History, or politics by other means

I would like to share my musings and solicit opinions on one issue I always was interested in – namely, to what degree the ways in which states attempt to rule over the past and use it for forming a suitable present, are effective, and on what factors their effectivity depends. To illustrate what I mean, let us just look what the “history” in the public realm meant in South Korea in Yusin time in the 1970s, and what sort of “history” is being mass-produced and encouraged currently. In the 1970s, in the official discourse on history the catchword was “국난 극복사” (“the history of the overcoming of national emergencies”) or “국방 사관” (“the national defence-centred view of history”), and the visible facade of “history”, namely the “historical monuments”, was shaped accordingly: children and students alike were regularly bussed to Admiral Yi Sunsin’s memorial complex “HyOnch’ungsa” (practically obligatory for all) or to the lesser, refurbished and renovated complexes on the Kanghwa Island (celebrating the firght against USA Navy in 1871 and the fight against the French in 1866), on the Cheju Island (celebrating the anti-Mongol resistance of SambyOlch’o crack troops, 1270-1273) and elsewhere. Old Japanese idea that Silla’s hwarangs were nothing but fearless fighters – in fact, some of the colonial Japanese hsitorians viewed them as one source of Japan’s celebrated bushido – was given new lease on life by Park Chong Hee’s cheif court historian Yi SOn’gUn, so that even in the army, soldiers were supposed to great each other shouting “ch’ungsOng” (loyalty!) and “hwarang”. All this was certainly very needed stuff indeed for a hardcore developmental state striving to mould its low-class citizens into militarly disciplined workers and prevent them from developing any independent class consciousness of their own. And today, we have “The Presidential Committee for the Inspection of Collaborations with the Japanese Imperialism” (http://www.pcic.go.kr:8088/pcic/index.jsp), headed by venerable left-nationalist historian Kang Man’gil, and new, popular school history textbooks like 2002 “살아 있는 한국사 교과서” ( http://www.aladdin.co.kr/shop/wproduct.aspx?ISBN=8958620226 , translated recently into English by the Academy of Korean Studies), which are largely based on “Kang Man’gilian” view of history. So far the modern history is concerned, this view accentuates the ethno-national unity with North Korea, thus providing rationals for current attempts of the Southern elite to incorporate gradually the Northern nomenklatura into the regional capitalist system, and narrows the issue of “collaboration with imperialism” to the Japanese imperialism before 1945, thus allowing the public to vent its rage onto somebody else than today’s major tycoons, who either collaborated with American imeprialism only (Hyundai and Hanjin, known for their profiteering during the Vietnam War) or very little with pre-war Japanese and mostly with Americans (Samsung’s Yi PyOngch’Ol – took loans from Shokusan Ginko in the late 1930s, produced wares for the Japanese army and subscribed to the war loans – but this hardly qualifies for real “collaboration” as defined by the recently adopted laws). My question is – to which degree this sort of “history” distributed from above, is really believed, retained by the individuals’ consciousness, and influences their behaviour? One probable answer is – this “historical” propaganda does work so far as the state appropriates the conclusion-making powers from its subjects and forces upon them some (ideological) conclusions, which, however, have some real, tangible connection with their daily experiences; but it ceases to work, when the state-approved/disseminated conclusions loose their connections to the individual life-worlds. For example, Yusin period’s “militaristic statism” could work as much as the developing state-controlled economy allowed even the poorer subjects some chances for personal vertical mobility – not least, through the army ranks. State and its army were distributing some “carrots” to the “human resources” they wielded their stick over – and were believed in this degree. Then, the army, apart from the chances to rise to the position of NCO and serve as a professional soldier further, could also provide a sense of psychological compensation – you were allowed, once 고참 enough, to bully around the people, who would not allow you to come close to them in the real life. Once the opportunities for social mobility in general became much lower in the 1990s, the “militaristic statism” started obviously to lose its grip over the population – and we need World Cups, Yi Sunsin dramas and other extra props to keep it afloat. As to the idea that donating fighter planes to the Japanese troops before 1945 is a crime of “collaboration”, but building military objects in Southern Vietnam before 1975 is not – well, it is certainly usable so far as American capital owns large portion of Korean “blue chips” and American market is still needed by the Korean exporters. As soon as the dollar will plunge down and Korea will fully get dependant on the Chinese market, this part of “history” will certainly get some edit on it, I guess?

Vladimir (Noja)


  1. Some interesting ideas there. I’m particularly taken with the idea that the Kang Man-gil view of history and the investigation of Japanese collaborators both reflect the ideological needs of the current Korean administration. I’m very much of the belief that we have to look at what is happening politically during a particular period to understand the historiography of that period.

    I wonder if this might not also help to provide some sort of explanation for the current fashion in popular history, and historiography more generally, with the chungin (Chosŏn dynasty middle class). Along with this trend comes the idea that the chungin were really key both to economic and cultural developments in the late Chosŏn period, typified by the private monopoly merchants (sasang togo) and the concept of urban/street culture (yŏhang munhwa). If the popular struggles of the eighties produced radical professors and radical students and with them the minjung (masses) view of history, then perhaps it is only natural that 20 years later those now mainstream former radicals should see their historical self-image in the chungin. Perhaps I’m overstretching an idea here, but it’s something to think about anyway.

  2. Yes, I am sure that the interest in chungin, that began to be felt in the 1980s, was an offspring of the general drive to “indigenize” modernity/capitalism in Korea, finding all sorts of “proto-modern sprouts”
    in pre-modern times. In fact, this drive began, I guess, with the “re-discovery” of Tasan and YOnsam in the very beginning of the 2oth C. – when the lengthy articles on these two “harbingers of the civilization
    and enlightenment” appeared in HwangsOn sinmun and some academic journals. Then, all the non-orthodox Confucians of ChosOn Korea were lumped together into “sirhak” in the 1930s – as if it ever was a single school/
    tradition – and “sirhak” was canonized. Then, the next step in the later 1950s in North Korea (then followed in South Korea) was to “find” connections between later “sirhak” (mostly Pak Kyusu) and the early
    “bourgeois reformers” from the Kim Okkyun/Pak YOnghyo circle, so that the nasty figure of Fukuzawa Yukichi, the early Korean westernizers’ real mentor, would be taken out of picture. And then came the great quest for
    the “capitalist sprouts” in agriculture (Kim YongsOp – Yonsei) and trade/artizanship (Kang Man’gil – KoryO), together with the studies on “chungin culture” (ChOng Okcha – SNU). What is really a sorrowful thing
    for me, is that lots of real, great discoveries was made in the process of creating a good native pedigree to Korean modernity/capitalism, lots of important materials being uncovered and commented. But “purpose-
    conscious”, idiosyncratic interpretation makes it much more difficult to work with these real discoveries for the later-coming historians. But that is probably the case with most historical fields all around the
    world… This thing was called “political order” (politichesky zakaz) in Stalinist Russia, but it looks pretty universal…

  3. Growing up in Korea in the 70’s, I can remember many things, but what strikes me most now is the sense of fear. Park’s regime did such an effective job of constantly feeding fear to Koreans through education, mass media, and other cultural sectors (cinema, lit, music, etc.).

    During the 12 years of Korean public education, I learned 국난 극복사,” “국방 사관,” and anti-communism in Korean History, World History, Ethics, Geography, Korean Literature, Military Education, Music, and Fine Art classes. The places (“national monuments) you mentioned are of course frequently visited spots for various “school picnics or other occasions.”

    The best example of this brainwashing is that in these days I still can recite the Oath for Citizen’s Educational Duty (Gook Min Gyo Yuk Hun Jang)—written by Park himself (at least that’s what we were made to believe). It was obligatory to memorize it thoroughly. I can recall we even had a contest of reciting this perfectly in my first year of the elementary school.

    In this sense, brainwashing was a very effectual tool. Plus the most frequent use of scare tactic was constantly reminding Koreans of the eminent threat of North Korean invasion through the monthly session of Training of Civilian Defense (Min Bang Wee Hoon Ryun). We did this not only in school in daytime, but at home at night—imagine a complete black-out in Seoul with much noise of choppers, tanks, machine guns, etc).

    Unfortunately I didn’t attend college in Korea so I would not exactly know what I would have felt in college. I can remember what my elder sister felt in college once she found out that what she had learned in the elementary, middle, and high schools was not true at all. [Later I also realized that what she learned in college through the upper-class students (Sun Bae) was not the entirely correct understanding of Korean history and politics.] I think the 70’s and 80’s Student Movements were born out of complete disillusionment of what they had learned during the 12 years of their youth—so out of the sense of betrayal and guilt (because they felt that they had been so oblivious of other members of their society).

    Back to your initial question, I think the tactics of Park’s regime were very successful, especially their attempts to insert selective memories of the past into Koreans’ mind and forge the sense of urgency in the present. Meanwhile, from Kim Young Sam to Kim Dae Jung and to Roh Moo Hyun, there have been different efforts to “correct the past,” but they couldn’t use the same tactics. In Kim Young Sam’s case, there were times that he tried to bring back the scare tactics by reminding people of the presence of North Korea. However, from Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, I have not seen any attempt to use brainwashing and scare tactics.

    In conclusion, I am trying to say that the current “democratic” Korean government cannot use any of Park’s methods. There cannot be really a top-down pressure or movement of revising or reviewing history. Rather, the academics you referred to have attempted to do so in their own ways. But they are not effective. For example, the recent exoneration of Dong Baek Lim (East Berlin) Incident—Kang Man Gil worked as the chair of the reinvestigation committee–already disappeared in Korean news media. Not even a week has passed. It came as a few headlines for 2 days or even less. And now it is almost forgotten completely by all the news about the New Year Day.

    Then my question to you is: what would be an effective tool to “undo” the long-term brainwashing? Self-reprogramming? Easy to be said but hard to be done. What else?
    Academics cannot do much without the “collaboration” of mass media, education, and other means of cultural re-education. Han Kyu Ryeh, Ohmynews, and Pressian all are facing their limits to give any significant impact on Korean mass.

  4. Dear Song (sorry – you haven’t written down your personal name), I just remember watching a very good short documentary entitled “Aegukcha keim” (애국자 게임) – about Korea’s mainstream ways to be patriotic. One of the persons interviewed for that documentary was Prof. Im Chihyun (임지현) from Hanyang University, and he said a very interesting thing. He said that, in fact, the Hanch’ongryOn fans of the Great Leader (it is not that all Hanch’ongnyOn activists are pro-North, but a sizable part is…) were sort of “illegitimate children of Park Chong Hee” in the spiritual sense of the world. In the schools they were told that South Korean leadership were great patriots leading the country to the heights of national glory, and then in the universities they discovered that their former ruler was contemptible collaborator Takaki Masao, and the present one was Reigan’s corrupt puppet. They got disillusioned in the reality of being led by collaborators and puppets, and then their eyes logically got turned to the partisan hero ruling the “other Korea” to the north. So, in a way, Kim Il Sung has fulfilled the expectations, which Park Chong Hee has embedded, but failed to satisfy. Bad thing is that admiration of the Sun of Nation easily combines with all the fruits of Park Chong Heeism, from male chauvinism to the hatred of homosexuality – the people calling themselves chusap’a still have Park Chong Hee in their hearts, although they call him by another name. I suggest that a way of de-programming might be more TV materials – because books are not that much read these days – about Korea’s real progressive tradition – communists and anarchists of the Japanese days, people like Cho Pongam in post-1945 history, leftist philosophers like Ha Kirak, and so on. That may cultivate a sort of understanding that, for example, there may be good, well-meaining people struggling not just against foreign oppression, but against any sort of oppression at all.

  5. Vladimir—I hope you don’t mind not using any academic title such as Dr. or Prof. (after all we are in cyber space and should forget about them here)–, thanks for an insightful response. Unfortunately I haven’t seen that documentary “애국자 게임”. It sounds very interesting.
    And I can second what Prof. 임지현 said. After reading your reply, I am also thinking that perhaps it is not much to do with the “brainwashing” of PCH regime,
    but it is more to do with self-marginalization” (or Chun Min Eu Sik in Korean). Yes, Franz Fanon, I am referring to. It is so hard to overcome
    “self-marginalization” that Koreans had to learn through the Japanese Annexation, the US Occupation, the PCH Yusin and Chun Doo Whan’s dictatorship.

    Also I do agree that “deprogramming” strategies should be closely related to Korean popular culture (definitely more visual media).

    Another question I cannot answer for a long time–probably because I have been physically away from Korea for a long time–is:
    what happened in late 90’s. How come college students are not interested in politics any more?

    No more disillusionment? Did they just become complacent because there is a certain degree of relatively democratic politics in practice and blatant capitalism in their harsh reality?

    The latter (rampant capitalism) was not new to the Korean scene so I don’t buy this explanation.

    I tend to blame on the generation of 386 or 486 for failing to educating their children about social conscientiousness. Here maybe I am coming from Deleuzean “anti-oedipal”/nomadic notion. Since 386’s and 486’s transformed themselves into capitalistic warriors or nomads, they became disillusioned at their earlier disillusionment (because they became loyal collaborators of “globalization” and “capitalization” or totally marginalized nomadic low-class citizens.

    So the first step of the long deprogramming process is assuring that what students did in 70’s and 80’s was the right thing to do. After all, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun were the fortunate reapers of that painful sacrifice. I am not talking about any sort of compensation. Nevertheless, some kind of psychological reward/positive reinforcement is necessary. Their current situation is not failure—for being nomadic low class—and not betrayal—for being born-again capitalists. Rather, the whole scene has changed. Perhaps back then we were frogs of the well called South Korea, but now they are in the ocean called the global world of post-capitalism. Whatever transformation and self-evolution must have happened for mere survival.

    At any rate, it can be confusing to figure out what is left or right these days; nonetheless, one should never forget to be leftist wherever they are—either in the left or right.

  6. I’m not sure that de-programming us the answer to programming. Isn’t there a way to teach history that trains young minds to weigh the facts, and make judgements on their own? Is it not possible that some future generation of Koreans, weighing the results of both Japanese colonialism, Korean collaboration, post-war chaebol capitalism, and more than sixty years of “Kim Il-sungisn”, might judge that the three former did far more for Korea as a nation than the last placed? Perhaps the methods of teaching history should be based upon evidentiary legal precepts and analysis rather than theories of political indoctrination.

  7. I am sorry to be commenting on this posting so late. The notion of deprogramming is I think far fetched not the least of which is the question of deprogramming to what – the real truth? And what would that be? The discussion over the notion there was programming or brain washing in the 1970s seems to imply that somehow things that are false was espoused and implanted. Historically though it seems to me that there was a real basis to much of the “brain washing” project if that is how we should characterize it. The late 60s and the early 70s in particular was a period of real not imaginary national crises. Kim Il Sung’s change to aggressive operations to foment a SK revolution in the 2nd Party Congressin late 60s resulted in a dramatic rise of NK aggression between 67 and 69. The VN War was going to hell in a handbasket leading essentially to US defeat and withdrawal not only from VN but from Korea. Nixon’s visit to China and the perceived betrayal of Taiwan along with the perceived sell out of South VN in the Paris Accords generated a real sense of American betrayal and a crisis of security. Internally, a perception of flaying popular will toward development and modernization, moral corruption brought about by development, and social reactions to developmental projects such as the rising labor movement led to a real sense of crisis in the material-moral-cultural direction of SK state, nation and society. To look back now and to condemn is profoundly ahistorical and as distorted as the original effort to “brain wash” and mobilize the nation.

  8. A continuation. The most important point to my previous comment is that the sense of crises, external and internal, seem to have been shared by the people, the masses (subject of my current research), and that is why the top down “brain washing” and mobilization projects actually worked and succeeded. It seems to have been met by bottom up consensus.

  9. Yes, it may be possible to agree that the ruling stratum of S.Korea was in crisis by the early 1970s, but it may be only a half-truth to identify that crisis as simply generated by a combination of “North Korean threat and American betrayal”. No doubt, N.Korea, perceiving itself as economically and militarily stronger society with much higher level of popular cohesion than in the South (the perception at that point was not entirely unjust, I guess….), tried at some point to emulate N.Vietnam’s strategy, and no doubt, general weakening of USA’s worldwide hegemony after the defeat in Indochina did send alarm signal to Park’s clique. But the crisis had its internal side as well, I guess – Park undermined the nationlalist legitimacy of his rule by what was widely percieved as “sellout to Japan” in 1965, heavy concentration of the developmental investment in YOngnam area began to seriously alienate Honam by early 1970s, and the city poor were sizzling with resentment – as witnessed, for example, in “Kwangju Taedanji Soyo sakOn”, August 10, 1971. And the only real answer by the regime to the challanges was more control (chumin tUngnokchUng from 1968), more indoctrination (“chunghyo” campaign and so on), and more repression. I guess that is the reason Park’s regime was often classified as “peripheral fascism”.

  10. Vladimir, I completely agree which is why I wrote “Internally, a perception of flaying popular will toward development and modernization, moral corruption brought about by development, and social reactions to developmental projects such as the rising labor movement led to a real sense of crisis in the material-moral-cultural direction of SK state, nation and society” to balance the external threat/betrayal dimension. Indeed I believe that the internal aspects of the sense of crisis in the late 60s-early 70s was more important, because it affected or had the potential to affect ordinary lives. In comparison external crises were, for most ordinary South Koreans, abstract. This confluence of sense of crisis, top down and bottom up, must have been an important force for the consensus in what might be called popular/mass dictatorship or perhaps what you refer to as “peripheral fascism” (although I am not sure what that means exactly or where it comes from). Evidence for this comes from more recent work by Doh C.Shin based on democracy surveys in South Korea. As late as 2001 these surveys seem to show that democratic consolidation, far frombeing further consolidated, seem very fragile and that there is a deep and persistent approval for authoritarian national leadership, because economic well being takes precedence.


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