The Tide Turns? Part II

As noted in Part I, the Hankyoreh newspaper affiliated magazine, Hankyoreh 21, has provided an important platform for scholars standing up to pseudo historiography. Preceding the Young Historians’ series, in June 2017, Hankyoreh 21 carried two important articles discussing the fallout from the National Assembly hearings, both authored by journalist Chin Myŏngsŏn (진명선). The first was titled, “A history of the plundering of ancient history written by political powers and pseudohistory” (2017.06.19 in Korean here). This was the first article to represent the position of scholars who had been working on the Northeast Asia digital historical atlas project prior to its cancellation. 

The second article titled “Colluders with pseudohistory”, was noteworthy for acknowledging the role of the Hankyoreh newspaper itself and other left-leaning ‘progressive’ media in having long given an uncritical platform to pseudo historiography (2017.06.26 in Korean here, featuring a photo of Yi Tŏk-il presenting at the National Assembly hearings). Indeed, in 2009 Hankyoreh newpaper had carried a ten part series (in eleven parts) by Yi, titled “Yi Tŏk-il blasts mainstream academic history” (2009.05.13 – 2009.7.22 in Korean). Evidenced by many of the readers’ comments, the subsequent shift by Hankyoreh 21 to a position critical of Yi and pseudo historiography has been interpreted by his followers and those on the ethno-nationalist left as a betrayal, and will likely only have strengthened their conspiracy beliefs.

The remainder of this post gives a summary of the first of Chin’s two articles.


Scholars from the Northeast Asia Historical Atlas project interviewd by Hankyoreh 21, Yi Sо̆k-hyо̆n (left) and Chо̆ng Yo-gŭn (right).

Hankyoreh 21 article: “A history of the plundering of ancient history written by political powers and pseudohistory” (2017.6.19.) by Chin Myŏngsŏn (진명선)

Chin’s article discusses the circumstances under which the Northeast Asia History Foundation’s (NEAHF) Northeast Asia Historical Atlas project was prematurely cancelled. The project had run from 2008 and had been due for completion in 2018. The article introduces the nature of the project and details the National Assembly special committee hearings noting the direct influence of Yi Tŏk-il and other pseudo historians on the mischaracterization of the atlas project.

According to Chin, the atlas project was established by NEAHF with an objective to replace the 1981 (sic) “Historical Atlas of China” (Wikipedia), compiled by Tan Qixiang (谭其骧 1911-1992) which has continued to be used in international scholarship and is the basis for claims that were promoted in the Chinese government’s recent Northeast Project. Scholars working on the Korean atlas explained to Chin that while the “Historical Atlas of China” consists of around 300 paper maps, the Korean atlas project had been constructed as an online database capable of producing an almost infinite number of maps; the basic maps they had submitted in 2015 to NEAHF for interim appraisal alone numbered some 714.

The article highlights treatment of Parhae’s territory as an example of how the Korean maps were both reflective of current research and could be beneficial to the representation of  Korean history. In contrast to the Chinese atlas that gives a limited territory for the state of Parhae, restricted to southeastern Manchuria and distinct from a separate Mohe polity to the north, the Korean atlas had been drawn to reflect more recent finds in Liaoning that have been taken to indicate Parhae’s territory to have extended westwards. The Korean map also incorporates the ethnic Mohe territories as a part of Parhae.


Left: “Historical Atlas of China” depicting Parhae in pink and the Mohe in mauve. Right: Parhae territory delineated in the Korean historical atlas maps.

They further highlighted that from an international perspective, the Korean atlas could have provided a more objective source on Northeast Asian historical geography, giving the example that, unlike the Chinese atlas, the Korean maps had marked Tibet as a historically distinct territory.

For Korean historical research, meanwhile, they note the atlas had for the first time, depitcted the more than 4,000 administrative myо̆n subcounty level districts with their boundaries drawn according to current research.

As evidence of the sophisticated nature of the project, Chin notes a high level of interest had been shown from US cartographers, including Harvard University’s World Map project. The Korean scholars had visited Harvard and were hoping to share their database with the World Map, which at the time had 164 maps for China, 26 for Japan but just seven for Korea.

However, during the interim appraisal in December 2015, NEAHF unexpectedly graded the Historical Atlas project a mere 14 points out of 100, resulting in its premature termination. The ostensible reason given for this inexplicably low appraisal was that the project failed to reflect “national identity” (국가 정체성) the sub-arguments being listed as follows:

  • Inappropriate representation of the Republic of Korea’s position, size and form.
  • Not all place names written in hangul script.
  • Dokdo island not always marked.
  • East Sea (aka Sea of Japan) not marked.

Chin explains that owing to the nature of the database which could produce desired information whenever relevant, such complaints were close to meaningless, and the maps submitted were in any event not final. Rather the motivation for terminating the project can be seen in points 1 and 3 which originate in the reductionist polemic of Yi Tŏk-il during the National Assembly committee hearings. (NB Yi’s accusations are presented also in his 2015 book, though the book itself is not mentioned in Chan’s article.)

Thus the charge of ‘inappropriate’ representation of Korea’s size and position refers to the refusal of professional historians to reflect the pseudo historiographical notion of Korea having been an ancient empire spread across the entirety of Manchuria. Pseudo historians in particular take issue with the locating of the Chinese Lelang commandery (108 BCE – 313 CE) at P’yŏngyang, arguin it to have been outside of the peninsula, in the region of modern Liaoning. In Chan’s article, the scholars note that maps marking Lelang, in any event, represented no more than one percent of the entirety of the database.

Yi’s complaint about the apparent absence of Dokdo, meanwhile, pertained to a map of Silla’s expansion in the years 551-600. Being both small and historically uninhabited, the representation of the far flung Dokdo rocks is clearly irrelevant for pre-20th century maps, however, during the hearings (and in his 2015 book), Yi highlighted this as core evidence for his conspiracy theory of the academic establishment constituting a ‘pro-Japanese cartel’, as if by leaving out the Dokdo rocks, they were implying they do not belong to Korea’s current territory.

Separate to Chan’s article, Ki Kyoung-ryang (기경량) of the Young Historians has argued in a blog posting that in Yi (2015) the NEAHF’s Northeast Asia atlas maps, which Yi (2015) reproduce without permission, appear to have been Photoshopped in order to remove Dokdo which was in fact marked (in Korean – the link is worth opening for the self-explanatory photos.) This is evident both by the otherwise odd positioning of Dokdo’s neighboring Ulleung-do island in the corner of a separate box, as well as a subtle change in colour gradient over the position where Dokdo would otherwise be.


Chin Myŏngsŏn  2017.06.19 <권력과 사이비 역사가 쓴 ‘고대사 침탈사’> (진명선 기자)

Chin Myŏngsŏn 2017.06.26 <유사역사의 공모자들> (진명선)

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

1 thought on “The Tide Turns? Part II

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

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