[KS] Correcting the Record

Sheila Miyoshi Jager sheila.jager at oberlin.edu
Thu Sep 29 20:08:34 EDT 2016

Prof. Baker raises two valid points:

-       An ethical question about historical truth or fact; and,

-       Particular points of contention over how a book covered aspects of
Kwangju 1980 and Cheju 1948 as means to provide examples on the first point.

The first, and most important point, about the ethics of handling
historical truth/fact, is an easy one. Truth and fact should *ALWAYS* trump
untruth and falsehood. This requires the scrupulous handling of primary

The challenge, however, as every historian is aware, is determining what
constitutes truth and fact. Historical truth is not only elusive, but may
never be attainable.  This is one of the reasons why historians will never
be out of a job, because of the endless challenges and revisions of
historical "truth and fact."  History is subject to the whims of human
passion, emotion, biases, and who knows what other obstacles we have to
elucidating and identifying the ultimate truth and fact.  Even names, dates
and locations, which should have ultimate truths, can be and have been
disputed, more often than not.  As many of us have seen, experienced, and
studied, history often serves a political master, whether mobilized from
the outside or self-imposed by the convictions of the individual historian.

There is no historical truth, only historical consensus.

Prof. Baker refers to "historical records" and "what people in Kwangju told
me" as definitive proof of a certain historical truth and fact.  We see
from Don Kirk’s post, also based eye witness a different historical truth
that directly challenges Prof. Baker’s hence beautifully demonstrating the
fragility and capriciousness of “historical truth.”  Neither “historical
records” or eye witness accounts source are free from distortions.  Only
the accumulation of a greater number of corroborating evidence can weigh
historical interpretation toward a certain truth and fact.  But, as in the
sciences, it is only a temporary state, truth until proven otherwise by new

Turning now to the specific issues of historical truth or correcting "a
serious misreading of the historical record" as Prof. Baker puts it, let me
start by confessing that the book he is referring to, which he very
graciously withheld from naming, is my *Brothers at War: The Unending
Conflict in Korea *(Norton 2013 in the U.S. and Profile 2013 in the
UK)*, *which,
for those unfamiliar, is a narrative history of the North-South
confrontation and competition from 1945 to early 2013.  It has been widely
praised as one of the most complete and balanced account of the situation
in Korea.  It was featured in the 2013 National Book Festival and selected
as one of the best books on Asia in 2013 by *Foreign Affairs. * I strove
very hard to produce an even handed account that minimized judgment and
show the good, the bad, and the ugly of the tragedy and triumph of post
World War II Korean history.  This was especially important to me because
of the highly charged partisanship that exists in modern Korean
historiography.  I am gratified that the vast number of readers appreciated
my non-partisan approach.

It is for this reason that I am disappointed that Prof. Baker chose to
highlight two narrow extracts of my book that implies a partisan historical
perspective.  Subscribers not familiar with my book may draw the conclusion
that I am an apologist for Chun's violent crackdown at Kwangju, and that I
may be justifying the horrific put down of the Cheju uprising because it
was instigated by thousands of mainland leftists.  Nothing could be further
from the truth.  This is readily apparent if those selections are read in
the context in which they were written and the larger narrative I convey.
I've written nothing to justify the inhuman cruelty and violence afflicted
on people in both incidents.

Let's suppose that by stating that Kwangju citizens took up arms first and
then Chun responded to it by surrounding the city with the army (pp.
417-419) that I "misread the historical record" although Don Kirk agrees
with this sequence.  I do not justify the cruel and violent army crackdown
because the citizens took up arms first.  Instead, I focused on what really
mattered from Kwangju, how "the magnitude of state violence and the
complete devastation of democratic forces and processes after the Kwangju
uprising" ironically pushed forward grass roots forces toward a
democratizing path for South Korea (p. 419).  This discussion of Kwangju
must be seen in the even larger narrative of where it fits in the chapter
discussing the end of the Park Chung Hee era and still larger narrative of
the Local War.

Admittedly, my discussion of the Kwangju incident in two pages was too
truncated.  For example, I did not mention the paratroopers who were sent
in to brutally attack students protesting the closure of Chonnam University
on the morning of 18 Maythat was, according to “historical records” the
spark that led the city to take up arms, which in turn resulted in regime
forces surrounding and bloodily retaking the city.  I did not think this
detail critical to a narrative that clearly identifies the Chun regime as
the side that perpetrated the attack.  The sequence of events of whether
citizens took up arms and then the regime reacted or vice versa does not
change the unjustified and unmitigated violence meted out by the regime
forces.  What mattered was the profound impact of that violence on the
historical path that South Korea followed afterwards.

Prof. Baker did contact me about this issue.  This is an important issue,
but certainly not at the level of who started the June 25, 1950 conflict, a
comparison to which Don Kirk characterizes as, I think correctly,
“hyperbolic and distracting.”  However, what is factually wrong must be
corrected and Prof. Baker has promised to provide the evidence, more
definitive than simply his words based on unspecified “historical records”
and witness accounts, for my consideration.  I will change my narrative if
it is warranted.

Turning to the second specific issue he raised, on the Cheju uprising of
spring 1948, I admit to a misquote of the source and thank Prof. Baker for
pointing it out although his posting on Korean Studies forum is the first
time he raised it.  The quote in my book was,

*It [the Cheju rebellion] had received substantial outside help.  Colonel
Rothwell Brown, an American advisor, reported that the SKWP had infiltrated
'over six thousand agitators and organizers' from the mainland and, with
the islanders, established cells in most towns and villages."....32 (p. 49)*

Endnote 32 states: John Merrill, *Korea: The Peninsular Origins of the
War *(University
of Delaware Press, 1989), p. 67; Bruce Cumings, *The Origins of the Korean
War, vol. 2: The Roaring of the Cataract, 1947-1950 *(Princeton University
Press, 1990), p. 254.

Most of the paragraph in question in my book came from Cumings including
this quote that I misquoted,

*Interrogators [working for Colonel Rothwell Brown] also found evidence
that the SKWP had infiltrated 'not over six trained agitators and
organizers' from the mainland..."*

Clearly I was wrong and gave a false impression of a huge mainland SKWP
presence in Cheju.  Don Kirk’s instinct was right.  It is unimaginable that
the SKWP could have infiltrated 6,000 agents.  However, this does not
change the interpretive thrust of this section that the Cheju uprising had
close links and support from the SKWP network, on the mainland and on Cheju
as the Merrill source discusses.  The origin of the Cheju uprising
definitely had local roots, but it seems SKWP organizational support played
an important part.

I will correct this mistake in the next edition.

My book undoubtedly has many areas for improvement and correction including
the incorporation of new developments in modern Korean historiography.  I
will be the last one to say I had complete mastery of such long and
complicated history.  Mistakes, omissions and untenable distortions were
inevitable.  But they were never intentional.

I thank Prof. Baker for raising such an important ethical question and an
opportunity to discuss my book and helping it get closer to history's
elusive truth.


Sheila Miyoshi Jager

On Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 6:30 PM, don kirk <kirkdon at yahoo.com> wrote:

> Re Professor Baker's commentary on Kwangju, it happens I was in and around
> Kwangju at the time. There's no misreading or even really conflicting
> reports as cited by Baker. The citizens did seize arms from the police,
> turning the city into a fortress, as the author in question has written. I
> was there. I saw the troops outside the city and, after entering by a back
> road, saw protesters careening up and down streets on trucks waving weapons
> and was briefed, harangued, by revolt leaders who had set up hq in the
> provincial governor's bldg. (They issued me a press card!)
> The Korean War invasion is hyperbolic and distracting. Chun did unleash
> soldiers to retake the city -- including special force troops. (Also Chun's
> KMA classmate Roh Moo-hyun pulled his division from south of the DMZ to
> Kwangju.) Protesters seized weapons, shots were fired and more than 200
> died -- 160 known dead, entombed in a special cemetery, and 75 missing.
> The real controversy concerns whether North Korean agents were firing up,
> maybe leading, the demonstrators. I was in Kwangju for the revolt
> anniversary in May with other journalists who had been there during the
> revolt as a guest of the local govt -- not an unbiased vantage, admittedly.
> They went to great lengths to argue that there was no evidence of North
> Korean involvement. I'm prepared to say, if there were North Korean
> informants or agents there, as everywhere, they were not visible and the
> revolt was basically home grown, locally led.
> Re Jeju, where I've also spent considerable time, I hadn't heard anything
> about 6,000 members of the South Korean Labor Party sent to instigate an
> uprising. Nor had I heard of "not over six" sent from the mainland. The
> 6,000 figure cannot be right, but I wonder what source was misread. And, of
> course, after all this, it would be nice to know what book or author Baker
> is referring to.
> Donald Kirk
> On Friday, September 30, 2016 1:51 AM, Don Baker <ubcdbaker at hotmail.com>
> wrote:
> I have a question for all you Koreanists out there about professional
> ethics. What should we do if we discover a serious misreading of the
> historical record about an important historical event, and that misreading
> is put forward as fact in a widely-read book on modern Korean history? I
> don't want to name the book or the author here, since I am not interested
> in engaging in personal attacks or name-calling. I could point out the
> mistake in that book if I were asked to review it, but no one has asked me
> to do so. I have contacted the author, but the author did not respond. (I
> asked for the source of that misleading information, since it is not
> footnoted.)
> This is not a trivial point of fact or a difference of interpretation. It
> is a basic distortion of one of the most important events in South Korean
> history since the Korean War.  Here is the passage in question:
> The author writes that the citizens of Kwangju, angry that Chun Doo Hwan
> had arrested Kim Daejung on May 17, 1980,  "responded by seizing arms from
> local police, turning the city into a fortress....Chun responding by
> ordering the city surrounded by army units. He then unleashed them to
> retake control." There is no footnote providing a source for this
> misinformation.
> That is a mistake on the scale of saying that the Korean War started when
> South Korea attacked the north in full force on June 25, 1950. The
> historical records clearly show (and those records are supported by what
> people in Kwangju told me in May, 1980) that Chun dispatched special forces
> troops to Kwangju and those troops began killing unarmed demonstrators (as
> well as some bystanders) on May 18. The people of Kwangju didn't grab
> rifles and begin shooting back until May 21. And they didn't seize those
> guns from the police. Actually, some policemen gave the citizens weapons to
> defend themselves. But most of the weapons in the hands of Kwangju citizens
> came from looted reserve army arsenals.
> The same book, in a footnoted reference, states that over 6,000 members of
> the South Korean Labour Party were sent to Cheju in 1948 to instigate the
> uprising there. However, the source cited says that "not over six"
> mainlanders were sent to Cheju. By misreading a key secondary source, the
> author seriously distorts the historical record here by downplaying the
> local origins of the Cheju insurgency.
> I bring this up because, with the forthcoming publication of a
> government-designed history textbook in South Korea, it is more important
> than ever that we get our facts straight. (I am very concerned about what
> that government-sponsored textbook will say about the Cheju Uprising and
> the Kwangju Resistance.)   So how do we correct the record (I should point
> out again that these mistakes are found in a widely-read survey of modern
> Korean history) without getting into unseemly name-calling? What do we do
> if the author fails to respond when those mistakes are pointed out? I would
> hate to see those mistakes repeated in a 2nd edition of this book. After
> all, these are factual errors, not differences of interpretation, and
> therefore should be corrected.
> Don Baker
> Professor
> Department of Asian Studies
> University of British Columbia
> Vancouver, Canada V6T 1Z2
> don.baker at ubc.ca

Sheila Miyoshi Jager
Professor of East Asian Studies
Oberlin College
Oberlin, Ohio 44074
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