A Hunt for Origins

By Casey, John | The Spectator, September 23, 2006 | Go to article overview

A Hunt for Origins


Casey, John, The Spectator


EVERLASTING FLOWER : A HISTORY OF KOREA by Keith Pratt Reaktion, £19.95, pp. 320, ISBN 186189273X . £15.95 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

No modern country wishes to understand itself through its remote past more ardently than does Korea. Nineteenthcentury Korean nationalists were anxious to trace their state back to a mythical semi-divine hero, Tan'gun, who founded Korea in the third millennium BC.

(Koreans will probably be irritated if it is suggested that this resembles Japanese eagerness to trace their imperial family back to an Emperor Jimmu, about 2,500 years ago. ) The communists enthusiastically join this hunt for origins. When the 'Great Leader', the late Kim Il Sung, dictator of North Korea, wanted to propose a federation of the North with the South, he suggested that the name for the united country should be Koryo, after a state that had existed from the 10th to the 12th centuries. The present 'Dear Leader', Kim Jong Il, claims to have been born on the sacred mountain, Paektu-su, which gives him divine status. About ten years ago archaeologists in the Stalinist state announced triumphantly that they had unearthed the bones of Tan'gun and his queen. Kim Il Sung did even better when he dug up the bones of another great hero who had been born from an egg on the banks of the Yalu river.

All this reflects anxieties about identity and legitimacy. Japanese nationalists used to claim that Koreans are anciently of Japanese stock, and that along with the Manchurians they should all live under One Roof, i. e. the Japanese Emperor. Some Koreans hoped that a tomb of a princess opened some years ago in Korea might prove, on the contrary, that the Japanese imperial family had Korean ancestry.

By contrast, most of the world is aware of Korea only through its recent history, the immensely destructive war of 1950-53, the Tiger economy of the South from the 1970s, the current nuclear weapons programme of Kim Jong Il. Its ancient and complex culture, by comparison with that of China and Japan, is virtually unknown.

The cause of that is not hard to find. In 1910 the Japanese annexed Korea, with the tacit consent of Western powers, including Great Britain. There began a process of forced assimilation, which eventually led to the attempted suppression of the Korean language, and Koreans having to take Japanese names and worshipping at Shinto shrines. Some years ago I was in Seoul when a famous philosopher, a pupil of Bertrand Russell and a nationalist, died in his nineties.

This man had given all his lectures illegally in Korean. One day the Japanese Inspector-General of Education arrived to inspect Seoul University, and descended on this philosopher's lecture-room. …

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