Past Forward: Essays in Korean History

Past Forward: Essays in Korean History

by Kyung Moon Hwang


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A wide-ranging collection of concise essays, 'Past Forward' introduces core features of Korean history that illuminate current issues and pressing concerns, including recent political upheavals, social developments and cultural shifts. Adapted from Kyung Moon Hwang's regular columns in the 'Korea Times' of Seoul, the essays forward interpretative points concerning historical debates and controversies in order to generate thinking about the ongoing impact of the past on the present, and vice versa: how Korea's present circumstances reflect and shape the evolving understanding of its past. In taking the reader on a compelling journey through history, 'Past Forward' paints a distinctive, fascinating portrait of Korea and Koreans both yesterday and today.

Containing both extensive chronological and subject tables of contents, the essays are grouped into themes demonstrating a particular facet of the recurring connections between the past and the present. In addition, the book contains a timeline of contents that situates the essays in chronological context and a subject index. While all the self-contained essays introduce particular facets of Korean history and society, they are free of jargon and written for the general reader.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783088799
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 01/16/2019
Pages: 250
Sales rank: 924,662
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Kyung Moon Hwang is professor of history and East Asian languages and cultures, University of Southern California, USA. He is the author of ‘A History of Korea – an Episodic Narrative’ (2016) and ‘Rationalizing Korea: The Rise of the Modern State, 1894–1945’ (2015).

Read an Excerpt



A country's name naturally reflects its history. For example, there are about a half-dozen official monikers for Germany in different regions and languages, a sign of Germany's long and fractured existence before it became a unified state in the nineteenth century.

Korea's story is somewhat different. With the exception of the Mongolian word, "Solongos," which also carries a fascinating history, there are three basic names for Korea around the world: Goryeo (Korea), Joseon and Hanguk. Over its long history, many different expressions have been used, both by neighbors and among Koreans, but these three have become standardized in recent times. Even more interesting is that each of these three terms was revived from an ancient historical period and, in the modern era, underwent further modification in line with political shifts. Such recycling of words for Korea thus shows both the civilization's longevity and its people's awareness of their shared past.

The oldest of the three names is probably "Joseon," which appeared in ancient Chinese records in reference to a political entity on the northern part of the peninsula and extending into Manchuria. This connection later became the basis for national myths about Korea's primordial origins, myths still promoted in both Koreas today.

Joseon was replaced by the kingdom of Goguryeo, a more verifiable state that ruled over the same territory beginning about 2,000 years ago. Contemporary Chinese sources, using colorful descriptions of customs and rituals, described Goguryeo as one of several groups on the peninsula, which included the three "Hans" (Jinhan, Mahan and Byeonhan), tribal confederations on the peninsula's southern half. The term "Han" appears to have come from a native word for "great" or "big," perhaps also "king," but was assigned an ideograph (?) that referred also to an ancient Chinese kingdom. This added to the confusion, but thereafter the Three Hans, or "Samhan," became a conventional reference for the peninsula.

This was the case even after the ancient Three Kingdoms era (again, confusingly, a term that also referred to a period in Chinese history) came to an end in the seventh century CE with the conquest of Goguryeo and Baekje by Silla. The first reuse of earlier names, however, appeared when this Unified Silla kingdom began to fragment through internal rebellions in the ninth century, as leaders in the northern and southwestern parts of Silla resurrected the names, respectively, of Goguryeo and Baekje. When the leader of this second version of Goguryeo succeeded in militarily reunifying the peninsula in the early tenth century, he stuck with the name, though in shortened form, "Goryeo," as the official title for the new kingdom. This was the word that spread around the world, which explains why outside of East Asia today, variations of "Korea" stand as the uniform term.

During the Goryeo era, however, and even within the country, many other names came into routine use, including "Samhan" (Three Hans), "Dongguk" and "Dongbang" (Eastern Country), "Haedong" (East of the Sea) and "Daedong" (Great East). Most of these terms, tellingly, indicated a strong consciousness of Korea's relationship with China and possibly came from China, but in any case, they functioned as common shorthands among the people.

Such epithets survived even as official, diplomatic designations changed in line with political developments. This happened again in the late fourteenth century, when new rulers brought down the Goryeo dynasty and once more revived an ancient name, this time "Joseon," in order to legitimize the new kingdom's claims over the realm. And such were the motivations when, 500 years later, the formal name again changed, though not in order to signal the death of the five-century-old Joseon dynasty, but rather to give it a new international standing. And in keeping with earlier recycling patterns, the term "Daehan Jeguk", or Great Korean Empire, was established in 1897, although it kept the same monarch, now called an "emperor."

The shortened form of Daehan Jeguk, "Hanguk," thus gained greater use and operated alongside "Joseon," the name ("Chosen") that the Japanese revived upon colonizing Korea in 1910. The new (old) competing usage did not disappear, however, and Korea's first government-in-exile that gathered in Shanghai in 1919 recycled the "Daehan" and "Hanguk" designations for its formal name, Daehan Minguk (Republic of Korea).

Interestingly, upon liberation in 1945, followed quickly by national division, South Korea used this rendering for its formal name, while the North Koreans kept the name the Japanese had "chosen." North Koreans still refer to their country, and to Korea as a whole, as Joseon, while South Koreans use Hanguk. Their respective names for each other are "South Joseon" and "North Hanguk," which reflects the convoluted history of national division, the ramifications of which naturally extend to naming, including in neighboring lands. In China, they use the preferred terms of the two countries, but in reflecting its longstanding communist alliance with North Korea, the word for Korea as a whole is the "Joseon Peninsula." In Taiwan, they use the South Korean term for North Korea, though interestingly not for South Korea ("South Han"). And perhaps fittingly, the phrasing is oddest in Japan, where it's "North Joseon" (Kita Chosen) and "Hanguk" (Kankoku), respectively.

All of this recycling and mixing of names may amount to a confusing mess, but even so, it is an intriguing sign and outcome of Korea's compelling historical turns.



In mid-2016, at a particularly low point in inter-Korean relations, the new South Korean government of President Moon Jae-in revealed the formation of a special "decapitation" squadron targeting the North Korean leader. Such units had always existed in some form, probably, but the point was to make an impression on such a mercurial, absolutist dictator, as every other approach appeared to have failed.

How to shake some sense into, or better yet, get rid of a tyrant whose behavior seems not just unpredictable or bizarre, but frightening, has been a problem throughout human history. In hindsight, a well-timed assassination at times would have produced an undeniably better outcome. Who could argue against the notion, for example, that killing Adolf Hitler sometime in the 1930s would have prevented much of the carnage around the world in the 1940s?

In Korea's past as well, this challenge arose alongside systematic rules on political legitimacy. Until the twentieth century, as in most other places, sovereignty almost always lay in a hereditary monarch, whose supreme authority came from being the child or relative of the preceding monarch and hence a descendant of the man who originally took power through force. The military leaders who founded the dynastic states, whether it was Goryeo, Joseon or North Korea, established lines of monarchical power in which legitimacy was passed down to the founder's descendants in orderly succession. A new king would formally take the throne once the previous king, usually his father, died.

But this did not always work out as designed. Some monarchs were pushed out by ambitious or merciless royal relatives coveting the throne. Others were forced to abdicate under extraordinary circumstances. The last two Joseon monarchs, Gojong and Sunjong, for example, were stripped of their positions by the conquering Japanese in 1907 and 1910, respectively. And the Joseon founder himself, Taejo, could not stomach the murderous infighting among his children and stepped away from the throne in 1398, just six years after establishing his kingdom.

Throughout the five centuries of the Joseon era, however, only two monarchs were considered so terrible, so dangerous and so immoral that top ministers took the lead in toppling them. The latter of those two, Gwanghaegun, was condemned for his cruelty, although he did not seem any crueler than many other kings. More importantly, he favored making peace with the newly rising Manchus instead of unconditionally supporting the Chinese Ming dynasty in the early seventeenth century, and for that, he was overthrown in 1623.

Recently, however, the historical judgment on Gwanghaegun has undergone a major revision in popular and scholarly circles, and he is now more frequently viewed as a wise pragmatist who foresaw the futility of militarily resisting the Manchus. Indeed, the man who replaced him on the throne, his nephew, had to bow in ritual submission to the Manchu emperor on the outskirts of Seoul in 1637, one of the most humiliating moments in Korean history.

The other deposed Joseon king seems to have been a more clear-cut case. This was Yeonsangun of the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century, whose debauchery and indiscriminate brutality, together with other depraved behavior, present reminders of perhaps the most notorious such monarch in Western history, the Roman emperor Caligula of the first-century CE.

Both Yeonsangun and Caligula were being invoked in 2017 in baffled attempts to characterize the current North Korean leader. Like the other two, Kim Jong-Un had inherited the throne as a young man and seemed extraordinarily unfit to lead, acting capriciously, tempestuously and maliciously on his way toward destroying himself, but not before possibly destroying many other things.

Like the high ministers of the Joseon dynasty wondering what to do with such a menacingly puzzling man, South Korean officials (and perhaps some North Korean ones too) were wringing their hands about the available options and veering toward taking extreme action in their desperation. But we also know that taking this ultimate step likely leads to unpredictable and possibly uncontrollable developments. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the elimination of Kim Jong-Un would result in a leader who is easier to figure out, although the Kim dynasty itself might cease.

Such lessons also come from Korea's experience with assassinations in the twentieth century, especially the two killings that make up the most extraordinary coincidence in the country's history: the 1909 assassination of the Japanese overlord, Ito Hirobumi, by a Korean resistance fighter; and the 1979 assassination of the South Korean dictator, Park Chung-Hee, ironically by the head of his secret police. The two events took place exactly seventy years apart, both on October 26. It remains curious why the historical reputation of the former assassin, An Jung-geun, is so different from that of the latter, Gim Jae-gyu. Both men claimed righteous justification for killing a ruthless tyrant, but one is considered a national hero and the other a criminal.

More to the point, the results of those assassinations were ambiguous at best. The 1909 killing actually might have accelerated or finalized the Japanese move to colonize Korea the following year, in 1910. And the 1979 shooting led not to democracy in South Korea but rather to a bloody suppression of a mass civil uprising and an even worse dictator the following year, in 1980. History has shown, then, that cutting off the head of a regime does not necessarily destroy the many other actors that serve as its vital organs.



In the historical struggle between religion and government, or "church and state" to use a shorthand, the state has usually taken command in South Korea. This does not mean that a totalitarian state has suppressed all religious activity. Rather, in the name of the public good, political elites have successfully prevented religious movements and institutions from dominating the state.

The result has been a mostly secular state, which has generated a mostly secular public life, even as most people have freely pursued their religious activities. Today in South Korea, for example, one finds a stable coexistence between state and religion, a largely peaceful acknowledgment of shared interests in maintaining separate spheres and religious pluralism. There is perhaps no other major country in the world in which the private religious realm thrives in its diversity, while the public realm remains steadfastly secular.

This reality can be considered a legacy of the Joseon dynasty, when popular devotional practices, such as shamanism or Buddhism, were permitted, just as long as their clergy did not attempt to engage in politics or social movements. When political leaders suspected certain religions of violating this rule, the result was often tragic, as the persecutions of Catholicism in the nineteenth century showed. It was not just the Catholics, however. Throughout the Joseon era, religiously inspired uprisings took place, and the nineteenth century witnessed the three largest such movements, in 1811, 1862 and 1894. The final one, led by followers of the native Donghak religion, almost toppled the Joseon kingdom and certainly helped hasten its end.

Such experiences made state leaders even more wary of religions, especially the often disruptive influence of mass religions like Donghak. When the Japanese conquered Korea and ruled it as a colony beginning in 1910, one of the features of Korean society that concerned them most was religion-inspired social instability. While claiming to permit religious freedom, the colonial regime divided religions into those officially recognized, such as Buddhism or Christianity, and those they called "pseudo-religions." The pseudo-religions, including the many offshoots of Donghak, were potentially dangerous to the political and social order, colonial officials declared. They had good reason to be concerned, as a successor movement to Donghak, together with Protestant Christianity, joined forces to initiate the March First independence demonstrations of 1919.

Thereafter, the colonial authorities kept a careful watch over both Protestantism and the pseudo-religions, as various popular religions occasionally made sensational headlines for scandals or crimes, including nationalist activity. This delicate balancing act came to an end when Korea became mobilized for Japan's total war beginning in the mid-1930s. In the face of protests from some religious leaders, the colonial government pressured Koreans into attending shrine worship observances and erecting altars for Shinto, the native Japanese folk religion, in their workplaces and homes. In time, the colonial state, in effect, functioned as a theocracy. This theocratic order, which worshipped the Japanese emperor, the head priest of Shinto, came closest to establishing a state religion in modern Korea, far surpassing the semireligious role of Confucianism in the Joseon era.

Upon liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, however, a secular state reemerged that superseded religion. In fact, in North Korea, the state came to overwhelm and displace religious life, even as the Kim family itself became the object of religious veneration. In South Korea, the state, after its founding in 1948, never succeeded in imposing itself into the realm of religion. President Syngman Rhee's administration (1948– 1960) tried to curry favor with anti-communist Protestant organizations, but this was particular to the circumstances surrounding early South Korea, the Korean War and the intensification of American influence. In general, when occasional attempts, usually led by evangelical Christian leaders, arose to overstep this tacit albeit firm separation between church and state, the public backlash was usually so strong that such efforts were short-lived.

In fact, religions not only prevented state domination in the religious sphere, but even came to challenge the authoritarian state. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Catholic Church and activist Protestant and Buddhist clergy helped to lead resistance efforts and harbored dissidents of the South Korean military dictatorship. This consistent pressure from the religious realm helped to usher in democratization in the late 1980s, and since then religion has been able to keep in check any interference by state power in religious activity.

But in holding true to the model of a secular society, just as important has been the obverse phenomenon: As in many other settings around the world, the South Korean state, for its part, has mostly limited religion's impact in the public sphere. Therefore, the carefully cultivated principle of religious pluralism has largely escaped being violated or exploited by the interests of any particular religion.

As was the case in the Joseon era and throughout the twentieth century, however, it has been difficult for the secular or semi-secular state to sustain the fine line between the permissible and restricted in terms of religion. Should the state differentiate established, stable, institutionalized religions, for example, from the numerous smaller, popular and unpredictable religious movements? If yes, how so? This remains a major challenge, but one that does not endanger the general pattern of state authority, secularism and pluralism that has developed over the long term in Korean history.


Excerpted from "Past Forward"
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Copyright © 2019 Kyung Moon Hwang.
Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

1. Circulating History;

2. Durable Traditions;

3. Ancient Remains;

4. Dynastic Depths;

5. Modern Origins;

6. Challenges of Nationhood;

7. History Makers;

8. External Presences;

9. Trials of Modernization;

10. Gripped by the Past; Index.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Kyung Moon Hwang’s collection of essays is a delightful mix of contemporary commentary informed by a rigorous historical mindset. Particularly with Korean history, it is necessary to cut through politicized narratives facilely applied to everyday events and current political passions. Hwang does this in spades with penetrating historical insight leavened by humor. A wonderful read for those interested in Korea’s present and past.”

—Michael Robinson, Professor Emeritus, Korean History, Institute for Korean Studies, Indiana University, USA

“This collection of illuminating essays reveals how complex and ordinary historical events shape the story and meaning of the present. Written in a lively and entertaining style, Professor Hwang’s book is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand what is going on in the two Koreas today.”

—Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Author of Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea, and Professor of East Asian Studies, Oberlin College, USA

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