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Weighing into the minefield of modern Korean history

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Satellite night image of the Korean peninsula, January 30, 2014. (Photo: The Earth Observatory, NASA.)

Speaking at the Center for Korean Studies, Djun Kil Kim offered an interpretation of modern Korean history that transcended the dichotomy of nationalist and revisionist historiographies.

"[The] colonial elite served their nation during Japanese rule by supporting independence movements abroad and training the next generation. They ended up being instrumental in the two Koreas that emerged after World War II: the communist north and the capitalist south.”

UCLA International Institute, April 28, 2016 — In a recent lecture, Professor Djun Kil Kim offered an interpretation of modern Korean history that sought to avoid nationalist overtones and place the modern period in the context of global history. A former journalist and diplomat from South Korea and author of “The History of Korea” (Greenwood, 2005; 2nd ed., 2014), Kim is professorial and research chair of the Samsung Korean Studies Program at the University of Asia & the Pacific in the Philippines. He spoke at the Center for Korean Studies on April 12.

South Korea has been engaged in an acrimonious debate about the history of modern Korea — more precisely, about the textbooks used to teach that history in secondary schools —for at least a decade. The intensity of the debate ratcheted upwards in late 2015, when the government of President Park Chung-hee (daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee) abandoned the private publishing of textbooks and announced that the government would once again publish history textbooks. It is slated to publish a new, “authorized” history in 2017.

The clash between conservative-nationalist and leftist-revisionist historians — and the South Koreans who support their views — concerns a host of emotional issues, including the origins of the modern Korean state, Japanese colonial rule, the role and impact of the Cold War on the two Koreas, and the ideology and policies of leaders in both North and South Korea.

The two tragedies of modern Korea interpreted anew

Kim focused his remarks on the two tragedies of modern Korean history, which he called “nationhood lost” (i.e., invasion and colonization by the Japanese Imperial Army, 1905–1945) and “house divided” (i.e., the Cold War division into North and South Korea). Rather than viewing these events ideologically, the historian argued for examining their advantages and disadvantages in terms of their political-economic and sociocultural dimensions.

According to the speaker, the disadvantages of Japanese occupation included the development of a “victim complex” among the Korean people (especially the elite), colonial economic exploitation, loss of political rights and diplomatic representation, employment and education discrimination and a failed independence movement. Although nationalist and revisionist historiography emphasize these same disadvantages, Kim noted that nationalists also lament the failure of the national enlightenment movement to create an independent Korea at the end of the 19th century. Had that movement succeeded, they believe Korea would achieved a more “splendid state” without Japanese occupation.

By contrast, Kim argued that the external paradigm shift — in which the centuries-old East Asian world order dominated by China was overthrown by the “barbarian state” of Japan — ironically created the conditions in which a modern nation state of Korea became possible. He pointed out that the feudal, neo-Confucian Choson dynasty of Korea had proven unable to reform itself and had crushed several reformist-oriented uprisings in the 19th century.

Professor Djun Kil Kim. (Photo: <a href="">US Korea Institute at SAIS</a>.). The March 1 movement for self-determination launched in 1919 by Koreans living under Japanese rule, said the speaker, resulted in certain improvements in employment and education that enabled an educated Korean colonial elite to take shape and grow. Rejecting the revisionist view that these white-collar workers, skilled technicians and colonial officers were “collaborators,” Kim said, “this colonial elite served their nation during Japanese rule by supporting independence movements abroad and training the next generation. They ended up being instrumental in the two Koreas that emerged after World War II: the communist north and the capitalist south.”

In his view, another positive outcome of the March 1 movement was the creation of a provisional government of the Republic of Korea abroad. Although never internationally recognized (except by the USSR), Kim interpreted its establishment as a step toward a new system — a republic — rather than an attempt to restore the fallen Choson dynasty.

Also under Japanese rule, Korean intellectual life expanded to include new influences, including the new “civilizational doctrine” of communism. Rich Koreans who went to Japan to study, for example, were exposed to Marxist professors there and brought back their ideas to Korea. One such scholar, Paek Namun, published “Korean Social Economic History” in 1933 — the first Korean history written from a Marxist perspective. Marxist thought also influenced the work of the KAPF artists’ movement. And although a Korean Communist group first took form in Siberia in 1918, the Korean Communist Party was not established in Korea itself until 1925.

Kim noted that by war’s end, Korean leaders were not only widely dispersed and unable to communicate with one another, but they were adherents of widely differing ideologies. Syngman Rhee was in Washington, DC, Kim Ku was in China, Kim Il-sung was in Khabarovsk and Park Chung-hee had been deployed to Manchuria as a military officer.

Turning to the post-World War II division of Korea, Kim claimed that the USSR was the only allied power that had had an interest in Korea. The most serious conversation about its future, he said, was initiated by the Soviet Union, when Molotov countered the U.S. proposal for a 40-year trusteeship for Korea with a suggestion (among others) that Korea be ruled by a joint commission of the United States and the USSR for five years. Citing the Dutch scholar Eric Van Ree, the speaker contended that Stalin had never sought to colonize the entire Korean peninsula, but had wanted only one zone. In Kim’s view, occupation of the South and the Cold War policy of containment had been “plan B” for the United States, which had initially sought a coalition government.

The speaker claimed that neo-revisionist historians had most seriously examined the disadvantages of the occupation of the Korean peninsula on both sides: by the U.S. in the south and the USSR in the north. However, he argued that the disadvantages of the “house divided” were found more in North Korea. Today, he said, the communist revolution there has clearly failed and the nation remains highly isolated. He noted that the communist revolution in North Korea had not been implemented by the Koreans, but imposed under Soviet tutelage, and that the choice of Kim Il-Sung as leader had been pushed by the Red Army. For a people steeped in Confucian culture, he reflected, it was highly unusual to make such a young man (Kim Il Sung was 33 years old in 1945) a leader.

As for South Korea, the speaker found the historical advantages of division had been many. With its access to the north blocked by the De-Militarized Zone, Kim said South Korea became an island nation and was able to align itself with an ocean power (the United States) instead of a continental power (China in past centuries). Although the new nation lived under dictatorship for several decades, the speaker noted that South Korea was able to both modernize its economy — leapfrogging analog technology and investing significantly its digital successor to catch up with the economic development of more advanced nations — and eventually, to democratize its political system.

Textbook battleground

The seven independently published history textbooks that have been in use since the 1990s reflect what Kim called “neo-revisionist” schools of historiography. In his view, these schools fall into three main groups aligned respectively with the work of Song Konho (Understanding the History of Liberation, 1979), Bruce Cumings (The Origins of the Korean War, 1981) and Kang Man’gil (Rewriting Korean Modern History and Rewriting Korean Contemporary History, 1994) — with adherents of the latter known as the Minjung school.

The authors of the seven textbooks are mostly former anti-government student leaders from the 1980s that helped bring about democratization in the country, explained the speaker. Known as the “386” generation, these historians have focused on the collaborationist character of the Syngman Rhee government, which employed the former Korean colonial elite of the Japanese administration as well as the authoritarian nature of the regimes of Rhee and subsequent military rulers Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan.

Kim found the South Korean government’s decision to print its own “authorized” national history unwise. In closing, he argued that the writing of modern Korean history should not be left exclusively to historians, but should also include social scientists such as political scientists, sociologists and economists.

Published: Thursday, April 28, 2016