우물 안 개구리


The North Flank Guard

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 1:40 pm Print

In politics, a direct attack is not always the most effective. One way to proceed is to target someone or something that is seen to represent a more extreme, a more pure representation of your opponent’s ideas and concentrate at least some of your efforts here. Let us call this the “politics of envelopment.” One of the most misguided responses to such a threat of a politics of envelopment, however, is what I will call a “flank guard” form of active defense. Alas, on the political left, and especially among those who, including myself, might be described as democratic socialists, this approach is all too common. The “left flank guard” often takes the form of a spirited defense of even the most indefensible extremes on our flank. The most common ways this is actually carried out is by means of evasion (of accusations), dramatic reversals (“On the contrary, you are the terrorist!”), distraction (“Look at those literacy rates!”), and good old fashioned omission of inconvenient truths.

With the end of the cold war, the “left flank guard” has mostly been deployed in the defense of authoritarian leaders who emit that nostalgic socialist scent (e.g. Venezuela), historical figures who are seen as worthy leaders of revolution but who lost in their struggle for power (e.g. Trotsky), or any resistance or liberation movement that is seen as the best current option for opposing some hated regime (e.g. Hamas). The important point to make here is that few of those in the left flank guard really believe that freedom of expression should be curtailed as it is in Venezuela, that enemies of the revolution should be mercilessly slaughtered, as did Trotsky, or that theocracy is a good supplement to generous social policies. Yet, for some reason, their defenders believe that the survival of our political cause requires us to take a stand and vigorously defend those whose oppressive policies and brutal violence often far outmatch those of our current opponents. I, on the other hand, find this tendency nothing short of repulsive, but more importantly, of no benefit to the cause of social justice.

In the academic world of Korean studies, we might call this phenomenon the “North flank guard,” because the form it takes is:

1) A mobilization of scholarly efforts against opposition to the North Korean regime or those who highlight its human rights issues.

2) A refusal to clearly acknowledge North Korean responsibility for the escalation of tensions at numerous points in the last few years. This treats North Korea as a passive force, reacting only to provocation, rather than as an active composite subject which carefully calculates the potential domestic and international gains to be made from any new crisis.

3) The minimization or sometimes omission of any mention or substantive detail of the oppressive characteristics of the North Korean regime.

4) The fallacious pursuit of a historical argument which seeks to trace all contemporary woes back to the sins of Japanese colonialism, or to US and Soviet military occupations. Let’s call this, “The argument of original imperial sin.”

In the next two postings, I want to introduce a few of the most recent examples of the “North flank guard” in action and why I find it deeply troubling.

The second and third postings:

The North Flank Guard: A Military Exercise Escalated into Artillery Exchange
The North Flank Guard: Everyday Life in North Korea


Announcements and Encouragements

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:12 am Print

While the discussions on the Asia lists have been a bit wooden for a while, other H-Net communities are lively and thriving, and the book reviews are a fantastic resource. Moreover, I know some of the current leadership of H-Net, and I have great confidence that they’ll take it in interesting directions with new technology and new paradigms. That said, though the leadership, editors, reviewers and participants are all volunteers, they still need money for technical support, infrastructure and other expenses, and we can’t rely on state institutions of higher learning for this sort of thing. Donate!

The 2010 Cliopatria Awards for History Blogging nominations are open through November, so there’s still two weeks to riffle through your archives and pick your best work, and your friends’ best work, and the best stuff off your RSS reader. The categories are, as in the past, Best Individual Blog, Best New Blog, Best Group Blog (which we won back in ’05), Best Series of Posts, Best Single Post, and Best Writer (which Alan Baumler won in ’06). I’m judging Best New and Group Blog, so we can’t win that again this year; otherwise, the field for Asianists is wide open! Nominate!

The 2011 ASPAC Conference will be a joint event with the WCAAS Conference, to be held at Pomona College, June 17-19, 2011. In a remarkable feat of organization, the Conference website is already live and accepting paper proposals, though the deadline isn’t until mid-March. The theme is “Asia Rising and the Rise of Asian America” but proposals on all topics in Asian studies are welcome. Submit! (and let me know if you’ll be there; we’ve never had a blogger meet-up at ASPAC before!)


Cultural Consumption and Comprehension

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:39 pm Print

There’s an interesting article up at Japan Focus this week, “Disarming Japan’s Cannons with Hollywood’s Cameras: Cinema in Korea Under U.S. Occupation, 1945-1948” by Brian Yecies and Ae-Gyung Shim. For the most part, it’s a pretty conventional occupation history, done with official USAMGIK sources, Korean newspapers, plus some secondary sources on the early occupation period, and reveals that USAMGIK used cinema, especially Hollywood imports, as a way to reeducate the formerly colonial subject population. Nothing too surprising there: US efforts to use American media to engineer democratic and capitalist cultures is pretty much a universal story in the post-war.

The twist here: a steady theme running through the article highlighting the disconnect between the values depicted on screen (intentionally or unintentionally) and the culture of the audience. Again, there’s nothing terribly new there: if the Koreans were already democratic pro-American capitalists, then the program wouldn’t exist in the first place. But the authors offer no obvious evidence either regarding audiences’ comprehension or tension with the material presented and make claims for the effects of the program which boggle the mind. This seems to be the result of conflating vocal conservative voices with popular reception. For example, this early passage sets the stage for a lot of the rest of the article:

Generally speaking, Koreans had had long-standing Confucian traditions that required physical separation between noblemen and commoners on the one hand, and men and women on the other hand. Confucianism provided the foundational social, moral and legal guidelines and customs between people of all ages. Not only did cinema-going in this era enable all walks of life to mingle together in ways that were different from traditional Korean moral values, but the images, themes and motifs presented in the onslaught of spectacle Hollywood films, which was not a new phenomenon, did continually present ‘American’ situations that shook the roots of traditions and worried traditionalists.

This rings rather false to me. First, the conflation of social customs with Confucianism and the conflation of conservatives with tradition, but more the idea that modern egalitarian ideas were new to most Koreans in the post-colonial age, after a third of a century of Japanese modernization – industrialization, migration, education and other changes. There is some discussion of “a formal survey of local attitudes in Korea” but it’s not clear to me that an American survey of attitudes at that point would produce results other than confirmation of American attitudes.

Worse, the evidence offered in the article about the surprising popularity of movies with untraditional and complex moral presentation suggests that the movies weren’t disturbing their audiences at all. They write “Almost immediately, these first Hollywood films made a splash in the marketplace as audiences lapped them up with enthusiasm,” but they can’t stop there. They finish that sentence with an unsourced and unsupported, “whether of not they understood them or appreciated the cultural values they contained.”

In the conclusion, Yecies and Shim suggest that the success of Hollywood and other movies in the 60s is a result of the acculturation to such fare in the ’40s. In fact, they credit the movie program with success beyond any reasonable expectation: “USAMGIK’s aim of reorientating Koreans away from the legacies of the former Japanese colonial regime was achieved with surprising ease by allowing hundreds of Hollywood spectacle films back into the region.” If the USAMGIK program was a success, then it couldn’t have been too far out of the mainstream. They discuss the pre-’45 movie scene, which sounds quite lively until the wartime rationing kicked it, but seem to dismiss it as a factor in their post-war discussion. It’s as though pre-liberation Koreans were nothing more than pre-colonial traditionalists with an overlay of colonial ideology, reeducated with great discomfort through the power of Humphrey Bogart and Roy Rogers. I suppose there must be more to this story, but the evidence presented here is grossly inadequate to prove the rather astonishing assertions being made.

On the plus side, one of the other articles at Japan Focus this week is Mark Caprio’s expanded version of the talk he gave at the AAS Conroy panel, in which he takes a contemporary right-wing revisionist discourse on Korean annexation and exposes the ahistoricity of it in great detail.


Candy and School Lunches

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 5:31 pm Print

In the New York Times yesterday there was an interesting article entitled, “Is Candy Evil or Just Misunderstood?” In particular it discussed the relationship between candy and children, their concerned parents, and schools with some reference to the work of candy historian Samira Kawash.

I thought of this article when I came across a rather different attitude taken to candy by the US forces running Korea just after the collapse of the Japanese empire. In the October 1946 summary report put out by the military government, we find the following little nugget:

The Department of Education received an allocation of 669,269 pounds of candy which will be sold at cost to all the elementary schools of South Korea with the suggestion that it be utilized to supplement school lunches. Distribution of the candy was begun in late October.1

  1. U.S. Army Military Government Activities in Korea 13 (October, 1946), 78. []


The Use of Collective Responsibility

Filed under: — Sayaka Chatani @ 6:13 am Print

It is a famous fact that the Government-General in Taiwan adopted the baojia (保甲) system in 1898 in reaction to a series of attacks against the Japanese. It is a method of mutual policing at the village level for the purpose of maintaining local order and preventing tax evasion. Although GGT officials explained that it was a system that they were adopting from the old Chinese dynasties, it had already been a familiar style of policing for the Japanese too since Toyotomi Hideyoshi and others adopted it to police hidden Christians and so on.

I never encountered a mentioning of a similar system in the history of colonial police in Korea. For example, Matsuda Toshihiko’s recent publication, 日本の朝鮮植民地支配と警察 1905-1945 (Japan’s Colonial Rule of Korea and the Police. 2009), discusses how the police tried to propagate its authority to the masses (民衆化) and how they tried to co-opt local leaders into their networks (警察化). But it does not look like there was a rule or a law about mutual policing like the baojia (保甲) system.

It turned out that the collective responsibility system was used in tenant contracts between Japanese agricultural companies (landlords) and Korean peasants, instead. One example was the Chosen kōgyō gaisha, run by the Shibusawa zaibatsu family. A scholar Asada Kyōji describes how the Chosen kōgyō gaisha established the gonin gumi (5-person groups) system and used it as a basic unit of Korean tenant farmers. (Asada Kyōji. 日本帝国主義と旧植民地地主制. 1992. 161). Apparently this was a common custom among the Japanese landholders as the half-governmental Oriental Developmental Company also required five tenant farmers to register together. In Ham Hanhee’s oral interview with a farmer in Cholla Namdo, he said that the most difficult part in getting a contract with the ODC is that “he needed four sponsors who were willing to take on a collective liability for his wrongdoings.” (Hahm Hanhee, Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University 1990. 82)

I wonder if the difference in where this collective liability system belonged somehow reflects the difference in the nature of rule in Taiwan and Korea… just a thought. Another thought is that, if it is possible that the infamous tonarigumi system in Japan during WWII was a product of the experiences of organizing local units in the Japanese colonies… maybe?


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. []


A Chinese Warlord’s Predictions for the Korean War

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 5:08 am Print

Yan Xishan, former warlord of Shanxi province and briefly premier of the Chinese republic wrote a book, Peace or World War, that was published in its English translation in December, 1950, but appears to have been written not long before the North Korean invasion around or before May, 1950.1 In the work we see an early version of Yan’s dream for world unity and a cosmopolitan future built on his own unusual anti-communist and anti-capitalist confucian utopianism, which I’ll hopefully be presenting on at a conference later this year.2 He would spend the last decade of his life in retirement developing these ideas and writing books and pamphlets on the subject.

Coming fresh from his own battles and defeat at the hands of Communists in Shanxi and later elsewhere in China, there is an interesting moment in the book where Yen makes his predictions for a coming war on the Korean peninsula during discussion of the prospects for a third world war. In this brief section focusing on Korea, he predicts both Chinese aid to North Korea, a potentially fast occupation of south Korea, and the quality of North Korean troops hardened by their participation in the Chinese civil war:

Now, let us compare North Korea and South Korea. The power of the latter, even with American training, is but half that of the former. Moreover, the South Korean troops have been trained to fight in orthodox manner while it is difficult to say what type of fighting technique the North Koreans will employ. Besides, about twenty thousand North Korean soldiers were known to be in Communist China and they probably returned to their own country before the outbreak of war. It is reported that when North Korea attacks South Korea, Communist China will, in order to return the service of the North Koreans on the mainland, supply them with a hundred thousand Chinese soldiers. This information, although unconfirmed, is rather logical. If it is true, the force of North Korea will amount to four hundred thousand and will be several times that of South Korea. As to the air force, the North Koreans hold a vast superiority over the South Koreans. Furthermore, the Communists, infiltrating the south will make every effort to stir up the South Koreans. This is a great crisis for South Korea. But, being a newly established country, it naturally should strengthen her army, reform her administration, and launch a movement to defend herself. In this movement, she should arm her people, clear out the Communists within the country, and reform the Communist sympathizers so that the administration, the military and the people would be united for national defense.

The population of South Korea is seventeen million people, of which one fourth are young men and one fourth are young women. After organizing them with special training, eight million men and women would be able to render their services in any war effort. Thus, she will not be afraid of any attack from North Korea which has a population of only eight million. Not only can South Korea find security, but the anti-aggression-countries, after the outbreak of the Third World War, will also be able to make use of her bases. Otherwise, because of the present situation, North Korea will be superior to South Korea in all respects. The latter will very possible [sic] be occupied by the former within one month after the outbreak of war, if there is no substantial American military aid.3

  1. The preface is dated May of that year. []
  2. This is part of research I have been doing on early postwar utopian and world federalist schemes in East Asia. As with other presentations, I’ll post my conference paper, “Utopians in Defeat” on Yan Xishan and Ishiwara Kanji’s early postwar theories of world unity at muninn.net when it is done. []
  3. Yen Hsi-Shan,Peace or World War trans. Yang Su-yen (Taipei: Publisher unknown, 1950), 34-36. Yan’s population estimates seem a bit off to me. Some of my notes mention 20 million for the south and just under 10 for the north in 1950 but I haven’t looked up the most recent estimates for the period. He also seems to overestimate North Korean military strength though the ration of 2:1 against the south isn’t too far off. []


Thinking about the Japanese woman in Korean-Japanese (内鮮一体) couples

Filed under: — Sayaka Chatani @ 7:39 am Print

When I was preparing for my oral exams last semester, the professors who do not work on East Asia (I had a European historian and a Latin American historian in my committee) were always fascinated by the nature of “inter-racial marriage” in the Japanese empire. Both in the history of childhood and youth and the history of modern empire, the most complex and flexible interpretations of “race” happened on the ground where colonial societies had no choice but face the existence of inter-racial sexuality and mixed children. In the Japanese empire, inter-racial marriage was not problematized in the same way as it was in European empires. For example, in two articles of roundtable discussion on marriage (結婚改善座談会) published in Korean Social Work (朝鮮社会事業 – yes I still love this journal) in May and June 1935, the participants, mostly Japanese bureaucrats and educators in Seoul, never discuss problems of inter-marriage. The central problem was rather an increasing number of old single women in Korea. Their presentation of statistics of the marriage success rate among graduates of the elementary school bears much resemblance to today’s discussion of unemployment rates. They agree this is a problem that “kyoka dantai (moral suasion groups)” should become involved in. Another major issue brought up during this roundtable is, of course, the ways in which people conduct wedding ceremonies. For the participants, excessively luxurious wedding ceremonies often exhaust village economies. The venue of wedding ceremonies was also discussed — e.g. whether it was appropriate to imitate Taisho Emperor and to use the Chōsen Shrine for ordinary people’s wedding.

The lack of discussion on inter-racial marriage by contemporary experts is not the only interesting feature to note. “It is an open secret among Korean scholars,” one professor of modern Korean history said to me the other day, “that there were a significant number of married couples between Korean men and Japanese women but there is so little study on it.” This is another surprise to non-East Asian historians. In other places it is men from the colonizing countries and women from colonized societies that married, and this feminization of colonies is often regarded as an aspect of Orientalism. There were, of course, married couples between Korean women and Japanese men, but as Oguma Eiji has already pointed out, the Government-General in Korea encouraged Japanese women to marry Korean men because, they thought, Japanese mothers were supposed to build the foundations of Japanese culture in the home.

How do you define “coloniality” in this relationship represented by couples of Korean men and Japanese women? To offer my half-baked thought first, we really need to re-think how the ‘Japanese woman’ was interpreted in relation to modernity. I cannot easily connect this to the discussion of coloniality — or assure that it is a useful concept here.

One chapter in Nam Pujin (南富鎭)’s book 文学の植民地主義 (Colonialism in Literature) deals with the issue of colonialism in love and marriage affairs. He introduces a number of Korean writers who wrote stories in which a Korean man dreamed of marrying a Japanese woman, a Korean couple who pretended as if they had been a Korean-Japanese couple, a Japanese woman who marries a Korean man, and mixed children who grew up hating their Korean origins owing to the social discriminations they received, and so on. Nam recognizes some “coloniality” in that it is usually Koreans who have to “confess” their origin, and will come to be “understood” by their Japanese partners even in recent love stories. His discussion of the novels from the 20s and 30s is more thought-provoking. Nam points out that “Naisen kekkon (Korean-Japanese marriage) was consistently the most trendy topic for literature, and despite its political nature, it was the most popular fantasy and hope to overcome obstacles that the state and ethnicity impose on one’s love and marriage” (27). We cannot say that Naisen kekkon was as prevalent among Korean masses as Korean writers and intellectuals experienced, but it seems to me that discussion of such marriages could appear fresh and even rebellious in a way that was not necessarily directed against the Japanese colonial government, but against older generations or elite Korean families.

Nam Pujin also presents a convincing argument that Japanese women represented ‘modernity’ in the eyes of Korean masses. This itself is an interesting and anomalous case from a comparative perspective. But at the same time, the story is not simply a reverse sexual representation of imperial modernity. Japanese women represented much more than that. What caught my attention was Nam’s description of a novel called 処女の倫理 (Ethics of the Virgin) written by a well-known Korean writer Chang Hyakchu 張 赫宙 in 1939. In this novel, an independent-minded Japanese woman fell in love with and married a Korean man, but was betrayed by him because he had an official Korean wife, and was discriminated against within Korean society. According to Nam, “double marriage” was quite common since many Korean intellectuals either abandoned or ignored their official wives whom they were forced to marry at younger age, and had love affairs with Japanese women. However strongly Korean men desired a Japanese woman as if it would symbolize an achievement of modernity, this particular novel depicted very unstable power relationships that could be caused as a consequence of such a phenomenon.

There is another piece of evidence on the complexity of the issue that I found in the roundtable article mentioned above. Mōri (a commissioner to the Government-General in Korea) says, “Ladies who were raised in Korea face difficulty in finding a marriage partner.” It soon becomes clear that he is referring to Japanese women who grew up in Korea. The first reason he gives is “women who grew up in Korea are too used to luxury and cannot even sew a Kimono. Those who grew up in Japanese (naichi) rural areas are pretty good at this.” According to Mōri, Japanese men preferred naichi women who were not as “modernized” as those who grew up in Korea. It makes sense that Japanese officials and business people who were dispatched to Korea received extra salaries and benefits, and their children regarded themselves as upper-class in comparison to both the average Japanese and Korean families. Does this mean what “the real Japanese woman” represented differed significantly for Korean writers and for Japanese men?

Given the resulting mess, I cannot pin down who colonized whom or even how we could know of it in this issue of Korean-Japanese marriage.


A Question of Credibility: The ASCK

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

Of late I have become depressed by what I see as a lack of credibility in some of the efforts to counter the flood of media reports and bombastic condemnations of North Korea. I believe that continued calls for dialogue and warnings against escalation must be accompanied by an honest and active critique of North Korean policies together with a full recognition of the agency of the North Korean state as an actor – not merely a re-actor to the policies of South Korea, the United States, or other parties.

Concerned Scholars

In 2005 I joined an organization called the ASCK, the “Alliance of Scholars Concerned About Korea.” I was only in the second year of my PhD program, but was delighted to hear of an organization of scholars and graduate students who were concerned about US polices towards the two Koreas and sought to promote dialogue, cooperation, and peace on the peninsula. I believed that this organization, reminiscent of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS) that led academic opposition to the Vietnam War among scholars of Asia, could help provide historical context for the tensions among the Koreas, warn against potentially ineffective US policies, and perhaps spread a better understanding of the North Korean regime’s domestic and international polices that critiqued its many flaws without demonizing it.

I became disillusioned with the organization, however, when I came to see that the most distinctive and consistent aspect of its portrayal of the Korean Crisis was what it avoided, rather than what it focused upon. In its statements, emailed calls for action, and on its webpage I found that, time and time again, the ASCK carefully avoided treating North Korea as a strategic actor responsible for its own actions. Either it treats North Korea as if it were some kind of otherwise harmless chemical substance that only explodes in reaction to certain other chemicals, or else when it calls for action, North Korea is appended at the end of a list of concerned parties, as if it were some minor last minute addition to a shopping list, “Buy me some milk, bread, carrots, oh, and while you are there, a pack of gum.”

Even on issues that did not directly involve tensions between the Koreas, I have been troubled by inadequacies in some of their campaigns. In the past few years ASCK has supported the efforts to spread the work of the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission which has done valuable work, especially in uncovering information about atrocities committed during or just before the Korean War, but the overwhelming emphasis of reporting on their findings is about atrocities committed by anti-Communist forces in a way that occasionally leaves out context or perspective. ASCK has justly protested against heavy-handed political intervention into the revision of history textbooks by conservative forces in South Korea, a position I agree with, but if it cares about history education it should also then be willing to point out the problems in the narratives of existing South Korean textbooks and call for their reform. The ASCK has supported House Resolution 121 on the “Comfort Women” issue, again a laudable cause, but given how distant this is from the organization’s professed goals, one would hope they would direct somewhat more energy into a statement condemning North Korean treatment of returning refugees, or the abuse of its own people, which is undeniably closer to the heart of their mission.

Silence, and Other Sins

It is in its handling of the tensions with North Korea, however, that the ASCK has been truly disappointing. When North Korea carried out its nuclear weapon test in October, 2006, I expected a strongly worded statement of condemnation from the organization attached to an appeal for calm and a realistic appraisal of the alternatives going forward. Nothing. Following North Korea’s May, 2009 nuclear test, I thought surely this time the ASCK would be forced to make a statement condemning the test. Almost all of the current ASCK steering committee and other leading members did stir in June, 2009, but in an unexpected manner when they signed a circulated “Statement from Professors in North America Concerned about Korean Democracy” (English | Korean) deploring the fact that, since the election of Lee Myung-bak, “Korean democracy had lost its way.” It condemned the suppression of candlelight vigils, and problematic government moves against the freedom of press and online activism.

I too was concerned by Lee’s handling of the protests, even if I believe it is too much to say that Korea’s young democracy had “lost its way.” If anything it has been the progressive movement that has lost its way, and as a result, lost the trust of the Korean people who subsequently elected a conservative President. It is now a time to regroup, rethink, and plan for the next election. It was not, however, so much the position espoused in the 10 June 2009 statement signed by over two hundred professors (I’m not sure what organizations led the drive to collect them) that dismayed me as the fact that the ASCK or its members put together no statement and collected no signatures at the time condemning a North Korean nuclear test that happened only a few weeks earlier on 25 May, 2009 and coming, rudely, only two days after the suicide of former president Roh Moo Hyun. Compared to the more muted response to the 2006 test, which nevertheless led to the unanimous passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1718, this time even China and Russia were surprisingly vocal in their strong condemnations, which helped lead to the passing of the more sharp-toothed UN Security Council Resolution 1874 in June of last year. But ASCK mobilized no scholars against these tests, or even bother, at this point, to weigh in on the dangers of United Nations sanctions being unproductive, even if justified in their condemnation.

I don’t think North Korea would have cowered at the spectacle of having its nuclear tests criticized by a few academics: it is not about that. It is about credibility; it is about taking the right position, of being willing to make a clear honest statement about something that touches the heart of one’s issue, and avoid the hypocrisy that plagued so many progressives in the Cold War who took a stand against American imperialism but fell silent when faced by the horrors of Communist oppression.

Sometimes the ASCK does speak up and mention North Korea, but when it does so, it is reluctant to treat North Korea like a full participant in the crisis, even when arguably (and I’m not even asking them to go this far) it is the primary source of tensions.

Let us look at two representative examples:

1) “Time to End the Korean War” (2003)

It is always the United States which is the primary target for the ASCK. Article two of this statement singles out the US for criticism and accuses it of pushing the Korean peninsula “perilously close of war” (Poorly chosen words, at any rate, since a major push of the ASCK is to get everyone to realize that the war never ended) and specifically mentions its “threats of embargo, preemptive strikes and regime change” but nowhere in the statement is there an acknowledgment that the DPRK plays a significant role as an obstacle to peace on the peninsula.

It is very unfortunate that the supporters of the statement listed at the bottom which, to ASCK’s credit, includes almost all of the leading scholars of Korea in the United States and Europe—many of whom I deeply respect—did not point out this disturbing asymmetry. At the very least they could have appended a watered down phrase to article two saying something along the lines of, “and the policies of the DPRK haven’t exactly been helpful, either.”

2) “A Transnational Appeal for Peace and Security in Northeast Asia” (2009)

The ASCK is a master of passive constructions designed to avoid difficult questions of responsibility, except when such responsibility can be directly attributed to anyone except North Korea. In this appeal, found on the positions page of the ASCK, we learn that “The United States, South Korea, and Japan are tightening sanctions” but “Tension is rising,” “military tensions actually increased,” and the “Northeast Asian region was swept by fears by a sudden change in the nuclear situation.” This sudden change, we learn, came at the end of a chain of events which places North Korea in the position of the victim. Here is the narrative as portrayed by the ASCK:

In April Pyongyang “announced that it would launch a satellite.” There is no mention of why this might be a very bad idea, completely counter productive, a potential violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718, and that a communications satellite is not the best use of an economically failing state’s resources. President Obama and the Security Council condemned the launch and tightened sanctions. North Korea then, on May 25, “responded to what it viewed as the statement’s infringement on its sovereign right by conducting a nuclear test.” The UNSC passed Resolution 1874 to punish North Korea “for what it believed” to be a violation of previous resolutions, and North Korea “in turn” tested more missiles. This was all part of a “vicious cycle of confrontation.”

Later in the document, again in reference to North Korea’s launch of a satellite, a whole paragraph is supplied to present North Korea’s argument in defense of its satellite-loaded missile launch, but not a single sentence is spared in the document to outline why most of the world, except for such noble supporters of democracy as Cuba, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, have expressed sentiments ranging from concern to outright shock and condemnation. No mention is made of the fact that it is highly likely that delivering a satellite into orbit was not the only, likely not even the primary purpose of the launch. Instead, North Korea’s claims are presented without any skepticism.

This entire narrative only functions, however, if we see each step as directly connected to the previous one – of each move being a reaction to some previous provocation. This, I believe, is not only incredibly naive, but seriously underestimates the intelligence and strategy of the North Korean regime.

More troubling in this statement is how little is expected of North Korea. It calls on Obama and Chairman Kim Jong-il to “return to a course of dialogue” but all of the rest of the demands made in the statement are directed to other governments: the United States, South Korea, Russia, China, and Japan. It does not ask North Korea to stop nuclear tests, stop firing its missiles, or end its constant threats of war. It brings up the Japanese frustrations with North Korea over the abduction question but does not ask North Korea to address them. On the contrary, in what must be an ominous reference to colonialism it notes Japan’s “historical responsibility for the present crisis,” and notes Japan’s “refusal to fulfill its obligations to provide oil to North Korea under the Six-Party agreements” without any reference to North Korea’s failures to follow through with its many broken promises.

In other words, if someone is coming to this issue without any prior knowledge of the background of events, they can not be blamed for getting the impression that North Korea is a pitiable, if feisty victim of international bullying.

A Call For A New ASCK

These two examples are part of a pattern that is deeply troubling. Barring a major shift in its approach, I believe graduate students and scholars who might sympathize with the noble goals set out in the ASCK mission statement should distance themselves from this organization, and refuse to support any statements such as those listed above. I sincerely hope a new cooperative alliance of scholars concerned about Korea will eventually take its place. There is a desperate need for such an organization, but the statements put out by the ASCK risk creating suspicion and attracting ridicule. Progressive supporters of direct dialogue between the United States and North Korea, a defusing of the military tensions, and a final peace treaty are often vilified as “pro-North Korean” or seen as apologists for its oppressive regime. I believe the vast majority of ASCK members and statement supporters are strongly opposed to North Korea’s Stalinist dictatorship and its oppressive policies and their individual writings often confirm this. Doubtlessly some of them believe that there is enough in the media already which condemns North Korea’s nuclear tests, its domestic oppression, and its brinkmanship, and that therefore an organization such as the ASCK plays an important balancing role by focusing on its counter-critique. To those friends I can only say that I think this is both a tactical mistake in terms of lost potential support, as well as morally troubling.

As historians and academics studying Korea, there is nothing wrong with us taking a firm political stand. There is no apolitical history, the very questions we ask in our research already betray the assumptions that guide our scholarship. However, some questions, when asked, present themselves like a mirror, reflecting naturally, if uncomfortably, back upon ourselves.

Now, as tensions are reaching a new peak following the likely North Korean sinking of the South Korean vessel Cheonan, it is more important than ever that all of us engaged in the academic study of Korea who are deeply concerned about the future of peace on the Korean peninsula speak up. If we support continued dialogue, a carefully moderated response, and oppose any talk of military retaliation, we should do so without denying North Korean responsibility and, despite our justified skepticism of all state parties, tentatively accept the most likely explanations provided. If the ASCK refuses to provide such a voice and live up to its mission, then we should either create an alternative organization or individually make our positions known.

-Konrad M. Lawson


South Korea and Thailand–(Comparative) Developmental Contexts

Filed under: — John P. DiMoia @ 7:53 pm Print

I’ve been playing with this image for quite some time now, and am still trying to build a “thick” context around it for a piece that should  (finally!) get submitted sometime later this summer.  Okay, so what do Thailand and South Korea–more specifically, Hyundai Construction–have to do with each other?

I’m interested in this more as a broad question of emerging diplomatic and economic relations between NE and SE Asia during the early Cold War, or to put it in other terms, new opportunities enabled by the passing from Japanese Empire to American Empire.

(1) This image, from the early 1960′s, displays a welcome banner put out for Mr. Pakorn Angsusingha (I’ve also seen a transliteration of his name as Pakon Angsusing), a Thai academic and bureaucrat, by Hyundai Construction, presumably outside their Bangkok offices, circa 1965.  He’s (Angsusingha)  involved in a lot of social work and community development projects for Thailand, with community development being a Thai priority (1958-1961), prior to the nation-wide focus on ARD (Accelerated Rural Development) in the mid-1960′s.  Essentially these are large nation-buidling projects, getting villages to identify with Bangkok, and they have a strong anti-Communist component.

(2) When Hyundai begins to bid for road projects in Thailand, there are not yet strong relations between the two countries, but Thailand also has a strong military government, and was one of the first to support the ROK during the Korean War, even sending its troops.

(3) Both countries had ICA-funded projects in Public Administration, with the University of Indiana helping to build building the field in Thailand (at Thammasat University) and the University of Minnesota doing comparable work at Seoul National University.  These projects would not have been exactly the same, of course, but emerging Thai and South Korean elites were both learning a similar language of development and administration in the late 1950′s, early 1960′s.

So this sign, which precedes the Pattani-Naratiwat project (1965-1968), and which precedes Hyundai getting the bid (sometime in late 1965), does not place me in the context of the negotiations between Hyundai and IBRD / World Bank, but it does indicate that it should not be surprising that these two actors would meet each other: one with aid dollars to spend on building anti-Communist roads, and another with new expertise and American patronage interested in gaining more experience.  There are lots of interesting things going on with South Korea in SE Asia even prior to formal involvement with Vietnam, after all.

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