우물 안 개구리

Postings by Jonathan Dresner

Contact: jonathan [at] froginawell.net
URL: http://dresnerkorea.edublogs.org

Korean War in art

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 7:27 pm

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

North Korean Propoganda Posters

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:44 am

Thanks to Adam at Mutantfrog for pointing me to these North Korean Propoganda posters. I think this is my favorite but the whole group is worth a look.

“Prosthetic Memories”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:10 am

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.

History Carnival #75: Semisesquicentennial! Terquasquigenary! Septuagesiquintennial!

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:16 pm

History Carnival Logo
Note: The History Carnival is still looking for a May 1st host, as well as hosts for the summer and beyond. Contact Sharon Howard (sharon$@$earlymodernweb$.$org$.$uk) to volunteer.


This is not a timed test, but you will be required to account for your periodization afterwards. This is not a graded exercise, as the answers are usually blatantly obvious or impossibly indeterminate. Whether this is a professional or recreational exercise is entirely between you, your cooler students, and your tenure committee.

(more…)

Dokdo is Korean for “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:57 pm

Apparently inspired by the success of other international publicity campaigns around disputed lands — Tibetan independence, Pakistani claims to Kashmir, the Golan Heights, etc. — some Korean business owners in New York are trying to raise the profile of the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute by publicizing it in English on dry cleaning bags.

This is part of a larger push to broaden Korean diaspora engagement with the homeland and leverage overseas success into diplomatic weight. This includes trying to instill a sense of the importance of the Dokdo issue — as Koreans see it — into second and third generation Korean Americans. I’m not sure what the benefit is to tying Korean American identity to a post-colonial maritime resource dispute instead of … well, almost anything from the panoply of Korean history and culture seems like it would be more likely to succeed in the long term and have greater benefits.

Speaking of generations, the North-South separation has had linguistic consequences over the years. Most of the examples given seem to be in the political realm, terms which have taken on specific meanings within the Kim-cult/juche system. After decades of living in a more or less permanent state of political terror, I would imagine that most North Koreans would be very careful, precise with their language. The culture shock for individual defectors is already pretty severe; the culture shock of reunification in Germany was substantial, though the political system in East Germany was never as thoroughly totalitarian, information was never as tightly controlled.

North Korea’s engagement with the world

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:05 pm

I remember the shocked look on my students’ faces fifteen years ago when I told them that we actually had no idea how decisions were made or leaders picked in North Korea, that it was more or less still a “black box.” I find it fascinating that we’re starting to get a better public picture of the internal processes of North Korea.

One of the reasons is the steady stream of refugees. In the Financial Times, Matthew Engel reports on a Korean enclave in the SW London suburb of New Malden. The relatively closed and self-reliant society is mostly middle-class, “bourgeois,” but among “the beginnings of an underclass” are North Koreans. I get the impression from the article that many of them are illegal immigrants, and their “underclass” status comes both from their lack of professional skills and their desire to remain outside of official notice.

Mitchell Lerner, at Ohio State University, believes that he’s found the key to understanding the Kim dynasty of North Korea: juche. And when “self-reliance” is slipping, domestically, they bluster internationally to bolster their credentials as strong and independent leaders. It’s counterintuitive: when they need help the most, they can’t get it. But their legitimacy as rulers is based on juche. He writes

In the political realm, it called for chaju (independence), in which North Korean leaders governed without constraint from outside pressure or internal challenge. Economically, juche called for charip (self-sustenance), which required a largely self-contained economy based on domestic workers using domestic resources to satisfy domestic needs. In international relations, juche advocated chawi (self-defense), a foreign policy based on complete equality and mutual respect between nations as well as the right of self-determination and independent policymaking.

Juche, simply, demanded the people subordinate themselves to the state, and the state in turn would advance their collective interests in accordance with the uniqueness and majesty of Korea, and always in pursuit of greater economic, political, and international independence.

By justifying the position of the suryong (single leader) and uniting the people behind him, juche successfully advanced Kim’s interests.

I’d call that a fairly textbook kind of fascism: emphasizing the independence of the nation, the subordination of the people to the nation, and the fuhrerprincip — the leader who embodies sovereignty. Even the reliance on the US as a hobgoblin echoes the “we have been denied our rightful place in the world” rhetoric of the early 20c fascist regimes. The only thing that distinguishes North Korea from them, really, is the longevity of the Kim dynasty. The Kim refered to in the above excerpt is Kim Il Sung, the founder of the DPRK; his son, Kim Jong Il, is one of the only examples I can think of of a successful fascist succession.

However, by closely associating the government’s legitimacy with its successful pursuit of juche, Kim had opened the door to potential disaster. When he triumphantly achieved juche, North Koreans would perpetuate and even embrace his rule. But if the pursuit was unsuccessful, the most fundamental justification for the regime would appear violated.

Legitimation of a government is always a double-edged sword. Some forms of legitimation have a sharper back edge than others: the Confucian Mandate of Heaven is like this, as well.

When considered within this framework, Kim’s tendency to behave more aggressively when he seemed to be at his weakest makes sense. Unable to deny economic and political instability that suggested his government was not acting in accordance with juche principles, Kim redoubled his efforts to demonstrate his strength and independence in the third juche realm, foreign policy.

He does a nice job fitting the periods of economic trouble with the eras of international tension. He also does a good job illustrating the claustrophobic environment — the limited, controlled media, the cradle-to-grave indoctrination, the purges, etc — which makes North Korea such a surreal place.

Update: Speaking of Surreal, Curzon has a post on Reverend Billy Graham’s relationship with North Korea, starting with his missionary ancestors. [via

December History Carnival Posted

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:20 am

The December History Carnival is up, and it includes a few Korea bits. Also lots of other neat stuff.

Asian History Carnival 21

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:08 pm

Tang Dynasty Times has the latest — and a great collection it is, too — and promises to have a second edition in a month!

The Sideshow in Korea?

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

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

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

Truman deserves better.

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

Three thoughts on Visibility

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:19 am
  • My favorite new blog Photoshop Disasters has a Korean Basic Instinct 2 poster in which Sharon Stone’s head has been altered from the US version: Cosmo7 cites the fact that the hair is wet, which is the photoshop ‘tell’ but can’t explain why they would do that. I suspect that the wet hair is a side-effect of needing a head shot that was oriented differently, that they wanted to shift Stone’s gaze away from the viewer, make her less …. well, here’s where my complete lack of exposure to Korean media becomes a liability. Either they want her to be less aggressive (which doesn’t entirely make sense, given the movie) or more aloof.
  • Dr. Virago and Dr. Crazy (Dr. Crazy’s analogy to Star Trek/Lost In Space/Heroes is worth the price of admission) among others, are having an interesting discussion about how scholars achieve “visibility” and “impact” both within their subfields and in the discipline. Their discussion doesn’t directly touch Asian Studies, but it does have some thought-provoking ideas for both young and feeling-marginalized scholars.
  • I just got my current Journal of Japanese Studies in the mail, and two of the three articles are about Korea: one about the development of the Korean Civil Code under Japanese protectorate and the other about middle-class Koreans in 1930s Japan. The latter is by an old grad school friend, Jeff Bayliss, who’s teaching a course combining Korean and Japanese history which is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’m a little jealous, yes, but mostly I’m thrilled to see the crossover scholarship being taken seriously.

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