Book review: A (minjung) History of Korea

A History of Korea 9781872843865 revised edition published 2008Korea Historical Research Association (tr Joshua van Lieu)
A History of Korea
Saffron Books, 2005
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It’s the 1980s. In Britain, leftist ideologues such as Red Robbo, Arthur Scargill and Derek Hatton had for years been railing against the government and the establishment using turgid language pilloried in satirical magazines, TV programmes and film1.

Anyone who lived through that period in the UK is unable to take such language seriously. And any other English speaker will find the language of this worthy book so monumentally dull and politically loaded that they might find it hard to stay awake. The book’s proofreader clearly also suffered from this problem, failing to spot that many of the earlier chapters end tantalisingly in mid-sentence. On second thoughts, tantalisingly is probably the wrong word.

Here’s a sample of the prose in store:

The Joseon masses, ruined by the influx of cheap Japanese manufactured goods, Japanese land seizures, the strengthening of the landlord system, and Japanese oppression, resisted the Japanese colonial authorities and the feudal landlords and dependent capitalists who colluded with them by starting a fervent movement to restore Joseon sovereignty.

Though I make fun of the language, there is a serious side, which means it’s worth persevering. Whereas in the UK the ideologues were fighting a rearguard action against a democratically elected government, those in Korea were fighting against a military dictatorship with the blood of its own citizens on its hands, and were part of a broad coalition of students, intellectuals and workers which culminated in the mass demonstrations of 1987. And the anger contained in some of the language is not unjustified, and is explained by the particular perspective of the authors. Joshua van Lieu, who undertook the task of translating the work, provides the background in a helpful preface, from which it’s worth giving an extended quote:

A History of Korea is a product of a particular moment in South Korean social and political history. First appearing in 1992, it is a work published in the aftermath of the popular resistance movements of 1987 that brought an end to the military dictatorship and ushered in direct elections for the presidency of South Korea. The historians … were not dispassionate recorders of these events but rather active participants in the democracy movements of the time, who understood their scholarship as a contribution to the popular resistance against military rule and as a tool for the democratisation and unification of Korea. … They proposed their own visions of past, present and future Korean societies.

The perspective is therefore that of the grass roots, the people. The focus is on the people’s resistance to feudalism, the people’s opposition to Japanese colonial rule. The various strikes and different resistance movements are catalogued in laborious and bewildering detail. We hear of the Great Han Restoration Association, the Joseon Citizen’s Association, the Joseon Labour Alliance, which inevitably splits into the Labour Alliance and the Peasant Alliance. And that’s just for starters.

One of the book’s stronger points is the brief few pages covering the inter-war years (1945-50), where one gets a sense of the tragedy of division, when people who opposed the establishment of a separate government in the South, hoping instead for a single national government, ran the risk of being thought of as pro-north / pro-communist.

In order to come to a deeper understanding of Korean history … it is essential to shed the semi-national perspective engendered by national division and to adopt instead a perspective which encompasses the nation in its entirety. This pan-national perspective surpasses Cold War thinking and national division to advance toward unification.

One of the weaker points is the distorted perspective in respect of the economic achievements of the dictatorship. Talking of the 1980s, the dismissive summary of the Korean conglomerates reads as follows:

The focus of the jaebeol industries was basically the assembly of products for American and Japanese companies. Korean industry was therefore dependent on the foreign minority capitalists who financed its growth.

Maybe from the viewpoint of the downtrodden workers in certain areas of industry this might have rung true, but Hyundai was exporting ships by the mid 1970s and by 1987 had captured more than 10% of the US subcompact car market. Korea was not, in the time the book is talking about, just a place where foreign companies outsourced their labour-intensive work.

Of course, the question raised by this problematic summary causes one to suspect the assessments made elsewhere in the book.

If you’re struggling with this book, do at least read the brief final chapter before you put it down for good. For me, it’s the most interesting and fluently-written chapter, and sets out a history of Korean historiography over the past 100 years, focusing on the different perspectives of the Korean nationalist and Japanese colonial historians. It sets the context for the view of history presented in this work.

Overall, a book which is interesting, and probably important, for its very existence, and it was a courageous decision by Saffron to publish an English translation. But this is certainly not the place to go as your first introduction to Korean history.

Saffron Korea Library has a good collection of translations of books on Korean history, art and culture. They deserve your support.

  1. Examples: the Dave Spart column in Private Eye, Citizen Smith on the TV, 1977-80, and the representatives of the anarcho-syndicalist commune in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975 []

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