Politics, Race and History in Korea: Interview with Derick Varn (Part One)

I’m pleased to inaugurate my first-ever blog interview. Today I’m speaking with Derick Varn, a Korea-based blogger and theorist. He writes at the (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity on a broad range of cultural, literary and political theory and is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Derick speaks about the background to Korean national and racial identity, the left and right in South Korea and the impact of neoliberalism on Korean society – all essential topics for understanding the current crisis in the two Koreas. I’ve added some photos of Korea for aesthetic purposes.


Q: You’ve had a long-standing interest in South Korea and been here a few years. In that time, what have you found most interesting about its political economy – or its politics – and how did that change your previous perceptions of the country?

A: That’s a complicated question: my interest in South Korea was personal and scholarly originally. I am not a Korean and my proficiency with the language is basic, but my aunt was Korean so I exposed to the culture briefly as a child. In graduate school, I became obsessed with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and her novel/prose poem Dictee. While there is a lot going on in that book, one must have the context of the Japanese occupation of Korea and the French Catholic missionary history as well.   When an accident of employment landed me here, I started doing historical research to further my literary research on Theresa Cha.  I began to notice that, when looking for the origins of several crucial Korean ideas, such as 민족 (pronounced minjok. It means “race-nation”), that the traditions were modern and projected back on the past.  Not only that, but often the origin of the ideology was either Japanese or Western. However, it had been obscured by some of the progressive nationalists’ attempts to construct a modern identity for Korean in the end of the Joseon period and the dissolution of the “Great” Han Empire.  Even though you will hear the word 민족 in Korean historical dramas, portraying early Joseon or the Goryeo dynasties.


So there’s a strange history here: the Korean independence activist and historian Shin Chae-ho coined the word.  Shin Chae-ho was linked to many anarchist publications and is revered in both North and South Korea today.  He was, however, getting his idea of race-nation from the Japanese themselves, as a means to get a modern identity (and the Japanese had only come up with a similar concept in the late 1800s after exposure to German and Northern European racial notions.)  It wasn’t hard for Chae-ho to adopt the concept: the Japanese themselves had used the idea that the Koreans and the Manchus were primitive versions of their own race. They had some sound linguistic evidence for this (Korean and Manchu are clearly linguistically related to Japanese) and cast their imperialism as a liberation attempt from the West.  There is a good book on Japanese attitudes about this in English by E. Taylor Atkins called Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze.  Still one finds that a lot of the ancient traditional image of Korea would be, if we were using European time frames, “early modern.”  Hobsbawm’s invented traditions are all over the place in this in a strange way: a lot of the local ideas about ancient Korea, quite like the rebuilt palaces in Seoul which were burnt by the Japanese, are very modern.


Its political economy was interesting since, if one wants to think in Marxist terms, it industrialized before its bourgeois revolution, which really was achieved by coup in the 1980s and the death of President Park Chung-hee. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, his daughter was inducted into the Blue House in an election against a democracy activist that Park Chung-hee had jailed. The rapid development of Korean industries and the rise of the Chaebol system [large family-run corporations] pretty much happened under Park Chung-hee, so older Koreans are still fond of him. His daughter is center-right, and probably slightly to the left, of the last president here. Park Chung-hee himself is a hard man to figure out: he was a member of the 남로당 (the Korean Worker’s Party) and was removed from the army under accusations of being a member of a communist terrorist cell.  He then went to the US and was trained there.  He moved to the right pretty quickly and when in 1960, the prior President Rhee was overthrown by the April 19 Movement, Park led a coup against the democratically elected government.

I suppose in both North and South Korea one can see the pure blood ideology at play, as well as a particularly strict form of neo-Confucianism which lays down the ground work.  The dominance of family dynasties in politics and, perhaps more importantly, in the Chaebol system is hard to understate.  Yet I am also amazed at the speed of change here.  Social liberalization is happening quickly, if very unevenly.  Market liberalization has been de-stabilizing for South Korea, and nationalism here is sort of uneven too.  A defensiveness to outside criticism is to be expected in a nation that has been used as a proxy war zone for so many different powers in only 150 years but has also had almost four decades of de facto peace.
In terms of capitalism, one can see that capitalism is different depending on the region as it’s cultural values here do look very different from that of either Europe or North America, but it still looks like capitalism.  Even with its smaller-scale reliance on less-developed nations for cheaper labor (South Asian immigrants in this case), which has actually complicated the Korean sense of national identity in some ways.


Q: I find it fascinating that 민족 originated from a thinker with anarchist affiliations, and that Park Chung-hee himself was affiliated with the Workers Party. Are these coincidences or do they say something about the ability for left-wing ideas and activists to be coopted by the right?

More broadly, I’m interested in the impact of 민족 on the Korean left. I’ve noticed how insular some of the nationalist left is. If modernization has been monopolized by ideas of 민족- and the left usually wants to be modern – do you think there’s a relationship between the Korean left’s insularity and a racial, rather than territorial nationalist tradition? Or is this a mischaracterization?


A: I will be careful here because I think one can over-identify trends here, but yes, the Korean Worker’s Party would become pressured to compete with Mao Zedong and develop what they saw as a cult of state, but they did this more on nationalistic grounds and even used former members of the Japanese imperial propaganda campaign to strengthen their racialist language.  Kim Il-Sung did not start that way, but during the Sino-Soviet Split there was a lot of pressure on the Kim family to develop alternative models–it’s hard to parse the man, but the North Koreans did adopt a third world nationalism rhetoric in the 1970s at the same time, but racial rhetoric moved in more and more. Still looking at the Korean anarchist movement could be helpful.  The scholar Chong-sik Lee wrote in the 1960s that a lot of the early Korean left anarchists, communists, and even some liberals flirted with right nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s and exactly that happened, allowing increasing the “pure” nationalists to step up. In the process, a lot of other progressive forces were marginalized, such as the liberation theology-inspired Protestants in Pyongyang. When these groups were largely purged or became more conservative in exile in South Korea and the US, one saw Protestantism in Korea becoming Americanized.


The history of Korean anarchism is particularly telling. In the 1930s, the dominant Korean anarchists were reaching out to other pan-Asian anarchist groups, but one also see a strain of hyper-nationalism developing among them. By 1940s, however, the anarchists opposed the General Strike and the Anarchist Federation even sided with the American Occupation. The primary writer on the history of Korean anarchists, Ha Ki-Rak, said in the 1980s that he opposed the General Strike on pacifistic grounds, but supporting of the occupation seems hard to do on those grounds.

I think that is telling, personally.  But the right was good at co-opting left ideas in Korea. Park Chung-hee, for example, operating the modernization of the economy on a series of five year plans.  Now what does that sound like to you?   Only after a decade did Park adopt the Yushin Constitutional reform of 1972, which used the same Chinese character as the Meiji.  So one can see a shift in models and a mirror of a return to using models from Imperial Japan and its own racializing rhetoric.  There are eerie parallels between North and South during these periods.


I am more comfortable talking about the history.  While there are definitely internationalist leftists here, and the liberal-left alliance parties tend to be only mildly nationalist in a Keynesian form, it’s really important to see how much the idea rears its head after the 1920s.  Furthermore, the distinctions to left and right are not entirely organic to Korea–as it was not really completely moved out of a Confucian feudal mode until the late 19th and early 20th century. Left and right as conceptions come with capitalism here, and it’s more muddled since liberalism at the root of both left (Keynesian) and right (neo-liberal) are mixed in with a lot of local history and politics. For example, the issues women have here are quite different than a lot of similarly developed places in the OECD.

In racial rhetoric, the neo-liberal “right” here have often pushed away from racial rhetoric and policies in the last five years to increase trade and honestly deal with the coming demographic shift, while also trying to fuel nationalism in issues like Dokdo.  Furthermore, one of the reasons why internationalism is harder here is the National Security law can here can be used to crack down on anything that looks too friendly to the North.  For example, during Occupy Yeouido, the Kim dynasty released a press release supporting the international Occupy movement. I am not sure it got much press, but I remember commenting that it effectively killed it any possibility of it having lasting effect here.   Occupy Yeouido quickly shifted after a few weeks into the anti-FTA protests which did take a more nationalist tone.  I don’t know that the shift was directly related to the North, but given what the Lee administration was doing at the time occasionally cracking down on leftists randomly for having Juche sympathies, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were related.

Most educated young people do know the “pure blood” theory of 민족 is not true, but they don’t know that it is a modern invention.  So again, it’s changing, but unevenly.  Furthermore, there are many international factors that play a role here.  After all, it’s not like South Korea or North Korea has ever had the luxury of developing it’s own policy without massive pressures on it and severe resource constrains. 민족and Confucian familial notions, however, do complicate things here. No way around that.

Part Two will follow shortly.



2 thoughts on “Politics, Race and History in Korea: Interview with Derick Varn (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Greg Sharzer interviews me: On Politics, Race and (recent) History in South Korea | The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity:

  2. Pingback: The problem with open source, part I | The Rootless Metropolitan

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