The spy who loved Gojoseon

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The spy who loved Gojoseon

Kang In-wook
The author is a professor of history at Kyung Hee University.

Over the past 60 years, Gojoseon (2,333 BC to 108 BC), or ancient Joseon, was one of the hottest topics in historical circles in East Asia. Interestingly, most of socialist states, including Russia, still support Korea’s position on the historical issue. Behind their backing is Prof. Yuri Mikhailovich Butin (1931-2002), who had a mysterious background ranging from military spy to economist and historian. His Gojoseon study was a Bible for researchers of Korea’s ancient history in the socialist states. But strangely, even in Russia, there are very few who know what happened to him later. The following is a journey to rediscovering a Russian archeologist devoted to the study of Gojoseon and beyond.

China and North Korea completely turned their backs on one another after a joint excavation of the remains of Gojoseon in North Korea and northeast China in the mid-1960s. Shortly after the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, China launched the Northeast Project to incorporate Goguryo (37 BC to 668 AD) and Balhae (698 to 926) — undisputedly ancient Korean kingdoms — into its history while North Korea was carving out its history and ideology based on Gojoseon and the juche (self-reliance) ideology.

After its relations with China were strained, North Korea desperately needed help from the Soviet Union. As part of an academic exchange in 1974, scholars from the Institute of Archaeology at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences visited North Korea. Apart from their embarrassment at the political promotion of the juche ideology in North Korea, the Russian archeologists noticed a strong determination from their North Korean counterparts to re-establish the history of Gojoseon based on archeological discoveries by themselves.

Based on a cornucopia of Gojoseon-related discoveries by North Korea, the Siberian branch of the Russian academy began looking into what North Korea had found. During the Soviet era, the Siberian branch was the center of Russia’s research on the history of Siberia, China, North Korea and Central Asia.
Ancient bronze mirrors representing the Gojoseon culture, found in Liaoning Province, China. [KANG IN-WOOK, V. E. LARICHEV]
But due to a lack of archeologists who could speak and read Korean, the institute of economy at the branch introduced Butin to the institute of archeology. Born in a small town around Lake Baikal, he was fluent in Korean, Japanese, Chinese, French and other languages. As he was of mixed ancestry between a native Siberian and a Russian, Butin at first glance looked like a Korean. That helps explain why he was secretly dispatched during the Korean War to serve as a military spy for the Soviet Union even though the USSR was not an official participant in the war at the time.

As Butin studied economics shortly after returning home, he was beginning to lose interest in Korea. But a bunch of history books on Gojoseon delivered by the Siberian archeologists for translation changed his life. Upon looking at them, he was instantly absorbed into the proud history of Gojoseon.
Soviet archeologists who visited North Korea in 1974 for research on Gojoseon. 
Human bones excavated from a 2,300-year-old Gojoseon-style tomb in Rushun, Liaoning Province, China.

Thanks to his linguistic gift, Butin read through Chinese and Japanese history books and became an unrivaled Gojoseon expert by publishing his monumental book “Old Joseon” in 1982. In the book, he concluded that Gojoseon actually existed and its territory stretched from Liaoning Province, China to the western region of North Korea. Some Koreans applaud him for resurrecting the history of such a huge empire as Gojoseon. But that’s not the point. Butin only wanted to prove that Gojoseon existed as a state just like other civilizations around the world.

Thanks to Butin’s crusade, the history of Gojoseon, whose exact location and boundaries had not been known, were restored in Russian. At that time, the influence of the Russian language was absolute in socialist circles. His masterpiece “Old Joseon” was the only globally-recognized history book on Gojoseon and played a key role in turning Korea’s theory into a dominant one in Russia’s academic circles.

If Butin had continued his academic research, many Russian historians on Korea would have been produced in the Siberian branch of the academy. As his research stopped, however, no one remembers him correctly, as he was a military spy. He could speak many foreign languages, play piano masterfully, and was courteous, a rare quality for Russians. But Butin could not mingle with other people easily due to his limits: a researcher of Gojoseon by day and a spy at night.

Butin ended his career as an archeologist after writing “From Gojoseon to the Three Kingdom Age,” a follow-up on the ancient Korean state. As befitting his career as a spy, he left the world after erasing all information about himself. As a result, no personal photo or personal document was left behind. The only photo available now is a small mugshot attached to his early resume, which was recently discovered by Dr. Yuri Kuznetsov, a professor at Irkutsk State University.

Butin lived a lonely life but his passion for Korea was always burning. In the twilight of his life, he tried to cultivate Korean studies at Irkutsk State University near Lake Baikal, when Korea was not well-known to the rest of the world. He strived to set the foundation for Korean studies in Russia by establishing the department of Korean studies at three universities in Russia.

I did my best to trace Butin over the last three decades, but it was as difficult as finding the substance of Gojoseon, which perished two millennials ago. While living a life as a spy in Korea, he may have found his avatar from Gojoseon.
The cover of Yuri Mikhailovich Butin’s book on Gojoseon, published in Russian in 1984. 
Academic research on Gojoseon delivered to the Soviet Union by North Korean scholars and Butin’s translation into Russian. 
A photo of Butin.

Even today, a scheme to shrink the territory of Gojoseon or deny its existence is not diminished in China or Japan. And yet, most socialist countries still follow Korea’s historical view largely thanks to Butin’s passion for the first country for Koreans. If you are a Korean, you must not forget your debt to Butin, as the history war over Northeast Asia is not over yet.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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