[KS] Lankov on Korean Nationalism

Balazs Szalontai aoverl at yahoo.co.uk
Thu Jun 4 01:42:02 EDT 2009

A further twist to the story is that Japanese nationalism, as it emerged in the Meiji period, was itself heavily influenced by European models, and thus in a certain respect Japan was as much a conduit for the implantation of European conceptions in Korea as a prime source. After all, it is widely recognized that many Korean students became familiar with European socialist and communist ideas during their studies at Japanese universities. According to some anecdotal evidence available for me, such multiple transmissions also occurred in the field of medical science. Some North Korean physicians complained to a Hungarian diplomat that Korean medical science needed a thorough overhauling, because it was extensively influenced by reactionary Japanese conceptions, which in turn had been influenced by reactionary German conceptions...  

Balazs Szalontai
Mongolia International University

--- On Wed, 3/6/09, Kirk Larsen <kwlarsen at gwu.edu> wrote:

The development of han'gûl in the 15th century can indeed be seen as evidence of a conception of a unique Korean identity (or at minimum a unique Korean language that sorely needed a more efficient means of written depiction). However, the fact that many if not most of the educated elite of the Chosôn period continued to use Classical Chinese for the vast majority of their writings is an indication that the Korean sense of identity was, at minimum, not as allergic to overlapping or even simultaneous affiliations. It is only in the very late 19th century that han'gûl advocates began to convince their countrymen of the utility of the phonetic script. 

Andre Schmid's Korea between Empires (Columbia University Press, 2002) does an excellent job of demonstrating the myriad ways in which contemporary Korean national identity was greatly influenced (if not imagined outright) by late 19th and early 20th century nation-building elites. And, yes, many of these elites were influenced by Japan.

This not to say that Koreans lacked any sense of cultural distinctiveness or identity before 1900 (or so) because that clearly is not the case. But the categories with which Koreans use to define their contemporary national identity (such as language and race mentioned by Victor Fic) clearly take the shape we recognize today much more recently.


Kirk Larsen 

----- Original Message ----- 
From: issuesarena at yahoo.com 
Date: Monday, June 1, 2009 2:22 am 
Subject: [KS] Lankov on Korean Nationalism 
To: koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws 

>  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. 
>  ...snip... 

>  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. 
>  Best,       
>  Victor Fic 
>  Independent Journalist 
>  Qingdao, China 

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