[KS] Lankov on Korean Nationalism

issuesarena at yahoo.com issuesarena at yahoo.com
Mon Jun 1 02:57:37 EDT 2009

Dear list coleagues: 
Note that the distinguished historian Andrei Lankov asserts: 
B. Is it important to delve into the general history of Korea, before the 20th century, to understand what occurred later?
AL. The historical origin of this North Korean system was determined by a few important internal and external factors. Firstly, of course, there was the impact of the Soviet Stalinist Communism. The Communism North Koreans came to know in the 1930s and 1940s was essentially Stalinist. Then there was the very significant influence of Mao’s China. There was also the powerful legacy of nationalism, which in many ways developed in the image of Japanese nationalism. Japan was, after all, the first country in East Asia to develop the modern Nationalist outlook. During the colonial period this nationalism was much enforced on Koreans.
B. We’re talking about the Meiji system.
AL. Yes. I would say that Korean nationalism, if you look carefully, has a stamp: “made in Japan during the reign of Emperor Meiji”. In many cases the Japanese national symbols were replaced with Korean national symbols, emphasis on the Japanese nation and its pure blood was replaced with emphasis on the Korean nation and its pure blood. The structure of the world-view was very similar.
Victor Fic responds: 
   1/ Korean nationalism surely predates Japan's influence and is often a reaction to it. Didn't many Koreans resist Hideyoshyi during the Imjin Waerang, for instance? When I first came to Seoul, locals told me that Korea had been invaded over 800 times, although that number is far too high. 
   2/ Korean nationalism also has ancient domestic roots. Its pseudo-biological notion of one pure blood is too distant to date. Meanwhile, manufactured sources of nationalism are copious. Especially cardinal was the development of hanguel in the early Chosun era. It was seen as the unique, self-created language of a closed national family. Only it could master it or determine its veracity.  As language and race are the two internal pillars of nationalism world wide, these surely predate Japan's influence and ensure a hard core to the Korean strain. 

   3/ The weakness in Korean mass psychology is that the people push their race-based, exclusive nationalism until it is tribalism; however, they disdain patriotism, or defense of the political order. Korean elites especially repeatedly betray the national interest for their personal, factional or regional benefit. 
    For instance, during the same Imjin Waerang, King Sunjo disguised himself and escaped Seoul in a sedan chair. As for the elite chinilpa collaborators with imperial Japan, they number in the thousands. Some 72/80 members of the decaying Chosun court accepted Japanese titles. In fact, King Kojong's grandson (Eui-pil?) rose to officer rank in the Japanese military.
   When the North Koreans invaded the south, President Yi Syng-man gave a radio address extolling resistance. Then he took off to Chinhae, blowing up bridges over the Han River behind him that teemed with refugees -- many drowned. Yi scapegoated a South Korean army commander and executed him. His widow petitioned the Park Chung-hee regime, which restored the victim's honor. 
    A few years ago, the Seoul media reported on an embarrassing poll. Half or more of South Korean college students -- many "proud to be Korean" -- said that if their country were invaded, their first option would be to escape abroad!
   To be sure, Kim Jong-il's regime is also nationalistic. For example, North Koreans force local women whom even Chinese men have impregnated to undergo mandatory abortions. However, the regime's human rights abuses, mismanaged economy and dangerous nuclear gambit are surely awful public policy choices.
   4/ Modern American -- multicultaral and founded on political science -- flips the Korean model. There it is deemed wrong to be racist-nationalist, but honorable to be a patriot who defends the Constitution. Therefore, if Collin Power insists that black skin is superior to white, he is dunned. But if he serves bravely in 'Nam or as a public official in D.C., he is credited.  
   5/ Japan brought the material aspects of modernity to Korea, i.e. industrialization to permit greater production and consumption. But the ethical component, meaning democracy, reason over tribalist instinct and internationalism -- well, no. 
    Unfortunately, the East Asian late modernizer defines modernization in its technical aspects. In the West, industrialization followed the Enlightenment, but in these parts, it is more like a tool borrowed selectively to empower and enrich the group with the democratic/rational aspect secondary and real openness seen as a threat.
    The foreigner, in the parlance of the Meiji Restoration, is a mere "gaikokujin oyatoi" or temporary expert to be used when the manual is not enough -- and discarded.  Both opportunistic Korea and Japan concluded that themselves.
Victor Fic
Independent Journalist
Qingdao, China

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