우물 안 개구리


Things I don’t know about Korea, part 3

One of the things that I noticed about the materials I used last time I taught Korean history1 is that the texts I chose for my course did not mention, much less discuss in depth, the recently departed Moon Sun Myung‘s Unification Church. The global reach of this uniquely Korean Christian sect would seem to make it a natural topic for discussion, but even works that look in some detail at the religious changes of modern Korean history didn’t address this sect.

The absence was so striking, that I started to wonder if there was some sort of political minefield or cultural taboo at work, or if I had grossly misunderstood the scale and impact of the movement. I haven’t been looking all that hard for answers one way or the other in the two years since, but I certainly would like to have some better sense going in this time.

  1. and I’m scheduled to teach it again in the Spring, in parallel with my Modern Japan course, so it’s on my mind. I’m thinking of adding some literature to the syllabus []


“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.


Hankyoreh opens up the world of Korean convicted war criminals

Filed under: — Owen @ 8:49 am Print

At the risk of attracting more trackbacks from the lovely people at Occidentalism, I thought I’d bring people’s attention to this really fascinating piece on Korean convicted war criminals translated from Hankyoreh 21. Here’s a sample:

“I cannot deny that the prisoner camp conditions were deplorable,” said Lee. Food, medicine, and clothes were not properly provided, and many forced laborers lost their lives due to wounds and diseases that went untreated. In the month of March 1943 alone, a full quarter of the 800 Australian prisoners were hospitalized. One hundred died. For good reason, the Australian military prosecutors could not forgive the Japanese for putting their men through hell on Earth. They were eager to pursue those responsible for the deaths of their comrades, but in their fury were not about to lend an ear to the plight of a youth caught up in the gears of the imperial war machine.

Lee served as a supervisor of the prisoners at Hintok. As a civilian hired by the Japanese military, he was lower down on the chain of command than a private. However in the trial proceedings, he had somehow been transformed into the “Camp Commandant.” The reason for this was that the military prosecutors took the testimony of the prisoners at their word, without an objective investigation into the situation. Most of the Australian prisoners did not know Lee’s Japanese name. Instead, they gave the various guards nicknames, which in the case of Lee was “lizard.” The origin of this name is unknown.

Hankyoreh also has a more analytical piece on the subject here, which includes this succinct description of the catch 22 in which the former war criminals found themselves once they were released:

Even upon release, however, the convicted war criminals were left in a difficult position. Though Japan enforced the prisoners’ Japanese citizenship during their prison term, the newly freed men were not given the according financial support afforded to other veterans of the Imperial Army. “It’s absurd,” lamented the director of the Committee for Reparation to Victims of the Pacific War. “They were punished for being Japanese, but were rejected aid for not being Japanese.” The war criminals were also denounced in Korea as pro-Japanese collaborators. Upon liberation, most were in their mid 30s. Succumbing to depression, two committed suicide.

It’s quite likely that I’m barking up the wrong tree here, but the name of the support organisation founded in the fifties by the convicted Korean war criminals – Dongjinhoe (同進會) – sounds remarkably similar to the name of the early twentieth century pro-Japanese organisation called the Ilchinhoe (一進會). I suppose it’s possible that since they were operating in Japan they chose a name that might be amenable to the Japanese authorities.


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…
여러분 새해 복 많이 받으세요!


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….


Duelling histories? part 3

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:57 pm Print

I thought I would revive this title once more and add another post to the series on recent historiographical clashes in South Korea since I recently came across another interesting example that actually fits rather nicely with some of the posts made here by Jiyul and Noja.

I came across this report on a debate on the Park Chung-hee era between Im Chi-hyŏn and Cho Hŭi-yŏn in the pages of the Donga Ilbo newspaper. Apparently the debate between the two has been going on since 2004, particularly in the pages of the journal Historical Criticism (역사비평) and the Professors’ Newspaper (교수신문).

Basically, the main protagonist, Im Chi-hyŏn, argues that Park’s rule was an example of a ‘mass dictatorship’ (대중독재), in other words, the idea that Park was able to rule by creating some degree of consent for his dictatorship. Cho counters that “the mass dictatorship theory is problemmatic because it expands the accommodating silence of the masses into a general and active agreement with the dictatorship, thus justifying it.”

Im on the other hand responds that “Cho’s understanding makes the people into heroes and demonises the dictator, creating a moralistic duality. If we are to prevent a new dictatorship from arising we need to go beyond moralistic dualism and provide a dispassionate analysis.”

Going a bit further, Cho argues that both Im Chi-hyŏn’s views and those of Yi Yŏng-hun (who edited two recent books I’ve mentioned here: 해방 전후사의 재인식 and 수량경제사로 다시 본 조선후기) are part of a general attempt to create a revisionist history that takes advantage of the current crisis of ‘democratic progressive discourse’. He argues that while Yi’s critique comes from the viewpoint of the so-called ‘New Right’, Im’s comes from a postmodernist (탈근대적) position. Funnily enough I’m planning to translate a review of 해방 전후사의 재인식 by a Korean Marxist historian whom I rate highly, who makes almost exactly the same point, titling his review: ‘A reactionary duet between the right and the postmodernists.’ When I actually have some time to do the translation I’ll be sure to make it available to readers here.

More on the debate here at the Chosun Ilbo. And something in English I found here on Im’s theory of mass dictatorship.


Duelling histories? Part 2

Continuing on the subject of the new, controversial history book 해방 전후사의 재인식 (‘A new understanding of Korea’s liberation’), I wanted to link to this rather helpful article from Joongang Daily which lists the contrasting views of the book and its more leftwing 1979 predecessor (해방 전후사의 인식) on a number of key subjects. And here is my even-more-simplified version of the same list:

1. Responsibility for the division of Korea:

(1979) It was Syngman Rhee’s fault basically.
(2006) Stalin gave the order to establish a government in North Korea in September 1945, so basically it was his fault.

2. Views of the Korean War:

(1979) It is one-sided to claim that North Korea invaded. It was actually a civil war [pace Bruce Cumings] to reunify the peninsula.
(2006) The Korean war was actually an international war, part of the USSR’s strategy of keeping the US in check.

3. Perspectives on Syngman Rhee:

(1979) Rhee was an anti-democratic American lackey
(2006) Rhee was a Machiavellian politician who made progress on the political/democratic front and laid some of the foundations for South Korea’s later economic growth.

4. Evaluation of North Korea’s Kim Il Sung:
(1979) Kim Il Sung got rid of (North) Korea’s colonial semi-feudal past and fostered a new democratic state.
(2006) Kim Il Sung organised North Korea after liberation like one of his guerilla units with mass mobilisation campaigns and the like.

5. Removing remnants of Japanese colonialism:

(1979) North Korea was successful in removing the remnants of Japanese colonialism while South Korea wasn’t due to US reluctance.
(2006) Remnants of Japanese colonialism continued in both North and South after liberation.

I have to say that on most of these issues I think I fall down on the side of the latest, supposedly rightwing, book. Since I am certainly not rightwing in my views of Korean history (or anything else), it does make me wonder again whether the Korean press have really been giving the correct impression of this book. I think part of the problem here is that the left-right debate over history (and other things) is perceived in a certain way in South Korea, for historical reasons.

In the past it has been a confrontation between authoritarian anti-communism and Stalinism. The problem is that both sides in this equation have really been disintegrating over the last decade or more. Hence this attempt to create a new more ‘rational’ right that disassociates itself from the authoritarian past, is not obsessed with ‘reds under the bed’ and accepts the achievements of Korea’s democracy movement. On the other side there are also now many on the left who do not accept the left-nationalist version of Korean history that is basically an application of Stalinist ideas straight out of 1950s Soviet textbooks. I suppose the ironic thing here is that a number of the centrist/liberal politicians who are currently in power with Roh Moo-hyun’s government were closely associated with the 1979 book or the left-nationalist movement of the 1980s and so perhaps have a closer allegiance to the ideas that it contains than do people who are to their left.

For some further reading on the reaction to this book you can have a look at this article from Oh My News, which reports on a recent speech by Sŏ Chung-sŏk, head of the 역사문제연구소, or Institute for Korean Historical Studies (who publish the journal 역사비평). He makes a couple of interesting points. First, he thinks that this book has been published for political reasons and it is strange that they are specifically attacking such an old book since the work of many progressive scholars has since revised a lot of what was said in the original 1979 book. He also claims that many of the people who have written articles for the new book are not specialists annd hence their work is somewhat suspect. This sounds like a bit of a cheap point, but if you look at Sŏ’s own publications list he certainly is in a position to comment on the historiography of the postwar period.


Duelling histories? Part 1

Another couple of history-related articles from the English-language Korean media that were brought to my attention on the mailing list of the British Association for Korean Studies. They concern another controversial issue, but this time an internal one that reflects the right-left divide in South Korea. A long awaited book has just been published which aims to act as a corrective to what is seen as the prevailing left-nationalist view of Korea’s modern history. The book, 해방 전후사의 재인식 or ‘A new understanding of Korea’s liberation’ is in two parts, one on the colonial period and the other on the period after liberation. A number of current political issues make all this particularly ‘hot’ at the moment: the investigation into Japanese collaborators (headed by veteran left-nationalist historian Kang Man-gil); the government’s policy of rapprochement toward North Korea and the South Korean right’s attempt to repackage itself as a ‘New Right’ untainted by former military regimes or corrupt regionalist politics.

This from the Joongang Daily article:

A new history book by a conservative group of scholars was published yesterday, under the title “New Understanding of Post-Liberation History,” in a challenge to the left-leaning classic of the same title, minus “New,” published in 1979. The 1979 publication carried much significance with progressives and left-leaners in society, with its leftist stance on the country’s history after Japanese colonial rule.

This from the Donga Ilbo article:

European history professor Park Ji-hyang [actually she's a specialist on British history - Owen] and economics professor Lee Young-hoon of Seoul National University, Korean literature professor Kim Chul of Yonsei, and political science professor Kim Il-young from Sung Kyun Kwan University edited the newly released book. The book contains 28 thesis papers from both at home and abroad, and includes conversations among editors on how to overcome the problematic mindset of national supremacism and the belief in the necessity of the people’s revolution portrayed in the previous book on the subject, “Understanding the History Before and After Liberation.”

Having read these articles I’m quite intrigued to read this two-volume collection of articles, if only to find out what it actually does contain. The two newspaper articles seem quite contradictory – they associate the project closely with the South Korean right and particularly the so-called New Right and yet the writers actually seem to be quite broad. It’s hard to tell from this whether the book really is an attempt to give space to good history about some of the most controversial periods of Korea’s modern history or whether it is really designed to push the rightwing view of history and revive some of their favourite figures from the past like Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee.

Reading these articles it should be remembered that both of the newspapers they come from are part of the triumvirate of the rightwing establishment media, often referred to as Cho-Chung-Tong (ie Chosun Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, Donga Ilbo). That, or perhaps the fact that the journalists haven’t read the book, could be behind the slightly confusing impression.

There are also, I think, some problematic assumptions in these articles that need to be picked up on. I wondered in particular about this idea that the authors and their papers have been chosen as “writings that have no political color”. It strikes me rather that when the editors say that wanted to choose history that was not ideological they are limiting their definition of ‘ideological’ to the left nationalists. Then there is the unquestioned assumption in these articles – that South Korea has come to be dominated by a ‘distorted’ left-nationalist view of history. Now I think there is quite an element of truth to this when it comes to the academic establishment, where the left-nationalist view of history (what Noja called the ‘Kang Man-gilian’ version of Korean history a few posts back) has become hegemonic since the 80s. But this is certainly changing and to imply that this view extends throughout South Korean society would, I think, be quite a stretch. Academic discourse perhaps has proportionately more influence on general public discourse in Korea than it does in many other places, but there are also many other competing influences, not to mention a state education system that up until the 1980s, at least, was teaching a rather different version of history.

More on this in part two.

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