Imperialism, Modernization, or Diffusion? Contemporary South Korea and the Transnational Spread of Law

Neil Chisholm, D.Phil., Legal Studies
University of Cambridge

Imperial rule, on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere, brings with it foreign laws and legal norms. The Chosŏn Dynasty embraced premodern Chinese legal ideology, while Japanese rule saw the imposition of Japanese law. Yet South Korea today, although independent, continues to borrow much foreign law. How and why is this happening? This paper, based on data gathered through interviews, first explains how contemporary Korean lawyers, judges, law professors, and law-making civil servants adopt foreign law in their work, as growing American influences in these spheres supplant pre-existing German and Japanese traditions. The paper also situates these processes in the theoretical context of ‘legal transplants,’ a surprisingly ordinary phenomenon in global legal history. Korean exceptionalism, today as historically, seems to lie in its receptiveness as an importer of foreign law. The second half of the paper examines why South Korea is adopting foreign law, and considers three theoretical possibilities: that it is motivated by imperialism, modernization, or diffusion. The imperialism explanation suggests that South Korea is being forced by external powers to accept certain laws and legal concepts. Modernization, on the other hand, implies that social evolution inevitably pressures the legal system to reform in certain ways, resulting in resemblances to ‘developed’ foreign systems as the law goes down a more or less set path. The diffusion rationale suggests that legal actors have a choice in borrowing laws and legal ideas, and that they exercise this choice according to various factors. While support can be found for all of these explanations, the paper argues that the diffusion explanation best fits the empirical evidence presented earlier in the paper – that the diffusion of law into Korea is driven by language capabilities, overseas study patterns, prestige perceptions, and the inherently comparative legal analytical style that judges and law-makers adopt in their work.

A Force for Development: The Scalar Politics of Militarized Urbanism in Pyeongtaek

Bridget Martin, PhD Candidate
University of California, Berkeley

A US military installation currently undergoing expansion in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, will in the next two to three years become the largest overseas US military base in the world and will host the vast majority of US troops in Korea. Focusing on the city of Pyeongtaek, this paper analyzes how local and central governments in South Korea have enrolled the US military in state-driven urbanization projects through an emergent militarized version of the country’s dominant “international city” urban paradigm. Because of the inter-scalar politics and locally driven urban growth regimes that have evolved since the mid-1990s, the local government in Pyeongtaek has “turned crisis into opportunity,” re-casting US military presence in the city from a force for national security to a force for internationalized urban development. Since 2004, the local and central governments have used promises of urban growth to persuade a skeptical Pyeongtaek population that US base expansion in Pyeongtaek would benefit citizens. While the withdrawal of the US military from downtown Seoul and the opening up of the Yongsan Garrison space is used by Seoul City to push forward new “green” urban schemes in the capital’s center, in Pyeongtaek, which is a rural and peripheral city, all levels of government cast military expansion as a force for local economic development and internationalized urbanization

Nationalism and the Samguk sagi’s Problematic Representation of Early Korean History—another largely unacknowledged elephant in the rooms of power

Jonathan Best, Professor Emeritus
Wesleyan University

It is becoming increasingly apparent to historians and archaeologists alike that the twelfth-century Samguk sagi’s datings for many of its early entries, especially in the Paekche Annals and the Silla Annals, are problematic. The problematic character of the dates ascribed to these entries is primarily due to the combined effect of two factors: the appropriation of the official imperial Chinese historiographic model by the Samguk sagi’s editors coupled with their acceptance of the impossibly early first-century BCE foundation dates that tradition credited to Silla and Paekche in particular. This combination of factors resulted in the creation of a chronologically grossly inflated, and therefore ahistoric, representation of the early Korean past. The Samguk sagi’s representation of Korea’s ancient history has, however, become essentially regarded as sacrosanct by both postwar Korean governments, and this manifestation of officially endorsed and underwritten nationalism has become even more pronounced in recent years as is regrettably evident from such things as the current textbook controversy in South Korea.

I will begin my presentation by briefly demonstrating how the employment of the historiographic model used in China’s so-called “dynastic histories” in the compiling of the Samguk sagi as a royally ordered history of the three previous dynasties necessitated the extensive antedating of accounts from the few peninsular records that survived from the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla periods. I will then turn to my understanding of the causes and endemic structural supports for—and the deleterious effects of—the persistence in postwar Korea of a largely literal acceptance of the Samguk sagi’s representation of early peninsular history. I intend to illustrate this point with, in part, the example of the interpretation of some archaeological finds included in the exhibition, “Silla, Korea’s Golden Kingdom,” recently held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (November 2013–February 2014).

The Colonial Trap: Nationalist Bias and the Allure of Pseudohistory

Mark E. Byington, Project Director
Early Korea Project, Harvard University

Interpretations of the ancient past in Korea today are frequently informed by the colonial experience of the twentieth century, and it is fair to say that this is more the case for general populations than for scholars of history. This paper will explore how the specifics of the twentieth century colonial experience affect how certain aspects of Korea’s remote past are understood and interpreted, particularly with regard to areas that reflect unrealistic nationalist perspective. Among the historical issues most readily subject to a skewed interpretation are those that touch upon ancient influence from China or Japan, either in the form of colonization or as cultural adaptations, or that reflect upon the perceived antiquity of the Korean nation. Issues explored in this study include the historicity and location of the ancient state of Chosŏn and the Han Chinese commanderies that succeeded it, the nature of the earliest written histories of the Korean peninsula, and the debates concerning the Samhan polities and the formation of the early states in the southern part of the peninsula. Particular attention in this regard will be paid to how these issues have recently been treated among the non-academic populations in Korea in the form of nationalistically determined pseudohistoric views of the Korean past. The results of this study point to the need for a more critical approach to the basic sources, both textual and material, for understanding the remote past in Korea, and a deliberate and sustained detachment from known and demonstrable biases associated with ethnic and national identity.

Developing Gangnam – Water, State, and Society in Modern Korea

Sang-ho Ro, Assistant Professor
Ewha Womans University

In this paper, I will examine how modern state and society in Korea closely cooperated with empires in order to dominate Mother Nature. Especially, my interest is the historical formation of Gangnam, the urban center of Seoul, which at present symbolizes luxurious lifestyle and space of modern Korean middle-class consumers. The Gangnam did not exist as residential and commercial areas until multiple agents chose to work together for taming the Han River. The modern alliance for human dominance over nature crossed ethnic and national boundaries of Koreans and non-Koreans in the twentieth century. Foreign powers – the Japanese Empire before WWII and the U.S. after WWII – initiated water control in Han River for their own purposes in the peninsula. Also, the Pak Chŏng-hŭi administration and the following Chŏn Tu-hwan administration not only used the colonial legacy of autocratic developing state, but also actively collaborated with the USAID for controlling Han River and making Gangnam. The 1988 Seoul Olympics completed the birth of Gangnam as if South Korea as a modern nation finally could conquer the Han River. Although their mission of domination was less than perfect, I would like to argue in this paper that the history of developing Gangnam will give us a deeper insight into the rise of modernizing regime in Korea which can be better understood by transnational perspectives.

Colonial Translations of Liberalism: “Freedom” in Korean Literature from the Late 1910s to the Early 1920s

Jin-Kyung Lee, Associate Professor
University of California: San Diego

Western liberalism and its core concepts such as freedom, equality, rights, and the individual began to dominate and transform the colonial Korean intellectual scene starting in the mid 1910s. These key liberal concepts were necessarily, of course, interconnected with the larger philosophical, ideological and political systems of the era such as imperialism, capitalism, and Social Darwinism. This paper explores the ways in which the Western notion of “freedom” is appropriated and translated in the context of anti-colonial but pro-modern/Western nationalist context. Functioning to negate, critique and “reform” the existing Confucian epistemology, ideas, and customs, the colonial Korean version of “freedom” became something quite different from its Western counterpart. This paper will first briefly examine how this version of “freedom” was related to the notions of voluntarism, interiority, vitalism, biopolitical discipline and modern nationalism in the broader discursive formation process of this period. The main part of the paper will explore the ways in which how the nascent modern literature of the colony contributed to the translations of a political concept, “freedom,” in the period between the late 1910s and the early mid 1920s. I read the works by the pioneers of modern Korean literature, such as Hyŏn Sang-yun, Chŏn Yŏng-t’aek, Na Do-hyang, Hyŏn Jin-gŏn, Kim Dong-in, Yi Kwang-su, and Yŏm Sang-sŏp, paying close attention to the ways in which this colonial modern version of “freedom” was being articulated and reformulated in their works in relation to other major “reformist” ideas and discourses in the larger cultural and social field.

The 1940 Tokyo Olympic Games and Colonial Korea

Seok Lee, PhD Candidate
University of Pennsylvania

This paper examines how colonial Korea reacted to the 1940 Olympic Games, which were awarded to Tokyo by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1936, and subsequently given up by the Japanese in 1938. The Japanese Empire hoped to host the games to deflect international criticism of its bellicosity caused by the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and also to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the legendary founding of the Japanese Empire by Emperor Jimmu (kigen) in 660 BCE, thereby enhancing nationalism. As a part of the Japanese Empire, colonial Korea was closely monitoring the Japanese Olympic bidding from beginning to end. Tokyo’s Olympic bid began as early as 1930, when Tokyo held a “Reconstruction Festival” to celebrate its recovery from the Kantō Earthquake of 1923. From then on, Korean mass media kept close watch on the news surrounding the 1940 Olympic bid. As soon as Tokyo won the bid, colonial Korea was quick to make the best use of the Olympics for its own sake. The Olympics were not only about sports, but also affected a variety of social concerns in colonial Korea: transportation, national security, tourism, and sports facilities, among others. The colonial government and Japanese leadership took the initiative in designing a master plan for welcoming international visitors to propagate a positive image of its colony. At the same time, Koreans were not just passive spectators but also aggressive supporters of the Games for many reasons, including expectations of income and economic development, participation in the Games as athletes and tourists, and basic curiosity.

“Is it PyeongChang or Pyongyang (or maybe Nagano)?”: Post-Cold War Orientalism in narratives of North Korea-South Korea and Japan-South Korea Olympic co- hosting

Meredith Collier-Murayama, Doctoral Student
International Education Policy, University of Maryland—College Park

From Seoul’s selection as host of the 1988 Olympic Games to PyeongChang’s selection for the 2018 Games, narratives of “co-hosting” have constructed South Korea as a fragmentary site for playing out Western geopolitical ideals, rather than as a sovereign nation suitable as host of sporting mega-events like the World Cup and Olympics. Just prior to South Korea’s hosting of the 2002 World Cup and 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, these events’ governing bodies introduced regulations allowing multiple nations to co-host, enabling international and South Korean articulations of specific imagined futures for inter-Korean and Japan-South Korea relations.

These co-hosting narratives perpetuate Orientalist and imperialist assumptions about South Korea’s autonomy as a nation-state, reproducing and legitimating the Western ideology that justified and structured the 20th Century division of Korea from the Japanese Empire and the division of Korea from itself. These narratives attempt to resolve the contradictions produced by those 20th Century divisions—like irreconcilable claims to nationhood or the Liancourt Rocks—without disrupting the dominant narrative that justified those divisions in the first place.

In this paper, I apply a physical cultural studies lens and postcolonial theory to texts invoking Japan-South Korea or North Korea-South Korea Olympic co-hosting. I first show how international co-hosting texts construct South Korea as a symbolic site rather than as a nation-state; I then examine the resistive and normative aspects of South Korea’s engagement with these narratives. Taken together, these analyses map the power relations and historical currents that have produced co-hosting narratives as manifestations of post-Cold War Orientalism, suggesting what has—and has not—changed about South Korea’s place in the global imaginary between the 1988 and 2018 Games.

Between Imperial and Tributary Sovereignty: Qing-Choson Interstate Legal Cases, 1630s-1790s

Jaymin Kim, PhD Candidate
University of Michigan

The legal status of Qing tributary states has been questioned often since the late nineteenth century, when the Qing faced other imperial powers such as France, Japan, and Russia who were trying to pursue colonial agendas regarding Qing tributary states. For example, William W. Rockhill, an American diplomat and Sinologist, started his 1889 article on Korea’s relations with China with such a question: “Were they [Western nations] . . . to consider it [Korea] as an integral part of the Chinese empire, or should they treat it as a sovereign state enjoying absolute international rights?”(1) Influenced by the modern concept of sovereignty in international public law, as were his contemporaries, he based his inquiry on the premise that the two possibilities were incompatible.

In fact, the Qing imperial worldview was based on its multiplicity and elasticity, two characteristics shared by the worldviews of tributary states like Chosǒn Korea. This paper will look at the establishment and development of Qing imperial sovereignty and Chosǒn tributary sovereignty from the 1630s to the 1840s from three interrelated perspectives: subjecthood, boundaries, and jurisdiction. The Qing invasion of Chosǒn Korea in 1637 resulted in a ceasefire treaty that laid out fundamental principles for the Qing-Chosǒn tributary relationship. Through this treaty, Qing China sought to delineate a clear line between Qing subjects and Chosǒn subjects, reaffirm the Yalu River as the territorial boundary between the two states, and criminalize certain behaviors in the borderlands. This paper will show how the two states delineated and maintained political and territorial boundaries in light of their worldview and how they dealt with interstate crimes over the next two centuries accordingly.

(1) William W. Rockhill, “Korea in Its Relations with China,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 13 (1889), p.

Refusing the Empire of Bases: Gangjeong Village’s Culture of Peace and Life Movement

Nan Kim, Associate Professor
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

On South Korea’s Jeju Island, the recent completion of a contested naval base’s construction has marked a time of transition for the anti-base movement there, whose members have come to identify more pro-actively as the “Culture of Peace and Life Movement” (pyeonghwa saengmyeong munhwa undong). Rather than pursuing strictly an anti-base campaign, these activists have sought to broaden their opposition to the rationale behind the naval base by diversifying their challenge to the logic of global militarism itself. Through activism and network-building that have made the village a vital node among transnational peace movements, Gangjeong activists have become known for the range and prodigiousness of their creative production as an alternative community of conscience, collectively refusing the culture of war. Identifying Gangjeong’s peace movement as one of creative refusal draws upon anthropologist and Native American Studies scholar Audra Simpson’s observation that “resistance” already gives too much legitimacy to the actions of wrongful dispossession by a dominant power. Indeed, “refusal” more accurately describes the dynamic whereby Gangjeong activists have framed their dissent – in political, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual expressions – through universalizing claims of authority. That is, proponents of the Culture of Peace and Life Movement have staked claims chiefly based on three modes of discourse and practice: (1) unfailing repetition of rituals of conscience, notably the 100-bows meditation at dawn and a midday Catholic Mass, as daily solemn protests defending Jeju’s official designation as an “Island of World Peace”; (2) invocations of Jeju’s status as an exceptional case among UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites; and (3) contemporary integrative holistic philosophies that are Korean in origin but universal in scope, including the “Peace and Life” teachings originally formulated by Jeju-born Buddhist monk Dobeob Seunim, and the “seed idea” (ssialsasang) developed by pacifist Quaker religious leader and democracy activist Ham Seok-Heon.