Duelling histories? Part 2

Continuing on the subject of the new, controversial history book 해방 전후사의 재인식 (‘A new understanding of Korea’s liberation’), I wanted to link to this rather helpful article from Joongang Daily which lists the contrasting views of the book and its more leftwing 1979 predecessor (해방 전후사의 인식) on a number of key subjects. And here is my even-more-simplified version of the same list:

1. Responsibility for the division of Korea:

(1979) It was Syngman Rhee’s fault basically.
(2006) Stalin gave the order to establish a government in North Korea in September 1945, so basically it was his fault.

2. Views of the Korean War:

(1979) It is one-sided to claim that North Korea invaded. It was actually a civil war [pace Bruce Cumings] to reunify the peninsula.
(2006) The Korean war was actually an international war, part of the USSR’s strategy of keeping the US in check.

3. Perspectives on Syngman Rhee:

(1979) Rhee was an anti-democratic American lackey
(2006) Rhee was a Machiavellian politician who made progress on the political/democratic front and laid some of the foundations for South Korea’s later economic growth.

4. Evaluation of North Korea’s Kim Il Sung:
(1979) Kim Il Sung got rid of (North) Korea’s colonial semi-feudal past and fostered a new democratic state.
(2006) Kim Il Sung organised North Korea after liberation like one of his guerilla units with mass mobilisation campaigns and the like.

5. Removing remnants of Japanese colonialism:

(1979) North Korea was successful in removing the remnants of Japanese colonialism while South Korea wasn’t due to US reluctance.
(2006) Remnants of Japanese colonialism continued in both North and South after liberation.

I have to say that on most of these issues I think I fall down on the side of the latest, supposedly rightwing, book. Since I am certainly not rightwing in my views of Korean history (or anything else), it does make me wonder again whether the Korean press have really been giving the correct impression of this book. I think part of the problem here is that the left-right debate over history (and other things) is perceived in a certain way in South Korea, for historical reasons.

In the past it has been a confrontation between authoritarian anti-communism and Stalinism. The problem is that both sides in this equation have really been disintegrating over the last decade or more. Hence this attempt to create a new more ‘rational’ right that disassociates itself from the authoritarian past, is not obsessed with ‘reds under the bed’ and accepts the achievements of Korea’s democracy movement. On the other side there are also now many on the left who do not accept the left-nationalist version of Korean history that is basically an application of Stalinist ideas straight out of 1950s Soviet textbooks. I suppose the ironic thing here is that a number of the centrist/liberal politicians who are currently in power with Roh Moo-hyun’s government were closely associated with the 1979 book or the left-nationalist movement of the 1980s and so perhaps have a closer allegiance to the ideas that it contains than do people who are to their left.

For some further reading on the reaction to this book you can have a look at this article from Oh My News, which reports on a recent speech by Sŏ Chung-sŏk, head of the 역사문제연구소, or Institute for Korean Historical Studies (who publish the journal 역사비평). He makes a couple of interesting points. First, he thinks that this book has been published for political reasons and it is strange that they are specifically attacking such an old book since the work of many progressive scholars has since revised a lot of what was said in the original 1979 book. He also claims that many of the people who have written articles for the new book are not specialists annd hence their work is somewhat suspect. This sounds like a bit of a cheap point, but if you look at Sŏ’s own publications list he certainly is in a position to comment on the historiography of the postwar period.


  1. Thanks for the summary, as well as the rest of the discussion.

    I think part of the reason for tackling a book that old is that it probably represents the basic historical education of most adults, not to mention the graduate reading of most current scholars. There’s a serious time lag between academic developments and popular understanding (sometimes an infinite one, it seems), so the idea of taking a well-known book which contains a lot of conventional wisdom and doing specific revisions and corrections helps to highlight the progress of the last quarter century.

    I suspect that a lot of other “leftist” scholars probably, like you, have much more nuanced views of Korean history at this point, but “rightists” have often attacked strawmen based on outdated views….

  2. Yes, I think that Sŏ (himself a leftist from the leftwing Institute for Korean Historical Studies) is basically accusing the editors of the new book of strawman tactics.

  3. As a political tactic, it’s pretty unfair. As a rhetorical/pedagogical device, I have more sympathy for it. I guess the question really is whether this new work is more political or pedagogical….

  4. Well, this book got more attention for Chosun’s yellow-journalistic comment. First it came out as a headline or at least one the top line in Digital Chosun (web-version of Chosun Newspaper), saying “Present Roh was fumingly angry after reading this book!”
    It remained in the very top part of Digital Chosun for three or four days. So considering how Chosun, Joong-ang and Dong-A tried to create a controversy over this publication, I think this book definitely has a strong political implication in the current Korean media.

    Also, Chosun insinuated that it was written by a “politically neutral” group, while criticizing that the current trend of Korean History academia cannot dream to publish this type of publication.

    There is no doubt that rightwing supporters will use this book somewhat diametrically opposed to Kang Man-gil et al.

    Whether or not the writers in this book were politically motivated, it is liked very much by rightists.

    After the inflammatory comment of Chosun regarding Pres. Roh, it is reported that the sale of this book surged tremendously.

  5. Oops, I forgot to add one more comment. Upon reading the Chosun’s article, Pres. Roh denied that he had ever said that regarding that book.
    It is not clear what Roh actually thought about it.

  6. Two things: First, I’m confused now about Roh’s statement. I believe he is alleged (by Pak Chi-hyang in her introduction and subsequently by various newspapers) to have said that he felt angry (lit. that his ‘blood flowed backwards’) while reading the old 1979 book, not the new one. It has now been shown that he has never even mentioned the original book (해전사) in any of his speeches. See this Oh My News article.

    Second, although the right in Korea are clearly using this in an attempt to bash a certain left view of history and certain people in particular (Kang Man-gil comes to mind), this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will like the content of the book when they actually read it. I think I’ll also have to reserve further judgement until I’ve read the book.

  7. Owen, after reading your reply, I went back and read some more articles.
    And it turned out that Roh’s “blood flowed backwards” after reading the 1979 book.
    Not because he was against it but because he was frustrated at the political situation back then.
    This alleged comment is suggesting that Roh shares the similar understanding of Korean history with the 386 generation (leftist students in the 80’s).

    As for the right in Korea, this year’s book somehow helps them to denigrate the 1979 publication.
    Yet the new work is not as rightist as they expected to be.

  8. The documentary evidence I’ve seen presented seems to support the former view, for numbers 1,2, and 3.

    I thought the most recent releases from the Soviet Archives showed that Uncle Joe was dead set against a Kim invasion.

    #2 seems the most awful. Only the Soviet Union was engaged in an anti-western campaign, but Truman had no anti-communist strategy? The Domino Theory existed then, too.

  9. Since there seems to be some misunderstanding about this and I’ve been accused elsewhere of believing things that I don’t, I’ll give my opinion on the first three points above.

    On 1, my opinion would be that the superpowers share the blame for the division. The Soviets accepted General Order no ! in August 1945 so they could get a chunk of the peninsula. After that both sides set about setting up their respective systems and fostering their proteges – division was pretty much inevitable.

    Yes, no. 2 is pretty one-sided. I don’t disagree that it was primarily an international war rather than a civil war but obviously it was about rivalry between the two superpowers. Remember though, that what I have written above is a simplified version of an already simplified account of what is inside the book so the argument there might be more subtle.

    On 3, I would also tend to agree with the older book, although I’m no expert on the politics of the 1950s in South Korea. Rhee was, after all, a man who had even moderate democratic opponents put to death.

    I’d like to know more about the recent stuff from the Soviet archives because the documents I’ve heard about indicate that Stalin wanted Kim Il Sung to initiate the Korean War.

  10. Besides whatever the motives may be, one should be aware that none of the articles included in that book are new. They are all articles that were published elsewhere before hand, and just complied for this edition. Most of the articles could be said to be “revionist” in the Korean historiography sense, and some were published either by the same writers who had previously taken a more leftist stance, or by writers in who were educated in the US (thus distanced from the more leftist/nationalist stance of the most Korean historians). Also, as the chief editors note, there were numerous other articles that they wished to includ, but couldn’t, cause the original authors did not want to be associated with this book which was getting too much attention from the media as part of the “new right” movement. I would say, if it was not for all the politically charged attention, the book is worth attention, if only as a glance of the more diverse and recent interpretations regarding post-liberation Korean history.

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