Do we learn nothing from writing history? Ten reflections after writing a modern history of the two Koreas
The lecturer writes: ‘History, sir, will tell lies as usual.’ is a favourite quote from George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, and the two Koreas are no exceptions to this dictum, though nor are they especially conspicuous offenders. Korean historians from all parts of the political spectrum have merely joined in the common rush to enlist the historical narrative as allies in their various struggles, and over the years they have been joined by quite a few foreigners. The result is a secondary literature that is frequently opaque, confusing and partisan.
Over the past fifteen years or so I have had the privilege of writing successive editions of a book titled The Making of Modern Korea for the UK publisher Routledge. The third edition was published late last year, and affords an opportunity to reflect on some of the things I have learnt – and failed to learn – over the course of reading a wide variety of source material on modern Korean history. I focus on the following topics: the denigration of the achievements of the Choson era; the inability of most non-Koreans to comprehend the significance of the Japanese colonial era; the issue of collaborationism; the disputed origins of the Korean War; the Park-Chun era and the characteristics of the ROK military; the specific colouring of ROK ‘conservative’ ideology; ROK reunification policy and domestic politics; and some key self-inflicted distortions involved in our perceptions of North Korea.
Dr Buzo lectures in Korean Studies at Macquarie University and Korea University, and currently manages the Korea University – Macquarie University joint Master of Translating and Interpreting Studies program. After language studies at Yonsei University in 1973-74 he served as a foreign affairs officer in the Australian missions in Seoul and Pyongyang. He received his Masters degree from Dankook University Department of Korean Language and Literature in 1981, specialising in the study of early Korean writing systems. He was an RAS Councillor 1980-81. In addition to a number of language, translating and interpreting texts, with co-author A. J. Prince his Kyunyo-jon: The Life, Times and Songs of a Tenth Century Korean Monk appeared in 1993. The second edition of his 1999 book The Guerilla Dynasty: Politics and Leadership in the DPRK 1945-1994 will be published later this year by Routledge.