Andrei Lankov: The Leftwing Bias of Books on Korean History





[Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.]

There is a new textbook out on North Korean history, written by a group of young South Korean scholars. The book is meant for those high school students and college undergraduates who for some reason want to learn more about the North (not a very common desire among the Seoul youngsters, one would think).

The textbook dedicates quite a few pages to the 1946 land reform in the North, whose radicalism is favorably contrasted with the sluggishness of similar measures in South Korea. Basically, it's true: the South Korean government of 1948-1950 included too many landlords to be enthusiastic about land redistribution. But there was something in the story that made one laugh: the book failed to mention that from beginning to end, land reform in North Korea was planned by Soviet military authorities.

Land reform was promulgated in the name of nascent North Korean authorities, but Kim Il-sung simply signed the documents that had been prepared for him by Russian officers. This is evident from Russian papers on land reform, which were declassified and published in South Korea years ago. But these facts do not fit the authors' concept and hence are not mentioned in the textbook.

A couple of weeks ago this author met a Westerner who studied in Korea late last year. His young professor suggested to him and other students that it was unlikely the Soviet Union had approved Kim Il-sung's war plans in 1950, and Moscow had actually been caught by surprise when the war started. The Korean War, according to this logic, was initiated by the North without any involvement of foreigners, and hence could be seen as a civil war.

Once again, all relevant materials have been published over the past decade or so, and thanks to the efforts of many scholars, the inside story of the Korean War is now known to the smallest detail. Most publications are English, and Korean professors are not well known for good knowledge of the language. Still, some important papers have been translated into Korean and are widely used by many Korean academics. Nonetheless, this young professor behaved as if these papers did not exist.

Wartime atrocities are widely discussed by the South Korean media. Indeed, the end of official bans has made it possible to tell about mass killings committed by South Korean forces during the anti-guerilla warfare of the late 1940s and 1950s (the 1948-54 massacre on Jeju Island, in which US-supported troops rooted out communists and their sympathizers, is the most notorious example). However, there are fewer publications and far less research dealing with the slaughters committed by the communist guerrillas and North Korean forces. The picture of the early 1950s as presented by the increasingly dominant nationalist left consists of idealistic guerrillas fighting the blood-thirsty and corrupt police.

There are few doubts that the communist guerrillas of 1946-1955 were idealistic, but idealism is perfectly compatible with cruelty, as the deeds of Pol Pot and his followers demonstrated with extreme clarity in Cambodia. But this is not how the recent past is presented in the South - at least, not in the fashionable circles of politically active intellectuals.

South Korea was once the domain of knee-jerk anti-communism, but nowadays "progressive" (left-wing) academics increasingly have come to dominate the South Korean intellectual world. And these people badly want to play down the impact the Soviet Union once had on the North. They want it so badly that they sometimes even pretend to be ignorant of new material that clearly contradicts the version of history they want to have.

At the same time, they are ready to repeat all accusations against the US - such as by an author of another book who mentioned the "biological warfare" allegations of the 1950s as if there must be some truth in these old statements. Once again, Soviet documents indicate how the entire biological warfare affair was fabricated by over-zealous North Korean officials. And once again, many people in South Korea behave as if those papers have never been published....



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Andrei Lankov - 8/23/2005

I do not think it makes sense to argue with you, since so much stuff has been published on the Korean War in the recent few years (since 1993, actually), and it’s strange tyo see that somebody can still seriously talk about "the conclusion that the Korean war started without being planned or encouraged by Russians”.

Yes, as a matter of fact I do have "access to some other materials that none else heard of", and hope to publish it within next year or so, but, frankly, these materials do not change the picture, just provide rather small additional details. Most of the principal work has been done, so my advice is: read, young man, read, it does not hurt. One might start from the Cold War International History Project material. Check the names Mansourov, Weathersby, Shen Zhihua, Torkunov, Bajanov (Russians, Americans, Chinese). They have published hundreds of telegrams which were sent and received by the decision makers in Moscow, Pyongyang and Bejing in 1948-1950, plus a lot of memos and similar stuff.

In a nutshell, just for Mr Shcherban: yes, Kim's plans were disapproved. Until January 1950, that is. There were two turning points: 17 January and 30 January (want to learn more? Read! 80-90% of the publications are accessible on-line either directly or via Muse and similar DBs). In January 1950 Stalin changed his mind and even explained why (memorandum has been published by Weathersby) a) nuclear weapons; b) Communist victory in China. There was also an assumption that Americans would not interfere (not a speculation, mentioned in papers). The attack plans were then prepared by the Soviet officers, in complete reversal of earlier plans. As a matter of fact, the officers stayed in touch with Moscow, so procedure is partially known, even if some details still are in the classified archives of the Russian military. After January, the only known disagreement was about timing: the Soviet military advisers would prefer to start a war in early July, but Kim insisted on late June. Stalin approved earlier date (cables from and to Pyongyang have been published). As his representative in Korea, Stykov, told one of top NK officials (and the latter told me decades later) "The time has come! Tanks will go forward! For unified Korea!"

But it was funny to see such comments. I understand why left-nationalist Korean "historians" are pretending to be ignorant: they have agenda of which I wrote. But anybody outside this circle...



Arnold Shcherban - 8/19/2005

<...that it was unlikely the Soviet Union had approved Kim Il-sung's war plans in 1950, and Moscow had actually been caught by surprise when the war started. The Korean War, according to this logic, was initiated by the North without any involvement of foreigners, and hence could be seen as a civil war.
Once again, all relevant materials have been published over the past decade or so, and thanks to the efforts of many scholars, the inside story of the Korean War is now known to the smallest detail.>
The author of the article apparently rejects the conclusion that the
Korean war started without being planned or encouraged by Russians, based on the "relevant materials" which have been published recently.
Wasn't Stalin's and Russian military advisers' dissaproval of Kim Il-sung's war plans the part of those materials?
Or, perhaps, Mr. Lankov had access to some other materials that noone else heard of?

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