Construction of Korean National Histories

Nationalism and the Construction of National Histories in the Late


Nationalism in nineteenth-century Europe and America served to establish modern nation-states. However, since the two world wars, anti-nationalism has become prevalent in the West. Nationalism has been ascribed to legitimatize and support the brutal and violent imperialism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism in the twentieth century in Europe and in some parts of Asia and Africa. However, anti-nationalism in the West has also been associated with antipathy toward anti-colonial movements in the third world (Gandhi, 1998; Lloyd, 1993). Some Western critics glance suspiciously at surges of nationalism in non-Western colonial or postcolonial societies because they view nationalism in those societies as reactions to colonial domination, not as a process of building a modern nation-state. They perceive nationalism in those societies as ‘premature and partial, and a threat to the enlightened principles of the liberal state’ (Gandhi, 1998: 105). However, many scholars in postcolonial studies acknowledge that nationalism in many societies with a colonial past has been an important means of resistance against colonialism and of decolonization, which, in many cases, coincided with the nation-building process. Nationalism became a global phenomenon but the shaping and mobilization of nationalist sentiment cannot be explained with one universal account.

Nationalism was also one of the most importance features of Korean decolonization and modern nation building. At the end of World War II, Korea was liberated from Japanese occupation and at the same time divided into North and South Korea along the 38th parallel by the Soviet and U.S. military, with the disarmament of Japan and ending Japanese colonialism as justification. The division was soon consolidated by the establishment of separate governments and economic systems (1948) and a war between the two Koreas (1950-1953). For several decades after the liberation, South Korean intellectuals struggled with the task of building a new nation. That task, together with the North and South Korean political division system, has had a great impact on the mobilization of nationalist sentiment and the formation and reformation of Korean national identity through the teaching of history.

After the liberation, political leaders, intellectuals, and the public in North and South Korea discussed how to build an independent Korean nation and system of government. In South Korea, many leading intellectuals turned to nationalism because it had been crucial in organizing anti-colonial and nationbuilding movements during the colonial period.

However, different notions of nationalism competed for national identity construction during the last half of the 1940s (Park, 2010). ‘New nationalism’ called for social cohesion transcending class difference, while ‘statist nationalism’ demanded the nation’s unity favoring national interests over individuals’ rights. ‘Liberal nationalism’ highlighted individual freedom, while ‘social nationalism’ gave priority to economic equity. All sought peace in the international arena under the principles of each nation’s self-determination and antiimperialism. External autonomy was the central element of these notions of nationalism. In South Korea, nationalism conjoined with other ideologies such as democracy and socialism.

Educators and historians also attempted to formulate the Korean national identity in terms of those different notions of nationalism, but commonly denounced Japanese military totalitarian elements and feudal vestiges. For example, Jin-Tae Son, a historian, claimed that in writing his book, Joseon

Minjoksa Gaeron (A History of Korean People, Son, 1948), he took the stance of new nationalism. He insisted that important events be selected and organized around the Korean people as a unit of description, overriding differences among the people (Kim, 2013). He asserted that ‘genuine nationalism that could unite the Korean people pursues all people’s equality in political, economic, cultural and social obligations, rights, status, and happiness’ (Kim, 2013: 85). He criticized previous Korean history textbooks as anti-democratic because they were organized from an elite-centered, feudalist perspective, giving sole attention to royal families and nobles. In Son’s history, democratic nationalism was prescribed as the cure-all for the problems of the day, ideological and class conflict, feudal vestiges, and the Japanese totalitarian legacy. However, the formation of a positive identity for Koreans required ‘correction’ of their history which had been grossly distorted by the Japanese and instilled in Koreans during the colonial period.

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