The Tide Turns? Part V

“Colonial historiography cartel” (2017.9) by Kim Hyŏn-gu 김현구


“In the current day Republic of Korea a similar circumstance is occuring as that immediately after the [1945] liberation when formerly high ranking police officers of the Japanese colonial period, who had been tools doing the work of the Japanese empire arresting [Korean] independence fighters, became [ROK] military police and continued in persecuting independence activists. If the ghosts of [our independence] martyrs were here, would they not be vomiting blood [at this situation] from below the ground?” 일제 강점기에 독립투사들을 잡아들이면서 일제의 앞잡이 노릇을 하던 고등계 형사들이 경찰 간부가 되어 오히려 독립투사들을 핍박하던 광복직후의 사태가 지금 대한민국에서 벌어지고 있는 것이다. 순국선열들의 영령들이 계시다면 지하에서 피를 토할 일이 아니겠는가?  (Kim 2017:161)

Yi Tŏk-il’s conspiracy theory of a pro-Japanese cartel premises their motivation as the promotion of an interpretation of early Korean history that would actively diminish its supposed territorial greatness and antiquity, as imagined by ancient empire advocates. As presented in his 2014 book “The colonial view of history within us”, the three principal components of Yi’s ‘colonial view of history’ are:

  1. Locating the Chinese Lelang commandery at P’yŏngyang as an intrument of colonial control over the northern half of the peninsula.
  2. Locating the Japanese Mimana Nihonfu to the south of the Lelang, interpreted as having been a corresponding colonial administrator over the southern half of the peninsula
  3. Arguing the Three Kingdoms era polities of Koguryŏ, Silla, Paekche and Kaya to have only emerged in the 4th century CE, in contradition to the orthodox 1st century BCE dates given in the earliest extant Korean authored history, Samguk sagi (1145).

In Yi (2014) the complaint of Lelang is directed against scholar Song Hojŏng and the Early Korea Project’s 2014 Han Commanderies volume. In the case of the Chinese commanderies, in particular Lelang, both academic consensus and extensive archaeology have confirmed the location of Lelang as having been at P’yŏngyang.

Yi asserts the notion of Korean establishment historians promoting the Mimana Nihonfu hypothesis through active mischaracterization of Kim Hyŏn-gu’s lifetime scholarship on early Korea-Japan relations that had itself focused on criticism of the original colonial era Mimana hypothesis. In 2010, Kim authored a popular history book summarizing his research and arguments, titled “Is the Mimana Nihonfu theory a fiction?” (임나일본부설은 허구인가) and this is principally the work Yi (2014) mischaracterizes.

‘Mimana Nihonfu’ (Mimana Japan office) is a term uniquely attested in the 8th century Nihon shoki, but Mimana (K. Imna) alone, as well as Imna Kara (a variant of Kaya), are attested in various earlier sources including the Kwanggaet’o stele (414) and contemporary Chinese histories, as well as the later Samguk sagi. The colonial era interpretation of Mimana Nihonfu was to equate it to the Kaya states as an organ of archepelago Yamato control over the southern peninsular states of Kaya, Paekche and Silla. The finalized archetype of this interpretation is “A history of the rise and fall of Mimana” (1949 任那興亡史) written by Suematsu Yasukazu (末松保和 1904-1992).

In “The colonial view of history within us” Yi accuses Kim of actively promoting the Mimana Nihonfu hypothesis and explicitly denounces him as a ‘national traitor’ on a par to Yi Wan-yong (1858-1926), a figure known with the greatest infamy in Korea today as the minister who signed the 1910 treaty of annexation sealing Korea’s temporary fate as a colony to Japan. In October 2014, Kim Hyŏn-gu filed charges of defamation against Yi. Following an initial rejection the case went to trial and Yi was found guilty and sentenced to six months with a two year reprieve. However, following an appeal and a problematic second trial Yi was ultimately cleared in May 2017. With legal options exhausted and Yi seemingly vindicated, Kim’s “Colonial historiography cartel” (2017) seeks to lay out his case for the discerning public.

“Colonial historiography cartel” consists of two main components: a summary of the court cases with contextual information on Kim’s research and details of the arguments put forward, and a fierce counter attack against Yi Tŏk-il which, in a reversal of Yi’s own mantra, identifies Yi with a wider ‘cartel’ of actors promoting their conspiracy of colonial historiography.

Until the recent wave of critiques, when Korean scholars have previously sought to explain the fallacies and motivations of Taejonggyo-ist empire advocates, such as Yi, they have typically characterized them, semi-apologetically, as being overly zealous Korean nationalists. This caution has likely been calculated to avoid the risk of being denounced themselves as unpatriotic or pro-Japanese. However, rather than treating Yi as a misguided patriot, Kim (2017) seeks to turn the tables, not only defending the record of his own critical research on Mimana against Yi’s false accusations, but explicitly accusing Yi of having in his earlier works promoted core aspects of the Mimana hypothesis himself, and thus been guilty of the very crime with which he falsely accused Kim. “Colonial historiography cartel” seeks not only to clear Kim’s name in the public record, but to highlight Yi’s false credentials as a self-styled patriotic historian from which much of his public persona and political influence derives.

The timeline of the legal case is as follows with further details summarized after.

2014.10        Kim files charges of defamation.
2015.4.30     Rejected on the grounds of lack of evidence.
2015.5          Kim appeals the decision and the case goes to trial.
2016.2.5       Yi found guilty and sentenced to six months with a two year reprieve.
Yi appeals and the case goes to second trial.
2017.5.11     Yi found not guilty.

2014.10        Kim files charges of defamation

Kim (2017) provides four examples from Yi (2014) in which the arguments of Kim (2010) are actively misrepresented and six examples of defamatory ad hominem. P54-55

2015.4.30 Rejection on the grounds of “lack of evidence” p57

Three grounds for rejection:

  1. Plaintiff’s usage of ‘Japanese type’ (일본식) terminology.
  2. The frequency of citations from Nihon shoki.
  3. Usage of a map in which Kaya is marked as Mimana.

Based on the above three points, the Prosecutor’s office (서울서부지방검찰청) argued that even though, ‘on the surface’ Kim’s book indeed argues Paekche to have played the dominant role (in relations with Japan), Yi had expressed an opinion that Kim’s work could equally be interpreted as supporting the view that early Japan had ruled over the south of the peninsula.

Kim’s response is that the three points above are superficially based on the citations of Nihon shoki necessarily used within his work, rather than his own accompanying arguments.

2015.5    Kim appeals the decision and the case goes to trial. P60 (details of 1st trial 63-78)

The question of whether Yi was guilty of defaming Kim’s character hung on whether Yi’s characterization of Kim’s research was accurate. If so, then Yi’s accusations of Kim being a ‘pro-Japanese traitor’ could be accepted as Yi’s (patriotic) opinion. If not, then it would represent defamation based on false accusations. Consequently the case revolved around three accusations made in Yi (2014) against the content of Kim (2010), that:

  1. The Mimina Nihonfu is treated as fact.
  2. Paekche is treated as a suzerain state and colony of Yamato Japan through which Yamato governed the south of the peninsula.
  3. Kim believes the Nihon shoki to be factual and fails to criticize Suematsu Yasukazu’s Mimana Nihonfu hypothesis. P65

Kim (2017) responds that, to the extent these arguments exist at all, they are based on the fact that his 2010 book cites the Nihon shoki, and that Yi was unable or unwilling to distinguish between the citations and Kim’s accompanying critical analysis.

In the court case, Kim’s summarized his research and interpretations as follows. P64-65

  1. The core fallacy of Suematsu’s hypothesis was in claiming that Japan had ruled the south of the peninsula for 200 years, not whether the Mimana Nihonfu itself had existed or the question of how to characterize it.
  2. Korean historians have since rejected the reliability of Nihon shoki and refute the Mimana Nihonfu hypothesis.
  3. From this position, however, they take those passages of the Nihon shoki “favorable” (유리하다) to Korea, and after highlighting the question of reliability and cross referencing them with other sources, seek to discern those passages which may be reliable from those which are contradictory or false.
  4. Even while recognising that these passages may be reliable, they nevertheless reject that the term ‘Mimana Nihonfu’ itself was ever used.
  5. From 369 CE until the early 6th century, the region of Kaya on the Korean peninsula was not occupied by Japan, but administered by the Paekche Mok clan.
  6. Relations between the Paekche and Yamato courts was, nevertheless, very close, such that Paekche princes and princesses were married to the Wae imperial family (천황가) and the founder of the current Japanese imperial family was a Paekche prince.
  7. In practice the relationship can be characterized as Paekche transmitting more advance aspects of civilization (선진문물) to Japan while in return receiving Wae military support.

Citing multiple supporting passages from Kim (2010) the court rejected all three of Yi’s accusations as false. These are summarized in Kim (2017:66-74). In addition to the six month commuted sentence, Yi (2014) was banned from further publication (출판금지가처분).

Immediately following the guilty verdict and six month commuted sentence two articles appeared in newspapers in support of Yi. The first was part of a regular column in the Kyŏnggi ilbo newspaper by former 행자부장관 Hŏ Sŏnggwan (허성관) in which he criticizes the ROK prosecution (검찰) for, in his view, prosecuting those who would criticize ‘extreme right’ historians. The second was by former 참여정부 정책실장, Yi Chŏng-u (이정우), appearing in the Kyŏnghyang sinmun (2016.2.18 in Korean) under the title “Is Korea still a [Japanese] colony?” In response to these, the West Seoul court (서울서부지방법원) published the details of its verdict, which Kim (2017) reproduces pp77-78.

Yi appeals and the case goes to second trial. P79-94

Following an appeal by Yi and second trial, the first verdict was overturned. According to this second verdict, although Kim (2010) does not contain passages explicitly supporting Yi’s three accusations – as given in the first trial – the accusations themselves were not false statements (허위사실). P80 Two arguments given to support this verdict are as follows:

  1. Although Kim argues the rulers of Mimana to have been Paekche (and not Yamato), he treats all other aspects of Suematsu’s Mimana Nihonfu hypothesis, and the content of the Nihon shoki both as fact.
  2. Although on the surface, Kim appears to describe the relationship between the Paekche and Yamato courts as equal, in actuality he describes Paekche as though it were a suzerain state to Yamato. P118

In response to the first point, Kim notes that, in having accepted Yi’s fallacious arguments, the court had failed to understand the core problem of Suematsu’s interpretation. Rather than being the question of whether Yamato had controlled the south of the peninsula – as advocated by Suematsu – they instead follow Yi in equating any mention of the Wae or Mimana operating on the peninsula to Suematsu, and by extension Japanese colonial interpretations.  P124 On the second point, Kim again highlights the inability or unwillingness of the court (?재판부) to distinguish between citations from Nihon shoki and Kim’s own critical analysis. p104

The concluding justification given in the verdict is that Yi’s interpretation of Kim (2010) being “no different to Suematsu’s Mimana Nihonfu hypothesis” represents Yi’s ‘subjective opinion’ of Kim’s book based on his own reading, and is therefore not defamatory. P119


Kim’s counter case against Yi Tŏk-il

Throughout “Colonial historiography cartel”, Kim describes himself as someone who has devoted the past thirty years of his career as a professional historian working to disprove the colonial era Mimana Nihonfu hypothesis represented in the work of Suematsu. Already an emeratus professor, for Kim to end his career with his name and research having been actively besmirched by Yi Tŏk-il is understandably a both personally tragic and depressing irony. However, Kim (2017) not only details the post-truth, Kafkaesque legal case, but mounts an active counter attack against Yi Tŏk-il, denouncing him, not merely as a misguided Korean nationalist, but as a “historically unparalleled agent of colonial historiography” who in previous works has himself “openly marked [on maps] the [Japanese] Wae as occupying the southwest of the Korean peninsula”. 사상 유례가 없는 식민사학의 앞잡이 노릇을 하고 있고 버젓이 왜(倭)를 한반도 지도 서남부에 표기해 놓고 있는 이덕일 (Kim 2017:157)

To support this accusation, Kim cites extensively from two of Yi’s earlier works, “Riddles of Korean history 1” (1999 – 우리 역사의 수수께끼 1 coauthored with Yi Hŭigŭn 이희근) and “700 year riddle of Koguryŏ” (2000 – 고구려 700년의 수수께끼). In both cases Yi argued that the Wae referred to as active on the Korean peninsula – as attested on the Kwanggaet’o Stele and in both Nihon shoki and Samguk sagi – represent an original Japanese ethnic polity which was located on the southwest of the peninsula before crossing to the Japanese isles and going on to establish Yamato. In particular, Yi accepts the description of the Wae as having controlled the south of the peninsula and been the dominant power over Paekche and Silla. Yi’s argument precludes the Japanese colonial interpretations of the Wae invading the south of the peninsula from Japan – as the explanation is that rather the Wae came from the peninsula – but still premises the presence of the Wae as having formerly occupied the peninsula. Kim argues that this is therefore closer to Japanese interpretations, in particular Egami’s horserider hypothesis, and in contrast to the Korean academic consensus which rejects the dominance of ethnic Wae over Paekche or Silla. P18-20 He further highlights Yi’s then acceptance of the Songshu (宋書 478) Wae treatise which records an elaborate title bestowed on the Wae king in 438 indicating lordship over the Korean polities of Paekche, Silla, Mimana/Imna, Chinhan and Mohan (Mahan). Kim again notes that, in contrast to Yi (1999), Korean academic consensus rejects this source as ahistorical. P22 According to Kim, Yi (1999) further takes the keyhole shaped tombs found around Naju in South Chŏlla province as evidence of the Japanese Wae presense. Yi (2000) repeats similar interpretations and includes a map of the peninsula, reproduced by Kim (2017:24) in which Wae is marked as a distinct polity south of Paekche.

Ironically these earlier interpretations by Yi are more reasonable than Kim is willing to allow. However, the valid argument made by Kim, is that according to Yi’s recent ‘colonial historiography’ polemic – as adopted by both the National Assembly special committee leading to termination of the digital East Asian atlas project, and in the false characterization of Kim as a pro-Japanese historian – by accepting the Nihon shoki and other records without qualification and consequently reasoning the Wae to have been a dominant peninsular force over Paekche and Silla, Yi’s earlier interpretations, by his own current standard, are closer to the premises of colonial era Japanese historiography than Kim (2010). To highlight this, Kim presents in table format a comparison of Yi (1999 and 2000) to Kim (2010) subdivided into five topics. (Kim 2017:46-49)

  1. Which polity subjugated the 7 Kaya states.
  2. Which polity led the Wae forces as recorded on the Kwanggaeto Stele.
  3. The relationship between Wae, Paekche and Silla.
  4. Interpretation of the Songshu Wae treatise.
  5. Mimana/Imna and Wae.

The details of this table which contains direct quotes from the works in question is summarized below.

On which polity subjugated the Seven Kaya states:

Yi (1999:23)

  • As attested in Nihon shoki (신공49년 369) the force that, together with Paekche king Kŭnchogo, overthrew the Seven Kaya states and the remnant Mahan, was likely to have been peninsular Wae.

Kim (2010:50)

  • The Nihon shoki record concerning the subjugation of the 7 Kaya states refers to Paekche and has no relation to the Yamatao regime. 야마토 정권이 가야 7국 평정 이하의 작전 주체가 될 수 없다는 것은 군데의 집결지를 보더라도 알 수 있다.

On which polity led the Wae forces as recorded on the Kwanggaet’o Stele:

Yi (2000:19-20, 42)

  • In response to Koguryŏ’s southward expansion, Paekche, Wae and Kaya formed an alliance. The subsequent Stele entry for the year 404 (Yŏngnak 14) records that Wae formed an alliance with Paekche and raided Koguryŏ’s Taebang (帶方) region, confirming that the main force which fought northwards against Koguryŏ was the Wae.

Kim (2010:167)

  • The Wae referred to on the Stele as fighting with Koguryŏ was actually an alliance of Paekche, Wae and Kaya, led by Paekche. The Wae were involved in return for the transmission of advanced culture from Paekche.

On the relationship between Wae, Paekche and Silla:

Yi (2000:13-14)

  • In Samguk sagi, both Paekche Annal King Asin year 6 (397) and Silla Annal King Silsŏng year 1 (401), record instances of princes being sent as hostages to the Wae state, demonstrating that at the time the Wae were a powerful polity whose influence extended over Paekche and Silla.

Kim (2010:144)

  • The relationship between Paekche and Yamato can be characterized as one in which Paekche transmitted advanced civilization and Yamato provide military support. In short, Yamato were mercenaries.

Kim (2010:169)

  • Most of the references to Wae in Samguk sagi show that they were close to Paekche and hostile to Silla. Similarly on the Kwanggaet’o Stele, Wae are described as helping Paekche against Koguryŏ and Silla.

On interpretation of the Songshu Wae treatise:

Yi (1999:27)

  • The Songshu entries for the years 420-479 attest the Wae’s presense on the peninsula.

Yi (1999:12-15)

  • If only symbolically (형식적), through conferring the title of ‘Wae, Paekche, Silla, Mimana, Chinhan and Mahan’ the Southern Song acknowledged the Wae’s past presense on the peninsula.
  • If only symbolically, the Wae were able to assert their jurisdiction over the south of the peninsula.

Kim (2010:177)

  • A generation after Wae had militarily supported Paekche, the Wae came to be regarded (by history) as the main force.
  • Consequently the five Wae kings (recorded in Songshu) who at the time supported Paekche against Koguryŏ from 438 onwards later came to be regarded as the leaders (of the campaigns) over Paekche.

Concerning Mimana/Imna and Wae:

Yi (2000:107-108)

  • The Kwanggaeto Stele records the region to which the Wae army retreated as being Imna Kara. This is related to the Mimana Nihonfu and suggests that Imna Kara was under Wae influence.

Kim (2010:83)

  • All of the references to Yamato being in control of the south of the peninsula, in fact refer to Paekche’s control of Imna/Mimana.

Kim (2010:95)

  • The Nihon shoki references seeming to describe Yamato controlling Mimana in fact all refer to Paekche.


Pseudo historiography network

In the two final chapters, Kim (2017) details further individuals and organizations either directly associated with Yi Tŏk-il, or sympathetic to his conspiracy narrative.

Ch’oe Chaesŏk 최재석

  • Retired sociology professor of Koryo University.
  • Known for authoring several amateur works on early Korea-Japan relations.

[Ch’oe works include:

Ch’oe Chaesŏk 崔在錫. 1990. 百濟의 大和와 日本化過程. Seoul: Ilchisa 一志社.
Ch’oe Chaesŏk 崔在錫. 1999. 古代韓國과 日本列島. Seoul: Ilchisa 一志社.

These works argue Yamato Japan to have been founded by Paekche immigrés. They adopt the revisionist hypothesis of North Korean historian Kim Sŏk-hyŏng, according to which Nihon shoki references to Mimana and Three Kingdoms’ era Korean polities refer to Korean colonies located in Japan.]

  • Holds a grudge against Kim Hyŏn/gu and professional historians for rejecting his papers from academic journals.
  • He consequently published his work as non peer-reviewed books.
  • In his 2011 autobiography “Reversed fortunes” (역경의 행운) Ch’oe accused Kim of being pro-Japanese. Therein two of his arguments are:
  1. Kim’s earlier work on early Japan-Korea relations – originally his doctoral dissertaion completed in Japan and written in Japanese – “Research on foreign relations of the Yamato regeme” (大和政権の対外関係研究, 1985) actively omits Korea from the title.
  2. When completing his doctorate in Japan, Kim’s supervising professor was Mizuno Yū (水野祐). Mizuno believed that Korea had been a colony of early Japan from the 1st century and so Kim must be maintaining the opinion of his former supervisor.
  • Kim dismisses both of these conspiracy type arguments as absurd. In particular he highlights that his interpretation of Mimana and early relations differed from his supervisor, Mizuno, but that Mizuno had nevertheless accepted the logic of his argumentation and awarded him the doctorate. (Kim 2017:138)

[Ch’oe (2011) and his earlier works are cited by Yi (2014), so this is likely the source of Yi’s accusations against Kim.]

Hwang Sunjong 황순종

  • Hwang is a civil servant who had graduated from Seoul National University as an ecnomics major. (Kim 2017:140)
  • In 2016 during the court case against Yi, Hwang published a book titled “There was no Mimana Nihonfu” (임나일본부는 없었다).
  • The book is published by Mankwŏndang 만권당, who were the publishers of Yi (2014) and (2015).
  • Various passages from Hwang (2016) are either similar or identical to written arguments Yi had submitted to the Mapo police station (마포경찰서) in 2014 at the beginning of the defamation case.
    • Kim (2017:142-143) includes five examples of near identical content.
    • This includes a shared error in which both Hwang and Yi claim Kim (2010) equates Mimana to the region of Kimhae {corresponding to Tae Kaya, the more powerful of the Kaya polities}, when Kim (2010) states multiple times that Mimana was in the region of Koryŏng.
  • Hwang (2016:30) asserts that locating Mimana in the south of the peninsula is equivalent to the ‘colonial view of history’ which, according to Kim, should again implicate Yi’s earlier books which do likewise.

To Chonghwan 도종환

Kim (2017:148) highlights the case of To Chonghwan’s statements made in 2017.6.6 as candidate to become the current minister of culture wherein he claimed that Japanese still equate the Mimana Nihonfu to Kaya, and that current Korean research on Kaya is being funded by Japan.

Hŏ Sŏnggwan 허성관

  • A member of Yi Tŏk-il’s Hangaram History and Culture Research Centre (한가람역사문화연구소), formerly held high positions in the civil service as 해수부장관, 행자부장관, 광주과기원장.
  • As noted above, in his own column in the Kyŏnggi ilbo newspaper (허성관 칼럼) 2015.12.8 (in Korean), Hŏ repeated Yi’s accusations against Kim.

Yi Chŏng-u 이정우

  • Economist and professor emeratus at Kyungpook National University (경북대학교).
  • Kim argues Yi Chŏng-u had merely read Yi (2014) yet demonstrates ingnorance of basic concepts of the dispute such as muddling the notion of Mimana Nihonfu as the object of control, rather than the organ through which control of the greater region was administered. (Kim 2017:154)

Lawyers Pak Ch’anjong and Yi Sŏk-yŏn 박찬종·이석연

  • Provided free counsel to Yi Tŏk-il during the first trial.
  • Pak Ch’anjong had previously been a presidential candidate.

Seongnam city mayor Yi Chaemyŏng 이재명

  • Seongnam city mayor and presidential candidate for the Minju party.
  • Following Yi Tŏk-il’s acquittal, Yi Chaemyŏng Tweeted a message congratulating Yi and stating, “We must always uproot pro-Japanese [elements] that have infiltrated our society.” 우리 사회 곳곳에 침투한 친일 세력들 언젠가 반드시 뿌리를 뽑아야지요. 이덕일 소장님 무죄판결 출하하고 환영합니다 (Kim 2017:156)

Internet group ‘Righteous Army Division for history’ 역사의병대 (website in Korean)

Korean ‘internet cafe’ whose name evokes the ‘righteous army’ term used to refer to the peoples resistance against the 1592 Hideyoshi invasion of Korea, and subsequently to resistance fighters based in Manchuria during the Japanese colonial period. (Kim 2017:156)

  • The group’s website lists Kim Hyŏngu and Song Hojŏng among ‘7 enemies of history’.
  • Two members of the Young Historians Collective, Sin Gayeong (신가영) and Ki Kyoung-ryang, are included among the ‘next generation of 7 enemies of history.

‘Headquarters of the people’s movement for the dismantling of colonial historiography’ (식민사학 해체 국민운동본부)

  • Established 2014.3.19. (Kim 2017:158)
  • High profile actors include: former 국정원장 Yi Chongch’an, Kallilli Church (갈릴리교회) pastor In Myŏngjin and Hŏ Sŏnggwan.
    • Yi Chongch’an is the grandson of independence activist Yi Hŏeyŏng (李會榮 1867-1932), known for resisting the Japanese annexation of Korea and helping establish the Sinhŭng military academy (신흥무관학교) in Manchuria.
  • Appointed Yi Tŏk-il as head of their academic committee (학술위원장직).

Misahyŏp association 미사협

Misahyŏp is an abbreviation for ‘Association for correct history heading to the future’ (미래로 가는 바른 역사 협의회).

According to Hŏ Sŏnggwan’s Kyŏnggi sinmun column (2017.6.5 in Korean), Misahyŏp claims to represent some 140 smaller history groups.


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