Korean History

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Korean schoolchildren in North and South learn that Japan invaded their fiercely patriotic country in 1905, spent forty years trying to destroy its language and culture, and withdrew without having made any signicant headway. This version of history is just as uncritically accepted by most foreigners who write about Korea. Yet the truth is more complex. For much of the country’s long history its northern border was fluid, and the national identities of literate Koreans and Chinese mutually indistinguishable. Believing their civilization to have been founded by a Chinese sage in China’s image, educated Koreans subscribed to a Confucian worldview that posited their country in a position of permanent subservience to the Middle Kingdom. Even when Korea isolated itself from the mainland in the seventeenth century, it did so in the conviction that it was guarding Chinese tradition better than the Chinese themselves. For all their xenophobia, therefore, the Koreans were no nationalists. As Carter Eckert has written, “There was little, if any, feeling of loyalty toward the abstract concept of Korea as a nation-state, or toward fellow inhabitants of the peninsula as ‘Koreans.’ It was not until the late nineteenth century, and under Japanese sponsorship, that a reform-minded cabinet undertook measures to establish Korea’s independence and imbue the people with a sense of national pride.  The Japanese freed the peninsula from China only to take it for themselves. In 1905 Tokyo established a protectorate over Korea, assuming control first of its foreign, then its domestic affairs. Annexation of the peninsula followed in 1910. Public opposition to Japanese rule grew until patriots read out a declaration of independence on March 1, 1919 in Seoul, setting off a nationwide uprising. The authorities responded with a brutal show of force before relaxing some of the repressive policies that had inamed their subjects.  Although nationalists took advantage of new Korean-language...
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