The Tide Turns? Part I

The Tide Turns?
Towards a review of 2017 counter-critiques of
pseudo historiography of Early Korea

The following is a working draft, attempting to review several Korean language articles and books which appeared during the course of 2016-2017 all critiquing the same phenomenon of pseudo historiography pertaining to Early Korea and geographical Manchuria that has enjoyed a resurgence over the past decade. This first post is a brief introduction describing the historical and political context against which these critiques have been authored.


Map of ancient Chosŏn imagined as an expansive empire (Yi 2006)


In recent years pseudo historiography pertaining to Early Korea has come to reach epidemic proportions in South Korea. In the Post Truth era, it has enjoyed a resurgence and come to wield a political influence that has been manifest both in its immunity to legal or moral consequence of false allegations, and most critically, in the sudden withdrawal of South Korean government funding for long term projects led by professional scholars both inside and outside of Korea.

South Korean pseudo historiography of Early Korea principally originates in the colonial era popular historiography of Sin Ch’aeho, and the parallel early 20th century new religious movement of Taejonggyo. Sin Ch’aeho’s bombastic popular history writing famously recast the polity of  ancient Chosŏn – long regarded as the charter state of Korean history – as an empire spread across greater continental Manchuria, inclusive of the Korean peninsula, and possessing its own colonial territories along the east China seaboard. Taejonggyo has a similar conceptualization, but with more even more expansive geographical claims, active incorporation of mythical figures including Tangun and Chiyou, and a tendency towards textual fraud and apocrypha.

These two invented traditions – Sin’s empire narrative and Taejonggyo historiography – evolved in parallel but close proximity. Subsequently in South Korea during the Park Chung Hee era (1961-1979), they were further synthesized by a group of amateur Taejonggyo-ist amateur historians who published voluminous popular history books and lobbied the government with allegations against the academic establishment for refusing to accept their own false, and highly chauvinistic, conceptualizations of early Korean empire. To explain this lack of acceptance, the pseudo historians charged that establishment historians remained under the influence of colonial era Japanese historiography which had supposedly sought only to diminish the scale and depth of Korea’s early history to make the peninsula appear inferior and subordinate to early Japan.

While a full spectrum of pseudo historiographical schemes have evolved over the 20th century, with alternative iterations tending to emphasize long range migrations from Central Asia, from the 1980s onward it has been the Manchuria focused ‘Taejonggyo infused empire scheme’ that has been promoted most vociferously by pseudo historians and to the recent detriment of professional scholarship.

Notably, from the 1980s the Taejonggyo infused empire scheme was adopted by professionally trained historian Yun Naehyŏn who held tenure at Dankook University. From this time until the present pseudo historiographical schemes of early history have also been promoted by various other university professors whose own training and departmental affiliations have usually been outside of history, most notably several coming from sociology and economics departments.

From the 2010s, representation of the Taejonggyo infused empire scheme has been taken up by the figure of Yi Tŏk-il (이덕일 b.1961) who claims to hold a doctorate in history but works under the affiliation of his own private research institute, the ‘Hangaram history and culture research centre’ (한가람 역사문화 연구소). Yi is a prolific writer, authoring a constant stream of popular pseudo history books and newspaper columns. Utilizing the preexisting historiography of Yun Naehyŏn (b.1939) – which itself derives from the 1963 work of North Korean scholar Ri Chirin – and the anti-establishment polemics of the preceding amateur historians, from 2014 onwards, Yi has promoted the same conspiracy theory of a ‘pro-Japanese cartel’ occupying the history departments of South Korea’s top universities.

In no small part owing to Yi’s prolific output, both the Taejonggyo infused empire scheme and associated conspiracy theories have gained traction with the wider public, including politicians. This circumstance climaxed during 2014-2015, when accompanying the publication of, that which at the time was Yi’s most toxic book to date, “The colonial view of history within us” (Yi 2014), a cross-party group of National Assembly members formed the ‘Special committee for counter policies [against] distortions in Northeast Asian history (동북아역사왜곡대책특별위원회)’ and held a series of hearings targeting their own government funded Northeast Asian History Foundation (동북아역사재단 hereafter NEAHF), which had originally been established to counter nationalist historiography of China pertaining to the early Northeast Asian states of Koguryŏ and Parhae. These committee hearings were led by politicians strongly under the influence of Yi Tŏk-il’s polemics, and Yi himself attended two of the thirty-eight sessions held. The result of these hearings was to cause the withdrawal of government funding for two NEAHF flagship projects: the Early Korea Project (2006-2017) based at Harvard University, and a large scale Northeast Asian digital historical atlas project (동북아역사지도 2008-2015) based in South Korea.

In spite of the serious implication of these decisions, there was little immediate response from the academic community. Indeed, one of the charges and tactics of Yi Tŏk-il cum suis has been challenging establishment historians to public debate. Scholars have been reluctant to rise to this bait knowing that they cannot win the popular argument against a nationalist vision of the past. This foreknowledge is based on precedence from the 1980s when professional historians were compelled to attend public debates against the earlier pseudo history camp and experienced biased treatment from the adjudicators, a hostile reception from the public audience (including being shouted down), and subsequent misrepresentation in the press. The problem is that the pseudo historians have long utilized their reductionist accusation of establishment historians being pro-Japanese conspiratorial collaborators, and in the current day Post Truth environment and with anti-Japanese sentiment regularly stoked both by civil groups and the ROK government – through the issues of the comfort women and Dokdo island – there is little to indicate this would be easily overturned.

The recent National Assembly hearings were a cross-party initiative, but the period during which they were held was the height of the now disgraced Park Geun Hye administration (2013-2017), known for its policies of coercion and blacklists against public figures. Concomitant to the attacks on academic historians led by Yi Tŏk-il, who ostensibly identifies with the political left, the Park administration was pushing  its own policy to enforce usage of a single government authored history textbook for schools, a policy directly harking to the rule of her father’s era. The more recent Park era government policy has been led by a group of revisionist historians self-styled as the New Right. Their chief concern has been the revision of modern history towards positive reevaluations of South Korea’s succession of right leaning civilian and military presidents who ruled ROK throughout most of the 1948-1988 period: Rhee Syngman (r.1948-60), Park Chung Hee (r.1961-1979) and Chun Doo-hwan (r.1980-1988).

Concerned as it is with ancient history, the Taejonggyo infused empire narrative is not incompatible to the New Right historiography and in fact during the Park Chung Hee era, advocates of ancient empire had actively aligned themselves as anti-Communist patriots of the military regime. Indeed, on of the most prominent Taejonggyo promoters, An Hosang, had been South Korea’s first education minister under Rhee Syngman.

In recent years, Yi Tŏk-il may well have benefitted from similarly aligning with the Park Geun Hye administration and New Right in order to have the empire scheme of early history incorporated into the revisionist government textbook, similar to Yun Naehyŏn, Yi has long positioned himself as a people’s leftwing scholar holding ideals of pan-peninsular ethnic nationalism. These left wing credentials include having published columns in the Hankyoreh newspaper and accusing the Park Geung Hye administration of being pro-Japanese.

Yi was thus uncharacteristically silent on the most important historiographical issue of the moment – the government textbook – that became one of several rallying causes of the political left, helping fuel the historic nightly protests that led to the impeachment of Park Geun Hye.

During the period of the Park Geun Hye administration, professional historians working at universities consequently found themselves assailed on two fronts: from the left they were accused by Yi and amateur historians of being pro-Japanese for refusing to adopt the Taejonggyo infused empire scheme; from the right they were accused by politicians of being leftwing Communists – literally ‘red Commie bastards’ – owing to their resistance to the New Right’s government textbook project.  Hereafter, however, we will principally focus on the former of these issues.

It was not until 2016 and more concertedly in 2017 that academic historians finally responded to the impinging threat of pseudo historiography pertaining to early history. The first move came in 2016, when a group of younger generation scholars published a series of articles in the spring, summer and autumn editions of academic history journal Yŏksa pip’yŏng (역사비평) under the title “Early Korean history and criticism of pseudo historiography” (한국 고대사와 사이비역사학비판 – see my draft translations and summaries of those by Ki Kyoung-ryang, Wee Kaya, and Sin Gayeong). This new affiliation of scholars has since coordinated their activities under the group name ‘Young historians group/collective'(젊은 역사학자 모임 Hereafter Young Historians – note, there is no Communistic implication in the word that translates as group/collective).

The first full professor to break silence, meanwhile, was Song Hojŏng, history professor at Seoul National University of Education who specializes on the early history and prehistory of Korea, particularly on the state and associated historiography of ancient Chosŏn, and more recently the early continental state of Puyŏ. Song is one of very few academic historians to have earlier published a popular history work challenging pseudo historiographical interpretations of ancient Chosŏn and later mythology (Song 2004). He was also a contributor to the Early Korean Project volume on the Han Commanderies (Byington ed. 2013). Owing to his expertise, Song was called to testify during the National Assembly, but on account of his work on Chosŏn that argues against Taejonggyoist empire interpretations he has long become a regular target of ad hominem attacks by Yi Tŏk-il, and during later sessions of the National Assembly committee hearings he found himself increasingly on the defensive for his views.

In an interview given for a Hankyoreh newspaper article of 24 March 2016 titled “The political danger tied to the ‘early history craze’ centered on Yi Tŏk-il” (in Korean) written by Kang Hŭich’ŏl (강희철), Song was highly critical of Yi and noted that the government had been lending support to pseudo historians since 2013. He further emphasized that professional historians must show courage in arguing against the fallacies of pseudo historians such as to, “leave them no place left to stand”.

Perhaps owing to the political climate under the Park Geun Hye administration, aside from these comments by Song, notably no other former participant of the Early Korea Project has to date spoken publicly against the government support of the pseudo historians.

It was not until June of 2016 that a second professor of early history took up a bolder position against pseudo historiography including the first active defense of the Early Korea Project. In June, Shim Jae-hoon (심재훈) of Dankook University published an article in the journal Sahakchi (사학지 제52집) titled “North American research on early Korean history and the Harvard Early Korean Project”, in which he states:

“Staking my conscience as a researcher, I can state that the NEAHF’s support for the Early Korea Project was successful. However, it would seem that the unique hotheadedness and simmering disposition of Koreans and their inferiority complex concerning history, were all utilized to create a distorted media discourse {misrepresenting the work of the Early Korea Project}.” 필자는 연구자로서의 양심을 걸고 동북아역사재단의 ‘고대한국 프로잭트’ 지원은 상당히 성공적이었다고 단언할 수 있다. 그런데 한국인 특유의 조급함, 냄비 근성, 역사 왜소 컴플렉스 등이 복합적으로 작용하여 왜곡된 여론을 형성했던 것 같다.

Shim’s own research principally focuses on early Chinese history and so he had not been directly involved in the Early Korea Project. However, having studied in the US at Chicago University, Shim has a stronger command of English, and better knowledge of Western – principally US – scholarship than many of his Korean peers. Although published in an academic journal, Shim’s comments were picked up by media outlets and he has since posted regular public comments through his Facebook account.

In the same year he had separately published a well received popular history book titled, “Examining Korean history while immersed in early China” (Shim 2016). Part memoir of his academic career, including recollections of his experience studying in US, this book does much to introduce American scholarship on Northeast Asia to Korean readership. It also contains explicit criticism of Korean pseudo historiography, for example, pointedly noting:

“If bestsellers on Korean and ancient history stopped at making people feel good [about the past] there would not be a problem. However, it is a problem if those reading such books believe them to be actual history and become prisoner to an empty delusion. As for those who create such content, to say it coldly, regardless of their own intentions, they are actively deceiving society.” (Shim 2016:272)

From these tentative actions, led by the Young Historians and Shim Jae-hoon, a degree of confidence and momentum was established and sustained into 2017, a year which saw the publication of several further newpaper articles, together with three paperback books aimed at a popular readership, each criticizing the polemics and content of various aspects pertaining to the canon of Korean pseudo historiography.

The first book to appear in February 2017, was an edited paperback collating the articles of the Young Historians and published under the title “Early Korean history and pseudo historiography” (Young Historians 2017). From late July through to September, the same Young Historians members further published a series of articles in the newspaper affiliated Hankyoreh 21 magazine under the title “Real ancient history” (in Korean 진짜 고대사 to be discussed in a following post).

In September, professor emeritus of history at Korea University, Kim Hyŏn-gu, then published a book titled “Colonial historiography cartel” (Kim H. 2017) detailing the background context and court case in which he had sought the prosecution of Yi Tŏk-il for charges of defamation originating in Yi’s 2014 book, “The colonial view of history within us”.

The third book was released in November and is by Kim Inhŭi, a researcher affiliated with Chonbuk National University. Provocatively titled “Chiyou – an old disease of history” (Kim I. 2017) it details both the historical evolution of this mythical figure, as well as Chiyou’s recent utilization in both Chinese and Korean new religions and associated pseudo historiography. This work constitutes a timely case study of Korean pseudo historiography as Chiyou is closely intertwined with the Taejonggyo-ist empire narrative.

Continue to Part II.

Following posts will introduce several of the Hankyoreh articles, including the Young Historian’s “Real Ancient History” series, together with Kim Hyŏn-gu (2017) and Kim Inhŭi (2017).


Byington, Mark E. (Editor). 2013. The Han Commanderies in Early Korean History. Cambridge: Korea Institute, Harvard University.

Kim Hyŏn-gu 김현구. 2017. Singmin sahak ŭi k’arŭt’el 식민사학의 카르텔 [Colonial historiography cartel]. Seoul: 이상미디어.

Kim Inhŭi 김인희. 2017. Ch’iu, orae toen yŏksa pyŏng 치우, 오래된 역사병 [Chiyou, an old disease of history]. Seoul: 푸른역사.

Ri Chirin 리지린. 1963.  Kochosŏn yŏngu 고조선 연구 [Research on Old Chosŏn]. P’yŏnyang: 과학원 출판사.

Shim Jae-hoon 심재훈. 2016. Kodae Chungguk e ppajyŏ Hanguksa rŭl paraboda 고대 중국에 빠져 한국사를 바라보다 [Examining Korean history while immersed in early China]. Seoul: 푸른역사.

Song Hochŏng 송호정. 2004. Tangun, mandŭrŏjin sinhwa 단군, 만들어진 신화 [Tangun, the invented myth]. Seoul: 산처럼.

Yi Tŏk-il & Kim Pyŏnggi. 2006. Uri yŏksa parojapki 1: Kojosŏn ŭn taeryuk ŭi chibaeja yŏtta 우리 역사 바로잡기 1: 고조선은 대륙의 지배자였다 [Correcting our history 1: Old Chosŏn were rulers of the continent]. Goyang-si: Wisdom House.

Yi Tŏk-il. 2014. Uri an ŭi singmin sagwan: haebang toeji mothan yŏksa, kŭdŭr ŭn ŏttŏk’e uri rŭl chibae haenŭnga 우리 안의 식민사관: 해방되지 못한 역사, 그들은 어떻게 우리를 지배했는가 [The colonial view of history within us: un-liberated history, how have they controlled us?]. Seoul: Man’gwŏndang 만권당.

Yi Tŏk-il. 2015. Maeguk ŭi yŏksahak, ŏdi kkaji wanna 매국의 역사학, 어디까지 왔나 [Treasonous historiography, how far has it come?]. Seoul: Man’gwŏndang.

Young Historians 젊은역사학자모임. 2017. Hanguk kodaesa wa saibi yŏksahak 한국 고대사와 사이비역사학 [Early Korean history and pseudo historiography]. Koyang: 역사비평사.

1 thought on “The Tide Turns? Part I

  1. Pingback: The Tide Turns? Part 2 | Koreanology

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