우물 안 개구리


Things I don’t know about Korea, part 1 of many

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:38 pm Print

Now that I’m teaching my Korean History course I am, of course, running into questions I cannot answer. I’m going to post them here periodically:

  • Though the Choson-era Korean Army (in its various commanderies and provincial forms) was conscripted from peasantry (and officered, it appears, by military Yangban), where did the Navy get its personnel? You can’t just conscript a peasant and put him on a ship and expect him to be useful: did they recruit from fishing communities, or was there a training process?
  • What’s the numerical breakdown of Choson society? I’ve seen suggestions that as much as 20-30% were in the unfree categories at the bottom of the social scale, but I can’t seem to get a handle on the Yangban and Chungnin classes, either in total population or (as one of my students asked) rate of shedding members to lower classes.
  • Who was the aged, deeply bearded gentleman depicted on the Japanese colonial-era Korean bills? (See below)



“Prosthetic Memories”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:10 am Print

Seungsook Moon at Japan Focus has an interesting historiographical essay about the contested life and legacy of Park Chung Hee, who led Korea through the 60s and 70s. The debate is particularly interesting because it parallels discourses which are ongoing in other post-dictatorial societies, including the debates about Stalin in Russia, Mao and Deng in China, Chiang Kaishek in Taiwan, etc. The history itself is fascinating, though I do wish Moon had spent a little more effort mediating some of the factual basis for the competing narratives.


Modernization or Japanization? –The Movie “Homeless Angels” 1941

Filed under: — Sayaka Chatani @ 10:17 am Print

I had a chance to watch a Korean movie from the colonial period, called “Homeless Angels (집없는 천사, 家なき天使),” at the Korean Film Archive (KFA) in Susek, Seoul, the other day. This movie was made by the infamously pro-Japanese director of the time, Choi Inkyu, in the late 1930s, and released in 1941. The Korean Film Archive listed it as one of 100 representative works that reflect Korean cinema, “because it is one of the very few surviving movies from the Japanese colonial era” despite the fact that the last scene (where all the children recite the pledge of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor) was propagandistic for the  Japanese imperialist cause.

The movie is about the founder of an orphanage called 香隣園 and the Korean boys who joined the orphanage. Conversations took place mostly in Korean, except for some occasional code switching with Japanese. Since Matt at GUSTS OF POPULAR FEELING has featured this movie a while ago, giving details of the plot and pictures of various scenes, I will not explain the story in detail here. I would rather like to point out the key historiographical issue in the discussions related to this movie among Korean film scholars, the KFA and GUSTS OF POPULAR FEELING.

The KFA interprets this movie as mostly a humanist story of enlightenment by Koreans for Koreans, and argues that “the propagandistic sequence is inserted irrespective of the plot and thus does not pose a substantial threat to the text’s actual subject.” In critique of this interpretation, Matt has highlighted the militaristic nature of the training that children receive, and indirect expressions that praise Japanese military advancement in the film. His interpretations suggest that children could represent Koreans in general, and that the film could leave the audience with the lesson that Koreans could have become real Japanese citizens if they had made a great effort.1 The interpretations of this movie among film scholars today are similarly divided on how to interpret the nature of this movie in the same way as the Japanese imperial authorities were bewildered.2 Is this a mere Japanese propaganda? Or is this a ‘Korean’ humanist story of rescuing and enlightening homeless children?

Let’s step back from this question for a moment. There are many elements in this movie that reflect the global trends at the time. The first thing to notice is that in the movie there is clear pastoral idealism depicted as a reaction to industrialization. The film shows the decadence and corruption of urban culture, and its contrast to the healthy, disciplined, frugal and simple rural life. The idealization of rural agricultural life is found in media and intellectual discourse, not only in Korea and Japan, but also in Britain, Germany and other places in the world since the 1900s. Secondly, the special role of children as ‘our future’ and ‘our hope,’ but at the same time, as those that adults have to lead in the right direction, can be considered as a new concept that rapidly spread around the world in the 1910s. Historians often point out Stanley Hall‘s theory of developmental child psychology as having helped create and spread such an image of children. With these two elements combined, it is not surprising to see that large-scale youth movements were launched around the world around the same time — the Boy Scouts, Hitler Jugend, Japanese Seinendan, Communist Komsomol, etc. All these youth groups praised militarized discipline and pastoral ideology. Lastly, while idealization of rural life is clearly a rejection of modern consumerism, the movie seems to imply that Western Enlightenment itself was the basis of their activities. In the movie, the founder of the orphanage gains support from his brother-in-law, a rich doctor who owns an empty Western style house, a sizable farm and a farmhouse outside of Seoul available for use. There was a quick flashback scene in which this brother-in-law was spending time with his German girlfriend there, showing that he was educated in the Western style and is familiar with European culture. More interestingly, the founder names his son and daughter ” Johann (요한)” and “Mary (마리아)” respectively, which we can’t help but see as bizarre given the setting of Japanese colonialism. Overall, the adults who help the children in this film are all “Westernized.” This close relationship between the Enlightenment thought and anti-industrial youth movements was also prevalent in other parts of the world.

Coming back to the question of how to interpret the nature of the movie “Homeless Angels,” it is clear that the film was not simply about “Koreans helping Koreans.” At the same time, the question of “to what extent it was Japanese” has become a much harder question to answer because Korea, as well as Japan, was embedded within the larger historical trends of the time. The same difficulty of separating “Japanese” colonial modernity from world-historical trends is a common problem with many of the writings about the Korean colonial history. I wish that historians had better tools to capture the interaction of all the world, regional, national, provincial, and personal contexts instead of endeavoring to fit all the elements into narrower national terms. 


  1. I would add the fact that the orphanage was available only for boys. It reflects the tendency of Japanese colonialism that regarded Koreans as military and labor human resources at the time. []
  2. See 강성률, 영화로 보는 우리 역사 3 [집 없는 천사]와 찬일: 계몽을 가장한 자발적 친일, 내일을 여는 역사, no. 20, 2005.6, pp.227-232 []


African mercenaries in Chosŏn

Filed under: — Owen @ 9:35 am Print

I meant to post a note on this interesting piece at the Oh My News website a couple of weeks ago, but other things intervened. It recounts the story of the black mercenaries who fought with the Ming troops in Chosŏn during the international war of the late sixteenth century (known as the Imjin waeran 임잔왜란 in Korea). Well worth having a look if you can read Korean.

While I have to say that I felt a little uncomfortable about one or two of the author’s somewhat narrow-minded observations (eg that Black people are renowned for their physical strength) this is still an informative piece of popular history writing about a little-known part of Korea’s history. It is also the second part of a series by the same author that may be worth following. Part one is here.


Patriotic School Athletics – under the Japanese and After

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….


Don’t Take it Literally

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 12:28 am Print

I think I’ll continue making posts here and there based on a collection of US military documents from early postwar occupied Korea that I discuss in my last posting.

After this year’s “state of the union” speech by the US president, we were told not to take policy pronouncements he made in the speech related to reducing dependence on certain oil imports “literally.” I guess the same principle might be applied to this interesting discussion of a new US military government sponsored radio station which one US general wanted to let the Koreans have in order to “let off steam in what he called ‘vox pop program’” According to the notes for a September 16, 1945 corps staff conference:

“It was not to be a closed government station but was to be open to all political parties, including the Communists. The principle of free speech was to be observed although every applicant would have to submit a written statement of his talk before permission was granted. [The general] wanted to be sure that no seditious statements were made.” (Vol. 1 75)

A Most Unusual Invasion

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 12:18 am Print

Preparations for my oral exams this spring has prevented me from contributing much recently but I have started to take an hour away from my orals reading every day or two to hang out in the basement of the Harvard-Yenching library. I really want to skim through a few thousand pages worth of US military documents from early postwar occupied Korea. I’m currently working on the various kinds of documents in the 史官記状 sub-section in the 駐韓米軍情報参謀部軍史課 section (I need to get the official US military terms for these) of this collection, which is called the 解放直後政治社会史資料集.

I just started this and am going rather slowly to start as I’m trying to get a feel for the kind of material available. I’m especially looking for information on Korean-Japanese interactions in the early occupation period, political retribution against or at least mention of Korean collaborators, and generally trying to get a feel for this complicated period.

Besides being a really great introduction to this period through primary sources, it is really fun reading, as the various notes and reports are filled with interesting anecdotes. Expect more of my future postings to refer to this material. Most the documents so far are meeting minutes, summaries of press conferences, summaries of major events, but there are other kinds of materials too. One short single paragraph report, for example, contains a soldier’s random observations on Western books he found in disorderly piles in (the then named) Keijô University library, where all sorts of US troops were apparently staying at the time. There are also dictated translations of interviews of Koreans, including refugees from the Russian occupied areas.

Because many of the reports are minutes from meetings which often summarize discussions, one can find thrown together various topics in surprising and sometimes comical ways. My favorite discovery today has to be from a US military corps staff conference held on the 15th of September, 1945. The main topic of the conference was the training of Korean police and resolving labor issues:

“The provost marshal (Lt Col Moors) had visited ASCOM 24 and felt that the police situation was well in hand. The Japanese work detail were doing a good job. The Navy had invaded the city of Inchon and bought all the souvenirs.” (Vol. 1, 66)


Thoughts on Yusin

Filed under: — jiyulkim @ 3:42 am Print

Readers here might be interested in giving thoughts about a query and my comment regarding Yusin on the Korean Studies Discussion List by Dr. Alon Levkowitz.

His query: I would like to consult the group about a word – Yushin (Yusin). Was the term Yushin for the yushin constitution under Park’s regime was chosen for a specific goal. Does the word, without the problematic applications of the constitution by Park, means positive or negative?

Other comments:

Don Baker: I’m surprized that no one else on this list pointed out this time around that Park Chung-hee may have borrowed the word “Yusin” from the Japanese. The same two Chinese characters were used to characterize the “restoration” of imperial rule in Japan in 1868. Gari Ledyard pointed out in a message to this list in 2000 that Park may not necessarily have been imitating the Japanese, since those two characters have long been used in China in the positive sense of revitalizing reforms. However, given Park’s experience in the Japanese military, I’d be surprized if he were ignorant of that relatively recent Japanese use of that term. I suspect he used that term to show that he wanted to do with Korea what the Meiji oligarchs did with Japan, that is, turn it into a rich and powerful nation.

Ruediger Frank: on a side note, I was always struck by the similarities between the Saemaeul Undong (New Village Movement), evolving around the same time as the Yushin Constitution, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. If you read some of Park Chung-hee’s speeches from that time, he stops short of talking about “the most beautiful characters” that could only be written “on a blank sheet of paper”, to paraphrase the Great Helmsman who wanted to erase all traces of old thought to make room for new thinking in the minds of his Chinese subjects. Park, too, emphasizes the alleged “backwardness” of Koreans and their attitudes and calls for a thorough
ideological modernization. Institutionalists such as Clarence E. Ayres would say that he tried to fight ceremonialism and supported technlogical dynamism. On a smaller scale, this is a process that repeats itself quite frequently in Korean politics until present time. The renaming of political parties, for example, is one expression of this continuous desire to “renew” or “revitalize”. The official slogan “Dynamic Korea” fits perfectly into this way of looking at the issue.

Another: I understand the meaning of “Yushin” under the umbrella of the revitalising reforms undertaken during the 70′s decade, meaning an increase of the heavy industry. The word itself does not entail negative, evenmore, it has a positive meaning: renewing, revitalising

Another: General Park Chung-hee introduced Yushin or the “Revitalizing Reform” system, which legitimized the authoritarian-led development. People were fed up with the Yushin system and student demonstrators in 1979 intensified in the latter half of the year with labour and student demonstrations in the Pusan and Masan areas which was later called the “Pu-Ma Uprising.” The Yushin system led to economic instability and unrest, which cumulated in Park’s assassination in October 1979. Park’s assassination led to calls by students and laborers for
the abolition of the Yushin system and direct elections. Such hopes were dashed when at the end of 1979 when General Chun Do-hwan and Roh Tae-Woo seized power from the interim government through a coup d’etat.

My comments:

I base comments on my current dissertation work that posits that South Korea’s response to a profound period of crisis between 1968 and 1972 led to a concerted program of national spiritual and material mobilization that created the modern South Korean and South Korea. One source I have consulted extensively is the diplomatic archives that only recently became available. I also conducted a close study of how this process operated in one local region, Kangwon province.

The term Yusin (I prefer the M-R spelling), as it relates to the Yusin Constitution (YC) (and this is the common understanding among scholars and the average South Korean), must be seen as a specific historical issue rather than in some generic way as suggested by Drs. Baker and Ruediger. It was a specific response to a specific circumstances of national crisis. Other studies have suggested a similar process at work in other nations – a deliberate effort to mobilize the nation’s physical and spiritual resources and restore/revitalize/renovate the nation in the face of profound internal and external crisis. Two quick examples spanning time and space: Lynn Hunt’s work on the French Revolution and Frederick Dickinson’s study of Japan’s response during WW I. The U.S. has gone through this process a number of times in its history, most recently and currently as result of 9/11 (President Bush’s emphasis on the moral dimension of America’s tasks and challenges is very much in synch with history’s examples).

When YC was instituted in 1972 it was done so as a response by Park (PCH) to a profound period of national crises, real and perceived, that began in early 1968. Internally and externally the world order and the desired course of internal development upon which PCH based his long range plans for nation building all seemed to crumble. The symbolic and psychological impact to SK of three incidents in Jan 1968 can be compared to the impact of 9/11 for the U.S.: NK Blue House raid (1/21), seizure of USS Pueblo (1/23), and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam (1/31). Jan 68 was SK’s 9/11.

Internally, ordinary South Koreans seemed to be getting restless, socially and politically, on the laurels of the success of the first Five Year Development Plan (1962-66). In 1967 NK stepped up its campaign to destabilize SK (decision made by Kim Il-sung in late 1966). Nixon’s detente policy and specifically his decision to visit and establish relations with China, coming as it did when SK social-economic-political situation was becoming increasingly troubled, seems to have been the final straw. By the end of 1972 PCH perceived SK’s circumstances as dire: there were domestic troubles a plenty, but the external situation was even more compelling: NK provocations, betrayal of Taiwan by US and Japan, betrayal of Vietnam, rise of NK’s legitimacy (because of China’s stature), and potential betrayal of SK by US (Guam doctrine and troop withdrawal, reduction of aid, etc.).

In the “crumbling” regional situation of 1971/72, the image of a weak Korea dominated by the Great Powers at the end of the 19th century with disastrous results was often evoked. Internal documents show that this was not simply rhetoric, but believed at the highest levels. The establishment of national mobilization movements during this period was thus directly the result of the perceived crises: most importantly the Homeland defense reserve force & system in 1968, and the Saemaul Movement in 1971. Both concepts had been in working for some time but it was Both of these movements must also be seen more importantly as spiritual mobilizations, one that was joined by other moral suasion campaigns.

One dimension of this history that may be of specific interest to Dr. Levkowitz is the role that Israel played, materially but more importantly as a symbol. Much of this thought is based on the recently declassified documents on SK-Israel contacts as well as public rhetoric. Israel resonated deeply for PCH and seemingly for ordinary South Koreans. Both modern states were founded in 1948, both were small and surrounded by powerful threats, and both were poor in natural resources and thus human resources were emphasized. On a different dimension, and one that continues to operate today, is a religious one. The spread of Christianity made the land of Bible significantly meaningful. Some Koreans even imagined a shared heritage liking the Koreans to the Jews of the Exodus. Other nations occupied a similar symbolic position such as Switzerland, but Israel was the most powerful, not only because of this “shared” history and circumstances, but Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War (June 67) made a deep impression on the success of the Israel nation building project. It must be said that Israel also seemed to have looked at SK in a special way. It was one of the first nation to send assistance when the Korean War broke out (a modest amount of medical supplies, but diplomatic documents show that it was never forgotten and had a deep symbolic significance). We must remember that Israel was mounting an international effort to establish ties with nations in competition with the Arab nations. There were embarrassingly few who chose Israel over the oils and markets provided by the infinitely larger Arab community. Despite the resonant symbolism of Israel SK practiced pragmatic diplomacy simply because Israel’s one UN vote was less important than the dozen or more Arab UN votes in the days when the Korea Question came up for annual referendum at the UN, but that’s another story. On a material level I just want point out that the Israeli reserve and the kibbutz system were used as models for SK’s Homeland reserve system and the establishment of “strategic villages” near the DMZ (the strategic village system in Manchuria during the colonial period also probably served as a model although I have not found any direct evidence of that linkage – it is plausible given PCH’s service in Manchuria).

So, to answer Dr. Levkowitz’s first question, yes “Yusin” was chosen for the specific goal of national restoration/renovation/revitalization that was seen, by 1972, as vital for national survival and continued construction. The need to fight and build simultaneously was neatly summarized in a popular slogan of the time that exists in many variations “fight while you build and build while you fight.”

With regard to Dr.Levkowitz’s second question, on the valuation of the term, my opinion is that it is quite ambiguous and divided especially among South Koreans. On the one hand, the searing memory of the mobilization campaigns (spiritual, physical, material) and the oppression and suppression of dissent and democracy created an instant connection between “Yusin” and dictatorship and oppression of the people (minjung). On the other hand, in as much as most South Koreans still say that PCH was the one person most responsible for South Korea’s development and that the Saemaul movement was the most important national project that contributed to development, Yusin may not have such polemical and essentialized negative connotation. There is a certain sense of “well, it was necessary then.”

This brings me to my final point and one of my biggest challenges in the dissertation. The perception of national crisis and that the measures (mobilization, Yusin) taken were appropriate seem to have been shared by the people. For now I can only suggest circumstantial and indirect evidence for this for now: the “success” of South Korea’s development that can only happen with national effort, the retrospective and relatively positive evaluation of PCH in current polls (it is no accident in these terms that PCH became a powerful symbol of what South Korea had to do in response to the 97 financial crisis), the relative absence of resistance in “ordinary” places like Kangwon province (indeed there seemed to have been wide support, but Kangwon can also be seen as a smaller version of the national crisis because it was the target of most of the NK incursions, it was one of the least developed areas,and it lacked a powerful political patron in Seoul). One emerging discourse in SK is the notion of mass/popular dictatorship, one that has been directly influenced by recent studies on European fascism. The thesis of course,and simplified, is that the authoritarian rulers were able to stay in power because the people allowed it. I think there is a significant measure of truth in this.

An aside on NK: It should also be pointed out that at about the same period, late 60s and early 70s, NK also went through a similar period of perceived national crisis (Mitchell Lerner’s book on the Pueblo Crisis has a succinct treatment of this in a chapter) and responded essentially in identical manner – the need to simultaneously fight and build.

RE: Prof Baker’s comment on Yusin and Meiji ishin, it is precisely because of the above situation that his speculation that he suspects “he [PCH] used that term to show that he wanted to do with Korea what the Meiji oligarchs did with Japan, that is, turn it into a rich and powerful nation.” is I think off the mark. If Prof. Baker’s thought is correct why didn’t PCH evoke the term much earlier in his regime? As far as I know there is not yet any historical evidence of a conscious connection with Meiji ishin. I suspect Prof. Ledyard’s analysis is closer to the mark, the use of a long existing and accepted traditional term and concept.

Jiyul Kim

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