The Tide Turns? Part III

Activities of the Young Historians
(part 1 of 2)


From left: Wee Kaya, Ki Kyoung-ryang and An Jeongjun (source)

This and the following post provide a brief, non-exhaustive survey of the Young Historians’ publications during 2016-2017. During this time, there were three main joint publication events: their papers appearing in the journal Yŏksa pip’yŏng, their book which collates the same papers together with some additions; and their 7 part series in Hankyoreh 21. This post gives an overview of the articles and the book, the next post covers the Hankyoreh 21 series.

As there is repetition between these works, I have summarized the content of their arguments in most detail in the Hankyoreh 21 series, on the premise that they would have focused on core topics for popular exposure.

Consequently, in this post, for the journal articles I principally seek to provide only bibliographical data, and for the book focus on the “Box Talk” sections interspersed among the articles.

1) Yŏksa pip’yŏng articles – “Early Korean history and criticism of pseudo historiography” (한국 고대사와 사이비역사학비판)

Nine scholars affiliated to the Young Historians group individually heralded their new organization with articles spread across the 2016 spring, summer and winter editions of the quarterly journal Yŏksa pip’yŏng. Additionally, the 2017 spring edition contained a themed section titled “Fake history and fake texts” (위사(僞史)와 위서(僞書)) which included five further articles by scholars not directly affiliated with the Young Historians, but that continue the criticism of pseudo historiography by focusing on the topic of apocrypha (false ancient texts).

The titles and contemporary authors’ affiliations of all these articles are as follows.

2016 Yŏksa pip’yŏng Vol.114 Spring[1]
“Early Korean history and criticism of pseudo historiography – part 1”

Pseudo historiography and history fascism[2] 사이비 역사학과 역사 파시즘 (translated here
Ki Kyoung-ryang 기경량 – Lecturer at Kangwon National University

Is the theory of the Han Commanderies’ location on the Korean peninsula a product of colonial era historiography” ‘한사군 한반도설’은 식민사학의 산물인가 (translated here)
Wee Kaya 위가야 – PhD from Sungkyunkwan University, history department

Current day research on the Lelang Commandery” 오늘날의 낙랑군 연구 (summarized here)
An Jeongjun 안정준 – PhD from Yonsei University, history department

2016 Yŏksa pip’yŏng Vol.115 Summer[3]
“Early Korean history and criticism of pseudo historiography – part 2”

Colonialist historiography and the heteronomy within ‘us’” 식민주의 역사학과 ‘우리’ 안의 타율성론
Kang Jinwon 강진원 – Lecturer at Seoul National University, Korean history department

Research on the Mimana Nihonfu and colonialist historiography” ‘임나일본부’연구와 식민주의 역사관
Sin Kayoung 신가영 –  Doctoral candidate at Yonsei University, history department.

Could the Han Commanderies have been located in the Luan river basin, after all?” 한사군, 과연 난하 유역에 있었을까?
Lee Jeongbin 이정빈 – Research professor at Kyunghee University

2016 Yŏksa pip’yŏng Vol.117 Winter[4]
“Early Korean history and criticism of pseudo historiography – part 3”

Symbol of ethnonationalist historiography – reconsidering Sin Ch’aeho
민족주의 역사학의 표상, 신채호 다시 생각하기
Kwon Soon-Hong 권순홍 – Unaffiliated (PhD Sungkyunkwan University)

Tangun: history, myth, and the ethnic nation” 단군: 역사와 신화, 그리고 민족
Lee Seung-ho 이승호 – Lecturer at Dongguk University, history department

False imaginings within ethnonational[ist] history textbooks: focusing highschool textbooks of the 4th and 5th national curriculum periods” 민족의 국사 교과서, 그 안에 담긴 허상: 4·5차 교육과정기 고등학교 국사 교과서를 중심으로
Jang Miae 장미애 – Lecturer at Catholic University of Korea

2017 Yŏksa pip’yŏng Vol.118 Spring[5]
“Fake history and fake texts”

The crisis in the study of early history and the specter of colonial historiography” ‘고대사파동’과 식민주의 사학의 망령
Cho In Sung 조인성 – Professor at Kyunghee University, history department

Background and origins to the construction of Hwandan kogi” 『환단고기』의 성립 배경과 기원
Lee Moon-young 이문영 – Editor, novelist, and long time critic or pseudo historiography.

Book of Veles as Russian literary forgery and 21st century history disputes of Eurasia” ‘벨레스서’로 본 러시아의 위서와 21세기 유라시아 역사분쟁”
Kang In Uk 강인욱 – Professor at Kyunhee University, history department

From criticism of false texts to research of false texts: comparison of Japanese and Korean false texts” 위서 비판에서 위서 연구로: 일본 위서의 검토 및 한국 위서와의 비교
Kim Shiduck 김시덕 – Professor at Seoul National University, Kyujanggak.

On false texts” 위서(僞書)를 말하다
Park Chihyŏn 박지현 – Researcher at Chungnam Institute of History and Culture (충청남도약사문화연구원)


2) Young Historians’ book: “Early Korean history and criticism of pseudo historiography” 한국 고대사와 사이비역사학비판 (2017.2)

The Young Historians’ book is divided into three parts. The first two contain the previous nine articles with one extra by Ki Kyoung-rang. Additionally, each chapter article is followed by a shorter ‘Box Talk’ section which briefly discusses related subtopics or common hypotheses of Korean pseudohistory.

Ki Kyoung-rang additional chapter article is “Are the Tangun Chosŏn period records of astronomical observation true?

The Box Talk sections are summarized below.

Box Talk sections

Does pseudo historiography exist only in Korea?” (Ki Kyoung-ryang)

  • Brief summary of Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions (2011) by Ronald H. Fritze.
    • Five core characteristics of pseudo historiography suggested by Fritzes closely match the methodology of Korean pseudo historians.
    • Summarized by Ki, these are: 1) Cherry-picking evidence, ignoring evidence which does not match their theory, 2) making use of earlier scholarship which has since been disproved, 3) failing to distinguish between remote ‘possibility’ and actual ‘likelihood’, 4) arguing over basic facts (e.g. whether a given event occurred or not, or whether a certain place or special individual existed or not), and 5) ignoring greater bodies of evidence that point to a rational likelihood and consensus interpretations, while focusing on the one or two exceptions that support their pseudo hypothesis.

Is the Great Wall of China a symbol of national disgrace?” (Kang Jinwon)

  • Remains of a long wall fortification, known as the Taeryŏnggang-jangsŏng, run for between some 164-238km along the Taeryŏng river, a tributary flowing south into the Ch’ŏngch’ŏn river in North Korea.
    • Chinese scholars argue this to be an extension of the wall recorded in Shiji as terminating in Liaodong (around modern Liaoyang). Korean’s are against this interpretation as it implies military penetration into presumed Old Chosŏn territory.
    • It is also unlikely to be Chinese because it is built on the east side of Taeryŏng river.
  • However, even if it were Chinese built, this need not be interpreted as humiliating. Rather it could be positively interpreted as reflecting the strength of Old Chosŏn, such that China could not advance any further.
    • Makes analogy to circumstance of Hadrian’s Wall.

What is the truth of Paekche’s expansion to Liaoxi?” (Jang Miae)

  • The hypothesis that Paekche held territories in the region of Liaoxi (modern eastern Hebei, western Liaoning) is not widely accepted by Paekche historians but it has been included in the national curriculum since 1973.
  • The hypothesis is based on Chinese histories only of the southern dynasties, namely Songshu (宋書 488) and Liangshu (梁書 636).
  • It ignores the geopolitical realty of Paekche, in that it would not have been able to conduct a major sea campaign against the Former Yen and Former Qin polities while simultaneously struggling to contend with Koguryŏ.

“Where was the heartland of Old Chosŏn?” (Lee Jeongbin)

  • Three theories: Liaoning location, P’yŏngyang location and movement from Liaoning to P’yŏngyang.
  • Supports the movement theory based on distribution of bronze daggers.

Did Wi Man cross the Yalu eastwards or southwards?” (Wee Kaya)

  • Discusses identification of the Paesu (浿水) river which is recorded in the Shiji as having been crossed by (Wi) Man and marking the boundary of Chosŏn.
  • Conventional identification of the Paesu is as either the modern Yalu or Ch’ŏngch’ŏn rivers but pseudo historians argue it to be a river in western Liaoning or Hebei.
    • They argue it cannot be the Yalu or Ch’ŏng’ch’ŏn because Shiji describes Wi Man going east, whereas to cross these rivers into the peninsula one is going south.
    • However, ‘going east’ refers to Wi Man’s broader journey, and more crucially the southern side of the Yalu has regularly been referred to as the eastern bank, rather than south, e.g. in the regional term Kangdong (江東) ‘east of the river’.

Nihon shoki – the Infinite Challenge history book for historians of early history” (Sin Kayoung)

  • Nihon shoki was compiled with political intentions of the 8th century in order to exaggerate the Japanese imperial house. Therefore it contains distorting aspects, especially with regards to the portrayal of its early and foreign relations.
  • However, Nihon shoki also contains import factual information and details missing from Samguk sagi, so if treated cautiously, it is a valuable source.

What is the ’45 BCE [Lelang] census’” (An Jeongjung)

  • Overview of the Lelang census tablets discovered in a P’yŏngyang tomb in the early 1990s but not announced until 2006.

Were Koguryŏ, Paekche and Silla not on the Korean peninsula?” (Ki Kyoung-ryang)

  • Critiques 1994 pseudohistory book “Koguryŏ, Paekche and Silla were not on the peninsula” (고구려백제·신라는 한반도에 없었다) written by a retired meterorologist, Chŏng Yongsŏk (정용석), who, comparing records of natural events recorded in Samguk sagi tries to argue the three polities could not have existed in close proximity, or on the peninsula.
    • A flood is recorded in the Silla annal for a given year but not the corresponding Paekche annal. Ignores possibility of local flooding.
    • Claims Samguk sagi records volcanic eruption of Toham-san (吐含山) when there are no volcanos on the peninsula. The original text, however, is less explicit (吐含山地燃 ‘the ground of Toham-san caught fire’)and might be the product of natural gas catching alight.
    • Ignores that later Korean sources such as the Chosŏn Sillok also record natural events including earthquakes.

Did Kija Chosŏn exist?” (Lee Seung-ho)

  • Most scholars today reject the ‘Kija going east to Chosŏn’ legend as a Han period invention to support their establishment of the commanderies in 108 BCE.
  • There is no archaeological evidence – such as Zhou period Chinese bronzes – found in Liaodong or beyond to support the presence of a Chinese polity prior to the commanderies.

Sin Ch’aeho criticizing Sin Ch’aeho” (Kwon Soon-Hong)

  • In 1914 August-October Sin Ch’aeho visited Huairen (懐仁縣) in Manchuria and briefly worked as a teacher at Tongch’ang school. There he is believed to have joined Taejonggyo and written a history textbook for the school.
  • This text is thought to be the second of Sin Ch’aeho’s three main history works, Chosŏn sanggo munhwasa (朝鮮上古文史) as it demonstrates aspects of Taejonggyo influence.
  • However, in his third major work, Chosŏn sanggosa, thought to have been written around 1924, Sin explicitly criticizes recently authored apocryphal texts that are a part of Taejonggyo, Ch’eonbugyŏng (天符徑) and Sam’il sinji (三一神誌).
  • Sin is still revered by Taejonggyoist pseudo historians, but he can thus be seen to have been critical of their apocryphal texts.


Part 3 of the book is based on a colloquium held at Kyunghee University  18 August 2016. It contains a brief critical response to the Young Historians’ articles by Korea University researcher Kim Hŏnju and a follow up discussion. The two main topics raised by Kim concerned the suitability of the designation ‘pseudohistory’ and how best to address the challenge it presents.

Kim Hŏnju “The meaning and limits in the notion of ‘Pseudohistory’, and the dilemma of ‘correct history‘” (YH 2017:277-284)

  • The Korean term used by the Young Historians for ‘pseudo’, saibi (似而非) originates in Mencius.
  • While Korean ‘pseudo history’ is methodologically flawed, the designation ‘pseudo historiography’ fails to address the nationalistic motivations of ‘pseudo historians’ which they trace themselves to Sin Ch’aeho.
  • Sin Ch’aeho sought to revive ancient history against the context of the colonial era and nationalist revitalization movement.
  • This circumstance is entirely different to the 21st century but pseudo historians maintain the colonial framing of Sin.
  • By focusing only on methodological shortcomings of pseudo historians, critiques ignore that it is not the content so much as the spirit of Sin Ch’aeho that pseudo historians are promoting.
  • Evidence based argumentation (실증) adopted by Yi Tŏk-il, is secondary to the narrative of continued Japanese influence on South Korean historiography, which matches the reductionist polemic holding currency among those who identify as political ‘progressives’, namely: “Colonial era → failure to purge Japanese collaborators and influence → [perceived] contraditions of current day South Korean society”.
  • It is more important to have a designation addressing this aspect rather than methodology. Therefore ‘chauvinist historiography’ may be more appropriate.

In response Ki Kyoung-ryang and Wee Kaya both emphasized that, although provocative, ‘pseudo’ (사이비) is the most accurate qualifier to describe the phenomenon in question. While ‘chauvinist’ is not inaccurate, ‘pseudo’ makes clear that their methodologies are flawed to the extent that they are not pursuing history, the clearest example being their willingness to use apocryphal texts such as Hwandan kogi, or nevertheless forcing artificial interpretations of authentic sources to support their hypotheses. (YH 2017:286-287)

Although this phenomenon should be described as pseudo historiography, they equally stress that academic historiography has internal contradictions that must continuously be addressed. These pertain firstly to the assumption of historians that they have successfully ‘overcome’ the influence of colonial era Japanese scholarship, the problem being that while they may have achieved this within their academic world, it has not be well communicated to the general public. (YH 2017:302) The second, problem is that the method by which this ‘overcoming’ was pursued was to emphasize the ethnic nation (minjok) and narrative of developmentalism even within early history, but the assumptions of early nationhood and a developmental path to modernity on which they are premised are now being  challenged. (YH 2017:298, 300)


[2] The original articles contain English translations of the title and abstract, but here I have retranslated the titles directly from the Korean. The Romanization of the personal names follows those used by the authors.




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