The Nation, the World, and the Dissolution of the Shin'ganhoe: Nationalist Historiography in South Korea

By Wells, Kenneth M. | Korean Studies, June 2001 | Go to article overview

The Nation, the World, and the Dissolution of the Shin'ganhoe: Nationalist Historiography in South Korea


Wells, Kenneth M., Korean Studies


This article forwards an interpretation of the Korean united front movement of 1927- 1931, the Shin'ganhoe, that might offer some insight into the dynamics of the movement, especially of its dissolution, and that complements the nationalist accounts of it. That the Shin'ganhoe was created under the conditions of Japan's colonial rule gave the movement its character as a part of the resistance against that rule. But I propose that the movement is not fully explained by that role and that it took on a logic or dynamic of its own that led toward its dissolution in some sense independently of its being a nationalist resistance organization. I then relate the discussion to recent developments in South Korean nationalist historiography, paying particular attention to attempts to "glocalize" Korean national imperatives by linking them with theories of a global or world system. I conclude with the observation that the linkages made between local and global phenomena, related as they are to the severe internecine comp etition on the Korean peninsula over the past five decades, appear to be a restatement of central demands of the nationalist position. As such they do not chart a clear route beyond the nationalist paradigm and may suffer from intractable difficulties similar to those that plagued the Shin'ganhoe movement.

The Shin'ganhoe Dissolution Debate

When in May 1990 I met with historians from Kim II Sung University and the Academy of Social Sciences in P'yongyang, I asked whether there was much interest in the Shin'ganhoe movement among North Korea's historians. The reply, in brief, was that since the united front period belonged to a time when a destructive factionalism (p'aboljuui) predominated, it was not regarded as an important or worthy subject of inquiry.

Whether or not the Shin'ganhoe experience is important to contemporary North Korea, it seemed that this North Korean viewpoint is helpful in understanding the Shin'ganhoe. For the idea that the united front movement operated in an atmosphere of disunity (of the left as well as the right) and the judgment that it had therefore only negative value in modem Korean history have overshadowed scholarship on the subject up till very recent years in both Koreas. That the movement has had this effect on historical memory and has been presented by North Korean historians as empirical evidence for the necessity of absolute unity in the revolutionary movement, indicates that its failure was a bitter affair that has left a bitter legacy. The self-destruction of the organization engendered deep mistrust among the different camps; and among the left-wing groups there was mutual recrimination over the internal discord that prevented them from gaining hegemony over the anti-imperial struggle through the Shin'ganhoe. But what is striking here is the lack of any genuine socialist analysis of the movement and its replacement by categories that are almost entirely nationalistic.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the standard, indeed, single explanation of the failure of the Shin'ganhoe in the North is that it was wracked by factionalism. Whereas this explanation does have a kind of rule-of-thumb validity, it does not illumine very far the actual dynamics of the united front movement nor the process of its dissolution. Even one of its most important clues to the culture of the Korean political world of the time, namely, the highly negative evaluation of compromise and the absence of a concept of constructive tension, is hidden by the mechanical employment of the explanation.

South Korean historiography has benefited greatly from the relative latitude enjoyed especially over the last two decades by non-official academic research. Recent work on the Shin'ganhoe in South Korea by Yi Kyunyong, for example, delves into it in great detail and provides a comprehensive picture of the organization, its leadership, principles, activities, and demise. …

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