[KS] Debating DPRK role in May 18
jiykim at oberlin.edu
Fri Sep 16 21:30:20 EDT 2016
B. R. Myers is not on KS to respond to Prof. Baker's post, but he posted a
response on his blog site and asked for me to copy it on KS. Copied below
- Myers' reason for taking down the post originally and why he reposted it
just recently in response to Prof. Baker's earlier post on the "Revoking a
Recommendation" thread, and
- Myers' response to Prof. Baker's post "Debating DPRK role in May 18"
The full post is at
Here is the post indignantly referred to on another site. I had withdrawn
this and all other posts for the time being, because I knew that the old
guard would respond by trying to deflect attention away from the issue at
hand, and from textual excerpts that speak for themselves. My other
postings will all be back too, don’t worry.
The South Korean left has hitherto tried to convey the impression to the
West that there was no fifth column in South Korea at all. The South Korean
right, for its part, refuses to show any understanding for why so many
intelligent and good people chose to side with the DPRK against the Park
and Chun dictatorships.
We foreigners have a special duty to get past both moldy Cold War-era
narratives to the more nuanced truth. The older generation of American
Korea scholars and Korea hands is just going to have to deal with this, I’m
afraid. You can control discussion in the US, but not everywhere in the
To be clear: I am far from convinced that the North Koreans organized the
event. But it must at least be acknowledged (as the South Korean courts
have had to acknowledge) that there is good evidence for believing that
North Korea had its agents in Gwangju *as in every large South Korean city*,
and that they did not sit quietly on the sidelines that tragic May.
Note also that I urge a critical reading of Kim’s book. I have gone to the
trouble of checking several of his fascinating citations of
and at least they match the text. (Nor do I see any evidence that he is
trying to take credit for the scholarship of others.) I urge everyone to
read the book, or learn Korean and read the book, before presuming to pass
judgment on its content.- B.R. Myers, 16 September 2016.
Don Baker continues to lament that I do not observe the field’s fatwa like
a good boy, and treat Kim’s book like the *Satanic Verses*. May I remind
him that I recommended *Tyranny of the Weak* in 2013 despite being the only
person in the field fundamentally opposed to the book’s thrust? Had I not
found the very troubling problems I discussed in the posting below, I would
still be recommending it.
Call me crazy, but I like to tell open-minded scholars of Korean history
about books I’ve read that offer useful content. If I consider them sound
from start to finish, I say so. If not, I urge people to read them
*critically*. I did this with Kim’s book just as I did with *Tyranny*.
A book that consists to at least 30% of unedited passages and even whole
pages from primary materials (for the most part, in the first two volumes,
eyewitness and veteran demonstrator testimony) can hardly be described as
“totally concocted,” can it? There is plenty of stuff in there, in the
latter two volumes especially, that seems to me preposterous, like the
martial-arts battle in the North Korean village described either in vol. 3
or 4. But much of what is said in the first two volumes, particularly by
the demonstrators or veteran demonstrators themselves, is sound. And much
of *that* runs counter to the more recent and hyperbolic myth-making.
Estella says in *Great Expectations,* “Moths and all sorts of ugly
creatures hover around a lighted candle. Is it the candle’s fault?” And is
it the fault of the good citizens of Gwangju if a few dozen North Koreans
were hovering around them? What, were they supposed to check ID’s? Would
the fact of a North Korean presence make their cause any less respectable,
their own grievances any less legitimate? Of course not. Does the fact
that there were some communists in the US civil rights movement tarnish its
What is at work here with Baker *et al* is the misguided notion that if any
piece of information serves the other side, or conforms in any way with the
military dictatorships’ own propaganda, it must be denied or swept under
the rug. As has happened with the Soviet archival evidence that the DPRK
funded the so-called reformist parties in the 1960 election campaigns, just
as the right wing had fulminated at the time. Good luck finding that
evidence mentioned in new South Korean books on those parties (or on
The person really being libeled in this whole discussion is poor Kim Il
Sung. By North Korean logic, he would have betrayed the revolution and the
nation, and the content of all his own ROK-related speeches, had he*not* done
everything he could to try to make the Gwangju uprising “go wide.” That was
the southern part of the DPRK, as far as he was concerned. And in that
famous speech in 1955, about the first half of which such an ill-informed
fuss has been made, he said quite clearly that the most feasible way of
getting the south back was by riding a southern revolution.
I have too much respect for the man to believe he said to his anti-South
apparatus, “I’ve been telling you for 20 years that when the next uprising
comes, we’ve *got* to be ready to pounce and exploit it. Well, forget all
that. If there are any of our men in Gwangju now, pull them out. Let those
kids fight the puppet state on their own.” What possible reason could a
unification-obsessed nationalist have had to take such a line?
The writer of the book in question believes that the North instigated the
uprising. Again: I am not convinced. (Nor, incidentally, are some of my
most arch-conservative friends.) But a historian cannot dismiss sound
information because there is unsound stuff in the textual vicinity, or a
danger of someone else using the truth the wrong way.
I needn’t go into the issue of how different libel laws are here in the
ROK. I just find it interesting, and unfortunately typical of our field,
that Baker appears to be angrier about an unorthodox opinion than about any
of the examples listed in the posting below. — B.R. Myers, 17 September
On Fri, Sep 16, 2016 at 4:05 PM, Don Baker <ubcdbaker at hotmail.com> wrote:
> I mentioned in an earlier post this morning that Brian Myers had removed
> his blog post supporting the claim that the DPRK played a role in the
> uprising in Kwangju in May, 1980, against Chun Doohan's military coup and
> demanding free elections. He has now restored that blog post.
> I have read the volumes referred to in that post and they are an example
> of the absolutely worst sort of historical scholarship. In fact, though
> the author Kim Taeryŏng lives in the US and is exempt from the reach of
> the Korean courts, some of his fellow conspiracy theorists were sued by
> people in Kwangju who had been misidentified as North Korean agents who had
> infiltrated Kwangju in May, 1980. The people in Kwangju won and were
> awarded monetary compensation for the defamation of their character.
> Any careful reader of Kim's account of what happened in Kwangju in 1980
> can see that the holes in his argument are large enough to drive a truck
> through them. Kim Taeryŏng takes statements out of context and also
> mistranslates a lot of English texts. (I know one American reporter who
> informed Kim that he had not written what Kim said he had written. Kim
> refused to change his incorrect translation.) He also relies on guilt by
> association (often false association) to claim that if somebody talked to
> somebody who talked to somebody who talked to somebody who was a known
> "pro-Communist," then that first person must also be a Communist agent.
> Kim insists that that it was Kim Daejung, not Chun Doohan, who planned a
> military coup in 1980 and Chun did what he did only to preserve democracy
> in the ROK.
> Those, and Kim Taeryŏng is not the only one, who claim that North Korean
> agents instigated the May 18th democratization movement ignore one
> inconvenient fact: why didn't the Chun regime produce any evidence at the
> time of dead or wounded North Koreans? Chun's troops killed a lot of people
> in Kwangju. If there really were North Koreans there, wouldn't at least one
> of those killed be a North Korean? And if a North Korean, dead or alive,
> has been found to be in Kwangju that May, why would Chun not have shown him
> or her to the press to justify that attack on that city?
> It is not only a slander against the brave people of Kwangju to imply that
> they were witting or unwitting agents of the North Korean regime, it is
> also an affront to the standards of respectable scholarship to distort the
> historical record the way Kim Taeryŏng does. That should be clear to any
> scholar, not matter what their political orientation, who has read Kim
> Taeryŏng's work carefully.
> Don Baker
> Department of Asian Studies
> University of British Columbia
> Vancouver, Canada V6T 1Z2
> don.baker at ubc.ca
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