Historians re-examine Korea’s accepted history: Book touching on Korean nationalism has created a firestorm

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Historians re-examine Korea’s accepted history: Book touching on Korean nationalism has created a firestorm


Rhee Young-hoon, a former economics professor at Seoul National University, wrote in his recent book “Anti-Japanese Tribalism” that “Current history textbooks are not based on facts.” [JUN MIN-KYU]

The nationwide boycott against Japanese products shows no sign of slowing down amid the diplomatic trade dispute between Korea and Japan, and patriotism seems to be running higher than ever before across the country.

Ironically, however, a book, which touches on some touchy diplomatic issues such as forced labor, sex slavery and exploitation during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) from a different point of view, has remained at the top of the best seller’s list at Kyobo Bookstore, the country’s largest bookstore chain, for weeks upon its release in July.

For those who have been taught to remember brutalities committed by Japanese against Koreans during the Japanese colonial period, the book titled “Anti-Japanese Tribalism” flips many commonly-held beliefs upside down.

The book states that all of the information that Koreans have learned about forced labor, sex slaves and exploitation from the media and schools are lies.

For example, the book says just a small number of Korean women were forced to work as sex slaves. Instead, they were deceived by Korean pimps who promised them a rosy future or they were sold by their relatives and acquaintances. Six co-authors including Rhee Young-hoon, a former economics professor at Seoul National University, back up the assertion with facts and numbers throughout the book.

Since its release, the book has been at the center of controversy. Some praised the book for providing them with unknown information while others were infuriated.

No other history-related book has ever received this much publicity from the media and the political world.

Some far-right politicians such as Hong Joon-pyo, the former opposition leader, said the book is “not right,” and Chang Je-won, another conservative politician from the Liberty Korea Party, said he felt a “severe headache and [was] insulted.”

Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk also recently wrote on Facebook that the book was “disgusting.”

Author Rhee stands in the middle of the spotlight now that book has been released.


“Anti-Japanese Tribalism” published by Rhee and five co-authors. [MIRAESA]

He is currently the head of the Syngman Rhee School, which published “Anti-Japanese Tribalism.”

The institution was launched to remember the inaugural president of Korea.

Syngman Rhee is considered a controversial historical figure by some. Some think he failed to punish pro-Japanese Koreans after the country achieved its independence from Japan, while some other consider him to be anti-Japanese.

Like Syngman Rhee, author Rhee is not new to this kind of controversy.

The 68-year-old scholar authored a book titled “Is King Sejong a Good King?” (2018) and ignited controversy at the time because no one had ever publicly doubted the greatness of King Sejong (1418-1450) before.

Some readers said that “the book made me rethink King Sejong” while others asked, “What is the intention of attacking the greatest king of the Joseon Dynasty? The book tries to justify Japan’s colonization of Korea.”

The JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, sat down with Rhee Young-hoon for an interview. The following are edited excerpts.

Q. Syngman Rhee is often regarded as a dictator and a leader who failed to punish pro-Japanese Koreans during his tenure. But it was exceptional to see the New York Times, a left-wing media outlet, described him as a democrat and an anti-Japanese in his obituary written in July 20, 1965.

I don’t agree with calling Rhee a dictator. Dictators are people who kill thousands of people over the course of breaking the rules and overturning society like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung. Rhee is very different from those figures because he was an authoritative regulator. As the head of the country and as the teacher of the nation, he governed the country. He tried to be authoritative to set up laws and institutions. I would say Rhee’s authoritative style is an early form of liberal democracy that can happen in any underdeveloped country.

The Bodo League Massacre is one tell-tale sign to prove that Rhee is a dictator.

The war broke out. And there is an organization with about 300,000 members and it is ready to cooperate with the enemy at any time. When Seoul was occupied [by the North], some leaders [from the organization] actually helped [the communist regime] take control over some areas. That tragedy is part of our history. We can’t blame only one person for such a tragedy. How nice would it be to end the war and achieve national unity without the massacre? But the time did not allow it.

But there must be some innocent people who were killed during the Bodo League massacre.

Yes. Many people were victimized without doing any wrong. The government should apologize to them with compensation. Rhee would not oppose to the idea of doing it.

What is your take on the claim that Rhee is anti-Japanese?

I believe Rhee’s strict anti-Japanese policies led him to pay the price in many ways. But his policies were unavoidable at that time. First, the United States wanted us to collaborate with Japan and operate a national security system with Japan. And they also wanted us to export agricultural products and seafood to Japan and import industrial products from Japan. The United States demanded we develop an economy under such circumstances. That is typical U.S. logic of a free market. But Rhee thought Korea may be subordinate to Japan under such a system.

Secondly, we became new citizens of a new country but we all had identity issues. People still spoke in Japanese and sang Japanese songs. There were even a lot of people who reminisced about the colonial period.

Thirdly, Japan left about $5 billion worth of fortunes behind when it returned home. Although Japan lost, Rhee thought Japan may come back someday to retrieve its money. For all these reasons, Rhee had no choice but to adopt anti-Japanese policies to nurture national pride and inspire national consciousness. Since most of the people were illiterate at the time, the government couldn’t promote campaigns like “Be a freeman” or “Be a cosmopolitan.” People used to live by cultivating their small farms. Rhee was well aware that it was a daunting task to enlighten the public. Thus, the first thing he did was build up community identity by adopting anti-Japanese policies.


Left: Syngman Rhee, the first president of Korea, meets with a military unit in Hongcheon, Gangwon in August 1951. Right: Rhee visits Busan, the southern port city, during his summer vacation in 1959. [NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF KOREA]

In the preface of “Anti-Japanese Tribalism,” you wrote “You can’t claim or advocate wrong assertions for national interest. It is not acceptable in the world of academics.”

There are so many lies about the past. These lies have become acceptable because of the prevalent tribalism culture that runs in the country. Tribalism is a state in which two groups confront and compete with each other. Between the two, there is this strong feeling of hostility. In this culture, I am the good and the counterpart is the evil. All my words and actions are righteous and those of the latter are vicious, deceptive and violent. When such culture thrives, lying becomes a part of the culture. I’ve been telling people that most Korean history textbooks are not based on facts from 27 years ago.

The title seems like it is disparaging the nationalism of Korea. You could have titled the book as “Anti-Japanese Nationalism” or “Anti-Japanese-ism.”

Nationalism originates from the West and it is based on the language and culture of a region. Nationalism is the community spirit of free-spirited individuals. That’s why nationalism became the ideology of civil revolution when it fought against aristocracy. Nationalism is also adopted when a country wants to unite and educate its people. But the nationalism of Korea is different from the nationalism of the West. It is not an outcome achieved over the course of modernization. The nationalism of this country is not based on the premise of establishing a mature and free individual. Nationalism itself is a power group, authority and identity in Korea. So it is hard to see it as nationalism. It is more correct to see it as tribalism.

Some think of you as an advocate for colonial modernity.

That’s what some call me. Modernization took place during the colonial period, though. In that sense, I’m an advocate for colonial modernity. When I have discussions, I ask people “When do you think the country achieved its modernization?” and nobody answers my question. If you look at history textbooks, none of them describe when modernization takes place.

How did modernization happen?

After the Joseon Dynasty was disassembled during the Japanese colonial period, individual Koreans tried to improve themselves under discrimination and suppression during the colonial period. By the 1940s, about one million or one fourth of the households became modernized. Based on this, the Republic of Korea came into existence after the country was liberated. And it was truly a republic of freemen. My stance for the colonial period is not looking at it as the history of suppression and domination but seeing it as the history of Koreans who became modernized despite suppression.

Your newest book does not spare many pages for describing the suppression and discrimination done by Japanese. Some readers may think the book is written by someone who is pro-Japanese.

Some people think that way because they are not free yet. They only think about suppression and discrimination because they want to see that period within that frame.

Do you have anything else to add?

If we keep holding on to this tribal feeling within us, we can’t move up to the next level and will never become an advanced country. If we leave this feeling as it is in the coming years, the country will go bankrupt or will remain a tier-two or tier-three country that exists near China in a generation.

BY KIM WHAN-YUNG [estyle@joongang.co.kr]
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