Back by Popular Demand
— B.R. Myers

Here is the post indignantly referred to on another site. I had withdrawn this and all other posts for the time being, because I knew that the old guard would respond by trying to deflect attention away from the issue at hand, and from textual excerpts that speak for themselves. My other postings will all be back too, don’t worry.

The South Korean left has hitherto tried to convey the impression to the West that there was no fifth column in South Korea at all. The South Korean right, for its part, refuses to show any understanding for why so many intelligent and good people chose to side with the DPRK against the Park and Chun dictatorships.

We foreigners have a special duty to get past both moldy Cold War-era narratives to the more nuanced truth. The older generation of American Korea scholars and Korea hands is just going to have to deal with this, I’m afraid. You can control discussion in the US, but not everywhere in the world.

To be clear: I am far from convinced that the North Koreans organized the event. But it must at least be acknowledged (as the South Korean courts have had to acknowledge) that there is good evidence for believing that North Korea had its agents in Gwangju as in every large South Korean city, and that they did not sit quietly on the sidelines that tragic May.

Note also that I urge a critical reading of Kim’s book. I have gone to the trouble of checking several of his fascinating citations of demonstrator testimony, and at least they match the text. (Nor do I see any evidence that he is trying to take credit for the scholarship of others.) I urge everyone to read the book, or learn Korean and read the book, before presuming to pass judgment on its content.- B.R. Myers, 16 September 2016.


Don Baker continues to lament that I do not observe the field’s fatwa like a good boy, and treat Kim’s book like the Satanic Verses. May I remind him that I recommended Tyranny of the Weak in 2013 despite being the only person in the field fundamentally opposed to the book’s thrust? Had I not found the very troubling problems I discussed in the posting below “Revoking a Recommendation,” I would still be recommending it.

Call me crazy, but I like to tell open-minded scholars of Korean history about books I’ve read that offer useful content. If I consider them sound from start to finish, I say so. If not, I urge people to read them critically. I did this with Kim’s book just as I did with Tyranny

A book that consists to at least 30% of unedited passages and even whole pages from primary materials (for the most part, in the first two volumes, eyewitness and veteran demonstrator testimony) can hardly be described as “totally concocted,” can it?

There is plenty of stuff in there, in the latter two volumes especially, that seems to me preposterous, like the martial-arts battle in the North Korean village described either in vol. 3 or 4. But much of what is said in the first two volumes, particularly by the demonstrators or veteran demonstrators themselves, is sound. And much of that runs counter to the more recent and hyperbolic myth-making.

Estella says in Great Expectations, “Moths and all sorts of ugly creatures hover around a lighted candle. Can the candle help it?” And could the good citizens of Gwangju help it if a few dozen North Koreans were hovering around them? What, were they supposed to check ID’s? Would the fact of a North Korean presence make their cause any less respectable, their grievances any less legitimate? Of course not.  Does the fact that there were some communists in the US civil rights movement tarnish its history?

What is at work here with Baker et al is the misguided notion that if any piece of information serves the other side, or conforms in any way with the military dictatorships’ own propaganda, it must be denied or swept under the rug. As has happened with the Soviet archival evidence that the DPRK funded the so-called reformist parties in the 1960 election campaigns, just as the right wing had fulminated at the time. Good luck finding that evidence mentioned in new South Korean books on those parties (or on the Minjok Ilbo).

The person really being libeled in this whole discussion is poor Kim Il Sung. By North Korean logic, he would have betrayed the revolution and the nation, and the content of all his own ROK-related speeches, had he not done everything he could to try to make the Gwangju uprising “go wide.” That was the southern part of the DPRK, as far as he was concerned. And in that famous speech in 1955, about the first half of which such an ill-informed fuss has been made, he said quite clearly that the most feasible way of getting the south back was by riding a southern revolution. 

I have too much respect for the man to believe he said to his anti-South apparatus, “I’ve been telling you for 20 years that when the next uprising comes, we’ve got to be ready to pounce and exploit it. Well, forget all that. If there are any of our men in Gwangju now, pull them out. Let those kids fight the puppet state on their own.”  What possible reason could a unification-obsessed nationalist have had to take such a line?

The writer of the book in question believes that the North instigated the uprising. Again: I am not convinced. (Nor, incidentally, are some of my most arch-conservative friends.) But a historian cannot dismiss sound information because there is unsound stuff in the textual vicinity, or a danger of someone else using the truth the wrong way.

I needn’t go into the issue of how different libel laws are here in the ROK. I just find it interesting, and unfortunately typical of our field, that Baker appears to be angrier about an unorthodox opinion than about any of the examples listed in the posting below “Revoking a Recommendation.” — B.R. Myers, 17 September 2016. 

Ahn Cheol-soo’s People’s Party has called for a ban on “all cutting down or distortion” of the Gwangju uprising of May 1980, or the Gwangju Democratization Movement as it is routinely called. For “all cutting down or distortion” read: any mention of a possible North Korean role in the events. If the PP’s proposed law were to go into effect (a distinct possibility), offenders would be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison. And Ahn Cheol-soo considers himself the voice of centrist reason! So far there has apparently been no English-language reporting on the proposal, nor any complaint from the Western Korea scholars who recently protested the current ROK administration’s textbook policy.

The uprising of 1980 is one of those many issues in regard to which South Korean historians express themselves very differently depending on the level of knowledge of the people they are talking to. In the company of monolingual Western academics and journalists, they tend to dismiss all talk of a North Korean presence in Gwangju as absurd right-wing slander. In Korean-language discussion with their peers, on the other hand, they protest only against the right’s alleged overestimation of the North Koreans’ role. No one here seriously believes that Kim Il Sung would have refrained from sending at least some operatives to the scene. The fact that the Rodong Sinmun beat the South Korean media to certain key updates speaks for itself.

There is enough other evidence or testimony to back up the claim of DPRK involvement (including testimony from KPA veterans and other migrants) to prevent the use of the existing libel laws to muzzle discussion of it. Hence the perceived need for a new law that would put all heterodox talk of May 18th off limits.

The orthodox Western narrative of modern Korean history is by and large congruent with the South Korean progressivist narrative. American graduate students in search of a degree or an academic job should therefore stick to wide-eyed viewings of May 18th (Hwaryŏ han hyuga, 2007), the standard cinematic mythologization of the uprising. Naturally the film met with the great approval of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club, which presented the director with a prize.

But those with the luxury to remain open-minded should engage in a critical reading of Kim Tae-ryŏng’s four-volume book May 18th as History (Yŏksa-ro-sŏ-ŭi 5.18, Seoul, 2013). The first two volumes are the best, relying as they do on the demonstrators’ own written and spoken testimony, which runs counter to much of the current myth-making. As can be said of all books, this one could have benefited from some more editing and tightening up; three volumes would have made the author’s case more effectively. All the same, much of Kim Tae-ryŏng’s criticism of the orthodox account of Gwangju (to which even most conservatives now pay lip service) seems unanswerable. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the whole story of the South Korean opposition.