- Populist Collaborators: The Ilchinhoe and the Japanese Colonization of Korea, 1896–1910 by Yumi Moon
The Ilchinhoe was arguably the most notorious pro-Japanese group during Japan’s domination of Korea. Under the protectorate (1905–10) when [End Page 401] the prospect of annexation was not yet clear, the Ilchinhoe, which emerged in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), voluntarily and vocally called for Japan’s takeover of Korea, playing a role even more scandalous than collaborating with the foreign occupiers. In the traditional opinion, the Ilchinhoe was a front organization promoted by Japan in order to make it look as if the protectorate and annexation treaties responded to desires of the Korean people. Yumi Moon’s Populist Collaborators reexamines this view. The author argues that Ilchinhoe’s activities promoted popular sovereignty and rights of ordinary people and that its place in colonial history, as a populist collaborator, requires reconsideration.
The book attempts to analyze the topic of colonial collaboration free from the common tendency to impose “an anachronistic moral framework onto the experiences of the past” (p. 7). This is a refreshing and welcome proposition. Around the turn of the century, the author notes, there were choices of different versions of a reformed Korea, and Ilchinhoe members opted to seek Korea’s enlightenment through reliance on Japan. Moon acknowledges that the “‘empowerment of the people under the rubric of empire’ . . . sounds like an oxymoron” (p. 18) and that the Ilchinhoe’s programs were mired with contradictions and inconsistency. But she ascribes the Ilchinhoe’s problems to its populist origin. Populist ideologies do not articulate ultimate goals and “[t]his vagueness leaves room for ideological diversity in populist movements and for opportunistic swings by their leaders” (p. 166). Did the Ilchinhoe, flip-flopping in strategy and statements, present a serious vision that would make it a legitimate contender for power? Did its popular programs and actions include something genuinely reformist? Or was it self-seeking upstart party exploiting antielite discontents in the doomed nation? The book addresses these questions through exposition of the group’s activities, painstakingly researched from government sources, newspaper articles, and the Ilchinhoe local officers’ records. The author’s mastery of the relevant literature is impressive.
The first three chapters of the book examine the rise of the Ilchinhoe. The organization developed its popular base from the merger with the Tonghak peasant group in 1904. After the defeat of its rebellion in 1894, the Tonghak embraced the ideas of enlightenment and civilization and launched the Chinbohoe (Progressive Society), which combined with the Ilchinhoe. The transformation of Tonghak’s position from anti-Western and anti-Japanese to pro-Japan and pro-reform is an interesting issue, but Moon gives it only a tentative explanation: “Perhaps the Tonghak leaders, still suffering from the king’s persecution, wanted an East Asian power, Japan, to be a potential sponsor of their religion” (p. 48). The alliance between the Tonghak and the Ilchinhoe did not last long, as Son Pyŏng-hŭi, the leader of Tonghak, excommunicated the Ilchinhoe members from Chŏndogyo in September 1906.
In the post-Kabo period between 1896 and 1904, Korean reformers became [End Page 402] increasingly disillusioned with the monarchy and started advocating people’s rights and political participation. The Ilchinhoe ardently embraced and replicated the Independence Club’s programs and publicly claimed to be its legitimate heir. Considering that populism is always about the people against some kind of elite, Ilchinhoe’s strong ideological, political, and organizational connections with the Independence Club seemed rather curious but, the author explains, the Ilchinhoe had its own agendas. It revived the term minkwŏn (rights of the people) after the Independent newspaper was closed down, and it mobilized for popular actions far more actively than any reformist group. It did not share the elites’ skepticism about the Korean people’s readiness for greater political participation. Elitist reformers focused on the urgent need to educate the people as...