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BOOK REVIEW | 'Invented Traditions in North and South Korea' Edited by Andrew Jackson

"It is always not useful … to distinguish between the authentic and the fake." But should invented traditions be used as foundations for national policy?



Monash University Associate Professor of Korean Studies Andrew Jackson and his collaborators have put together a volume containing a few interesting facts concerning Korean "invented traditions."

However, to get those rare gems, readers will need to burrow through the granite. Namely, the specialized cant and convoluted thinking that is apparently endemic to "Korean Studies" and other ethnic studies programs. 


'Korean Studies' University Departments

Revolutionaries demanded during the sociopolitical turbulence of the 1960s greater "equity" from majority-white America. At the same time, they demanded the dissolution of majority-white America and its cultural imperialism. In its place, they sought multiracial balkanization and a society in which everyone can claim victimhood. 

To focus the attention of the next wave of revolutionaries on these goals and to raise racial consciousness, university Black Studies and Chicana/Chicano (or "La Raza", Spanish for "the race") Studies departments were created. That orthodox academics explicitly celebrate racial diversity and in the same breath condemn factual notions of race is an irony completely lost to them. 

"Korean Studies" departments now have emerged to flaunt their victimization status as other ethnic studies programs do. They present a version of history that accords with the prevailing ideology. 

An "invented tradition," we read, is something created to "fill in the gaps in the historical records." (p. 48) This could be an invention (or "re-invention"; p. 341), "(re-)imagined, (re-)conceptualization" (p. 53), re-interpretation (p.48), or in the case of long-gone architectural structures brought back to life, re-creation. 

wartime labor
On January 30, a civic group protests the South Korean government's proposed solution to the so-called forced labor issue in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul, where the Japan-South Korea Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director-General Meeting was held. (© Kyodo)

Why Invent Traditions?

Why go through the trouble of inventing a tradition? The authors take a Marxist view. They say the sociopolitical elites utilize invented traditions (p. 24) to "institutionalize, mobilize and socialize" the masses; to control the people. Invented traditions are used to confer "legitimacy" to the elites (pp. 7, 31). 

At the same time, we read of the post-Japanese colonial era (1910-1945) Koreans inventing a new set of traditions, to present themselves as fully modernized, strident, anti-communists to the rest of the world. 

Former Imperial Japanese Army officer President Park Chung-hee (1917-1979), while an admirer of "Japan and Japanese culture" (p. 362) was no friend of Japan. In his "purification" of Korean heritage, he re-created (and re-imagined and re-conceptualized) new and existing Korean heritage sites to conform with his Korean worldview, purifying them of colonial-era influences. Park also banned "Japanese popular culture," which was not rescinded until well after his death. (p. 185)

Readers of the current book should not expect stark admissions, for example, that modern-day nationalist Korean claims related to contentious historical issues are tenuous. Indeed, the authors are very marinated in Korean historical thinking, casting the colonial era as a period of Korean "annihilation" (p. 48) and "genocide" (p. 142). Instead, the authors grasp low-hanging fruit. A careful reading of the current work, however, exposes a few ironies.

invented traditions
President Park Chung-hee (1917-1979) (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

The Roots of Taekwondo

Before reading the current book, this reviewer has taken for granted that taekwondo was a Korean creation — that it is a uniquely Korean martial art. In an old screenshot of the website of South Korea's taekwondo ruling body, the Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA), it states that taekwondo was "independently developed over about 20 centuries in Korea." (The KTA has since scrubbed English from its website. )

However, Jackson tells readers that "the roots of taekwondo actually lie in Japanese karate, which was introduced to the Korean Peninsula during the colonial period" (p. 19) and that "the Japanese origins … are well-documented." (p. 19) Jackson is apprehensive, however, musing "if the Japanese colonial origins of taekwondo were to become more widely known" then this could impact its international appeal (p. 20). 

Inexplicably, Jackson then takes a swipe at Japan, stating that its bushido culture has "relative recent origins." (p. 20) The intellectually lax will nod in agreement — Wikipedia unhelpfully reveals that bushido was founded "between the 16th and 20th centuries." Jackson's, and Wikipedia's, bushido characterization should be scrutinized. But interesting is the meaning and relevance of "invented traditions". Korea is indeed not unique in "rewriting" history and "falsifying" facts to improve its own global self-image.

A photo of a samurai in the 1860s by photographer Felice Beato. Bushido means "the way of the warrior" and is a code of conduct of the samurai (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

'Rewriting' History to Improve Global Self-Image

The stakes are indeed high should one decide to value "invented traditions." Jackson notes that "rewriting" history and "falsification" of facts could lead to "loss of both institutional and national prestige." 

Furthermore, the taekwondo case is also interesting in that it reflects a Korean "ambivalent sense of cultural self-worth." (p. 21) Perhaps what Jackson alludes to here is that in their desire to show Korea's uniqueness, some Koreans will go as far as lying and creating a hoax.  

Elsewhere, employing the language of cultural relativism, we read that "it is always not useful … to distinguish between the authentic and the fake or forged." (p. 43) Further on, readers are told "forgeries are not only meant to replace the genuine, but also … to correct it, to add to it, to make it whole again, understandable, relevant." (p. 44) 

Forgeries, the author continues, are "more important that the genuine artifact. Even as more authentic." Such is the thinking pervading the current book — people would rather dwell in comfortable lies than face painful truths at some point. The current book shrugs, blithely stating "most if not all traditions were at some point invented." (p. 49) 

What About Verifiable Facts and Free Inquiry?

A relativist would indeed be eminently comfortable with this last observation. But not for those who live in a world of observable and verifiable facts and in a world of free inquiry. One can trace the origins of some common beliefs to belief in supernatural forces.

However, more modern beliefs based on pseudo-history do not stand up to careful scrutiny — and wailing and teeth-gnashing ensue. To protect cherished beliefs, heads of state may also weigh in with their unconditional support. Those who question cherished beliefs are condemned as "beyond the pale." 

comfort women
The Korean Supreme Court has neglected to rule on a defamation case brought against Park Yuha, professor emeritus at Sejong University in Seoul, for five years. Park was indicted over her book, Comfort Women of the Empire, which contradicts the prevailing public opinion on the forced abduction of comfort women by the Japanese military. (© Sankei by Tatsuya Tokiyoshi)

Invented Traditions as Foundations of National Policy

Naturally, the authors chide Japanese colonizers for foisting "invented traditions" onto Korea — Japanese attempts to "annihilate" Korean culture — as Japanese scholars at the time demonstrated Korea's historical subservience to China

The book quietly notes, though, evidence of Chinese cultural and political domination of Korea (Chapter 2, Enticement of Ancient Empire; pp. 141-146, 162). We also read that the Japanese, at the very least, tolerated and admired Korean culture during the colonial era (Chapter 4, The Language of the "Nation of Propriety in the East; Chapter 5, Re-invented in Translation?; Chapter 10, Spatializing Tradition). It also describes that attempts at replacing Korean with Japanese were "incompetently and inconsistently enforced … " (p. 142)

North Korea is cited as inventing its own traditions. While the Kim regimes expended much effort in "inventing traditions" to legitimize themselves and to get the people to think properly, the regimes also aimed to project themselves as the rightful heirs and guardians of Korean culture and race. The North has succeeded in snaring the support of not a few scholarly South Koreans with what amounts to fabrications and wishful thinking.  

While "invented traditions" could be utilized as a compass to guide personal behavior, it appears that Korea, both North and South, has publically embraced "invented traditions" as foundations for national policy. All very comforting to residents, but how does one deal with a hallucinating neighbor?

comfort women
This comfort women statue was built outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. (December 8, 2021 © Sankei by Tatsuya Tokiyoshi)

About the Book:

Title: Invented Traditions in North and South Korea 

Editors: Andrew David Jackson, Codruța Sîntionean, Remco Breuker, and CedarBough Saeji

Contributors: Don Baker, Remco Breuker, Jan Creutzenberg, Keith Howard, Andrew David Jackson, Laurel Kendall, Eunseon Kim, Andrew Logie, Maria Osetrova, CedarBough Saeji, Andreas Schirmer, Codruța Sîntionean, Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Publisher: University of Hawaii Press (2021)

ISBN: 0824890477, 9780824890476

Format: Available in paperback ($28 USD) and hardback ($68 USD)


Reviewed by: Aldric Hama

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