Korean History: Its Importance for Historians and Social Scientists



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Korean History: Its Importance for Historians and Social Scientists
Michael J. Seth

James Madison University


Until recently Korea has been overlooked by by many historians and social scientists. This is reflected in many world history textbooks. Although newer textbooks give a bit more attention to Korea, in most it still receives only a paragraph or two in discussions of East Asia and appears again as a setting for the Korean War. There are several understandable reasons for this: Korea is only a modest-sized society, it has always been in the shadows of its larger neighbors China and Japan, few non-specialists have much familiarity with its culture, and there has been a paucity of available resources on Korea. Yet, an understanding of Korean history is of great value to historians and social scientists.

While compared to its neighbors, especially China and Russia, Korea seems small it is, in fact, not so small. The combined area of the two Koreas is about the same as Great Britain and its population of seventy million is a bit larger than Britain or France, a little smaller than Germany. Perhaps it can best be compared to Italy, another similarly shaped peninsular state; it is slightly smaller than Italy in area, a bit larger in population. Korea is the home of a distinctive cultural tradition that has a two thousand year written record. But the main arguments for its relevance for world history are: its rich and well-documented historical heritage which adds to our knowledge of the human experience, its role in East Asia that gives insight into that important cultural tradition, its usefulness in understanding cross-culture interactions, its importance in understanding economic and social development, and the ways Koreas historical experience makes it especially valuable for comparative studies.

Although much of Korean culture is derived from China it has nonetheless, maintained a

distinctive and rich cultural heritage. Dress, housing design and construction, cuisine, music and dance differed from its neighbors. Minsok-hwa style paintings that playfully depict everyday life, for example, have no counterpart elsewhere in East Asia. Although Buddhism, Confucianism and more recently Christianity have profoundly influenced Korea, the indigenous shamanism has remained an important component of the societys spiritual life. Koreas script hangǔl developed in the fifteenth century is the only major writing system in use that does not have its origins in the ancient Middle West, India or China. Many Koreans can cite a number of other examples of a dynamic and sophisticated cultural tradition: the earliest moveable metal type, the earliest playing cards, the first iron clad ships (the fifteenth century turtle boats), the first rain gauges and the longest tradition of recording rainfall, the worlds largest compendium of Buddhist scripture- the Tripitika Koreana, and the highly sophisticated porcelain wares such as the Koryǒ celadon to name a few.1

Koreas cultural tradition is well documented making it accessible to scholars. Although the oldest extent history the Samguk sagi dates only from the twelfth century, few societies have taken the role of the historian and the writing of history as seriously. The result is a large number of premodern historical works of a high standard. There are hundreds of volumes of surviving works by pre-twentieth century histories, an invaluable record into a premodern, non-Western society. A large body of literary works exists the earliest dating from the Silla period (676-935). This includes poems, essays, religious texts, biographies and hundreds of premodern novels, although only a several have been translated into Western languages. It interesting to note that although Korea was a male dominated society there was a distinctive womens literature including poetry, memoirs, autobiographies and a large number of essays on what were regarded as feminine themes: weddings and marriages, the departure of children from the household and gatherings of woman relatives.2 As more of this becomes translated we have the opportunity to explore a cultural tradition in depth.

Of considerable interest is Koreas role in East Asia. The society can be seen as both a distinctive variant of a larger East Asian civilization and a bridge linking China and Japan. The influence on Japan is well-known to many historians. Missionaries from the Korean kingdom of Paekche introduced Buddhism and literacy to Japan in the sixth century. Much of Japans borrowing from China came via Korea and often reflected Korean adaptation of Chinese culture. The process was especially important in the fifth through eighth centuries. Japanese tribute missions to China during the Nara and Heian periods general traveled via Korea, often on Korean ships. The Japanese often imported Korean manufactured goods and art works which were used as models. For example, archaeology suggests that the distinctive swords and armor of the samurai are probably of Korean origin.3 Borrowing and influences from Korea were continuous: bonsai trees, raku ware pottery, sumo wrestling and Neo-Confucianism were imported from or influenced by Korea. The process by which Korean adopted and adapted aspects of Chinese culture and then the Japanese adopted and adapted them from Korea is a fascinating one and useful for understanding how societies important and adopt ideas and institutions.

Korea played a pivotal role in the Chinese tribute system. Korean elites regarded themselves, especially from the fourteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, as part of a larger Traditional Instruments and Techniques, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974).cosmopolitan world centered in China. They maintained cultural exchanges with Chinese, as well withJapanese, Vietnamese, Okinawans and at times with sinified Central Asians. Furthermore, developments in Korea are linked to those of the rest of East in complex ways not fully understood. An example was the simultaneous decline of the Tang China, Silla Korea, and classical Japan after the mid eighth century, or the simultaneous rise of warlord dominated governments in Japan and Korea in the second half of the twelfth century. Koreas response to Western imperialism can be contrasted with both that of China and Japan.

Koreas historical importance suggests how it can be incorporated in world history. Many world history texts treat China and Japan as two distinctive civilizations or cultures, with the latter drawing much from the former. Others regard both part of an East Asian civilization. When Korea is included it is clear that there is a cultural continuum stretching from the North China Plain to northern Hokkaido and southward into the Vietnam. While even China itself is a complex and varied society, there is a higher cultural tradition derived from classical China shared by the peoples outside the Chinese polity. Looking at both the Korean and Japanese societies the links and variations along this cultural continuum become more apparent. Koreas role as a bridge between China and Japan enable us to see the pattern of cultural transmission across Asia more clearly.

Cross-cultural exchanges is a major concern of historians and social scientists and Korea provides an excellent, well-documented case study of cross-cultural interaction. Its rich travel literature, for example is useful for that purpose. More than seven hundred extant travel accounts to China written by Koreans dating from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century and a smaller number of travel accounts to Japan have survived. Since cultural differences are a favorite topic in these works they are invaluable sources for understanding cross-cultural encounters. Indeed, an examination of these accounts challenge many of our common notions about cultural and national identity. Of particular interest is the process of cultural adaptation. Throughout its history Korean society was been characterized by a process of looking abroad from cultural models and then adopting them. But something changed when Korean borrowed models abroad, they both modified them and adhered to them with a distinctive zealousness. An obvious example is the Neo-Confucianism of Song that became a rigid ideology in Korean shaping its institutions to a degree unknown in China. A similar case is the adaptation of Marxism-Leninism in North Korea.4 The process by which Korea was borrowed from the West, often via Japan, is quite interesting. Nor is this process any longer, one way. In recent years the Korea Wave has seen Koreanized versions of Western pop culture influence popular culture in China, Japan, Taiwan and to a lesser degree Southeast Asia.

Korean history since 1945 provides important insights into economic and social development. Few aspects of Korean history are more interesting than the radically different paths of development taken by North and South Korea after 1945. North Koreas economic failures can be contrasted with those of South Korea. The latters transformation into a democratic, first world nation poses many questions. More than any society perhaps, South Korea challenges many of our common assumptions about economic development and the third world. Korea seemed to be a classic case of a peripheral nation dominated by a metropolitan power- first imperial Japan and then the U.S. Yet, it appeared to break loose of this pattern and South Korea became the poster child of successful development. From 1965 to 1995 South Korea had the highest average GNP growth rate in the world.5 It has been one of the few post-colonial third world societies that has graduated into first world status. The largest and originally poorest of the four tigers its success has challenged many theories on underdevelopment. Its economic transformation after 1960 was largely unpredicted by Western observers and by economic and social theorists. Few aid officials or scholars, in fact as far as I know none, predicted the economic take-off of the 1960s. At most stages of its economic transformation such as in the early and mid 1970s or in the early 1980s or as recently as the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, what the Koreans call the IMF Crisis the consensus of foreign scholars

was that structural and even cultural factors would make further economic progress unlikely except at a very modest pace. The theories were often persuasive but the predictions always wrong. Certainly, this challenges us to rethink many theories of economic development.

Its educational development was no less dramatic as well. From 1945 to 1960, enrollment in primary schools rose three times, in secondary schools more than eight-fold and higher education ten times. In 1945, only 40 percent of school age students were in grades one through six, fifteen years later 96 percent were. Enrollments continued to grow; almost all students were attending middle school becoming in the 1970s and the high school graduation rate reached 90 percent by the early 1990s. Today literacy is virtually universal, almost all young people complete secondary school. A recent report records that among the OECD nations South Korean students were the most likely to receive a basic education and ranked third in the percentage that go on for higher education.. The quality of secondary education is high as well, at least judging by international tests of comparisons where South Korean students consistently score at or near the top in math, science and creativity.6

It is important to note that this educational revolution began and continued during post-liberation years of political instability, poverty, and the highly destructive Korean War. And it is also important to note that it preceded South Koreas much praised economic development. Education had already expanded rapidly at all levels and primary education became almost universal by the time of the nations economic take-off began the early 1960s. Furthermore, educational development as measured in enrollment levels and in teaching training continued to keep peace with its much-praised economic growth. In fact, at every point in its development from 1950s through the 1980s South Korea education was at the extreme end among developing countries, that is, South Korea had higher levels of school enrollment than any other developing nation in its per capita GNP range.7 It is interesting to note that public expenditures of on education as a percentage of GDP were below that average for developing countries before 1980 and are today well below the OECD average.

Another area of interest is the fact that the nation with its long authoritarian tradition made a successful and largely peaceful transition to democracy. South Koreas process of democratization poses its own set of questions with important implications for world history. Was this part of the historical pattern of borrowing what Koreans thought to be elements of superior culture from abroad? Did democracy result not merely from successful cultural borrowing but have indigenous roots? Was, perhaps the transition to democracy part of some logical or inevitable result inherent in the transformation into a highly literate prosperous society with a market-based economy? Furthermore how does Koreas cultural heritage influence it political heritage. Some recent works suggest that Confucian values still shape political attitudes even in a democratic institutional framework.8

Some features of Korean history make it very useful for comparative purposes. From 676 to 1945, with minor exceptions, the peninsula has been unified under one state. During this time Korea became one of the worlds most homogeneous societies. Although at exactly what point all the peoples of Korea came to speak a single language and came to think of themselves as a single ethnic group is subject to debate, at least for the past several centuries there has been no significant ethnic minorities in Korea. Nor have there been any large number of ethnic Koreans outside the Korean state before the twentieth century. Thus for centuries, state, language and ethnicity have been largely coterminous in Korea. Neither has there been any significant boundary changes since the early 1400s. This makes Korean a convenient subject of comparison for world historians since it represents a clearly defined political-social-cultural unit, and one in which ethnic divisions can be factored out.


Another interesting aspect of Korean history that deserves more attention of social scientists is the division of the nation into North and South in 1945. It was a totally arbitrary one, that was not based on any ethnicity, historical legacy or geographic logic. It became a cruel historical test case without parallel in modern history. One of the worlds most homogeneous nations with one of the longest continuous periods of unity and perhaps the most stable boundaries had become as a result of outside intervention two states with very different political systems. These two states with their different ideologies and geo-political orientations developed into radically diverging societies. Indeed, the border between them arguably marks the sharpest contrast in living standards and social organization in the world. There can be few if any case studies more valuable than the two Koreas in seeking to understand the relevant importance of historical heritage; economic, political and social policies; and historical contingencies in shaping a societys evolution.

Korean Christianity is another topic of consideration for comparative studies. Why has Christianity made so many converts? A century ago fewer than one percent of the population were Christians, but today more than a third, some say forty percent of South Koreans regard themselves as Christians. Nowhere else in Asia has Christianity been so successful in recent times. Is this due to the fact the modern Koreas imperial aggressor was a non-Christian nation, or by the fact that the religion was not first introduced into Korea by foreign missionaries but was discovered in the eighteenth century by Korean travelers to China who upon returning home baptized themselves? This is another interesting topic for comparative studies. Koreas unusual experience of being a modern colony of a non-Western society also provides insights into the colonial and post-colonial experience.

Attempts to deal with these and other issues have been hampered by the lack of accessible materials on Korea. But this is changing. There is a large and growing body and growing of literature on Korea but there is still much work to do, especially for those interested in comparative studies.


1 Many of these are treated in Sang-woon Jeon, Science and Technology in Korea:

2 See JaHyun Kim Haboush, The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyng: the Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea. Translated with an Introduction and Annotations by Jahyun Kim Haboush, (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1996); Kichung Kim, Classical Korean Literature, (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1996).

3 Sarah Nelson, "Korean Interpretations of Korean Archaeology," Asian Perspectives

27, no.2 (1990):185-192;.See also Gina L. Barnes, Gina L,. State Formation in Korea: Historical Archaeological Perspectives, (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2001).





4 An interesting recent study is Charles K. Armstrong, The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

5 World Bank, International GNP Indicators, (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2004), 154-7.

6 In the second test of OECD Program for International Student Assessment in given to upper level secondary students in 2003 South Korea ranked first out of 41 in problem solving, second in reading, third in math and fourth in science. Dropped to fourth from first place in science in 2001. Given in near end secondary school. Barry McGraw, OECD Perspectives on Korean Educational Achievements in OECD/World Bank/ KEDI, International Conference on 60 Years of Korean Education: Achievements and Challenges, Seoul, June 2005.

7. Most of this is drawn from my book Education Fever: Politics, Society and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002).

8Geir Helgesen, Democracy and Authority in Korea: The Cultural Dimension in Korean Politics (New York: St Martins Press, 1998); Doh C. Shin, Mass Politics and Culture in Democratizing Korea (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Larry Diamond and Byung-Kook Kim, editors, Consolidating Democracy in South Korea (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner publishers, 2000).

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