[KS] Mein Kampf

Bruce Cumings rufus88 at uchicago.edu
Fri Aug 9 22:34:27 EDT 2013

It has been amusing to read the various posts on Kim Jong Un allegedly  
handing out copies of Mein Kampf  to aides and associates. First, the  
explicit or implicit assumption that this is just one more good reason  
to revile this regime, more evidence of its depravity (even though we  
have no proof that the story has any basis in fact); then a couple of  
people point out that this book can also be found fairly easy in South  
Korea; then the trail of this discussion grows cold, until Frank  
brought us today's learned post by a Japanese historian--with the tag  
that I might also have written about this same phenomenon. I  
appreciate the reference and truly loathe tooting my own horn. But my  
discussion of these very same things runs through both volumes of my  
Origins of the Korean War--yet often I was just representing what  
secret internal American reports in the late 1940s said over and over  
again: that Yi Pom-sok's "Blue Shirts" were offshoots of Chiang Kai- 
shek's fascist youth wing by the same name (Chiang, of course, chose  
blue in the 1930s because black, brown and green were already called  
for; Yi Pom-sok was just copying Chiang); that the U.S. Occupation  
tried to clean up his Blue Shirts by officially funding and sponsoring  
them as the Korean National Youth--yet the KNY was secretly reported  
over and over again to have been engaged in terrorist activities; that  
a more virulent "youth group" (many members were in their 40s), the  
Northwest Youth, was a self-proclaimed terrorist organization,  
wreaking havoc throughout the South; that An Ho-sang, the first  
Minister of Education, was a clear fascist who admired Hitler and  
German philosophy and had a degree from Jena University in Germany (he  
was no dummy, a very interesting man in many ways, who trumpeted the  
chuch'e idea--his version--in his books and speeches; but still, a  
fascist); that the head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police, Chang T'aek- 
sang, was another admirer of fascism who was still sporting a Hitler/ 
Tojo/Charlie Chaplin-style moustache in 1947, when it had, so to  
speak, gone quickly out of fashion elsewhere in the world--and on and  
on. Yi Pom-sok's leadership of the KNY made him very powerful; he was  
South Korea's first Defense Minister. You find in his writings of the  
time similar emphases as in Dr. An's, if in short form: admiration for  
Hitler and fascism, discussion of chuch'e, focus on "one singular,  
pure ethnic people," namely the Korean minjok--and then of course we  
had Syngman Rhee's ideology, Ilminjui, which Americans could never  
understand; this too was a reflection of Chinese influence, but  
instead of Sun Yat Sen's progressive Three People's Principles, you  
have Rhee's One People Principle: Koreans first, Koreans always,  
Koreans forever. But one can understand the popularity of such ideas:  
80 years of history had taught Koreans that if they don't look after  
their own interests and focus on them, they can be sure no one else  

To study Korea as a foreign scholar is to engage in a profound  
exercise in difference: in the late 1960s translations of Mein Kampf  
were available in most book shops in Seoul, and on street book carts;  
I saw them many times, but I did not know the meaning of what I was  
seeing--what was the attraction of this book, which is mainly an  
ignorant stew of racial and ethnic stereotypes? A leader whom I  
admired from the late 1940s, Yo Un-hyong, like so many other leaders  
at the time, referred to mein kampf--my struggle, naui t'ujaeng. That  
doesn't make him a fascist, but it does make him different from  
liberal imaginings. After he was assassinated in July 1947--with the  
support and connivance of Chang's police, I am convinced--at his  
funeral huge, swaying crowds carried signs saying this: Sun of the  
Nation (minjogui t'aeyang). Need I point out that North Korea was  
already saying the same thing about Kim Il Sung?

People like Yo, Kim, An, and indeed both Korean regimes, came out of  
an interwar milieu that had turned much of the world toward extremes  
of left and right, with the middle ground falling away; liberalism was  
barely breathing, except in the US and UK (and in both it was also  
threatened by extremes of left and right). Yet always, always, I would  
read internal laments by American officials that these very same  
folks--Yo, Kim, An, Rhee--were not putting down the roots of liberalism.

Anyone who has read H. D. Harootunian's Overcome by Modernity would  
not be surprised by Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro's remark last week  
about Hitler doing a good job in revising the Weimar Constitution.  
These are outbursts from the political id of the rightwing of the LDP.  
They are manifestations of a time when fascist ideology was dominant  
in Japan, when Prime Minister Abe's grandfather, Kishi Nobosuke, was a  
rising star in Manchukuo. Both Koreas emerged from a similar interwar  
milieu. The occasional remnant signs of this past are no more  
surprising then the continuing reverence among many Lousianans for  
Huey Long, whose statue stands outside the Capitol Building in Baton  

Santayana was not quite right when he said that those who cannot  
remember history are bound to repeat it. It is more a matter of not  
knowing history, of studying a country and a civilization going back  
to antiquity without taking upon oneself the necessary labor of trying  
to exclude one's own dearest beliefs, lest they cloud an apprehension  
of Korea's very different historical roots.

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