중앙데일리

Duelling histories give Koreans choice of views

Feb 10,2006
History is a dialogue between the past and the present, and that is particularly true in the case of Korea’s modern history. The interpretation of the 20th century, marked by vicissitudes like the Japanese colonial era and the national division, has been complicated by the authoritarian governments that ruled in South Korea until the late 1980s, stifling historical treatises that did not reflect their hard-line anti-communist views. That made “Understanding of Post-Liberation History” a bombshell in 1979. Written from a left-wing perspective, it was quickly banned in Korea but circulated underground and inspired a generation of college students.
A group of 28 more conservative scholars published this week a new history, called “New Understanding of the Post-Liberation History,” which counters the 1979 classic’s interpretation of the colonial, Korean War and post-war periods. Here are a few excerpts from the two books. - Ed.


Responsibility for the division of Korea:

From the left (1979) : When the talks on a trusteeship by a joint commission of the United States and the Soviet Union broke down in June 1946, Syngman Rhee, speaking in Jeongeup, North Jeolla province, announced a plan to establish a government of South Korea alone. This “Jeongeup Announcement” was the actual starting point and the reason behind the division of the peninsula. Two months after that announcement, North Korea had to make a reluctant countermove by establishing the Workers’ Party. South Korea bears the primary responsibility for the nation’s division.

From the right (2006) : On Sept. 20, 1945, Stalin gave an order to establish a bourgeois democratic government in the northern part of Korea. This order, coming only 37 days after Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, became the unchangeable larger framework in the subsequent arguments over a trusteeship and a joint commission of the United States and the Soviet Union.
Therefore, the talk and effort to unify North and South Korea was destined from the start to burst like a bubble.


Views of the Korean War:

From the left (1979) : At the outbreak of the Korean War, who invaded whom first is not a question with a lot of weighty meaning. The claim that North Korea invaded is a one-sided view of those who attribute responsibility for the war to one side instead of trying to understand the general pre-war context. Instead, we must view it as a civil war, initiated by Kim Il Sung, whose primary concern was the unification of the peninsula. The division into North and South Korea came after the establishment of a South Korea-only government by Syngman Rhee.

From the right (2006) : The 1979 “Understanding of Post-Liberation History” borrowed a clumsy framework for understanding the war by Bruce Cumings (the author of “Origins of the Korean War”). The core of Mr. Cumings’ civil war theory was that Kim Il Sung initiated the Korean War with the will to unify the nation, backed by an agreement in advance by Stalin. But the Korean War was, from the beginning, the work of Stalin with the aim of checking the United States. From the start, the Korean War had to be characterized as an international war.


Perspectives on Syngman Rhee:

From the left (1979) : Syngman Rhee’s anti-Japanese attitude can be greatly appreciated. But Mr. Rhee’s top priority was diplomacy, and his diplomacy with the United States did not give any substantial help to the independence movement. Mr. Rhee in general spoke for the interests of the United States more than any Americans did. Mr. Rhee was also responsible for the establishment of the South Korea-only government. He gave support to the United States, which had been in need of a South Korea-only government as its relationship with the Soviet Union worsened. Also, Mr. Rhee set up a general system that made his country anti-democratic and dependent on foreign powers.

From the right (2006) : Mr. Rhee was the Korean version of Machiavelli, who knew how to make the most of chances and resources to achieve his goals. Those goals included unification by going northward and signing the mutual defense agreement with the United States. The defense agreement, in particular, provided a security environment that guaranteed a leap in economic growth in the years to come. Mr. Rhee led the 1950s, and had achievements and mistakes at the same time.
But he made progress by setting up a National Assembly, allowing party politics and promoting a market economy.


Evaluation of North Korea’s Kim Il Sung:

From the left (1979) : The leadership that Kim Il Sung showed after liberation from Japanese colonial rule was based on the history of struggle against Japanese colonialism. There were internal conflicts, but they were not serious problems. The spirit of anti-Japanese fighting led to reforms. And thus came the revolution of democracy against feudalism. The social and economic reforms of the late 1940s led to the abolition of the feudal state of the Japanese colonial period. North Korea saw the birth of a base of democracy, which must be distinguished in quality from South Korea, which was still half-feudal.

From the right (2006) : In North Korea after liberation, there was a clear distinction between the “new people” and the “old people.” The revolution required the “new people.” Basically, it was a plan to move the masses and it was an age of madness. The system under the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung was similar to that of the government of an emperor. North Korea was still a guerrilla unit even after liberation.
In other words, liberation did not mean liberation from the mobilization system. It was a society of forced spontaneity.


Removing remnants of Japanese colonialism:

From the left (1979) : The North Korean regime successfully achieved its goal of eliminating vestiges of Japanese colonialism through a Council of People’s Commissars by a campaign of purges against pro-Japanese collaborators. But South Korea failed to clear away the remains of Japanese colonialism because of the passive attitude of the U.S. military administration. Also, the special committee to investigate anti-national activities failed. Therefore, South Korea failed to liquidate its past. From then on, South Korean modern history was a continuation of its “shameful history.”

Well-known contributors to the 1979 text: Lee Jong-seok, unification minister; Kang Man-gil, chairman of the Presidential Committee for the Inspection of Collaborations for Japanese Imperialism; Choi Jang-jip, professor of political science at Korea University; Kim Hak-joon, president of the Dong-A Ilbo

From the right (2006) : Both North and South Korea saw the continuation of the Japanese colonial ages even after the liberation.
It is still a matter of argument whether North Korea effectively dealt with the remains of colonialism earlier than South Korea did. South Korea made the leap to a free market economy from the wartime economy of the late Japanese colonial period.
Meanwhile, North Korea replaced the wartime economy with one to build a socialist state with a “great mobilization system.”

Selected contributors (2006): Rhee Young-hoon, professor of economics at Seoul National University ; Kim Il-young, professor of political science at Sungkyunkwan University ; Park Ji-hyang, professor of western history at Seoul National University; Lee Man-gap, professor emeritus at Seoul National University.


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