Duelling histories? Part 1

Another couple of history-related articles from the English-language Korean media that were brought to my attention on the mailing list of the British Association for Korean Studies. They concern another controversial issue, but this time an internal one that reflects the right-left divide in South Korea. A long awaited book has just been published which aims to act as a corrective to what is seen as the prevailing left-nationalist view of Korea’s modern history. The book, 해방 전후사의 재인식 or ‘A new understanding of Korea’s liberation’ is in two parts, one on the colonial period and the other on the period after liberation. A number of current political issues make all this particularly ‘hot’ at the moment: the investigation into Japanese collaborators (headed by veteran left-nationalist historian Kang Man-gil); the government’s policy of rapprochement toward North Korea and the South Korean right’s attempt to repackage itself as a ‘New Right’ untainted by former military regimes or corrupt regionalist politics.

This from the Joongang Daily article:

A new history book by a conservative group of scholars was published yesterday, under the title “New Understanding of Post-Liberation History,” in a challenge to the left-leaning classic of the same title, minus “New,” published in 1979. The 1979 publication carried much significance with progressives and left-leaners in society, with its leftist stance on the country’s history after Japanese colonial rule.

This from the Donga Ilbo article:

European history professor Park Ji-hyang [actually she’s a specialist on British history – Owen] and economics professor Lee Young-hoon of Seoul National University, Korean literature professor Kim Chul of Yonsei, and political science professor Kim Il-young from Sung Kyun Kwan University edited the newly released book. The book contains 28 thesis papers from both at home and abroad, and includes conversations among editors on how to overcome the problematic mindset of national supremacism and the belief in the necessity of the people’s revolution portrayed in the previous book on the subject, “Understanding the History Before and After Liberation.”

Having read these articles I’m quite intrigued to read this two-volume collection of articles, if only to find out what it actually does contain. The two newspaper articles seem quite contradictory – they associate the project closely with the South Korean right and particularly the so-called New Right and yet the writers actually seem to be quite broad. It’s hard to tell from this whether the book really is an attempt to give space to good history about some of the most controversial periods of Korea’s modern history or whether it is really designed to push the rightwing view of history and revive some of their favourite figures from the past like Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee.

Reading these articles it should be remembered that both of the newspapers they come from are part of the triumvirate of the rightwing establishment media, often referred to as Cho-Chung-Tong (ie Chosun Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, Donga Ilbo). That, or perhaps the fact that the journalists haven’t read the book, could be behind the slightly confusing impression.

There are also, I think, some problematic assumptions in these articles that need to be picked up on. I wondered in particular about this idea that the authors and their papers have been chosen as “writings that have no political color”. It strikes me rather that when the editors say that wanted to choose history that was not ideological they are limiting their definition of ‘ideological’ to the left nationalists. Then there is the unquestioned assumption in these articles – that South Korea has come to be dominated by a ‘distorted’ left-nationalist view of history. Now I think there is quite an element of truth to this when it comes to the academic establishment, where the left-nationalist view of history (what Noja called the ‘Kang Man-gilian’ version of Korean history a few posts back) has become hegemonic since the 80s. But this is certainly changing and to imply that this view extends throughout South Korean society would, I think, be quite a stretch. Academic discourse perhaps has proportionately more influence on general public discourse in Korea than it does in many other places, but there are also many other competing influences, not to mention a state education system that up until the 1980s, at least, was teaching a rather different version of history.

More on this in part two.


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