Seminar; Political History of Korea Revisited

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), December 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

Seminar; Political History of Korea Revisited


How to explain Korea's economic miracle from out of the ashes of the Korean War (1950-53). What was the cause of the demise of Park Chung-hee regime? And what went wrong with Korea in 1997 (the year when the economy crumbled into IMF trusteeship)?

These are questions that younger scholars of political science are grappling with in their ambitious work to present a comprehensive outlook of the nation's turbulent history since liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945.

A total of 38 professors recently teamed up in the name of the ``Society for Research of Contemporary Korea'' to publish 10 volumes of the ``Contemporary Political History of Korea'' in English.

``The ultimate purpose of the project,'' said Prof. Kim Byung-kook of Korea University, who is assuming a leading role of the society, ``is to answer the question what made Korea what it is.''

``In particular, after the IMF crisis in 1997, it became an all the more compelling question for us,'' Prof. Kim said. ``It is also after IMF trusteeship that scholars of political science have started to see the role of state from a new point of view and to grope for a new framework of explanation for the nation's past.''

It was against this background that they opted for the Park Chung-hee regime (1961-1979) as the first subject of their research, meaning that they believe the regime holds the key to understanding present day Korea.

``During that period, the nation underwent the most critical change. In addition, the political power structure established at that time still affects politics now,'' Prof. Kim said.

As an example of the diehard ``magnetism'' of Park's regime, another member of academic society cited the Chun Doo-hwan government, which succeeded Park's.

``Chun's rule (1980-1987) was a mere extension of Park's regime. It can be called a Park Chung-hee regime without Park,'' said Prof. Lim Hyun-chin of Seoul National University, in a draft paper on the theme ``What brought the demise of the Yushin (Revitalizing Reform) regime.''

With this conclusion, they are scanning every spectrum of the regime and results of the study will be published in three volumes late this year or early 2001.

The scope of research ranges from the economic and bureaucratic systems of the regime, anti-government forces at that time and to the cause of its demise in 1979.

How to judge the ``oppressiveness'' of the regime, however, remains open to debate, with one scholar terming it a Korean version of the ``Fuhrer system,'' while another called it just an ``authoritarian system.''

The former is the view of Prof. Lim of SNU and the latter belongs to Prof. Kim of Korea University.

Because of such differences, initial results of their research will be subject to thorough revisions and modifications during upcoming discussions.

In addition, terminology is at issue, as the history is written in English.

How to translate ``chaeya (literally meaning the figures in the political opposition or without public posts)'' is one example, with some translating it as a ``dissident circle,'' while the others opt for ``anti-establishment force.''

To reach a consensus on such issues, they have scheduled two rounds of discussion sessions this year, one in March and another in summer.

After a presentation session of the results of their initial research in March they will hold an international symposium in the summer where foreign scholars will present their own perspectives and comments about the March presentations.

Foreign scholars joining this project include Ezra Vogel and George Dominguez of Harvard University and Steve Fogel of the University of California at Berkeley.

``Publication will be possible only after brainstorming sessions with them,'' Prof. Kim said.

A distinguished feature of this study, compared to earlier ones, is what they call a more balanced and objective perspective. …

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