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Thursday, August 11, 2005


I've finally decided to make the move to the Wordpress version of my site at Blogsome. It's not perfect, but I've basically got things how I want them over there and I'm getting fed up with using Blogger and posting everything twice. So I won't be posting here any more. Hopefully over the next few months I'll get all the archived posts from here moved over there.

Please update your links, blogrolls, RSS feeds etc accordingly.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Pak Noja on Korean Nationalism and the Left

The talk given by Pak Noja recently at Yonsei University seems to have been quite an event with a thousand-strong audience. A transcript of his talk and the ensuing discussion with chairwoman Kim Ha-yong (who readers of this site may have heard of before) is now available on the Ta Hamkke website.

It would be great to have this in English, but translating the whole thing is a bit beyond the time I can spare at the moment, perhaps we can hope that Pak Noja will provide something in English on this subject sooner or later.

In the meantime I thought I’d just roughly translate a short extract, partly because this topic fits quite well with my recent post on autonomism in Korea and the discussion that followed. Apologies for the somewhat stilted translation. I’ve also had some difficulties with some of the terminology, I’ll try to come back to this and make some improvements at a later stage.

In this extract, after a discussion of the role played by nationalism and French imperialism in Vietnam, Pak turns to North Korea:
For us, one of the most difficult things to talk about is the North Korean revolution. The strength of the influence exerted by the legacy of imperialism and the intellectual inheritance of nationalism on the process of the North Korean revolution is worth thinking about. To some extent, we can talk about this even before the revolution in the North took the extreme form of a one-man dictatorship.

It is a fact that in the 1940s the North looked like a far more advanced and people-oriented society than the South. The fact that a great number of progressive intellectuals migrated to the North in the late 40s shows just how attractive the revolution was. For a considerable proportion of those who went North it would be hard to say that they were communists in the strictest sense of the word. Many intellectuals who were inclined towards nationalism and populism migrated. The land reforms carried out in the North were actually one of the reasons that land reform was achieved in the South at that time. The North Korean reforms provided a model and gave Yi Sŭngman (Syngman Rhee) a sense of crisis: “if we don’t also do this to some extent we will not be able to compete with the North.” So the historical contribution of quite a few aspects of the North Korean revolution can be evaluated positively.

However, already if you look at the series of campaigns that were waged between late 1946 and 1948, there is something about it that smells a bit strange. For example, the ‘Mass Mobilisation Campaign for the Cultivation of National Ideology’ (건국사상총동원교양캠페인) that began in late 1946 was aimed at educating people through a mass mobilisation of the whole nation to cultivate a national ideology. What was the purpose of this movement? According to the words of Kim Il-sung at the time it was “an ideological revolution to create among the workers of the new Democratic Chosŏn a national spirit, customs, morals and militancy.”

What is the meaning of ‘national spirit’ (국민정신) and ‘mass mobilisation’ (총동원)? Mass mobilisation was a phrase that was continuously used during the latter years of Japanese colonialism, and one of the phrases that expressed in the most compressed manner the fascism of the late colonial period. Talk of making people do ideological study through mass mobilisation was a commonplace of this period. Terms like ‘citizen-like spirit’, ‘national spirit’ and ‘spirit’ were actually Japanese words that were first brought to Korea by students returning from study in Japan. But the term ‘national spirit’ was something that was also created within the paradigm of nationalism following the model of Japan. The fact that the term ‘national spirit’ came to be used at that time in the North shows the influence of early nationalist ideology and perhaps also the influence of the Soviet Union, but we cannot eradicate the impression that the North Korean regime just took over a term that had been used as a commonplace in the late colonial period. Although of course at that time it referred to a different nation’s citizens.

Many of the other campaigns carried out in North Korea also had some similarities in their methods to the mass campaigns of the late colonial period, like the ‘Serving the Country behind a Gun Campaign’ (총후보국캠페인). Propagandists were sent out on a mass scale to forcibly mobilise people for education. Those who did not get on with the education programme or had different opinions were made to do self-criticism and undergo ‘ideological reconstruction’ (사상개조). If you look at the campaigns that were carried out in the late colonial period by state organs of ‘ideological cultivation’ like the Taehwasuk [an organisation of pro-Japanese Koreans] the similarity is quite noticeable.

So, when General Kim Il-sung was constructing a nation state, he brought in considerable parts of the apparatus of state control and repression that were taken from the mechanisms of administration of the Japanese imperialists, the very people he had been struggling against up until then. In other words, it is hard to get rid of the sense that the state created by the nationalists in some way inherited a great deal from the imperialist state.

I’d like to make some brief comments on this. Really the question that comes to my mind is: why was it that regimes founded by nationalists (whether or not they called themselves ‘communists’ let’s accept that’s what they were/are) took on much of the ideological and institutional apparatus of their erstwhile oppressors? I think it’s worth considering the possibility that these things were much the same from the point of view of the new rulers (Kim Il-sung, Ho Chi-min or whoever) as the factories that they inherited from the former colonialists. They were setting about creating an independent nation state (or in other terms an ‘independent centre of capital accumulation’). They needed the ideological tools for the job of mass coercion that is required when setting out on the path of primitive accumulation, just as much as they needed the physical tools that would combine with human labour to produce the steel, concrete, petrochemicals and so on.

I suppose what I’m saying is that since nationalism (in the colonial/post-colonial context) ultimately means achieving a capitalist state, it is natural for it to utilise the tools necessary for this job, however brutal they may be. Nationalism ceases to have any really progressive tendencies not long after it comes to power.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Korean books at SOAS 3: Biography of Yŏ Un-hyŏng

Yŏ Un-hyŏng Sŏnsaeng t'ujaengsa (1947)

A well-thumbed biography of a Korean nationalist who I've taken a liking to for some reason. Actually I know very little about Yŏ Un-hyŏng, although you can read a short and somewhat hagiographic bio here at the Kimsoft website and a more prosaic one here at Wikipedia. He seems to be one of those figures that every developing nation state of the twentieth century must have had - a not-quite great leader.

In the case of Mong-yang (his pen-name), one of the reasons for this is quite plain: he was a centre nationalist at a time (the mid 1940s) when the Korean peninsula was being polarised in two directions towards the 'left' nationalism of the North and the 'right' nationalism of the South. Perhaps you could say more honestly that Korea was being pulled rapidly in one direction by Soviet imperialism and in the other by US imperialism. Nationalists who didn't really want to rely on either of the new great powers tended to be left high and dry.

Yŏ Un-hyŏng in 1921

During his lifetime Yŏ had been in the mainstream of the Korean nationalist movement, operating in Shanghai, Siberia and Japan. He had earlier founded the New Korea Youth Party, but in 1920 he actually joined Korea's first Communist Party and attended the First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East, where he apparently met Lenin. Later he joined the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) and worked for Chiang Kai-shek. According to the Kimsoft biography he was arrested and imprisoned by the Japanese in 1929, although the English Wikipedia entry says that it was the British who arrested him and then handed him over to the Japanese. Interestingly the Korean Wiki entry notes that Yŏ was arrested at Shanghai baseball stadium - I wonder if it still exists?.

At liberation Yŏ emerged as one of the leaders of post-colonial Korea, but the People's Committees and the Korean People's Republic that he helped to form in September 1945 were short-lived and were soon crushed by the US military government (in the North the People's Committees were co-opted by the Soviet/Kim Il-sung regime). During 1946 Yŏ found himself on the left of the nationalist movement but was striving to bring elements of the right and left together in a coalition, working in particular with the main communist leader in the South: Pak Hŏn-yŏng.

One thing that caught my eye about this book was its publication date. It was originally published in 1946, but this edition was reprinted in late July 1947. Yŏ Un-hyŏng had in fact been gunned down at the Hyehwa-dong Rotary in Seoul just a few days before this on July 19, by a hitman thought to have been acting on Syngman Rhee's orders. Here's a description of the assassination from Kimsoft:
When Yo's car slowed down at the Hyehwa-dong intersection, suddenly, a large truck pulled out from behind the police station and blocked Yo's car. Yo's driver pressed on the breaks and the car came to screeching halt, when the assassin jumped on the rear bumper and fired two pistol shots at Yo through the rear window. One bullet hit Yo's back and came out of his stomach and the other went through his heart, killing him instantly. It was one pm.

According to the Kimsoft biography, the hitman was a rightist refugee from North Korea called Han Chi-gŭn. The site also has a whole page discussing the assassination.

By a quirk of fate, a combination of the British and Yŏ's love of sport seem to have been his twin nemeses, getting him into trouble on more than one occasion. First when he was arrested at the baseball stadium in 1929 and then again in July 1946, when he was on his way home to change into a clean shirt before attending a friendly football match between British and Korean teams.

If you want more resources on Mong-yang, there is a Wikipedia entry in Korean and he has his own website, run by his memorial foundation (every dead nationalist must have one of these it seems).

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Chinese peasants, back on the stage of world history

Peasant riot

Newsnight last night carried a very good report on rural unrest in China and the way that peasant farmers are fighting back to save their land from the gangster-capitalist property-developers, throwing up high-rises around Chinese cities at a phenomenal rate. This was one of those rare news reports that is truly informative and at the same time moving and even a little inspiring. You can watch the film here (at least for the time-being anyway) and there is a somewhat condensed article on BBC News too.

The massive scale and violence of the struggles that Chinese peasants are waging is quite amazing. They are up against not only bands of hired thugs, often working for state-owned companies, but also the police and corrupt local officials. In some places the uprisings have been on the scale of historical rebellions of Chinese peasants: 100,000 in Sichuan last November, 20,000 in Zhejiang in April.

What is perhaps even more amazing is that Chinese farmers are making documentaries of their struggles and filming their battles with the armies of thugs that come to take their land and demolish their villages. The Newsnight report includes footage from one such battle in Shengyou near Beijing this June. As the narrator comments, it is like watching a medieval Chinese battle scene: a muddy chaos of peasants with bamboo poles and farm tools. Well at least until the gunshots and explosions begin.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Let my [little] people go!

Kerim of Keywords has a superb post on the 'Oompa-loompanproletariat' which I feel obliged to share. Everything you could ever want to know about the struggle of these small persons for liberation from capitalism and Wonkaism.

Kifaya once again

Organising protests seems to be the same wherever you are these days: the importance of text.

The BBC has come up trumps today with an good piece on the democracy movement in Egypt and even a photo gallery of activists organising protests.

Monday, August 01, 2005


Utoro people

Oh My News International has a story by David McNeil and Andreas Hippin about a Korean village near Kyoto in Japan, said to be the last community of forced labourers and their descendents who were taken to Japan during the colonial period. It has long been threatened with demolition and clings to survival in the shadow of the bulldozers, in half-way-round-the-world echo of a Palestinian village on the West Bank. Only 230 residents remain, most of them in old age it seems.

The village of Utoro has clearly become something of a nationalist cause celebre in South Korea recently with solidarity movements and even fundraising concerts planned. One interesting aspect though, is that the attitude of the residents seems to lack the overt nationalism of their South Korean supporters. Their attitude is rather one of weary determination and pride in their 'solid' community. You can perhaps see the disconnect between residents and campaigners in this paragraph:

The renewed attention and the possibility that the Utoro plot will be bought by supporters and preserved as a memorial to conscripted Koreans, is welcomed by Gen but he is wary of being used for political purposes. "There are the people who want to continue living here and those who want to preserve the history. We are not especially interested in a museum, but some want to force Japan to pay for one as a way of acknowledging the past."

I might be reading too much into too little here, but I think this says something about the difficulties of imprinting the nationalist narrative onto every issue involving Korea and Japan and their shared history. This issue is also a universal issue, a human rights issue, a class issue. Obviously there is much that has yet to be dealt with in the history of Japanese colonialism, and the racism that it produced (towards Koreans and others) is still an important component of Japanese society. But to my mind, posing an issue like this solely, or even largely in the context of Korean nationalism as the South Korean NGOs seem to do, must act to shut off possibilities for solidarity with Japanese social movements and class-based alliances of Koreans and Japanese.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Support Kifaya

I've posted before about the democracy movement in Egypt - Kifaya / Enough! - and the solidarity they received from socialists in Korea (some good pictures here). Aljazeera reports today that 15 members of the movement's leadership have been arrested while trying to organise a demonstration. Anyone who wants to support one of the most important democracy movements in the world today should find a way to show solidarity with Kifaya, perhaps by writing to your local egyptian ambassador.

These are matters that concern all of us, especially since repressive governments like that of Mubarak that attempt to stifle all political debate (with the staunch support of the US of course) are one of the major factors in the growth of jihadi movements and support for the politics of desperation that believe the only solution is to carry out terrorist attacks on civilians. If we don't show our support for democracy movements like this (which are actually supported by the moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood) it is the violent Islamists that will gain, with the kind of horrific results in seen in Sharm El-Sheikh recently. By coincidence, Jonathan Steele had a comment piece in the Guardian yesterday in which he made a similar point.

An update to my post yesterday. According to a news story on the BBC it seems that the crackdown by the Egyptian government was somewhat more severe than was reported by Al Jazeera. 19 of Kifaya's leaders were arrested and many demonstrators beaten (the story has video too).

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Why six party talks are like a cheese sandwich

I noted that the story about the 'upbeat' beginning to the new round of six party talks (North Korea, South Korea, US, Japan, Russia and China) briefly made it to the top position on the front page of BBC News Online yesterday morning. But the BBC soon realised the error of its ways and remembered that nothing important really ever happens in East Asia, only funny things like hats with umbrellas. Here is the BBC's latest story and also what the Korea Times has to say.

To be honest, I'm not that keen on writing about negotiations between North Korea and the US, because, well perhaps because it's more boring than a processed cheese sandwich. Perhaps also because I don't care much for either side (although I must admit that negotiations are better than what they could be doing to one another). On this occasion though there is something about the talks that has just about prompted me to put finger to keyboard. This is the palpably different atmosphere. I could be wrong but it seems that both sides may be nearing the end of their strange mating dance and be about to do what we've all been waiting for: get it on.

Seems to me that the Bush administration has never really had a solution for the old North Korea problem, but on the other hand was glad of a nice little bit of instability in East Asia (offering legitimation for its protection racket in the region, cf Giovanni Arrighi's article in the latest New Left Review [subscription]). But then along came a problem called Iraq and suddenly it seems like a better idea to get things tidied up at the far end of the Eurasian continent before they get too out of hand.

North Korea on the other hand seems to have been less and less willing to compromise for just the same reason: it knows it has a strong hand. But maybe, just maybe, they feel they've reached a peak and the time is right to cut a deal. With South Korea providing electricity and the US and Japan offering diplomatic normalisation and lashings of cash it certainly seems that the nuclear gambit may have paid off, although I would attribute this as much to 'lucky' timing (ie Iraq) as to the North's skill in brinkmanship.

Well, there you go, a bit of a pointless attempt at geopolitical analysis/speculation, which could very well be a load of bollocks.

Oh, by the way, if you want a better informed analysis of the situation from a left perspective you could check out this piece (in Korean) in the latest issue of Ta Hamkke. It also says that the new round of talks could produce results, but argues that any agreement would probably be pretty meaningless. Besides this, it includes some interesting criticism of the pacifist and pro-North (Juch'eist) sections of the left, all of whom seem to have great hopes in the talks. The author argues instead that power relations in East Asia will be decided elsewhere, principally by what happens in the Middle East.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Korean books 2: North Korean poetry collections

North Korean poetry collections

Just a bit of eye-candy for book-lovers really. These are six poetry collections from North Korea dating from the late fifties to early sixties. I think the prints are really nice and very much of their time, although of course things haven't moved on that much in the DPRK and you can pick up books from only a few years ago that have very similar covers.

One thing that is very noticeable about these books is that apart from the one in the top centre (건설의 나날) they all depict very rural or wild scenes and they have titles like 'The Embrace of the Earth' (대지의품). It is interesting and perhaps surprising to note that at a time of massive industrialisation the nostalgic/romantic fetishisation of nature seems to have been a major theme (ok so I haven't actually read the poems, but there's something to be said for judging a book by its cover). I say surprising because we tend to think of 'communist'/state capitalist countries as fetishising industrialisation itself.

If you look closely at the two books to the bottom left you will see, however, that the pastoral scenes do include some form of farm machinery or tractors - clearly a hint at rural progress.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Autonomism in Korea

Reading conservative or liberal commentators on Korea, expat bloggers, experts or professional journalists, one thing that irritates is the tendency to lump together the Korean left into an amorphous mass of crazed stick-wielding students with a grudge against all things American and bolshie workers and farmers, who probably get paid too much anyway (to be 'globally competitive' that is).

Some of these stereotypes may exist in real life (I dunno), but the Korean left is actually quite a diverse and rapidly changing place. In some ways this is nothing new as anyone who knows about the various factions of the 80s (handily denoted by easy-to-remember abbreviations like NL and PD) will know. But the biggest difference these days is that much of the left is no longer dominated by Stalinism of one form or another as it was 20 years ago. There are social democrats of various stripes, Trotskyists of different hues and, as the title of this post indicates, the current vogue for autonomism is also present on the Korean peninsula.

I thought about making this the first of a series on the 'new' left in Korea, but I'm not sure I can actually come good on the promise of a series, so we'll see what happens. I might write some more on other aspects of the Korean left... and I might not.

The term used for Autonomism in Korean chayulchuûi (자율주의) must be of fairly recent coinage, although I'm not sure whether it reached Korean via Japanese, as many other newish words have done. Another interesting term that is relevant here is tajung (다중/多衆), a term that I've not seen used elsewhere on the left and which is used by the Korean Autonomists to translate Hardt and Negri's concept of the 'multitude' (their alternative to the proletariat as the modern world's revolutionary agency).

Anyway, according to people I've spoken to, the ideas of Autonomism, particularly in its recently revived form championed by Hardt and Negri, John Holloway, the Tute Bianche and the Zapatistas, have gained quite a bit of popularity on Korean campuses. This is perhaps a result of the general crisis of the old Stalinist left (in Korea and around the world) and the turn by quite a bit of the old Korean left toward social democratic politics.

Of course Korea did have a tradition of non-Stalinist revolutionary politics during the colonial period with the Korean anarchism of Sin Ch'ae-ho and others. But since liberation, anarchism or alternative forms of Marxism seem to have had little chance to make any impact on the left. Now, however, there is a Autonomist publishing house called Galmuri with the slogan 'Intellect of the Multitude' (다중지성).

There is also an Autonomist journal called Chayul P'yôngnon - 'The Autonomy Review'. The July issue (no. 13) is recently out, containing articles on subjects ranging from the debate on the left over the European constitution to the work of Giorgio Agamben. Much of it is translations of the work of European Autonomists, but there is also some interesting-looking writing by Koreans, including some debate between Autonomists and socialists like Ch'oe Il-pung.

So there you go, if Autonomism is your thing and you can read Korean, you now know where to go. Just don't let it be said that the Korean left consists of a load of North Korea-loving America-hating bbalgaengidûl.

Wanted to add some extra information from one of my Korean correspondents who put this in the comment box:
"The [Korean] autonomists also emerged from the disorganisation of the old PD faction. Part of the National Students' Conference (전학협) and the Socialist Party (사회당), particularly the students, became autonomists or other sorts of anarchists... At the moment the PD faction is not only isolated but in an extremely severe state of disintegration, and there are a lot of areas [where the members] are no longer under their control."

Blogger doesn't really seem to do trackbacks, so I'll manually link back to Marmot's link to me here and Budaechigae's here. Thanks for the links guys.