Competing Views on Korea’s National History

A review of The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea, Henry Em, Duke University Press, 2013.

Henry EmAchieving sovereignty, and attaining equal standing with other sovereign nations, was Korea’s great enterprise as referred to in the book’s title. It was a thoroughly modern project: previous generations did not feel the urge to compare with other sovereign states or to assert Korea’s distinctiveness. Beginning with the turn of the century, Korea’s commitment to the great enterprise was a necessary condition for avoiding subordinate status in the face of imperial ambitions. Then, as Japan came to dominate Korea, it became a way to break free from its colonial ruler and to campaign for its independence. Later on, emphasizing national sovereignty meant proclaiming the nation’s unity in the face of the North/South division.

Achieving national and individual sovereignty

Historians played a great role in this endeavor. They produced the great narratives that allowed Korea to project its national identity onto citizens. As Henry Em writes in his introduction, “sovereignty provided the conceptual language for writing national histories, but it also constituted the site for the continuous production of oppositional subjectivities and political alternatives.” Sovereignty is not just a prerogative of the state; it is also an attribute of the modern subject. In order to become sovereign subjects, Koreans had to severe their ties with tradition and to reorder their society into a unitary whole. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the birth of the modern individual in Korea. New figures emerged, such as the modern girl with bobbed hair or the political activist facing state persecution. Although collective affiliations are constitutive of the sense of identity in Confucian cultures, the individualist streak runs deep in Korean society. Especially mistrust of rulers is ingrained in the Korean people, who cultivate the spirit of resistance and autonomy.

The discourse of national and individual sovereignty remained a contested field throughout the twentieth century. Competing visions were offered on what it meant to be Korean; when and where national identity originated; and how it could assert itself in the face of imperial dominance or political repression. A characteristic of Henry Em’s book is to refuse simple binaries: between the colonizer and the colonized, between North and South, or Right and Left. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he demonstrates that liberalism retained “an essential link to imperialism and colonialism”. During the colonial period, Japanese were instrumental in shaping Korean identity and helping Koreans connect with their past. After independence, many southern historians migrated north, and continued to be referred to in the historiographic literature, albeit in oblique fashion so as to avoid censorship. In the modern era, the so-called New Right welcomed scholarship inspired by postcolonial studies, and developed a critique of the nation-state that the nationalist Left had left untouched.

Translating and enforcing the nation-state in East Asia

Sovereignty is different in essence from the Mandate of Heaven that Choson dynasty rulers claimed as a justification for their rule, along with the subordinate status they maintained with Ming and then Qing China. Paradoxically, it was the Japanese who introduced the notions of sovereignty, independence, and modern statehood in Korea, confirming Carl Schmitt’s remark that “a nation is conquered first when it acquiesce to a foreign vocabulary, a foreign concept flaw, especially international law.” King Kojong’s Oath of Independence, pronounced in 1895 in a ceremony mixing the antique and the modern, was inspired if not dictated by Inoue Kaoru, Meiji Japan’s envoy to Korea. As the author notes, “by leading the way in utilizing the post-Westphalian sovereignty-based conception of international relations, Japanese statesmen like Inoue Kaoru positioned themselves as the preeminent translators and enforcers of international law in East Asia.”

Whereas the China-centered theory and practice of tributary relations, based on ritual hierarchy and actual autonomy, provided a buffer for the Choson state and warded off imperial ambitions, it was the principle of equal sovereignty and national independence that paved the way for Japan’s domination over Korea. The paradox of sovereignty extended beyond the realm of international law. In order to be what they claimed to be, aspiring sovereign states had to become others, and incorporate cultural traits from European civilization. They had to demonstrate their commitment to modernization by adopting Western institutions and practices, and by discarding some of their age-long traditions.

Korea’s entry into modernity

Lastly, the emergence of the individual as sovereign subject required sweeping reforms touching on language, education, and imaginaries. Korea’s entry into modernity was accompanied by the “inauguration of the Korean alphabet as the national script in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the beginning of modern Korean historiography in the first decade of the twentieth century, the emergence of modern Korean literature, and a host of other beginnings.” As is well known, many Korean words were taken from the Japanese, including minjok (ethnic nation), kukmin (national citizen) or even the word designating the economy (kyongje). Less well-known is the role of Protestant missionaries in promoting the Korean vernacular script, the hangeul, helping to transform it into an icon of national identity. Protestant missions were also instrumental in the creation of the first Western-style schools and modern newspapers, which stand as necessary elements for the emergence of a public sphere and the formation of “imagined communities”.

More controversial perhaps, the author shows that the Japanese authorities played a critical role in shaping Korean’s national identity. Nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the field of patrimonial policies and art history. As the author notes, studying the story of the “discovery” of the Buddhist statue of Sokkuram in southern Korea, “the colonial authorities did not just teach Koreans about their past; they had to restore it for them.” Japan’s encounter with Korean art did not only take the form of looting and plundering, although such forms of colonial exploitation also took place. “Like the British in India and the Americans in the Philippines, the Japanese colonial state invested time, money, and human resources to carry out excavations and surveys, to study Korea’s past and restore some cultural sites (but not others) in order to establish the categories and the narrative strategies by which Korea and Koreans would be understood.”

Competing visions of Korea’s history

It was the Japanese colonial state that identified Sokkuram as an example of Korea’s cultural and religious past, and that restored the statue to its former glory. Yanagi Soetsu, founder of the Mingei folk craft movement in Japan, praised Sokkuram as the “culmination of the religion and the art of the Orient.” Of course, Japan’s self-designated role as a curator for Asia’s art did not just emanate from a consideration of art for art’s sake, and it had political and ideological motivations as well. As reinterpreted by the Japanese, “the story of Sokkuram — its creation and subsequent slide into obscurity — was the story of Korea: a brilliant past that was Asian rather than Korean, followed by a downward slide into the vulgar and trivial art of the Choson dynasty, pointing to the necessity of Japan’s tutelage of Korea and Koreans.” This imperialist vision of art was reinforced by colonial historiography. Through popular essays and media reports, “the Japanese came to believe that Japan had ruled Korea in ancient times and that the Japanese colonization of Korea in modern times represented the restoration of an ancient relationship.”

Of course, Korean historians developed a completely different story. Whereas ancient Korea was divided in terms of village or region, clan or lineage, class or social status, the Koreans became Korean partly thanks to national historiography, when modern intellectuals such as Sin Chae-ho began to write Korea’s national history. “In place of loyalty to the king and attachment to the village, clan, and family, and in place of hierarchic status distinctions among yangban, chungin, commoners, and chonmin, nationalist historiography endeavored to redirect the people’s loyalty toward a new all-embracing identity of Koreans as a unique ethnic group.” It is Sin Chae-ho who emphasized the mythical figure of Tangun as the common ancestor of the Korean people. The Tangun legend later led to various interpretations. Japanese historians dismissed it as a story fabricated in the thirteenth century by the Buddhist monk Iryon. As a nationalist historian, Choe Nam-son read the Tangun story as the expression of religious practice dating to prehistoric times, as an ancient narrative that indicated a common cultural sphere for all of northeast Asia centered around Ancient Choson. In the story of the female bear transformed into a woman and married to Tangun’s ancestor, the Marxist historian Paek Nam-un saw evidence of the beginning of both class differentiation and the privileging of the male over the female descent line in primitive times.

The three schools of Korean historiography

The 1930s saw Korean historians coalescing around three competing schools: nationalist historiography, Marxist or socioeconomic historiography (Paek Nam-un), and positivist historiography (Yi Pyong-do and the Chindan society). Paek Nam-un’s Chosen Shakai Keizaishi was the first book of a comprehensive history of Korea’s historical development in terms of class formation and social forces internal to Korea, as it went from primitive tribal communism to a slave economy and to an Asian feudal society until “sprouts of capitalism” began to emerge independently from outside interference. In the immediate post-liberation period, Marxist intellectuals, with Paek Nam-un taking the leading role, sought to establish hegemony over intellectual production, reaching out to non-Marxist scholars, including nationalist historians who had not capitulated to colonial power. By 1948 many Marxist intellectuals had left Seoul and gone north of the 38th parallel, pushed by anti-communist repression in the South and pulled by offers of employment and opportunity to take part in the DPRK’s national democratic revolution. The progressive historian scholars who stayed found refuge mostly in economics departments.

Although the student revolution of April 19, 1960, that toppled the Rhee regime was crushed by a military coup in 1961, that democratic opening nevertheless allowed a younger generation of historians to narrate history in new ways. Under a nationalist canopy, scholars like Kim Yong-sop and Kang Man-il revived and confirmed Paek’s disclosure of the internal dynamic underlying Korea’s historical development, in which class struggle was central. In Korean History Before and After Liberation, Song Kon-ho presented an ethical critique of how 1945 marked the beginning point of the most horrific chapter in Korean history. Song reminded his readers that it was Syngman Rhee who had allowed notorious collaborators to evade punishment, including former Korean police officers who had hunted down, tortured, and killed independence activists. Spurred by Bruce Cummings’s research on the Origins of the Korean War, a passionate debate took place on the role of various parties and events in starting the war.

The New Right and post-colonialism

As “revisionist” historical narrative gained currency in the 1980s, conservative historians became increasingly frustrated at historiography that conceded nationalist credentials to North Korea and seemingly denied historical legitimacy to South Korea. In an interesting twist, the so-called New Right welcomed scholarship inspired by postcolonial theory that insisted on the acquiescence and participation of colonized people in their imperial domination. With this, the New Right turned to criticism of nationalism in general, and leftist-nationalist historiography of the 1980s in particular, attacking the later for questioning South Korea’s legitimacy. But this accommodation with postcolonial and postmodern scholarship was only tactical, as shown by the New Right’s support of alternative history textbooks that are avowedly nationalistic. In a region still marred in border disputes and nationalist sensibilities, historians should look forward to the day when nationalism can be dispensed with.

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