Make Korea Great Again? Korean pseudohistory and why it matters
Andrew Logie (Photo: Private)
Peruse the early history section of any South Korean bookstore today, and you will quickly notice a significant number of freshly printed paperbacks with evocatively designed covers advertizing claims therein of either newly revealed, or better argued, truths of Koreans’ ancient past. Take a moment to examine the books and you will encounter claims that Old Chosŏn, the “first state of Korean history,” had constituted an expansive empire centered in continental Manchuria, and whose territory further encompassed the Korean, Liaodong and even Shandong peninsulas (Old Chosŏn were rulers of the continent, Yi Tŏgil 2006).
Within such books the origins of Old Chosŏn are invariably traced to the Neolithic Hongshan culture (3500-4000 BCE) straddling modern Inner Mongolia and Liaoning provinces, China (Anthropological illumination of the Hongshan culture, Yi Ch’angu 2018). More fantastic examples make claims to Korea possessing a 9,000 year history, projecting back from Hongshan to a proto-civilization named Hwanguk located in Central Asia (Old records of the Hwan and Tan states, An Kyŏngjŏn 2012). Other works meanwhile focus on the historical geography of Old Chosŏn, in particular seeking to counter the consensus understanding that the historical state of Chosŏn was centered at modern Pyongyang and overthrown by the Han Chinese invasion of 108 BCE, replaced with four centuries of commandery rule (The Han Commanderies were in China, Mun Sŏnghae 2016). Many of these books further contain a polemic denouncing the academic establishment as national traitors who supposedly promote colonial era Japanese historiography to the intentional detriment of Korea and benefit of China (18 lies of national traitor historians, Hwang Sunjong 2017).
This is the phenomenon of Korean pseudohistory of early northern East Asia. Born of popular historical revisionism that was initially authored in response to the Japanese takeover of Korea, it reemerged in the 1970s and has continued to thrive down to the current day, situated at the intersection of national revitilization, new religion and geopolitical rivalry. It constitutes both a fascinating sociological phenomenon in its own right, but a major obstruction to professional scholarship.
Andrew Logie is assistant professor of Korean Studies at the University of Helsinki. His research interests include ethnic history, state formation discourses, and popular and pseudo history pertaining to northern East Asia. A graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, he completed his doctoral studies at the University of Helsinki with a postdoctoral period spent at Leiden University. He is currently researching the intersectionality of Korean new religions and pseudohistory. He is separately developing the project Strange Korean Parallels that aims to situate Korean history in global and comparative contexts. He is also interested in the history of popular Korean 20th century music, and has an obsession with the voice and songs of Kim Chŏngho (1952-1985).