Politics, Race and History in Korea: An Interview with Derick Varn

Originally posted at The Rootless Metropolitan — Today I’m speaking with C. Derick Varn, a Korea-based blogger and theorist. He writes at the (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity on a broad range of cultural, literary and political theory and is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Derick speaks about the background to Korean national and racial identity, the left and right in South Korea and the impact of neoliberalism on Korean society — all essential topics for understanding the current crisis in the two Koreas. I’ve added some photos of Korea for aesthetic purposes.


Greg Sharzer: You’ve had a long-standing interest in South Korea and been here a few years. In that time, what have you found most interesting about its political economy — or its politics — and how did that change your previous perceptions of the country?

C. Derick Varn: That’s a complicated question: my interest in South Korea was personal and scholarly originally. I am not a Korean and my proficiency with the language is basic, but my aunt was Korean so I exposed to the culture briefly as a child. In graduate school, I became obsessed with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and her novel/prose poem Dictee. While there is a lot going on in that book, one must have the context of the Japanese occupation of Korea and the French Catholic missionary history as well.   When an accident of employment landed me here, I started doing historical research to further my literary research on Theresa Cha.  I began to notice that, when looking for the origins of several crucial Korean ideas, such as 민족 (pronounced minjok. It means “race-nation”), that the traditions were modern and projected back on the past.  Not only that, but often the origin of the ideology was either Japanese or Western. However, it had been obscured by some of the progressive nationalists’ attempts to construct a modern identity for Korean in the end of the Joseon period and the dissolution of the “Great” Han Empire.  Even though you will hear the word 민족 in Korean historical dramas, portraying early Joseon or the Goryeo dynasties.

So there’s a strange history here: the Korean independence activist and historian Shin Chae-ho coined the word.  Shin Chae-ho was linked to many anarchist publications and is revered in both North and South Korea today.  He was, however, getting his idea of race-nation from the Japanese themselves, as a means to get a modern identity (and the Japanese had only come up with a similar concept in the late 1800s after exposure to German and Northern European racial notions.)  It wasn’t hard for Chae-ho to adopt the concept: the Japanese themselves had used the idea that the Koreans and the Manchus were primitive versions of their own race. They had some sound linguistic evidence for this (Korean and Manchu are clearly linguistically related to Japanese) and cast their imperialism as a liberation attempt from the West.  There is a good book on Japanese attitudes about this in English by E. Taylor Atkins called Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze.  Still one finds that a lot of the ancient traditional image of Korea would be, if we were using European time frames, “early modern.”  Hobsbawm’s invented traditions are all over the place in this in a strange way: a lot of the local ideas about ancient Korea, quite like the rebuilt palaces in Seoul which were burnt by the Japanese, are very modern.

Its political economy was interesting since, if one wants to think in Marxist terms, it industrialized before its bourgeois revolution, which really was achieved by coup in the 1980s and the death of President Park Chung-hee. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, his daughter was inducted into the Blue House in an election against a democracy activist that Park Chung-hee had jailed. The rapid development of Korean industries and the rise of the Chaebol system [large family-run corporations] pretty much happened under Park Chung-hee, so older Koreans are still fond of him. His daughter is center-right, and probably slightly to the left, of the last president here. Park Chung-hee himself is a hard man to figure out: he was a member of the 남로당 (the Korean Worker’s Party) and was removed from the army under accusations of being a member of a communist terrorist cell.  He then went to the US and was trained there.  He moved to the right pretty quickly and when in 1960, the prior President Rhee was overthrown by the April 19 Movement, Park led a coup against the democratically elected government.

I suppose in both North and South Korea one can see the pure blood ideology at play, as well as a particularly strict form of neo-Confucianism which lays down the ground work.  The dominance of family dynasties in politics and, perhaps more importantly, in the Chaebol system is hard to understate.  Yet I am also amazed at the speed of change here.  Social liberalization is happening quickly, if very unevenly.  Market liberalization has been de-stabilizing for South Korea, and nationalism here is sort of uneven too.  A defensiveness to outside criticism is to be expected in a nation that has been used as a proxy war zone for so many different powers in only 150 years but has also had almost four decades of de facto peace.

In terms of capitalism, one can see that capitalism is different depending on the region as its cultural values here do look very different from that of either Europe or North America, but it still looks like capitalism.  Even with its smaller-scale reliance on less-developed nations for cheaper labor (South Asian immigrants in this case), which has actually complicated the Korean sense of national identity in some ways.

G.S.: I find it fascinating that 민족 originated from a thinker with anarchist affiliations, and that Park Chung-hee himself was affiliated with the Workers Party. Are these coincidences or do they say something about the ability for left-wing ideas and activists to be coopted by the right?

More broadly, I’m interested in the impact of 민족 on the Korean left. I’ve noticed how insular some of the nationalist left is. If modernization has been monopolized by ideas of 민족- and the left usually wants to be modern – do you think there’s a relationship between the Korean left’s insularity and a racial, rather than territorial nationalist tradition? Or is this a mischaracterization?

C.D.V.: I will be careful here because I think one can over-identify trends here, but yes, the Korean Worker’s Party would become pressured to compete with Mao Zedong and develop what they saw as a cult of state, but they did this more on nationalistic grounds and even used former members of the Japanese imperial propaganda campaign to strengthen their racialist language.  Kim Il-Sung did not start that way, but during the Sino-Soviet Split there was a lot of pressure on the Kim family to develop alternative models — it’s hard to parse the man, but the North Koreans did adopt a third world nationalism rhetoric in the 1970s at the same time, but racial rhetoric moved in more and more. Still looking at the Korean anarchist movement could be helpful.  The scholar Chong-sik Lee wrote in the 1960s that a lot of the early Korean left anarchists, communists, and even some liberals flirted with right nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s and exactly that happened, allowing increasing the “pure” nationalists to step up. In the process, a lot of other progressive forces were marginalized, such as the liberation theology-inspired Protestants in Pyongyang. When these groups were largely purged or became more conservative in exile in South Korea and the US, one saw Protestantism in Korea becoming Americanized.

The history of Korean anarchism is particularly telling. In the 1930s, the dominant Korean anarchists were reaching out to other pan-Asian anarchist groups, but one also sees a strain of hyper-nationalism developing among them. By the 1940s, however, the anarchists opposed the General Strike and the Anarchist Federation even sided with the American Occupation. The primary writer on the history of Korean anarchists, Ha Ki-Rak, said in the 1980s that he opposed the General Strike on pacifistic grounds, but supporting of the occupation seems hard to do on those grounds.

I think that is telling, personally. But the right was good at co-opting left ideas in Korea. Park Chung-hee, for example, operating the modernization of the economy on a series of five year plans. Now what does that sound like to you? Only after a decade did Park adopt the Yushin Constitutional reform of 1972, which used the same Chinese character as the Meiji. So one can see a shift in models and a mirror of a return to using models from Imperial Japan and its own racializing rhetoric. There are eerie parallels between North and South during these periods.

I am more comfortable talking about the history.  While there are definitely internationalist leftists here, and the liberal-left alliance parties tend to be only mildly nationalist in a Keynesian form, it’s really important to see how much the idea rears its head after the 1920s. Furthermore, the distinctions to left and right are not entirely organic to Korea — as it was not really completely moved out of a Confucian feudal mode until the late 19th and early 20th century. Left and right as conceptions come with capitalism here, and it’s more muddled since liberalism at the root of both left (Keynesian) and right (neo-liberal) are mixed in with a lot of local history and politics. For example, the issues women have here are quite different than a lot of similarly developed places in the OECD.

In racial rhetoric, the neo-liberal “right” here have often pushed away from racial rhetoric and policies in the last five years to increase trade and honestly deal with the coming demographic shift, while also trying to fuel nationalism in issues like Dokdo.  Furthermore, one of the reasons why internationalism is harder here is the National Security law here can be used to crack down on anything that looks too friendly to the North.  For example, during Occupy Yeouido, the Kim dynasty released a press release supporting the international Occupy movement. I am not sure it got much press, but I remember commenting that it effectively killed any possibility of it having lasting effect here. Occupy Yeouido quickly shifted after a few weeks into the anti-FTA protests which did take a more nationalist tone. I don’t know that the shift was directly related to the North, but given what the Lee administration was doing at the time, occasionally cracking down on leftists randomly for having Juche sympathies, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were related.

Most educated young people do know the “pure blood” theory of 민족 is not true, but they don’t know that it is a modern invention. So again, it’s changing, but unevenly. Furthermore, there are many international factors that play a role here.  After all, it’s not like South Korea or North Korea has ever had the luxury of developing it’s own policy without massive pressures on it and severe resource constraints. 민족 and Confucian familial notions, however, do complicate things here. No way around that.

G.S.: I’d like to know more what you mean by left and right not being entirely organic to Korea — presumably it had some form of democratic movements before capitalism? I’m thinking in the social history sense, peasants’ movements and the like.

C.D.V.: Well, that is a bit complicated. In the sense that there were peasant revolts, one of the most famous and important would be the Manjok rebellion in 1198 in the Goryeo period. It, however, is important to contextualize these locally. Most of them were in Goryeo and Shilla periods before Confucianism was the dominant ideology of the country and when Buddhism was the dominant religion. Buddhism, honestly, had not produced a fully developed secular code of governance like that of Legalist, Taoist, or Confucian thought.  So there are readings that make this out to be fully opportunistic.  I think it’s particularly misleading to say that even peasant and nascent proto-democratic movements in Europe are left or right, and so applying them to the Korean past — the Joseon period — is particularly hard until we hit the 1980s or so.

In Joseon, there were also revolts against rulers who were unjust, particularly local ones. This, however, was totally in a Neo-Confucian context and as Joseon fully developed, a particularly rigid form of it. So if one wants to see left- and right-Confucianism in that context: Confucianism itself was hostile to market values in both forms, but some thinkers stressed the mutuality of the relationship between ruler and ruled as a father-son dynamic in a mutual sense and others stressed the singular importance of hierarchy.  There were liberalizing elements, particularly the Gwangmu reform, in the  대한제국. (Taehanjeguk –The Great Han Empire), which is where the current Republic of Korea gets it’s name in its native tongue.  So I suppose we can date it there, but these still largely come from a sense of competing or preserving oneself against Western powers and a developing Russia and Japan.

This is still misleading. For example, in North Korea, which no one denies at least began as something of a left-wing movement, the name of the country in its language is Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk. In this alone, and even in the early period before the Juche reforms, one can see a distancing from the liberalizing elements in the Great Han Empire. This was largely because, even prior to the Russo-Japanese war, the liberal government was seen as complicit with Japan.  You can see in all these instances it’s very hard to clearly map any of this onto a post-Enlightenment European political map. Even the first President/Dictator Syngman Rhee is hard to map onto the left-right spectrum as it was understood in the US at the time, until after Rhee’s conversion to Christianity in prison at the turn of the last century.

I am just glossing all this to point out how problematic it is to try to neatly map our political spectrum unto a pre-capitalism that nevertheless had a fully developed indigenous political tradition where there are opposing ideologies, but none of them meet most of our modern definitions, even relative ones.

G.S.: The murder of millions of leftists in the civil war, the threat from the North and American backing must have opened up a lot of political space for the ruling class to experiment. Do you think the cold war led the South Korean right to adopt development models of the left? (Using the latter term loosely, of course.)

C.D.V.: Yes, and no. One, it is important to look at the history of the right-wing Asian nationalist parties. Both the Kuomintang, in both its popular front period and its anti-communist period, and the Singapore People’s Action Party saw themselves as adopting Leninist party organization as a means of adapting to communists. In Korea, it was a little more complicated because the anti-communists, with the notable exception of Park Chung-Hee, came out of the Christian community and were more hesitant to officially play around with Soviet-like ideas. However, given the popularity of the uprisings, particularly in areas like Gwanggu and Jeju, a mixture of command economy and then a sort of military Keynesian-ism developed. Large sectors of the economy remained nationalized, and 18th/19th century style protectionism was used to boost the economy.

Two, given the large number of revolts and revolutions that Korea had seen between 1900 and the early 1960s, a boosting of the economy was seen as direly necessary for social stability particularly given the appealing conditions of South Korea.  It is telling that in the 1960s, there is a story that I can’t confirm in English that Ethiopia gave Korea food aid.  North Korea looked like the much higher-developed nation. So yes, there was an attitude of “any means necessary to procure our future.” One sees this in a lot of East Asia, even in those countries particularly in the American sphere after World War 2. Much more of this was allowed by the military authorities than the US typically allowed in Latin America.

That said, capitalism has its own logic, and neo-liberalism has been pushed here in response to slowing growth and fiscal crisis in East Asia. So its creativity seems increasingly limited and, also strangely, increasingly counter-productive. Korea’s politics increasingly reflect the dual dominant party system that one sees in both the US and the parliaments of Europe. Coalition politics does matter in a way it can’t in the US, but increasingly it follows a similar pattern; even if parties dissolve here on an almost yearly basis, the people in them are remarkably consistent.

G.S.: To the extent that the neo-liberal right is internationalist, due to the demographic and trade reasons you identify, does this provoke a nationalist response from the left? My understanding is that the Juche leftists here, while small in number, still have a measure of institutional power and this sets up left-wing resistance as nationalist. Most importantly, what do you think the prospects are for internationalist leftism in South Korea?

C.D.V.: To a large degree, I think so, but I also think in Korea there is a history that has be taken into account that is almost unique to it. While the image of the Hermit Kingdom of the Joseon period are slightly exaggerated, it is not entirely so. Furthermore, the end of the Joseon period saw various powers assume portions of the Korean ethnic population that was once part of the pre-Joseon periods.  For example, consider the large number of Korean communities around Vladivostok, for which the Soviets did not create an autonomous zone, despite Lenin’s stated policy on the matter.  Large parts of the Korean community are in Eastern China in an autonomous zone of “Korean Chinese.”  From the Mongul expansion to 1946, Korea was constantly attacked and briefly taken over.  It’s experience of imperialism was not as direct from “Western” powers as most of the rest of Asia, and definitely largely colored as being against modernizing neighbors, as opposed to, say, the British or even the Imperial Russians. So left and right here have been dealing with national struggles from before the beginning of the cold war.

Still, imagined communities remain just as imaginary, and even though the situation is completely understandable, it is not necessarily a good development.  There are internationalist tendencies in “the left” here despite Juche and, more likely due the National Security Law, crypto-Juche types.  Still, it’s been part of the popular discourse here for a long time, and even the neo-liberal right here speaks out of both ends of its mouth collectively (see the last administration’s use of Dokdo as a kind of cynical point). There are some Trotskyist and anarchist groups as well as Democratic Socialist and ecological party types that see themselves as internationalist, although it is VERY hard for me to say how much influence they will have here, as it is hard for me to see clearly how large these groups actually are, but they seem smaller than even other parties and groups in, say, Japan or Taiwan.  The right is ascendent here for the past decade, and that obscures all this even more.

G.S.: If the Korean left was more Confucian-oriented and focused on resisting incursion rather than resisting landowners and tyrants (and therefore not leftist in the Enlightenment sense, if I understand you correctly), how do you see this past affecting the contemporary left? To what extent is the Korean left still struggling with modernity and post modernity? What kind of mental map of Korean politics needs to be developed — what might be its contours or axes? (If that’s not too big a question!)

C.D.V.: I think the Korean left is more or less in a similar vein as the Japanese left and those countries on the American side of the East Asian cold war split.  There is lingering racial nationalism that can get blended into their anti-imperialism, and trade union struggles here can be very hard fought but often leaving the non-Korean immigrants from South East Asia in the dust.

This may be changing as the demographic pressures on Korea change, and while the Confucianism-orientation is a cultural problem, the problems of the Korean left are often micro-factional. The sheer number of general “progressive parties” here is somewhat staggering even by European standards: The Democratic United Party, the Unified Progressive Party, The Progressive Justice Party, etc. Even to followers of Korean politics, the differences between these parties seem more problems of personalities and regional alliances than ideological differences.

Furthermore, like in the United States and Japan, but unlike Western Europe, Korean liberalism and soft leftism are immediately linked in the minds of the public.  The politics seem to break down along similar lines that one has seen in Canada. The marginalization of the socialists in the New Progressive Party has been complete with the socialists unable to get 3% of the vote. They were de-listed as a parliamentary party and are off the ballots until 2016. There are IST-related Trotskyist groups here and a few illegal parties with Juche sympathies, such as the Anti-Imperialist National Democratic Front. That said, I think the haunting of the left by its own flirtation with racialist theories has completely hindered it in pivoting to something that can either have mass popular appeal in South Korea or really appealing to an internationalist base. But I am no specialist on the politics of the New Progressive Party.

I suppose it is important to remember that while the history is complicated and left-right distinctions break down in some since due to the unique history in East Asian politics, it is also important to remember that this is a place where the Cold War is still very real.  So there are different kinds of complications than in, say, Japan.  It is a modern problem, but I don’t think it has a lot of strong parallels elsewhere in the contemporary world.

G.S.: Finally, this discussion would be incomplete without considering the latest developments, in terms of sabre-rattling by the UN and the North. How dangerous is this new development, and what do you think the left’s position and actions should be — particularly given the difficult and unique circumstances that have shaped it?

C.D.V.: Speaking of the cold war being very real, the current situation in Korea is hairy to say the least. China would not have backed sanctions if a) it really thought the North would drag it into war with the US or South Korea, but also b) if it didn’t think the new administration in the North didn’t need a lesson.  If the armstice is truly off on March 11, 2013 like the North says, things will be destabilized, but you will also see China kick into overdrive. It is having its own particular transition right now, and doesn’t want tons of North Korean refugees flooding into its part of North East Asia into Yanbain, the Korean autonomous prefecture in the PRC.  The United States’ game is more transparent: it obviously does not want to destabilize East Asia for economic reasons, nor does it want to set things into motion that could lead to another North East Asian war.  The US would not mind, however, China “taking care” of problems and transitioning the region by force.

The locals do not seem particularly worried about the severity of attack here in the South.  I would say, however, the situation is serious in the medium term and the exact mechanics as to what is going on is unknown. Even Russian North Korea analysts seem to be VERY hesitant to speculate on exactly what is going on there, despite having more access than a lot of people in the Western media.  The influx of celebrities there indicates that there are several public relations fronts going on in the North, but who knows exactly what is going to happen.  Still I suspect China holds more keys than we know, but there is so much going internal to China at the moment, it is really hard to tell what is going on. It is one of the moments when no side of the battle winning, nor things staying the same, is optimal.

Anyway, I have compiled a reading list of English language sources for some of what I am talking about in this interview, although I don’t cover all the topics in these book. There is all sorts of bias — Western, Korean, Communist, Confucian, etc — in these sources, but a close reader should be able to do some comparison work.  Most of them are available in North America.  If one reads Korean with academic fluency, which I don’t, the sources become much more myriad:

  • The Politics of Korean Nationalism by Chong-sik Lee
  • Song of Ariran, A Korean Communist in the Chinese Revolution by Nym Wales and Kim San.
  • The Korean Communist Movement, 1918-1948 by Dae-sook Suh
  • Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze by E. Taylor Adkins
  • The Cleanest Race by B.R. Myers
  • Confucianism and Korean thoughts by Keum Jang-tae
  • Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945 by Mark Caprio
  • The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan by Ken Kawashima
  • Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, And Legacy by Gi-Wook Shin
  • Peasant Protests and Social Change in Colonial Korea by Gi-Wook Shin
  • The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha
  • The Two Koreas: Revised And Updated A Contemporary History by Don Oberdor
  • Offspring of Empire: The Koch’ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876-1945 by Carter J. Ekhart
  • The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea by Namhee Lee
  • Reading Colonial Japan: Text, Context, and Critique editted by Helen Lee and Michele Mason
  • Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization by Kuan-Hsing Chen
  • The Forgotten War: A Brief History of the Korean War by  James K. Wheaton
  • A History of Korean Anarchist Movement by Ha Ki-Rak
  • State and Society in Contemporary Korea by Hagen Koo

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