Korean "Jaeya" Historiography, the Han Commanderies, and North Korea

Feb 2011
Two recent translations by Andrew Logie, a researcher of current trends in Korean historiography, has given weight to what I have been arguing for some time: that there is a popular resurgence of revisionist historiography in South Korea, partially in response to the PRC's Northeast China Project, but also deeply intertwined with Park Chung Hee's project of "nationalistic education" in the 1970s, and modern geopolitical insecurities.

Since these claims have long been regarded, in the West, as "fringe history" held by a small circle of "ultra-nationalists," I would like to start by providing evidence that one has to take seriously the political importance of popular revisionist history in Korea.

The first of these is a history of history article by Ki Kyoung Ryang: https://koreanology.wordpress.com/2017/01/21/ki-kyoung-ryang-pseudo-historiography-and-history-fascism-2016-translation/

The article gives a brief background of the "jaeya" tradition of history revisionism, and its relevance to the present day Korean text book controversies:

Even until the mid 1970s, it was possible to forgive (이해해주다 ‘be understanding of’) [this pseudo historiography] as the ‘excessive ethnic nationalism’ of amateurs unfamiliar with [historical] methodology. However, from the mid 1970s onwards they began [more] concerted popular activism, indiscriminately pouring out baseless conspiracies and accusations against academics; later they eventually even created and disseminated the false history book, Hwandan-gogi. They tried to fabricate a historical source which had absolutely no acceptance in academic territory, and they focused their energies on using this for popular incitement (대중선동); on these points we cannot but judge that they had lost even the minimum [standard] of scholarship (학문성).


In order to examine the initial emergence of pseudo historiography it is necessary to go back to the early 1970s. On 11 May 1972, following the president’s directive (제창) ‘let’s find the nationality of education’, the Park Chung Hee government established the ‘Committee for Strengthening National History Education’ (국사교육강화위원회) under the Ministry of Education (문교부).[5] They declared they would implement history education centered on the minjok (ethnie). According to this, a concrete policy was announced both that there would be questions on national history as an independent subject in the university entrance examination, and that national history education would also be made compulsory at universities.


On 17 April 2015, at a ‘special committee for counter policies [towards] distortions of Northeast Asian history’ the research director (책임자) for the Northeast Asian Historical Atlas, Im Gi-hwan (임기환, Seoul National University of Education, [department of] history education) and Lee Deok-il were invited for questions and answers (문답), however the atmosphere was close to a repeat of the 1981 public hearing that had been organized by the National Assembly Mungong committee. Regardless of political affiliation, the National Assembly senators maintained a supportive (호의적 ‘good willed’) attitude towards Lee Deok-il, who represented the pseudo historiography arguments; the newspapers and broadcasters then reported [only] the one-sided and sensationalist (자극적) opinions of Lee Deok-il’s side, that the Northeast Asian Historical Atlas project reflects distorted opinions of China and Japan.[22 – see notes]

The result [of this looks set to be], either the scrapping of (무산) the Northeast Asian Historical Atlas compilation project itself, in which over the past eight years several tens of historians have participated, and which has received funding of 4,700 million won of tax [payer’s money], or else the danger of having to accept (도출하다) a distorted product that in part would be reflecting the absurd opinions of the pseudo historians. If this ultimately comes to pass then Korea will become an international laughingstock, and the scholarly reputation of academic Korean historians would be greatly harmed.

During the active promotion of [textbook] nationalization, the governing party claimed that 90% of academic historians are left-wing.[23] Members of the New Right (뉴라이트) affiliation (계열), with whom they closely associate, also criticize [the academic establishment] as being excessively biased towards ethnonationalism (민족주의) and [statist] nationalism (국수주의). Conversely, pseudo historians such as Lee Deok-il denigrate them all as ‘traitorous pro-Japanese historians’.[24] If we combine these views, then our country’s academic historians are [apparently] a bizarre group (기상천외하다), being at once ‘pro-Japanese, nationalist and left-wing’. It hardly needs to be said that these opinions are [nothing more than] absurd slander (중상). We should take note of the extremism and irrationality [inherent in this strategy] of driving out all academic historians by [mischaracterizing them] either as a left-wing organization or as colonially minded historians, [done] in order to impose (관철시키다) on ‘Korean history’ (국사) their own biased notion of history.


[Concerning the process of writing the textbook] there is already enough possibility being demonstrated amongst national assemblymen and high ranking civil servants sympathetic to the pseudo historiography, of an intention either to involve pseudo historians in the compilation process, or [in any event] to include their opinions without careful examination. If these attempts were to be fully realized, then the ancient and modern history sections of the textbook would take on a chimera like aspect in which two entirely different forms of history fascism would coexist.

Present day Korean historiography is in a state of crisis, being assailed from two directions, ‘unjust interference by state authorities’ and ‘attacks from pseudo historiography’. How to maintain balance between these [forces], escape the political waves (파고를 헤치다) and proceed is the heavy task placed before historians.
We might be tempted to dismiss Ki Kyoung Ryang's narrative as "alarmist". After all, he is reacting as one might expect an established academic to react in the face of popular attacks by "pseudo-historians." Yet, more recent events have validated, at least, the support "jaeya" historians receive from members of the Korean political elite. For this, I will turn to the second of Logie's translated articles:


The article begins with two cases of Korean congress politicians criticizing academic historians for "agreeing with [the maps found in] China's Northeast China Project," and states:

2015 [witnessed] the unprecedented event of both ruling and opposition lawmakers criticizing with a single voice the abnormal circumstances of management of a government body. The body that was the object of this criticism was the NEAHF. They claimed that the NEAHF, which had been established in order to respond to historiographical distortions of nearby countries {China and Japan}, was engaged in activities against this purpose/mission (취지 ‘spirit of intent’). However, such criticism of the NEAHF was not limited to within the National Assembly.

On 22 April 2014, the ‘Headquarters for the Citizens’ Movement for the Dismantling of Colonial Historiography’ (식민사학 해체 국민운동본부) requested a public audit (공익감사) of the NEAHF from the Board of Audit and Inspection (감사원). They explained the purpose of their request [with the following] “Contrary to the purpose of establishment, the Foundation as continuously posted opinions on its homepage that support the Northeast Project”. (“Jaeya historians request public audit of the NEAHF” Yonhap News, 2014)

In 2014, the ‘Citizens’ Movement for the Dismantling of Colonial Historiography'[1] charged (비난하다) that The Han Commanderies in Early Korea published that year by the Early Korea Project [based at] Harvard, US, and financially supported by the NEAHF, contained content identical to the colonial view of history (식민사관), and so requested the audit of the Foundation.[2] They argued that the NEAHF was continuously publicizing and reproducing content in line with the Chinese Northeast Project, and that the foundation (근간) for this was {paradoxically} in the historical perspective of historiography [produced by the colonial era] Japanese Government-General in Korea (조선총독부). Under this logic, they made the shocking accusation that, not only the NEAHF but also [the majority of] South Korea academic historians are both a silent cartel [pursuing] ‘traitorous historiography’ (매국의 역사학) as well as descendants of the [colonial era] Joseon History Compilation Committee (조선역사편수회).[3]
The controversy here revolves around the location of the four commanderies established by the Han Dynasty. To make a long story short, the "jaeya" historians reject the more or less present-day academic consensus, which can be summarized by the left side of the following image, and argue, instead the right side, which locates the Han commanderies entirely outside of the Korean peninsula and in modern day Hebei or Liaoning:

This is not some fringe view in modern Korea. As the article states, it is part of an ongoing battle between the populist "jaeya" historians and the Korean academic establishment, in the context of Korean text book revision, with politicians and journalists lining up behind both sides. The article itself goes into certain detail criticizing arguments made by "jaeya" historians, but since this post is ultimately about historiography, I will instead comment on the nature of how it's presented.

Citing a recent study on Han logistics by Bak Seong-yong of Inha University:

The research results of this article are not simply limited to bolstering the logical foundation for competing hypotheses to the theory that Wangheom-seong was located in Pyeongyang – namely the Liaodong and Liaoxi location theories. [In] critically analyzing (비정하다) the territory of Old Joseon through analyzing the campaign route of Han China from a military strategy dimension based on the Shiji record, various weaknesses in the logic of the theory that China’s colony of Lelang existed in the region of North Korea have been discovered. Consequently, we cannot but doubt the evidence [put forward] as arguments for China’s preemptive rights to the region of North Korea – that it was a Chinese feudality from the time of Gija Joseon [contemporary to] the establishment of Zhou, and that Goguryeo was founded under the cultural influence of [having been] a Chinese colony following the overthrow of Wiman Joseon. This logical conclusion (논리적 추론) will function as a historical resource with which the Korean government and international community can refute the appropriateness (정당성) [of Beijing’s arguments] should they, in the event of a North Korea crisis, assert the authority for the Chinese army to cross the Korea-Manchuria border, the Yalu, and invade/occupy [the region of] North Korea north of the Cheongcheon-gang river under the justification of restoring former territory (고토).
It is here that the intersection of contemporary East Asian politics and history revisionism becomes most apparent. Bak's study was supposed to be about the location of Wiman Joseon's capital, yet it is obvious that his goal was to provide ammunition for the Korean government and the 'international community' in the event of a Chinese take-over of North Korea 'under the justification of restoring former territory.' That is to say, the conclusion that the Chinese commanderies were not located within the Korean peninsula is inextricably tied to the necessity of preemptively refuting Chinese territorial claims on North Korea, should they be made in the future.

The connection to China's Northeast China Project is also conspicuous. The recent surge in popular history revisionism in Korea can be seen as a form of "historical resistance" against the presumed threat of a Chinese take-over of North Korea. The Chinese claim on Goguryeo, Balhae, and Gojoseon heritage is seen as a prelude to the wholesale claim of North Korea as a Chinese province.

To Lee, China’s Northeast Project was a conspiracy to support an expansionist policy of present day China by incorporating Korean history into the space and time of Chinese history. Consequently, his interest was purely focused on looking for evidence that would clearly expose the conspiracy, and to create an [alternative] notion of history that could smash this conspiracy.
Thus, one could say that the "jaeya" historians of modern Korea are motivated by a different set of priorities than those one might associate with the Juche ideology of North Korea. Rather than historical purity, as one might associate with Juche, "jaeya" historians are instead concerned with the threat of imminent Chinese aggression and the insecurity of their contemporary geopolitical position. Yet the irony of their actions, which neither article has recognized, is that the Northeast China Project was itself motivated by such insecurity - of the PRC's own fear of a Korean territorial claim on its Northeast and the potential encouragement of Northeast separatist movements by a South Korean-US cooperative.

The two sets of insecurities could be said to feed into one another. That is to say, the more one country pushes, the more the other country pushes back. The more China attempts to "incorporate" the Northeast in its historical narrative, the more historians in Korea feel obligated to reject this narrative, whatever the cost. Yet the more Korea pushes against China's narrative, the more China interprets it as an attack against Chinese sovereignty in the Northeast, and so feels obligated to push back itself, whatever the cost. Consequently, Chinese and Korean history revisionism can be said to be a self-reinforcing cycle. It is not a question of "whose fault is it" or even "who started it," but rather, what contemporary geopolitical circumstances produced it.

As paradoxical as it might seem, history is always about the present.
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Sep 2016
Say that to the face of China and see the Korean movies got banned (again).
China banned Korean media imports most likely because of the THAAD instalment in South Korea, not because of revisionist history. Idk why you are taking such a confrontational stance against Cerberus like he said something outrageous.

Cerberus, I had always been puzzled by the display of the nationalistic fervour of Korean media in general. It seems that there are still Anti Chinese/Japanese sentiments, mostly in context of ancient history. I had never really liked nationalism in the first place and Asian politics in general were never my cup of tea. It's good that at least I am getting some idea of what incites these ideas.

I can only see these revisionist behaviour as an insult of the proto/Korean identity as a whole. Hopely, it will disminish from this generation to the next.
Thank you for the detailed piece.
Nov 2016
Cyberspace Dystopia
It's probably best to get the higher powers, United States and Russia also involved in this discussion
Jan 2017
Virginia, USA
It's probably best to get the higher powers, United States and Russia also involved in this discussion
No, this is no place for politics. It belongs to the realm of the academic community, and their consensus is that the aforementioned Han-dynasty commanderies existed in what is now modern North Korea. This is not only supported by ancient Chinese historiography, it is also absolutely backed up by archaeology (we have found the remains of the Han settlements, carbon dated the items there, etc.). Refuting this is a silly position for any scholar to take because they are basically ignoring archaeological data along with ancient Chinese primary sources on the matter.

In fact, I'd go as far as to say anyone who holds a different position is not an academic, archaeologist, or historian. They are frauds, pure and simple. The fact that this is all driven by modern geopolitics is even more shameful, hysterical, and embarrassing for anyone involved. Put politics aside and respect the discipline of history, which should be kept entirely separate from this present-day nonsense. And I aim that not only at these so-called "jaeya" "historians" (what a misused term), but also at this completely unnecessary and reactionary Northeast China Project promoted by the PRC. Talk about adding unnecessary fuel to the fire. Then again that's what the PRC tends to do, especially when it comes to issues of current territorial integrity, like arguing the Ming Dynasty had full control over Tibet (hahaha!!).

Apparently expecting people with degrees to continue behaving like professionals is too much to ask.

What's even funnier is the possibility that if you had a time machine and went back in time to ask a Korean person of the Joseon dynastic period about their thoughts regarding the ancient Han commanderies, they would probably have two overwhelming responses: either they wouldn't care, or they would have slightly positive things to say about it. They considered themselves to be Neo-Confucian brothers with the Chinese and an extension of Chinese civilization, for starters, to the point that they were wary of upholding good relations with the Manchu Qing Dynasty, out of respect for the fallen Ming Dynasty, their nominal overlords. Look how much stupid modern nationalism has infected East Asian societies since then.
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Jan 2015
I can only see these revisionist behaviour as an insult of the proto/Korean identity as a whole. Hopely, it will disminish from this generation to the next.
Thank you for the detailed piece.
Asian countries are into shitty forgery history of their own and the young generations freaking love it. Dont hold your breath, in the next dozen years or so you will see European monarchs were Chinese and Korean are the ancestor of Roman claims.
Feb 2016
Two recent translations by Andrew Logie, a researcher of current trends in Korean historiography, has given weight to what I have been arguing for some time: that there is a popular resurgence of revisionist historiography in South Korea, partially in response to the PRC's Northeast China Project, but also deeply intertwined with Park Chung Hee's project of "nationalistic education" in the 1970s, and modern geopolitical insecurities.

That revisionist claim is nowhere near popular. I went to Korean school and I never heard of what you posted. The second map that you posted is a huge exaggeration that was never used in the Korean textbooks, nor have I ever seen a map like that.

I noticed that the people who have insecurities about Korea keep making false negative claims about this country. You make it seem like the Koreans want to take territory from a country that's many times larger in size and population. Ridiculous! If you believe that map then the Koreans would think you're bonkers. I have Chinese friends. It was some of them who claimed that much of Asia, including Korea, were originally Chinese territory.
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Feb 2011
That revisionist claim is nowhere near popular. I went to Korean school and I never heard of what you posted. The second map that you posted is a huge exaggeration that was never used in the Korean textbooks, nor have I ever seen a map like that.
Since the text book controversy is a more recent development, this map should never have appeared in your books. As the post mentions, the "jaeya" historians have become more popular recently, and both articles are talking about the alarming support they are receiving from politicians and the media. Please, read the articles and not just a few lines around the map. This post is not about what Korean schools are presently teaching. It is about trends in Korean historiography.
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Feb 2017
I am not sure how much of what these "jaeya historians" are peddling today can be attributed to just reactive and defensive measures triggered by China's Northeast Project. After all what some people called "minjoksagwan", represented by works such as Hwandan Gogi, Gyuwon Sahwa, Daejoseon Jeguksa (truly an eye opener) etc. and people like Shin Chae-ho predate the NE project by a long time, right? With or without the NEP I'd think these people would be advocating the same stuff.

That said, China's NE project probably threw these jaeya historians a much-needed lifeline and brought them back in the limelight, now with the South Korean government's backing.