Moving away from the news reports for the moment, something a bit more speculative. The above question is one that crops up in my mind every now and then when I read something about how Korean history is distinguished by the number of invasions the country has suffered or hear a Korean say that their country has never invaded anyone else.
Reading this post by Jay (an English teacher in Inch’ŏn), set me off thinking about his some more (this is slightly circular as Jay’s post itself was inspired by Noja’s post below on anti-Americanism). In his post, he notes the bits of Korean history that are not taught in Korean schools:
· the massacres of Vietnamese peasants by ROK forces
· political prisoners, imprisoned for 40 years
· WW2 crimes committed by Korean soldiers
· the widespread and calculated terror pursued by Rhee’s regime, from 1948 and continuing into the civil war
· reference to the war as a civil war
· patriotism as something other than loyalty to the state
· a defence of the right to withhold labour
· the dangers lurking in “pure blood” mythologies
· feminist, race, queer theories of any kind
Perhaps the easy answer to the question posed above is simply no, since the whole point of the nation as it was conceived in the late nineteenth century is to impose the will of a minority of people on others. If it can’t do this externally via imperialism, then the nation will sure as hell do this internally by stifling dissent, enforcing conformity through nationalist education and militarism and creating an ‘identity’ that necessarily closes off one group of humans from another (thus helping to prevent us from collectively realising the global transformations that are so clearly required if we are to survive).
But perhaps this is too simple: there really are historically determined differences in the way that different countries behave at different times; and there really is a hierarchy of strong and weak states in the modern world.
Chosŏn Korea, for example, is not a society that I would aspire to live in (assuming that time travel technology was perfected). Like other feudal/tributary societies it was based on the brutal exploitation of the great majority, who lived short lives and for much of the time barely subsisted, even as they saw the fruits of their labour taken from under their noses by the magistrate’s tax collectors and the local landlords. On the other hand, perhaps because of its particular geographical and ideological location within the Sinocentric world order, it was a country that showed no interest in expanding beyond its borders, conquering and subjugating other peoples, in clear contrast to Hideyoshi’s Japan or Qing China.
I’m not sure whether there is a conclusion to my meandering thoughts. But perhaps my uneasiness whenever I hear someone tell me that Korea has, in effect, ‘always been innocent’, comes from the fact that class societies, whether premodern polities or modern nation states, are always guilty in some way or another.
As a side note to these thoughts, I heard the excellent Gary Younge speak last night at a meeting on Islamophobia and racism. Discussing the press reaction to the recent furore here in the UK over racism on Celebrity Big Brother, he wondered how it was that whenever countries like Britain and the US ‘lose their innocence’ in a controversy like this they seem to be able to regain it again so quickly.