Yongusil 14: “War of Words” at Leiden University: Manchuria and Historiography in Modern South Korea

By | October 24, 2013 | No Comments

Park_Japan-Sino-NK-Wikimedia Commons

Park Chung-hee/Takagi Masao as a lieutenant in the Kwantung Army in Manchuria | Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the final of our triology of “ponderances” and considerations on Professor Remco Breuker and the University of Leiden’s Institute of Area Studies recently announced ERC funded “A War of Words: What Ancient Manchurian History Does to Korea and China Today,” Sino-NK’s Managing Editor Steven Denney moves south of the DMZ. Denney here considers the constructed historiographies and narratives of Manchukuo/Manchuria’s place within the contested field of southern politics as well as their connectivity to recent and current political interplay and exchange in South Korea, particularly the “textbook controversy.” Perhaps as Denney considers textbooks binding of us to the past, Professor Breuker’s project will in the case of the south allow for some objective investigation and analysis of those bounds/binding. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Yongusil 14: “War of Words” at Leiden University: Manchuria and Historiography in Modern South Korea

by Steven Denney

“Manchuria,” writes Michael Kim, “remains a problematic region in modern Korean historiography. The intense interactions between the Korean peninsula and Manchuria before 1945 often become subsumed into nationalist narratives of anti-Japanese resistance and the suffering of impoverished Korean migrants.”

Indeed, Manchuria/Manchukuo is a controversial historical space for contemporary South Korea. Among other things, it is the place where Park Chung-hee/Takagi Masao, as a lieutenant in the Kwantung Army, cut his teeth in the Manchukuo system–that experiment in top-down social and economic development, the results of which would later manifest themselves in both Japan and South Korea. To what extent Park’s interactions with key Japanese politicians and bureaucrats of the Manchukuo puppet government influenced the actions he took after the war ended is hard—and politically dangerous—to say. Even so, it is almost certainly no coincidence, as Kang Sang-chung and Hyun Moo-am indicate in the book Kishi Nobusuke and Park Chung-hee, that characteristics of Kishi’s Manchukuo developmental state (re)appeared in South Korea under Park’s developmental dictatorship. In fact, “it is quite likely,” posits Hironori Sasada, “that [Park Chung-hee’s] experience in Manchuria, his personal ties with former Manchurian administrators, and/or the wartime Japanese ideation guidance affected his plan to establish a developmental state system in South Korea.”

The pre-/post-war continuity thesis is a thorn in the side of the Korean “Left” and a seriously inconvenient truth for historians and intellects writing for the annals of liberal/progressive historiography. Since changes to the content/narrative in high school national history textbooks were announced earlier this month, in addition to the approval of a new history textbook, progressives have been on the offensive, protesting the content of the changes and the new book as a “distortion” of history. The battle, at least as it is depicted by the left-leaning Hankyoreh, is between those who support the current narrative, which calls Park Chung-hee’s “military coup” of May 16 as such and underscores the importance of social and student movements, and a new narrative supported and propagated by the so-called “New Right,” a group of scholars who emphasize the importance of modernity and contest what they view as a progressive-dominated and historical distorted view of Korean modern history.[1]

A connection between Manchuria/Manchukuo and the battle over modern Korean historiography, though indirect, exists. To wit, it is hard to imagine the current textbook controversy absent Park Chung-hee; and without Manchuria, and the Manchurian experience, it is hard to construct a counterfactual that still concludes with Park Chung-hee taking the reigns of government in post-war South Korea. Thus, no Manchuria-Park Chung-hee connection, no textbook controversy—not, at least, over the same content! Textbooks do indeed “bind” us to the past.

Michael Kim’s solution to the subsumption of Manchuria by national narratives is “to conceptualize Manchuria and Korea from a transnational historical framework.” Such an effort may be underway. As Professor Remco Brueker and his research team (consisting of four PhD candidates and one post-doc) begin on their project to discover “Who owns the history of Manchuria,” we can expect them to uncover new facts and figures that contribute to our understanding of the interaction between modern South Korea and Manchuria but remains a safe distance away from the vortex that is South Korean national history.

[1] Henry H. Em., professor at Yonsei University, provides an excellent overview and commentary on the Left/(New) Right debate over modern Korean historiography in his recently published book The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea.

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