[Classic] #54. 20th Century Korean History – Kang Man-gil

Kang Man-gil’s “20th Century Korean History” provides an objective and insightful analysis of modern Korean history. Covering events from the Japanese occupation to the rise of military regimes, it addresses distorted historical education and emphasizes unification as a natural historical flow, integrating social and political perspectives with economic history.

I. Introduction to the Author

Kang Man-gil (October 25, 1933 ~ ) was born in Masan, Gyeongsangnam-do. He graduated from the Department of History at Korea University and received a Ph.D. in Literature from the same university. He taught Korean history at Korea University and served as the president of Sangji University after retirement. From 1998, he served as an advisor for unification for about 10 years, chaired the South Korean Committee of the South-North Historians’ Meeting, was the first chairman of the Committee for the Investigation of Pro-Japanese and Anti-National Acts, and co-chaired the Committee for the 60th Anniversary of Liberation. Since 2007, he has established the “History Foundation for Opening Tomorrow” to support young researchers specializing in modern and contemporary Korean history. He received the 25th Manhae Literary Award in 2010. Kang Man-gil opened a new path in the study of modern Korean history with the theme of overcoming division from the mid-1970s, and his work “Historical Awareness in the Era of Division” (1978) received great sympathy.

II. Background of the Book

The author wants this book to be seen as a “history lecture” rather than a “history book.” In lectures, subjective explanations are somewhat allowed. However, the author does not interpret historical facts arbitrarily. As modern history approaches, perspectives on history inevitably become diverse. Objectivity can be found in the degree to which contemporary people agree with a perspective on a historical fact.

III. Summary of the Work

Lecture 1: Why Was the Korean Peninsula Occupied by Japan?

The direct cause of the Korean Peninsula’s occupation by Japan was the military pressure from Japan’s victories in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars. However, there is also the issue of why Joseon could not resist Japan’s military pressure. As European capitalist forces penetrated Asia, Joseon maintained isolationism, failing to learn capitalism and undergo industrial and civil revolutions to establish a nation-state.

Lecture 3: The Historical Significance of the March 1st Movement

The March 1st Movement clearly demonstrated the rejection of Japanese rule and is seen as the point where a modern nation transcending medieval status systems began to form. It marked the establishment of republicanism in the independence movement, shifting from monarchical restoration to republican independence after the movement.

Lecture 7: The Korean Communist Party Movement as Part of the National Liberation Movement

The national liberation movement during Japanese rule included both right-wing and left-wing efforts. The Korean Communist Party persisted despite severe repression because its activities were part of the broader national liberation movement.

Lecture 9: Should Japan’s “Logistics Base Development” Be Considered Economic Development?

Acknowledging Japan’s economic development achievements while oppressing another nation rationalizes imperialist aggression and should be viewed critically.

Lecture 15: The Efforts to Establish a Unified Nation-State in the Liberation Period

The efforts to establish a unified nation-state during the liberation period, despite failing, hold significant historical meaning. Understanding these efforts is crucial for the current aim of peaceful unification.

Lecture 16: The Establishment of Two Divided Governments

After the failure of efforts to establish a unified nation-state, two divided governments were established in the north and south. Both governments now aim for peaceful unification, recognizing each other’s existence.

Lecture 18: The Causes and Historical Significance of the Korean War

The Korean War was a war for unification rather than a mere invasion. It highlighted that unification through war was impossible due to the geopolitical location of Korea and the involvement of global powers.

Lecture 19: The Collapse of Syngman Rhee’s Dictatorial Regime

Syngman Rhee’s regime, based on anti-communism and supported by pro-Japanese collaborators, sought long-term rule through dictatorship, leading to its collapse through the April 19th Revolution.

Lecture 20: The Historical Significance of the April 19th Revolution

The April 19th Revolution began as an anti-dictatorship movement and quickly turned into a movement for peaceful unification, continuing the efforts from the liberation period.

Lecture 21: The Success of the May 16th Military Coup

The success of the May 16th military coup was due to the collaboration of pro-Japanese military forces and U.S. acquiescence. The Park Chung-hee regime intensified dictatorship through the Yushin Constitution.

Lecture 23: Assessing Park Chung-hee’s Economic Development

Economic development during the Park Chung-hee regime was based on a chaebol-centered economic system, which hindered economic democracy. Economic achievements cannot be solely attributed to Park’s regime.

Lecture 24: The Rise of Chun Doo-hwan’s Military Regime

Chun Doo-hwan’s military regime emerged from the aftermath of the Park Chung-hee regime, facing resistance such as the Gwangju Uprising. The June Struggle of 1987 demonstrated the push against the extension of military dictatorship.

IV. Impressions

“20th Century Korean History” offers an objective and insightful perspective on modern Korean history. It corrects distorted historical education resulting from the divided state of Korea and emphasizes unification as a natural historical flow. It helps establish a correct historical perspective by considering social and political aspects alongside economic history.

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