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Foreign and Traditional Influences in the Historiography of Paek Nam-un

by Leonid A.Petrov

Proceedings of the 12th New Zealand International Conference on Asian Studies, Massey University, Palmerston North (26-29 November 1997), pp.203-217.

Paek Nam-un (1894-1979), as well as many other Korean anti-colonial historians, could identify himself with the fate of Korea. Suppressed by the Japanese colonial rule, Korea was agonizingly and painfully changing. So, the individual background and psychology of a historian seems to be very similar to that of all the Korean population. Though coming from declining noble families Paek Nam-un and others suffered like millions of their fellow-countymen and it was possible that they could identify themselves with other Koreans. Paek had experienced quite a unique combination of impacts. Originated from a family with strong Korean neo-Confucian values, where the century-old ideals of Chinese classics were indisputable, Paek was living and studying in a country occupied by Japan, or in Japan proper. Later, coming from the Soviet Russia via Japan, Marx's theory and Socialist ideas attracted and fascinated him.

The Liberation of Korea by the Soviet Army in 1945 gave him a unique chance to encounter the Communist ideology and state construction mechanisms directly. He was finally employed by the North Korean Communist regime which urgently needed a theoretical and historical backing for its policies and strove to attract many respected academics and intellectuals. For most of them, their decision to side with the North Korean regime resulted in their own destruction during North Korean purges of the late 50s. However, Paek had enough luck and opportunism to navigate the stormy waters of the North Korean politics. He was one of a few former Japanese-trained intellectuals who in the late 1940s migrated from the South and managed to keep his official position until his death.

* * *

Paek Nam-un was a second son born to the family of Paek Nak-kyu who resided in the village of Panam, Koch'ang County, Cholla-Pukto province of Korea 11 February 1894. His father - a Confucian scholar, was involved into the Old Faction group led by Song Byong-son[1]. After the Four Factions' struggle, this impoverished Yangban family was left in a province without lands or any governmental post. The main stress in children's education was traditionally focused on neo-Confician philosophy and family etiquette. Brought up in the atmosphere of permanent financial hardship Paek Nam-un since early childhood learnt from his father the strict feudal conceptions of the Chinese dualistic philosophy of Zhu Xi and the classic Chinese literature. Such an environment where Paek spent his early years could not leave his views unaffected. What he could really learn from his father was a critical attitude towards the Japanese colonization, and the idea of people's consciousness in their anti-Japanese struggle.

The Paek's family belonged to the Yurim -- members of educated Confucian class. For centuries the Yurim had been the only social group which could occupy any official positions of significance, though not every Yurim was an official. To be considered a Yurim it was sufficient to be a well-educated person, trained in neo-Confucian theory and literature. Naturally, such education was normally affordable only for scions of rather privileged families, and they did their best to get some official position, but they were not always successful. Nevertheless, Yurim normally could identify themselves with the king and the state. So, though Paek lived poorly, he was of honourable family extraction and educated in the Chinese classics. Notwithstanding persistent economic difficulties his parents supported his early education. Because his family could identify itself with the state, they could accept the state's fate as their own. Until the late 1890s almost all education in Korea was neo-Confucianist and since Yurims had a monopoly on this type of education, it is not surprising that a majority of the intellectuals in early colonial period were descendants of Yurim families. Thus, the founders of modern Korean Historiography also came from Yurim.

The Yurim could be identified with the Korean state. The colonial aggression and forced modernization were destroying the very foundations of their power and authority, and they actively or passively resisted the Japanese domination. Nevertheless, from his early adulthood Paek received a modern education in schools organized by the colonial administration. So he became a representative of probably the only generation of Korean scholars equipped an understanding of modern Japanese values and methodology. Their predecessors, Korean traditional intellectuals (e.g. Sin Ch'ae-ho) were too inclined to the old Korean ways, while their followers were brought up in extremely anti-Japanese spirit. That gave him a chance to abandon traditional identity elements much more easily than historians of other generations[2]. All that of course was reflected in his historical outlook. It is also possible to think that Paek's oversimplification of historical development and his belief in world history's law of development was the result of not only Marxist's theory impact but also his modification of identity.

The moment when Paek began to refuse the traditional and gradually accept modern outlooks on world's evolution was his enrollment to Suwon Agricultural and Forestry School in 1912. The Japanese authorities in Korea designed this school as a governmental institution to expedite the colonial policy in agriculture. Here Paek learned the natural sciences and acquired the basics of capitalist agriculture and economic theories. While conducting his field work he had a plenty of opportunities to comprehend the deepening of all fundamental discrepancies and inconsistencies of Korean traditional farming which were aggravated by the Japanese colonization of the country. That was the very moment when he felt himself engaged in serious studies. In 1915, after the graduation he was appointed as a teacher to Kanghwa Public Middle School. For two years he was teaching there and in 1918, after changing his teaching activity for position of a technician at Kanghwa Forest Association, he abruptly resigned and left for Japan to continue his education[3].

He arrived to Japan in the period when this country's intellectual and academic circles were adopting all major European philosophical and ideological trends including Marxism. Beginning from 1920, the Socialist ideas were introduced to Korea from Japan and (in far lesser degree) Russia. Young students began to think that they could overthrow all the evil of the world only by socialist revolution. In their eyes, the Russian revolution was a great example. They thought that a Russian type of revolution could give freedom and independence to Korea. However, they despised the older generation. They held the elders responsible for the tragic subjugation of Korea to Japan, for all misfortunes of their country. These young idealists wanted to abolish old tradition which was considered as feudal and reactionary. The Korean Confucian state, sacral for their fathers, for them was nothing but a corrupt government and its civilization was dark and irrational. These young people wanted to abandon old traditions and recreate socialist civilization as a great Utopia in which all would be equal and all nations could get freedom. As time passed, some illusions dissipated but most of them were to believe in the justice of socialism for many decades. There were many young people in Korea, China and Japan who were eager to realize socialism.

Paek was one of these youngsters who was interested in socialism and wanted to establish a socialist state in Korea. However, Paek did not become an active participant of a political struggle. Instead, he began to rewrite Korean history. He wanted to show that Korea could also be a civilized state like Japan, or any European country. Paek chose to do his work in historiography. But modern historiographies of the nationalists did not give him satisfaction, for these extremely emphasized national character. For him, national character was something not to emphasize because of the current status quo of Korea[4]. The only real solution for Korea's problem, according to Paek, was for Korea to integrate itself into the world's economic and litical enviroment. This would give Koreans pride that they were once a civilized nation and they would again become a modern civilized nation by constructing a Socialist Korea. Paek thought that Marxist ideology could give a new and true foundation to his historiography. In consideration of this fact, it is worth examining how Paek's historiography reflected the interrelationship of his class traditional identity with impact of foreign ideas and modern perceptions of history.

In 1919, Paek Nam-un gained admission to Tokyo High Business School (since 1920 its name was altered to the Tokyo University of Business Administration). Six years of studies there became a period of crystallisation of his theoretic basis and scholarly views. The Tokyo University of Business Administration was a real focus point which attracted quickly developing Japanese academic forces interested in economics. The University soon became a centre for economic studies for many Japanese historians who were led by their godfather Fukuda Tokuzo (1874-1930). It was a workshop for creation of the so called "Taisho Democracy Movement" which appealed for freedom, democracy, reformation of public opinion and society reconstruction. However, Paek Nam-un did not accept the academic traditions of that school and on the contrary he set its doctrines as a target for persistent criticism. It happened because the Japanese bourgeois historical profession had accepted the colonial seizure and exploitation of Korea as rational and expedient. Fukuda Tokuzo himself invented the notorious "theory of stagnation" of Korean society[5]. On the other hand, Fukuda admitted that the Socialist idea, so popular at that time, could destroy the Japanese colonial system and transform the Korean nation. Setting forth the theory of the materialistic outlook on history, Paek made a great contribution into the studies of Korean history which was expressed in the creation of "The Socio-economic History of Korea".

Paek Nam-un denied altogether traditional Confucian, Japanese colonial and nationalist historiographies. He condemned all those historiographies as reactionary in that they do not recognize the law of historical development. Paek insisted on the common trait of historical laws of human societal development. He underlaid the fact that the historical law of development of Korea is not different from historical development of any other 'civilized nation'.

It is understandable that Paek criticized medieval Confucian Historiography as reactionary. For him, both nationalist and Japanese view on history would lead Korea into the "wrong road of slavery." The nationalist historiography also could not lead to the "road of rebirth", contrary to expectations of nationalist historians like Sin Ch'ae-ho[6]. Paek interpreted Korean history in his own way. According to him, the only peculiarity of Korean history was in the duration of stages of social development. Paek saw that Korea's whole process of historical development showed that the law of its development was not different from that of any other cultural nation. Korea was developed according the common historical developmental laws of world history. Recognizing Korea's status quo having a slowly tempo of development, particularly in regards to cultural aspects, Paek stated that this peculiarity was not important. In essence, Korea was not different from any other country. Here, Paek applied Marx's theory but did it mechanistically and dogmatically[7]. Dogmatism was typical for the young self-proclaimed Marxists of Korea, China and Japan, as it was suggested in its Stalinist interpretation of history accepted by the Japanese historian Hani Goro. Paek, accepting Hani's interpretation, thought that he had found a positive solution able to cope with the oppressive particularity of real life. As the Korean historical reality then was disastrous, finding that Paek wrote Korean history in the hopes of imminent resurrecting his country is not difficult to understand.

Upon graduating in April 1925, Paek Nam-un was appointed a professor of the Commercial Course at Yonhee College. Simultaneously participating in the Research Society for Examination of Situation in Korea, he put in order all results of his studies abroad on the economic history of Korea. It is important that in the late 20s and throughout the 30s Paek deliberately tried to avoid any social activity. He was working with great devotion on gathering facts and materials, participated in theoretical discussions where he criticized "national reformers" for their slogan of autonomy, and expressed interest towards the movement of "realists"[8]. He extensively read the original texts of Marxist literature on history, and conceived a new idea of its application in Korean history research. In other words, his ideas and academic image had been established by the late 1920's. As the result of his hard work in 1933 the "Socio-economic History of Korea" was published in Tokyo. Giving a reader the broad material on the past of Korean academic and historical studies of the Modern period, this book was a significant landmark in historiographical research and practically set up the Marxist historiography in Korea. Later, in 1937, his second book entitled "Socio-economic History of Feudalism in Korea, Part 1" was issued by the same Kyejosa publishing house. It is worth noting that Paek wrote both books in Japanese, which remained the language of his main publications and studies until 1945.

After occupation of Manchuria in 1930s, the Japanese colonial regime had become even tougher which forced Paek Nam-un to spend more time in academic speculations, sharpening his research attainments. In the prospects of imminent national liberation Paek unmasked the true character of the Japanese colonial studies. Furthermore, he unfolded a new theory of "perception of Korea" in order to fight against idealism of the "Korean classics' study" group - a faction of nationalistic movement[9]. Finally, he introduced a principle of Korean studies through the prism of Marxist ideology (albeit in its dogmatic Stalinist version). Though avoiding the potentially dangerous grounds of direct anti-colonial political actions, he was busy organizing the academic circles. For example, he led the creation of the Korean Society for Economic Studies in 1933, and in 1936 participated in establishing of the Central Academy - a prototype of the future Academy of Sciences which embraced together humanities and sciences. Through such activity he had become a figure able to reorganize and lead Korean academic forces after the liberation. As the war in China began, the Japanese colonial authorities launched the strategy of cultural obliteration and ideological subduing of the Korean Nation. Nobody in the country could escape its destructive manoeuvres. Paek Nam-un, his friend Yi Sun-t'ak and some others in March 1938 were imprisoned for "Communist propagation among the University personnel"[10]. Paek's suffered at the Sodaemun prison in Seoul and was finally released in July 1940.

It is interesting that in the 1930s and 1940s Paek's name as a historian and economist was quite popular among the Japanese scholars. Sikata Hiroshi, a former professor of the Seoul University, in 1941 on the pages of a collective book dedicated to the development of studies in socio-economic history of Korea gave an audacious compliment to Paek's writings. He accepted Paek's contribution as a "new impetus to the comprehensive studies of the economic history of Korea"[11] Though the Marxist methodology was criticaly appraised by the majority of Japanese scholars of that period, after the World War II some of them (e.g. Hatada Takashi) reverted to the leftist positions in research.

Right after the Liberation in 1945, Paek and his associates actively proceeded to the state construction. The next day after the Liberation they set up the Korean Academy of Sciences with Paek Nam-un as assigned president. They also prepared a programme of economic and educational polices for the new state creation to be offered to the American Military Government in Korea. He also participated in the reconstruction of the Seoul University and fought for its faculties' autonomy and independence. However, all these endeavours in cultural reconstruction were nearly fruitless. When, provoked by the problem of tutelage over Korea confrontation between the leftists and rightists was aggravated, Paek decided that the best way to solve the state construction problems was the establishment of the left-centrist New People's Party. Soon, Paek was appointed chairman of its South Korean branch and he found himself involved into the real political life. In the atmosphere of Soviet and American occupation and the division of Korea, to quicken the independent state construction he advocated the idea of a joint left-rightists' rally. Among the urgent political measures he proposed the "expulsion of pro-Japanese elements", unification of all national forces into the National United Front, and creation of the unified government composed of leftists and rightists. The goals he pursued were to launch the quickest democratic reforms and to create a state of New Democratic (People's Democracy) style. It was a normal Communist tactics of united front, but it is possible that Paek who had not yet been absolutely associated with the Communists (at least, in political terms) took it seriously as an approach to reconcile the right and left wings, rather then as a trick to win time necessary for Communist consolidation. Anyway, later he began to cooperate with Yo Un-hyong, a prominent leader of the Korean People's Party and the most respectable leader of Korean non-Communist leftists.

However, on the background of the American policies in the Korean peninsula and aggravation of ideological split inside the national forces, all his efforts in political movement were in vain. On the contrary, criticized from both sides by ultra leftists and ultra rightists for opportunism, he had to step aside from the Korean political scene for a while. In May 1947 he was appointed vice chairman for the left-centrist Working People's Party of Yo Un-hyong. That resumed his political life and, when in April 1948 the Joint Meeting of North and South Korea was opened in Pyongyang, Paek Nam-un was one of its members who remained there and sided with the North in establishing a separate North Korean government. After that, he successively held various administrative and elder statesman's positions including Education Minister, Academy of Sciences President, Chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly of the DPRK. Paek died in his declining years in Pyongyang 12 June 1979.

We can easily trace three distinct components which structured the views of Paek Nam-un. First one was rooted from the Chinese philosophical heritage the traditional Korean ideology of neo-Confucianism. In spite of Paek's formal repudiation of Yurim's ideology and goals, while pursuing the target of national liberation subconsciously he was always acting within the frames of Confucian traditions of loyalty and integrity. Though he persistently denied any peculiarity of Korean social or economic development, he often used and encouraged the use of a specific Korean term of Chuch'e in the meaning of self-reliance, independence, sovereignty or subjecthood.

Second. Paek Nam-un's educational background was unconditionally Japanese (and Western, but through Japanese perception of the West). Up to 1945 he had to read, speak and write Japanese. Seven years of studing in Japan (1918-1925) gave him an excellent command of the Japanese-language as well as an understanding of Japanese and Western modern and classical philosophy, history and economics. Only after the Liberation he summarily translated and published his major works in Korean. Compared to the regular appearances in the vernacular Korean press writings of Sin Ch'ae-ho and others, all major works of Paek Nam-un were written in Japanese, published in Japan and, therefore excluding some well educated intellectuals, many works remained almost unknown in Korea[12].

Third. Although it is difficult to underestimate the impact of Marxism to Paek's historiography, we should remember that it was the Soviet Stalinist version of Marxism adopted by the Japanese historians and philosophers in the late 1920s and early 1930s under the uniforming influence of Comintern. Even the theoretical discussions on the problem of Asian mode of production which was held in the USSR in 1930s were precisely copied by the North Korean academic circles lead by Paek Nam-un in 1950s.


1) Pang Ki-jung, (Paek Nam-un) , "Hanguk-ui Yoksaga-wa Yoksahak", [Korean Historian and History], Seoul: 1994, p.208
2)Kwon Hee-yong, "Korean Modern Historiography and National Identity during 1930s: a comparative study of Sin Ch'ae-ho and Paek Nam-un's Historiography", unpublished thesis, 1996, p.6
3)Pang Ki-jung, (Paek Nam-un), in "Hanguk-ui Yoksaga-wa Yoksahak" [Korean Historian and History], Seoul: 1994, p.209
4)Paek Nam-un, "Chosen Shakai Keizai Shi", [Socio-economic History of Korea], Tokyo: 1933, p.7 5Pak M.N., "Ocherki po istoriografiji Koreji", [Studies in Korean Historiography: Criticism of the Bourgeois-Nationalistic Conceptions of South Korean Historians], Moscow: 1987, p.78
6)Paek Nam-un, "Chosen Shakai Keizai Shi", [Socio-economic History of Korea], Tokyo: 1933, p.445
7)Hatada Takashi, "Chosen Shi Nyumon", [Introduction to Korean History], Tokyo: 1966, pp.28-29
8)Pang Ki-jung, "Hanguk Kunhyondaesa Sasang Yon'gu", [Historical Studies of Ideology in Modern Korea], Seoul: 1995, pp.78-84
9)Pang Ki-jung, (Paek Nam-un), in "Hanguk-ui Yoksaga-wa Yoksahak" [Korean Historian and History], Seoul: 1994, p.210
10)Pang Ki-jung, "Hanguk Kunhyondaesa Sasang Yon'gu", [Historical Studies of Ideology in Modern Korea], Seoul: 1995, p.376
11)Ryu Hak-ku (Ryurikov H.K.), "Problemi Rannej Istorii Koreji v Japonskoj Istoriographiji", [The Problems of Early History of Korea in the Japanese Historiography], Moscow: 1975, p.37
12)"Uri Yoksa-rul Ottok'e Polkosin'ga?",(How should we understand our history?) in "Hanguksa Tae T'oron", [Major Discussions on Korean History], Seoul: 1976, No.:1, pp.143-144

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