[KS] History's twists: thoughts on kwago ch'ongsan and the MOPE syndrome

Afostercarter at aol.com Afostercarter at aol.com
Sun Sep 8 07:37:45 EDT 2002

For Korean Studies List                     completed 8 September, 2002

History's twists: thoughts on kwago ch'ongsan and the MOPE syndrome

If - as I hoped it might - this discussion has now burst the bounds of the 
purely linguistic, I should like to strongly support Prof Yong-ho Choe's 
critique of kwago ch'ongsan as such. 

My sense is that some Koreans essentialize History (capital H) through a 
mindset which, by confusing many things, guarantees that none of them ever 
get resolved. Philosophically, the notion of "cleansing the past" is just a 
category error. History can be interpreted and debated endlessly, but it 
can't be changed. Shaking a fist at history is pointless. By all means 
uncover new facts or offer fresh interpretations, but these will always be 
multiple There is no single right account, factually or morally, nor ever 
could be. So why go on a wild goose chase?

For instance: coming to Korea from Africa, it puzzled me how hard it is to 
have a grown-up discussion about colonialism here. In this at least, Africa 
is well ahead of Korea. Teaching in Tanzania barely a decade after British 
rule had ended, despite a highly politicized atmosphere of anti-imperialism, 
there was neither personal nor academic animus involved in researching the 
colonial past. (It helps, of course, if you call it colonialism rather than 
occupation, not least in avoiding divisive and fruitless arguments about 
so-called "collaborators".)

One lesson here is the merits of comparativism. Koreans should get more 
interested in other peoples' colonial histories. This helps to put your own 
fate in context, and avoid the solipsism which some wag, in another nation 
rather given to self-pity (my motherland), has named the MOPE syndrome: Most 
Oppressed People Ever. As an Irishman, my 800 years of oppression trump your 
mere 40 any day. But why would anyone want to play this game in the first 

The academy aside, what really worries me is how kwago ch'ongsan holds 
present and future policy choices hostage to the past. This is downright 
dangerous. For example, many Koreans give China the benefit of the doubt, but 
never Japan. (I call this "penultimate oppressor love"; just so do some 
Latvians forgive the Germans everything, the Russians nothing.) Yet on any 
objective criteria of shared interests, today's South Korea and Japan should 
be close allies, whereas China's future is a question mark. Past hurts are no 
basis for taking such decisions.

On contentious matters within living memory - the colonial era, the civil 
war, the struggle for democracy - then those who demand a reckoning should 
think very hard what it is exactly they want, and why. If crimes are yet 
unpunished, then the proper court is the law as such, not history. As for the 
inevitable political dimension, what is the goal: reconciliation, or revenge? 
How can kwago ch'ongsan help those in South Korea who supported or opposed 
dictatorship to kiss and make up - much less those who took sides between 
capitalism and communism? Endlessly refighting yesterday's battles means 
wounds never heal. Why not close the book?

In all of the above periods, some Koreans did things for which other Koreans 
cannot forgive them. (Another question: Why does Asia's second most Christian 
nation find forgiveness so difficult?) But peoples, like individuals, need to 
heal and move on. In all three of these eras, honourable men and women, as 
well as knaves, faced difficult, sometimes life-threatening choices. Some 
went one way, some another. It is time now for understanding, not reproach. 

I look forward to the special issue of Korea Journal. Besides elucidating 
specific debates and issues, I hope Prof Choe's challenge will be addressed. 
In that spirit, let me end polemically. As regards kwago ch'ongsan's effects, 
the best 'translation' has to be "Twisting history". Its development was 
misguided; its significance lies under social pathology; and if either Korean 
historiography or politics are to move forward, the urgent future task is to 
smash this murky prism and adopt a more pluralistic, inclusive, and tolerant 
approach to both past and present.

Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds University
17 Birklands Road, Shipley, West Yorkshire, BD18 3BY, UK
tel:    +44(0)  1274  588586        mobile:  +44(0)  7970  741307 
fax:    +44(0)  1274  773663        Email: afostercarter at aol.com        

In a message dated 9/7/02 11:08:10 GMT Daylight Time, choeyh at hawaii.edu 

> Subj:Re: [KS] Gwageo cheongsan (Kwageon ch'eongsan) 
> Date:9/7/02 11:08:10 GMT Daylight Time
> From:<A HREF="mailto:choeyh at hawaii.edu">choeyh at hawaii.edu</A>
> Reply-to:<A HREF="mailto:Koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws">Koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws</A>
> To:<A HREF="mailto:Koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws">Koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws</A>, <A HREF="mailto:Koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws">Koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws</A>
> Sent from the Internet 
> I challenge the basic notion of "kwago ch'ongsan" or cleansing the 
> past.  How can one cleanse the past?  One can only study and learn lessons 
> from the past so that we do not repeat same mistakes.  There is no way one 
> can undo the past.  The current trend of "kwago ch'ongsan" in S. Korea is 
> inclined to finger-pointing, rather than making soul-searching examinations 
> of the past mistakes. If one needs a "kwago ch'ongsan," it should be left 
> to historians to examine comprehensively---free of prejudgment---complex 
> factors and circumstances within which one may have acted in certain ways 
> in the past.  I raise this question because I am alarmed by the recent 
> attempt of "kwago ch'ongsan" dealing with the issue of the collaboration 
> under the Japanese colonial rule.
> At 04:49 PM 9/5/2002 -0500, Michael Robinson wrote:
> >Dear Korea Journal:
> >
> >An interesting question to be sure.  my first thought for translation was 
> >"settling accounts from the past".  I then read to the bottom of your 
> >message at see that in the Korean context there is more than a neutral 
> >balancing of accounts....but more a desire to insert the idea of 
> >correcting previously poorly kept and inaccurate accounts.  I would 
> >suggest the neutral idea of balance.
> >
> >And for the wider audience of the list, I find it interesting that the 
> >Journal's question arrives on the same day that our friend in Hungary is 
> >asking about the politics of memory.  In response to his query....you 
> >might consider that the era post-1945 is both a time of actively 
> >"forgetting" as well as a struggle to selectively remember.  My sense is 
> >that if we are to discuss some "Korean tradition" with regard to 
> >memorialization, we must consider the long history and active present of 
> >hagiography both official and private in Korean society.  Statues, parks, 
> >grandiose buildings, etc. are new....the idea of spinning the memory of 
> >one's relatives or working to resurrect the name of same....has been an 
> >active Korean pastime for a very long time.  The Korea Journal question 
> >falls as a project somewhere between official memory...that cultivated and 
> >enshrined by the state...and the private cultivation of memory in 
> >foundations, collected writings, genealogies, etc.
> >
> >Mike Robinson
> >----- Original Message -----
> >From: <mailto:kj at unesco.or.kr>Korea Journal
> >To: <mailto:Koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws>Koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws
> >Sent: Monday, September 02, 2002 4:09 AM
> >Subject: [KS] Gwageo cheongsan (Kwageon ch'eongsan)
> >
> >Dear list members,
> >
> >
> >
> >The KOREA JOURNAL will deal with the special issue titled 
> >"Gwageo  cheongsan (MR: Kwago ch'ongsan) in Korean Modern History" in its 
> >2002 autumn issue. Articles in this issue will analyze the development, 
> >significance and future tasks concerning gwageo cheongsan. Articles to be 
> >published in this special issue are as follows.
> >
> >
> >
> >1. "Gwageo cheongsan" in Modern Korean History
> >2. Refracted Modernity and the Issue of Pro-Japanese Collaborators in 
> Korea
> >3. How To Reveal the Iceberg under the Sea?: The Problems in Historical 
> >Clarification of the Korean War
> >4. The Significance of "gwageo cheongsan" of the December 12 Coup and
> >the May 18 Gwangju Uprising
> >5. Attempted "gwageo choengsan" in April Popular Struggle
> >6. Finding the Truth on the Suspicious Deaths Under South Koreas Military 
> >Dictatorship
> >7. State Violence and Sacrifices under Military Authoritarianism 
> >and  Dynamics of "gwageo cheongsan" during Democratic Transition
> >
> >
> >
> >However, we have had difficulty in translating "gwageo cheongsan" into an 
> >appropriate English term. Some alternatives have been suggested such as 
> >"dealing with the wrong past," "liquidating the past," "rectifying the 
> >past," and "righting past wrongs," but none of these is satisfactory. We 
> >ask anyone who is struck with a good idea regarding this matter to let us 
> know.
> >
> >Sincerely,
> >
> >
> >
> >Korea Journal
> Yong-ho Choe
> Department of History
> University of Hawaii at Manoa
> Honolulu, HI  96822
> Tel: 808 956-6762
> Fax: 808 956-9600
> E-mail: choeyh at hawaii.edu

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