Duelling histories? part 3

I thought I would revive this title once more and add another post to the series on recent historiographical clashes in South Korea since I recently came across another interesting example that actually fits rather nicely with some of the posts made here by Jiyul and Noja.

I came across this report on a debate on the Park Chung-hee era between Im Chi-hyŏn and Cho Hŭi-yŏn in the pages of the Donga Ilbo newspaper. Apparently the debate between the two has been going on since 2004, particularly in the pages of the journal Historical Criticism (역사비평) and the Professors’ Newspaper (교수신문).

Basically, the main protagonist, Im Chi-hyŏn, argues that Park’s rule was an example of a ‘mass dictatorship’ (대중독재), in other words, the idea that Park was able to rule by creating some degree of consent for his dictatorship. Cho counters that “the mass dictatorship theory is problemmatic because it expands the accommodating silence of the masses into a general and active agreement with the dictatorship, thus justifying it.”

Im on the other hand responds that “Cho’s understanding makes the people into heroes and demonises the dictator, creating a moralistic duality. If we are to prevent a new dictatorship from arising we need to go beyond moralistic dualism and provide a dispassionate analysis.”

Going a bit further, Cho argues that both Im Chi-hyŏn’s views and those of Yi Yŏng-hun (who edited two recent books I’ve mentioned here: 해방 전후사의 재인식 and 수량경제사로 다시 본 조선후기) are part of a general attempt to create a revisionist history that takes advantage of the current crisis of ‘democratic progressive discourse’. He argues that while Yi’s critique comes from the viewpoint of the so-called ‘New Right’, Im’s comes from a postmodernist (탈근대적) position. Funnily enough I’m planning to translate a review of 해방 전후사의 재인식 by a Korean Marxist historian whom I rate highly, who makes almost exactly the same point, titling his review: ‘A reactionary duet between the right and the postmodernists.’ When I actually have some time to do the translation I’ll be sure to make it available to readers here.

More on the debate here at the Chosun Ilbo. And something in English I found here on Im’s theory of mass dictatorship.


  1. Talk about coming full circle: the original definition of “tyrant” in the Greek poleis was a dictator selected by the people (rather than via monarchical succession or oligarchic selection) to enact drastic reforms.

  2. Well, while reading Prof. Im ChihyOn, I always felt that, in fact, mass consent for the authoritarian rule (sometimes mistaken for the “people’s will”)was probably more typical of East Asian Stalinist societies, were, at least, urban workers were made into a sort of semi-privileged stratum (among the dominated) and coopted by higher (than in the villages) standards of living and prospects of social advancement through party “activism”/higher education. Under Park too, the workers’ wages seemed to rise – but on twice lower rate that labour productivity, and on a scale absolutely incomparable with the improvements in the middle class lives. I remember that in Seoul in 1982, the average wage of an industrial worker was around Won 180.000 – too little to get really “co-opted”, I am afraid. The school/army, of course, disciplined the future workers into “right” thinking – but “disciplining” and “co-optation” are different things, I guess?

  3. Professor Im is definately influenced by the Western Historiography on the everyday lives of ordinary citizens under the Nazi, Facist and Stanlist regimes, many which try to find some kind of “agency” (if not guilt) for the masses whether as passive collaborators or as resisters. Also he is probably trying to find answers to the nostalgia for Park, the suprisingly positive memory of his era by many older generation Koreans who lived through those dictatorial years. It is a useful approach.

    But I have to admit that the debate around his arguments are being carried out in much of an ineffective way. For one thing, Professor Im seems more bent on crying out his case than trying to investigate in detail how ordinary people negociated their everyday lives under Park, that is, he seems more a polemist than a historian, thus weakening the persuasiveness of his arguments. It’s also symptomic of the vacumn in established/academic history, that is, serious historians still eschew from confronting and researching contentious modern Korean history, so one does not see the kind of archival and serious studies that would allow the debate to stand on more solid bases.

  4. Thanks for the extra info J. My thoughts from what I’ve read of Prof Im’s ideas are quite similar to yours. It seems to me that he is using this particular subject as part of a polemic against a certain form of Stalinist (what he calls Marxist) historiography. I’ve got nothing against polemics in the right place but I don’t think this one really moves things forward because he is attacking something of a strawman. On the other hand, I haven’t read his actual research so I can’t comment on your point about it lacking in a solid basis in archival study.

  5. Judging from the responses, it’s clear to me that few here actually “get” Im Jie-hyun’s thesis. His mass dictatorship
    project is simply an attempt to point out that consent can be “manufactured” by dictatorial states, not that the
    people actually supported authoritarian rule (in a free-will sense). The subtitle of one of his conferences was
    “Between Delusion and Desire,” which should give you a better idea of what he’s talking about.

    The comment that Prof. Im is more a polemicist than a historian and that he doesn’t spend any time investigating the
    everyday life of dictatorships seems rather misplaced. Prof. Lim has a team of researchers (20+ at last count) who
    are investigating just that in his various research projects. The fruits of the effort will be published over the
    next few years, so I suggest you reserve the judgment.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.