Is there such a thing as an innocent nation?

Moving away from the news reports for the moment, something a bit more speculative. The above question is one that crops up in my mind every now and then when I read something about how Korean history is distinguished by the number of invasions the country has suffered or hear a Korean say that their country has never invaded anyone else.

Reading this post by Jay (an English teacher in Inch’ŏn), set me off thinking about his some more (this is slightly circular as Jay’s post itself was inspired by Noja’s post below on anti-Americanism). In his post, he notes the bits of Korean history that are not taught in Korean schools:

· the massacres of Vietnamese peasants by ROK forces
· political prisoners, imprisoned for 40 years
· WW2 crimes committed by Korean soldiers
· the widespread and calculated terror pursued by Rhee’s regime, from 1948 and continuing into the civil war
· reference to the war as a civil war
· patriotism as something other than loyalty to the state
· a defence of the right to withhold labour
· the dangers lurking in “pure blood” mythologies
· feminist, race, queer theories of any kind

Perhaps the easy answer to the question posed above is simply no, since the whole point of the nation as it was conceived in the late nineteenth century is to impose the will of a minority of people on others. If it can’t do this externally via imperialism, then the nation will sure as hell do this internally by stifling dissent, enforcing conformity through nationalist education and militarism and creating an ‘identity’ that necessarily closes off one group of humans from another (thus helping to prevent us from collectively realising the global transformations that are so clearly required if we are to survive).

But perhaps this is too simple: there really are historically determined differences in the way that different countries behave at different times; and there really is a hierarchy of strong and weak states in the modern world.

Chosŏn Korea, for example, is not a society that I would aspire to live in (assuming that time travel technology was perfected). Like other feudal/tributary societies it was based on the brutal exploitation of the great majority, who lived short lives and for much of the time barely subsisted, even as they saw the fruits of their labour taken from under their noses by the magistrate’s tax collectors and the local landlords. On the other hand, perhaps because of its particular geographical and ideological location within the Sinocentric world order, it was a country that showed no interest in expanding beyond its borders, conquering and subjugating other peoples, in clear contrast to Hideyoshi’s Japan or Qing China.

I’m not sure whether there is a conclusion to my meandering thoughts. But perhaps my uneasiness whenever I hear someone tell me that Korea has, in effect, ‘always been innocent’, comes from the fact that class societies, whether premodern polities or modern nation states, are always guilty in some way or another.

As a side note to these thoughts, I heard the excellent Gary Younge speak last night at a meeting on Islamophobia and racism. Discussing the press reaction to the recent furore here in the UK over racism on Celebrity Big Brother, he wondered how it was that whenever countries like Britain and the US ‘lose their innocence’ in a controversy like this they seem to be able to regain it again so quickly.


  1. How many documented cases of ROK forces massacres of Vietnamese peasants exist? I say this as someone who worked very closely with a battalion of the 9th ROK Division (White Horse) from January through May 1968 and never witnessed a single “massacre”. Can anyone cite a single documented case?

  2. This is something I readily admit I know very little about, so personally I would keep an open mind. I do know that it is a subject that has caused some controversy in recent years and Hankyoreh 21 ran some stories about it a few years ago, concerning a secret US Army report on the matter that had come to light. Here, for example, is something I just Googled up from Hani 21 in November 2000, by Han Honggu of Sungkonghoe University:
    Apparently Hong is a member of the Vietnam War Civilian Massacre Truth Commission (베트남전민간인 학살진실위원회).

    While I don’t deny either the integrity of your memories of serving in Vietnam with Korean soldiers or their validity as part of the story of what happened there, I don’t think you can really offer them as definitive evidence that massacres didn’t happen. There were, after all, some 300,000 South Korean soldiers that served in Vietnam over the course of 8 years (I think my figures are roughly accurate).

  3. Another place that might be worth looking for information about documented cases of massacres against Vietnamese civilians (in English) is Charles K. Armstrong’s article ‘America’s Korea, Korea’s Vietnam’ (Critical Asian Studies, 33:4, 2001, pp. 527-539).

  4. I’ll look up Armstrong’s article. Part of my question arises from my observation that the Koreans were among the most disciplined troops in Vietnam, and disciplined troops don’t commit massacres unles ordered to do so. What I do know is that “winning hearts and minds” was as much a part of ROK Army doctrine as it was U.S. Army doctrine (and that did not prevent the My Lai massacre). My Lai, off course, was a classic case of undisciplined troops and poor leadership. Understand that conditions (and the war itself) changed from srea to area, and the area around QUang Tri and Quang Nai provinces was the scene of some of the war’s bitterest fighting, and where large segments of the population supported Ho Chi Minh, and the Viet Minh. The Vietnamese “peasants” at My Lai, for example, could be easily classified as “VC dependents”. That did not negate their non-combattant status. I would not be surprised to learn of massacres other than My Lai in that area, and perhaps even by Korean troops. But I have never seen or heard any credible evidence of such, though there were a lot of “sea stories” about how tough and blood-thirsty the Korean troops, recounted by “RENFs” (rear echelon soldiers who were involved in support missions). I’ve never met anyone who worked closely with either the 9th or “Tiger” Division who mentioned massacres. The (South) Vietnamese government certainly would raised a hue and cry, if only to extort more aid from Korea.

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