Henry H. Em’s new book offers a meditation upon the question of sovereignty, its complicity with imperial power formations and the historical possibilities it offered anticolonial movements. Understanding sovereignty as an “imperial pedagogy,” Em argues that sovereignty promised a paradoxical subjective autonomy to late nineteenth-century Korea whereby competing imperial powers coerced the Korean king into declaring Korea an independent and sovereign state as a strategy for exacting further control. Not long afterwards, Korea was formally, and violently, colonized by Japan but sovereign thinking had been well established amongst the Korean elites and provided the grounds for a vibrant anticolonial nationalist movement. Em focuses on the realm of historiographical practices in Korea and mostly on the colonial era, with a final chapter that discusses postcolonial historiographical developments up to the present day in South Korea. Whilst acknowledging the emergence within imperial practices and discourse of these various ways of thinking and writing the history of Korea as that of a sovereign national subject, Em argues that ultimately these provided the very grounds for antiimperial thinking that continues to this day, although under attack in the more recent guises of postcolonial theory and neoliberal conservatism.
The book is divided into two parts: the first discusses the relationship between imperialism and the forced adoption of notions of post-Westphalia sovereignty in the late nineteenth century, while the second examines specific historians and their representative historiographical tactics through the twentieth century. Em begins with an engaging description of the ritual through which King Kojong declared the autonomy and independence of Korea in 1895. Around this Em builds a helpful discussion of the history of kingship on the Korean peninsula, delineating the distinction between the modern notion of equal sovereignty and the place of the Korean king and state within the China-centered tributary system. He then describes some of the practices through which Korean elites experimented in expressing the new notion of sovereignty—in the Korea Exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair, in travel throughout the United States, in the reconceptualization of Korean as a national language and, finally, in the beginnings of modern history writing.
The second part of Em’s book moves to specific ways in which the past came to be narrated as Korea’s past, that is as the pre-history of the modern nation. Em begins with an anecdote of the Japanese “discovery” of the Buddha sculptures at Sǒkkuram, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to illustrate how the Japanese colonial state and its agents rewrote the past of Korea to legitimize colonial power but, ironically, in doing so also strengthened the sense of a national past leading up to the present. This “nationalization” of the past ended up providing the narrative strategies for a production of alternative histories of the nation, including that by the anarchist Sin Ch’ae-ho, who ultimately, Em argues, moved beyond “national and individual sovereignty and a historical view that undermined the continuous, unified narrative of the nation” (112). Em describes the world of 1930s historiography as divided between nationalists and leftists (with Sin Ch’ae-ho occupying a potentially off-centre position) who strove ardently to try to separate themselves from or even contest the colonial state’s version of history. Chief among these is Marxist economist Paek Nam-un, whose challenge to colonial power took the form of a rewriting of the socioeconomic history of ancient Korea that was trenchantly universalizing, refusing the particularism that Paek associated with both the colonial power and non-leftist nationalist intellectuals.
Cold War occupation, civil war and the continuing presence of divided states on the Korean peninsula ensured that the polemically divided world of colonial era history writing could only become more contested. In his final chapter Em briefly surveys post-war developments in South Korea, ending with a critique of what he calls the New Right and their enthusiastic adoption of postcolonial theory in order to critique the nationalism of leftist movements in the era of postwar dictatorships. The brevity of this survey prevents...