recognition (see Dan Rodgers and Atlantic Crossings)  that much of the New Deal was informed by an eclectic set of borrowed practices from earlier European practices related to social welfare?

     What I’m fumbling at here, in a none too articulate fashion, are ways of comparing the social welfare practices adopted under USAMGIK (and during the subsequent Korean War), and the comparable practices mobilized under Japanese Imperial authority only a decade or two earlier.  In what ways were Americans attempting to form new subjects of Korean orphans (perhaps new “South Korean” subjects?)–if we put this to the same litmus test as the Japanese Imperium–and how were  American practices distinct / different?  My recollection of images of orphans from the Holt folks (see the historical introduction at the Holt International website, which links the 1955 founding of the organization to Holt’s viewing of a film about Korea) is that they were generally designated as “Korean,” but is this an innocent designation or does it assume a case where half of the peninsula subsumes the whole? 

I’m trying to do this kind of work for medicine now (looking at material and pedagogical changes in medical education pre and post war), and wondering what this might look like in a similar  context.  I also recognize that the question of distingiushing between categories and attributing sources of authority becomes almost hopelessly muddled, as what’s “Japanese” and “American” is rarely clear, and there’s a signficant difference between the offical rhetoric and on the ground practice.


The Sideshow in Korea?

Yet the costly Iraq war must also be recognised as a sideshow in the Bush global counteroffensive against Islamist militancy, just as the far more costly Korean war was a sideshow to global cold war containment.

So says Edward Luttwak, in an extensive attempt to speed up the process by which History justifies and valorizes the policies of this administration. [via] He’s mostly engaged in a bit of dramatic post hoc, ergo propter hoc whereby a shift in government policies towards extremist Islamic groups is the result of Pres. Bush’s Trumanesque firmness, but the damage done to the success — military and diplomatic — of the initial Afghanistan campaign by the Iraq campaign isn’t taken into account at all.1 The Korean war — which I have a lot of trouble seeing as a “sideshow,” given the direct involvement of Chinese and Russian forces and a lot more actual shooting than in Europe — advanced the cause of anti-communism. It was a success, in the sense that it preserved South Korea as a non-communist state and it was the last full-scale conflict between the great powers for some time. The only sense in which Korea could be called a “sideshow” is that Truman’s containment policy engaged a lot of other parts of the world as well.

He then goes on to mangle Chinese history — Tang, Song and Ming dynasties never conquered anyone, right? — and to cast the future of Asia in binaries (China: convergence or communist collapse? India: corruption stagnation or “traditional” good Brahmin governance?), as well as giving the administration credit for North Korean disarmament instead of noting their years of footdragging on same which have exacerbated the proliferation problem.

Truman deserves better.

  1. He’s also assuming that al Qaeda’s “call to action” attacks were likely to inspire imitators rather than revulsion in the short run, which seems like he’s taking their own rhetoric way too seriously. Romantic nihilists have been claiming that “the masses are on the brink of revolution” and “dramatic action will awaken them” for over two centuries now. []


Gregory Henderson Reporting on a Massacre

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 3:04 am Print

I’ve recently been looking through 한국전쟁과 집단학살 (Organized Massacres and the Korean War) by 김기진. The work focuses primarily on crimes against civilians carried out by United States forces or Korean forces and has a large section which reproduces, in a regretfully somewhat badly edited form, a lot of US archival documents found at the National Archives.

My impression, and that is all this is since this is not my area of expertise, is that the documents themselves don’t really reveal anything earth-shatteringly new. A lot of the documents included reproduce contemporary media reports of atrocities and consist of internal debates about investigations into whether the accusations are true, or are responses to letters by the UN or the International Committee of the Red Cross.

I was interested in these conveniently collected documents for a number of reasons, but one of the documents in the collection that may be of interest to readers here was responding to a report submitted by Gregory Henderson on an alleged atrocity against forty captured “Communists” many months before the opening of the most violent stage of the Korean War in June of 1950.



Korea: Better than Vietnam, anyway

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:58 pm Print

Thomas C. Reeves, perhaps my least favorite HNN blogger, is arguing that the success of South Korea justifies our Middle East policies, especially Iraq. The comparison of Bush to Truman is nothing new, nor is the analogy of Iraq and Korea. But this particular one is quite egregious, and I can’t let it pass without comment. Reeves’ main point — that South Korea is better off than North Korea and that the US had a hand in that — is true, but in such a shallow manner as to be empty rhetoric. His larger theme — that the support for freedom and opposition to tyranny are worthwhile even when unpopular — is also true, but the use of the Korea and Truman raise serious questions.

First, of course, is the sheer hubris of attributing the difference solely to “American influence and protection.” The Korean War was initiated by North Korea in direct action against US/UN troops, not by a US invasion. The US was already in Korea, for good reason, but ham-handedly refusing — as was the Soviet Union — to allow Koreans to determine their own post-colonial path. US involvement in South Korean politics over the quarter-century after the Korean War delayed progress towards democracy, did nothing in particular to promote religious tolerance (unless you count supporting Christian missionaries, which seems a bit self-serving), and I’ve never seen anyone argue that US involvement was particularly good for the Korean economy, either.

The attempt to tar opponents of Bush Administration policy as new McCarthyites — well-intentioned, perhaps, but short-sighted, partisan and hypocritical — ignores literally years of critics saying “it would be good for everyone if we could proceed in a responsible and effective manner.”1 Instead, Reeves pulls out the middle ground, leaving only support for the Administration (who are, according to Reeves, more Trumanesque than Johnsonesque or Kennedyesque or Rooseveltian or Wilsonian….) or “appeasement and retreat for mere political gain.” It’s a short step from this kind of manicheanism to “stabbed in the back” revisionism.

Ultimately, this is a classic case of the political rhetorical use of historical analogies: pick the one which has the most obvious parallel for the result you want to see, and ignore differences.2 It’s irresponsible for a historian to trade in these facile arguments.

  1. e. g. []
  2. Reeves waves it away with “Yes, of course, there are many differences between Iraq and the Middle East today and the Korean peninsula of more than a half century ago.” My students wouldn’t be allowed to get away with that! []


Analogy Alert: Iraq/Korea

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:00 am Print

this via:

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush would like to see a U.S. role in Iraq ultimately similar to that in South Korea.

“The Korean model is one in which the United States provides a security presence, but you’ve had the development of a successful democracy in South Korea over a period of years, and, therefore, the United States is there as a force of stability,” Snow told reporters.

and this via

Missing from much of the current discussion is talk about the success of democracy in Iraq, officials say, or even of the passage of reconciliation measures that Mr. Bush said in January that the troop increase would allow to take place. In interviews, many senior administration and military officials said they now doubted that those political gains, even if achieved, would significantly reduce the violence.

The officials cautioned that no firm plans have emerged from the discussions. But they said the proposals being developed envision a far smaller but long-term American presence, centering on three or four large bases around Iraq. Mr. Bush has told recent visitors to the White House that he was seeking a model similar to the American presence in South Korea.



Revisionism (History news round up I)

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:23 pm Print

It’s been a bit quiet around here lately, but hopefully that will improve with the new year. To kick things off this year I thought I’d gather together the various thoughts and abandoned posts that have been knocking around for the last few months and do a series rounding up recent history news that has caught my attention.

There was much talk of ‘revisionism’ in Korea a couple of months ago. It’s a word that fascinates me purely because its meaning is so completely dependent on context. First President Roh Moo-hyun was accused of this crime for referring to the Korean war as a civil war during a visit to Cambodia. This is significant for Roh’s rightwing detractors because it appears to reflect the ‘progressive’ view of the Korean war that owes much to Bruce Cumings’ masterwork, The Origins of the Korean War. So, setting aside for the moment the fact that it would be perfectly feasible to call the war a civil war (ie two parts of a country going to war against one another), Roh’s statement was revisionist in the sense that it appeared to ‘revise’ the standard South Korean government position that the Korean War was simply a war of aggression initiated by Stalin. As the Chosun Ilbo put it in its usual blunt style:

“The Korean civil war” is a term coined to glorify the invasion by North Korea. It does not appear in our elementary, middle and high school textbooks. Yet it comes out of the mouth of the president, who symbolizes the legitimacy of the republic, and who doesn’t mean anything by it.

After Roh, his candidate for Unification Minister, Lee Jae-young joined in, in his confirmation hearing, apparently causing general apoplexy among GNP politicians.

Irrespective of which side one agrees with in this dispute,* what we learn from this is that in the specific context of South Korean society, the term revisionism (수정주의 修正主義) means questioning the orthodox view of history created and maintained by successive rightwing governments in the postwar decades. But as Wikipedia shows rather nicely, revisionism means many other things elsewhere. In the UK for example, it has been used to refer to the (now orthodox) historical view that attempted to overthrow Christopher Hill’s earlier Marxist interpretation of the English Revolution. In the Soviet Union, it was constantly used as a term of abuse for anyone straying from the orthodox Marxist-Leninist line (ie the ideology of the Soviet regime), while in Maoist China it became a term of abuse for the Soviets under Krushchev. Most notoriously, the term revisionism is used to refer to people like David Irving (recently out of an Austrian jail cell) who attempt to deny or minimise the Holocaust. In other words, just about anyone can be a revisionist.

So, my advice is that any time you need an all-purpose but suitably intellectual-sounding piece of invective with which to assail your opponent, calling them a revisionist will probably fit the job. Unless of course you have something better up your sleeve.

*My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that most people outside of Korea would rightly view the position of the South Korean right as somewhat absurd – there was no doubt an element of civil war in the Korean War, whatever way you look at it. On the other hand, I don’t agree either with the view that the war was simply some sort of ‘revolutionary civil war’ in which the imperialists interfered to prevent the unification of the Korean people under a glorious socialist government, as the DPRK and its supporters in the South would like to paint it. The Korean War seems to show that wars can be both civil and international (perhaps they often are?); can have elements of social war and elements of senseless fratricidal bloodshed; can be both inter-imperialist wars for territory and influence and personal squabbles among rival aspirants to the leadership of a country.

On that rather depressing note…
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