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

Afostercarter at aol.com Afostercarter at aol.com
Mon Sep 9 06:10:09 EDT 2002

Dear friends and foes (equally dear),                   9 September 2002

I'm sorry to have stirred such a hornet's nest, and from people whom I like 
and respect. Some of the responses take me back to the knockabout tone of the 
old open List, which (if I recall) was closed down for brawling, among other 
reasons. For my part, although I was avowedly polemical, I didn't write ad 
hominem, or not intendedly. So it's a little galling to be kicked quite so 
hard. But as ever, I take comfort from Kim Su-jang: komumyon huida hago, etc.

Yet I must take the blame for generating only heat instead of light, perhaps 
by one or two ill-chosen words. So I apologize for offending anyone. (But no 
Koreans, it seems, interestingly.) At the same time, I stand by my main 
substantive points - which were (1) the virtues of comparativism, and (2) the 
harmful effect of kwago ch'ongsan on present politics and future-oriented 
policy-making - which went largely ignored. So let me have another try, if I 

1. It should go without saying, but evidently doesn't, that I claim no 
authority for my views. This is just my opinion, based on 20 years experience 
of what I conceive as a hermeneutic encounter with a great nation and its 
wonderful people; from which I have learnt more than I can ever repay. For 
that matter, I see this list - and others like it - as the nearest we can get 
on this earth to a Habermasian ideal speech situation: a democratic dialogue, 
in which all may take part. Going round impugning each others' motives 
doesn't seem to me helpful, or fair.

2. Perhaps "grown-up" was a red rag. But what is "colonial" about the 
comparative method? My point is that one possible way forward for kwago 
ch'ongsan might be for Koreans to look more at other nations' histories and 
historiographies. When you do that, you find that, for whatever reason, in 
some countries this whole area is more emotionally freighted; to the point 
where objective academic enquiry is impeded. (Perhaps Carter Eckert might 
bear me out?) 

Ireland is a comparable case, which I cited simply because I happen to know 
it: identity as such is not the point. Yet Ireland now has a backlash against 
its own long dominant versions of kwago ch'ongsan, as in the satirical phrase 
MOPE. In my view that is healthy, because at the end of the day, when every 
last suppressed voice has (of course) been heard - the strictly academic 
debates will and should of course continue forever - then the politics of a 
certain kind of endlessly emphasizing victimhood arguably has negative 
effects. Or so many Irish now argue, and I agree with them. Is it colonial to 
suggest Korea might learn from this?

Whereas elsewhere, the past, even the recent past, simply is not seen as 
sensitive in this way. This, in my view, is beneficial both academically and 
for policy-making. You may disagree with this point, but why on earth should 
I be called a colonialist for making it? Or for noting that Tanzania, which 
on almost all indices of development is way behing South Korea, might in this 
one criterion at least - a relaxed attitude to history - perhaps have 
something to teach?

3. On confusion: perhaps I am a victim of Oxford philosophy, and its view 
that at least some problems can be solved by clarifying the meaning of words. 
To me "cleansing history" makes as much sense as "romancing toothbrush". That 
verb and that noun simply do not go together. History is not a thing that can 
be cleansed; cleansing is not a thing you can do to history. This is a 
category mistake. Ergo, if people set about a project which is intrinsically 
impossible, it is not surprising if they find no resolution, because the task 
is ultimately incoherent.

This is NOT to say - do I really have to add? it appears I do - either that 
people who do this are stupid, or that the Korean history of the past century 
is not full of injustice and pain. The point is, rather, what are the 
appropriate procedures for righting wrongs and coming to terms with the past. 
Revising (not cleansing) history can be part of this, but it mainly needs 
political, juridical, social or psychological means. Above all, what is the 
aim? The one true account of contentious events, which there will never be? 
Or rather a political closure, whereby a nation agrees to close this chapter 
and move on? In my humble view, it is better to seek the latter.

4. On compression: I was trying to be brief; and I mainly write journalism 
these days, so I may have some bad habits. But for shame, Frank, to call me 
not only a colonialist, but a Japanese colonialist to boot, for the hideous 
crime of identifying conflict as a problem in Korean politics, and favouring 
reconciliation. Not only is this (factionalism, brinkmanship, han) a staple 
of the political science literature, but I know literally not one Korean who 
is not dismayed with the current state of politics in Seoul. Far from 
presumimg to sit in judgment as an outsider, on this I am simply echoing 
everything I hear from and read by Koreans.

5. To Mike: Sure, anyone is free to do what they like, so some can and will 
continue to write "mononarratives". But others are entitled to query this, 
hopefully without being accused of "cant" for so doing. Absolutely, we must 
add the previously repressed voices to the ledger. Perhaps I am too hasty in 
assuming that in all three of the main battle zones  - the colonial era, 
civil war, democratization - this has now been done; with a vengeance, 

But that's my point. What is the aim and spirit of kwago ch'ongsan? To 
supplement the old version as another viewpoint? Or to discard it as false? 
Maybe to defeat it, even punish it? To me these are absolutely crucial 
questions, both in general and for Korea now. Why is it cant, or 
self-righteous, to argue for pluralism and tolerance on epistemological and 
political grounds alike? Mononarratives are dangerous, not least when there 
is only one official school textbook. What do we want young Koreans to learn 
in the C21 about C20 Korea, and the big 3 cruxes in particular? Surely: all 
the facts, all the perspectives, and a spirit of understanding to those who 
sided with Park or Chun or Kims YS or DJ; who chose the ROK or the DPRK; yes, 
even those who "collaborated" as well as those who resisted. What's wrong 
with that?

6. I am sorry to have so annoyed Prof Sasse. Also baffled, since I agree with 
all his points on method, and I wonder why he assumed I didn't. Of course 
history is constantly rewritten. But whether this is healthy depends on how 
it is done. Leonid Petrov makes the distinction very well. Reconsider, of 
course - but not liquidate. Nor manipulate, nor seek political victory.

On historiography - big fun, yes - I was brought up on the German 
Methodenstreit debates. In their terms, might one suggest that kwago ch'ong
san is too idiographic: too preoccupied with Korea's particularities; and 
that a way forward may be nomothetic, ie to take Korea as one case among many 
and compare it to other colonialisms, other civil wars, other struggles for 
democracy? For suggesting this, do I really cause a shiver and merit instant 

7. Finally, perhaps my problem - apart from some expressions - is that I am 
coming from the future rather than the past, and mainly from outside the 
academy. My starting point is the tasks facing Korea and Koreans going 
forward. As it happens, each of the three big cruxes of kwago ch'ongsan 
corresponds to an ongoing and quite urgent political challenge:
· how to reconcile different factions and forces in South Korean politics;
· how to reconcile North and South Korea; 
· how to forge better ties between both Koreas and Japan

My case is that each and all of these vital tasks will be served better by an 
approach to the past which mainly involves letting go of it, distancing it, 
and desensitizing it, than one which reploughs endlessly over now well-tilled 
but forever contentious ground, thereby perpetuating controversy and 
conflict. I may be quite wrong or ill-informed on all this. But it does not 
seem a self-evidently stupid view, still less anti-Korean to suggest that 
conciliation is a better goal than correction. In my doubtless too terse and 
pointed way, I was only seeking to help.


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        


Subj:   Re: [KS] History's twists: thoughts on kwago ch'ongsan and the MOPE 
Date:   9/8/02 07:50:34 GMT Daylight Time   
From:   <A HREF="mailto:hoffmann at fas.harvard.edu">hoffmann at fas.harvard.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>   
Sent from the Internet (Details)    

Highly interesting posting, in a way ...

>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.

You tell "some Koreans" that they are "confusing many things" and 
therefore are unable to get things resolved (read: to write their own 
history).  Hmm...

>For instance: coming to Korea from Africa, it puzzled me how hard it
>is to have a grown-up discussion about colonialism here.

You are seriously telling Koreans not to be "grown up" and Africans 
to be "grown up"? You are in a position to tell both? How did you get 
there? Is your judgment based on the hundreds of years of British 
colonialism or on the hundreds of years having been colonized? Why 
and how are you bringing your own identity into this discussion -- 
what does it for the credibility or your argument? The British but 
not so British scholar, presenting something that sounds to my ears 
like an amazingly intact colonial approach while claiming your 
"colonized" status at the same time .... does that help to make your 
"argument" valid?

>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?)

Wow! Very condensed writing. Koreans are bad Christians as well ... 
okay, sure. And Koreans are not united, as they cannot forgive each 
other ... the old colonial Japanese argument, sure, I eat that too. 
And they don't seem to know what they are doing anyway (useless 
"refighting yesterday's battles"), so you (we -- the Korea 
specialist?) need to tell them.

Frank Hoffmann
http://KoreaWeb.ws  *  Fax: (415) 727-4792


Subj:   Re: [KS] History's twists: thoughts on kwago ch'ongsan and the MOPE 
Date:   9/9/02 01:23:10 GMT Daylight Time   
From:   <A HREF="mailto:mrobinso at indiana.edu">mrobinso at indiana.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>   
Sent from the Internet (Details)    

Dear List: 
If I may chime in on Historical accounts again.  It might be inconvenient for 
historians of Korea to deal with or respond to those who see history with the 
capital H as in the final truth.....but it is simply an occupational hazard.  
If we self righteously claim that we see history as multiple voices then why 
the cant against  some Korean historians that might want to distill their 
version into a single mononarrative.....against all reason.  Let them.  
AFterall isn't it just another of the many voices and narratives that history 
produces.  In my reading of kwago chongsan there is a reasonable meaning of 
balancing accounts.....whereby previously repressed voices are recorded on 
the leger.  
Mike R.


Subj:   Re: [KS] History's twists: thoughts on kwago ch'ongsan and the MOPE 
Date:   9/9/02 03:05:07 GMT Daylight Time   
From:   <A HREF="mailto:werner_sasse at hotmail.com">werner_sasse at hotmail.com</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>   
Sent from the Internet (Details)    
Well done, Frank, short as your remarks are: there are many other points in 
the posting that made me shiver, but I am sure most on the list had the same 
feeling, so I do not want to go into detail. I am glad to have a "delete" 
button on the keyboard.Just another short reminder to the use of the word 
"h/H-istory". When we talk about "history" , the word is really meaning 
"historiography", and to rewrite the view of the past is both a normal 
everyday process and a healthy one. Add another one: For us non-Koreans it is 
certainly not the question what is "right or wrong" in the way this Korean 
debate is going on. The question should be "why", and it should be added "why 
is my view different". A good way to learn something about the Korean 
situation, and maybe more importantly to learn something about 
ourselves....Anyway, histeriography is always big fun, Werner Sasse 


Subj:   [KS] Gwageo cheongsan (Kwageon ch'eongsan) 
Date:   9/9/02 04:42:35 GMT Daylight Time
From:   petrov at coombs.anu.edu.au
Reply-to:   Koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws
To: Koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws
Sent from the Internet (Details)    

Dear list members,
As Professor Choe correctly mentioned, the term "ch'Ongsan" alone certainly
stands for "cleansing". But in combination with "kwagO" it probably should
be considered differently. I would suggest translating the term "kwagO
ch'Ongsan" as "coming to terms with the past (and starting the life again)",
which is probably very close to what Aidan Foster-Carter is arguing for.

But "kwagO ch'Ongsan" can also be translated as "critical reconsideration of
the past" which has been a long-standing issue for Korean nationalist
historiography. For example, Paek Nam-un opened his "Socio-economic History
of Korea" (1933) with a brief allusion to the "age of critical
reconsideration of Korean history research" [ChsOnsa-ui yOn'gu pip'anjOgin

Indeed, in the 1920s and 1930s, Korean historians were reconsidering the
past, NOT "cleansing" or "liquidating" it. However, in the 1950s and 1960s,
many of them (particularly those who moved to the North) busied themselves
"rectifying the past" and "righting past wrongs." This time, they were quite
literally doctoring history in accordance with Party concerns and Leader's



Subj:   [KS] History's twists: thoughts on kwago ch'ongsan and the MOPE 
Date:   9/8/02 06:31:20 GMT Daylight Time   
From:   <A HREF="mailto:Afostercarter at aol.com">Afostercarter at aol.com</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>   
CC: <A HREF="mailto:choeyh at hawaii.edu">choeyh at hawaii.edu</A>   
File:   kshisttwist8sep02.doc (23040 bytes) DL Time (32000 bps): < 1 minute     

Sent from the Internet (Details)    

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 
>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 
>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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