Anarchism in Korea — Introduction

By Dongyoun Hwang

Entry 5763


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Revolt Library Anarchism Anarchism in Korea Introduction

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Research Interests: Radicalism and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Eastern Asia, The Guomindang Leftists in the 1920s, Wartime Collaboration in China during the Pacific War. (From:

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Anarchism has been recently assessed by South Korean scholars as one of the ten thoughts (sasang) that moved Korea in the twentieth century.[1] This positive evaluation coincided with the overwhelming scholarly attention given to it unprecedentedly as the subject of study since the 1990s,[2] corresponding to the collapse of socialism in Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, when anarchism began to be labeled as a third ideology or way that could replace both capitalism and communism.[3] To the extent that anarchism has received scholarly attention and the positive assessment, it has been still treated somewhat unwisely within the framework of nationalism. In other words, it is understood mainly in the context of the victory of nationalism (i.e., independence movement) against Japanese colonialism in 1945, and thus as part of a nationalist ideology. In some cases it is even explained in the context of the rise of Korean communism and communist movement.[4]

This kind of mistreatment results from the fact that anarchism was indeed accepted by Koreans as a means and principle for independence after the March First Movement of 1919, a massive, nationwide popular protest against Japanese colonial rule in Korea since 1910.[5] Anarchism itself had already been known to Koreans much earlier at the turn of the twentieth century, but it was only after the 1919 mass movement that it increasingly gained popularity and influence among many Koreans, both at home and abroad, as a guiding principle for national liberation in both social and political senses. Korean students and expatriates in Japan and China first converted to it in the 1920s and then those who had returned from their study abroad mostly from Japan played a leading role in introducing it to and organizing Koreans in the Korean peninsula. This is why historian Horiuchi Minoru defines Korean anarchism as a “nationalistic anarchism” (minzokudeki museifu shugi),[6] and many South Korean historians too understand the nature of Korean anarchism predominantly with reference to the nationalist impulse.[7] Nationalism is thus often separated from anarchism, which is rather conjoined to the former’s goal of independence, as if they were two entirely separate ideas in colonies like Korea. Of course, anarchism was initially accepted as a means and principle for Korea’s independence, but that didn’t determine the horizon of Korean anarchism. While nationalism was undeniably the main driving force in the rise of Korean anarchism, it is also true that Korean anarchists received anarchism, as I demonstrate in this study, as a guiding principle for social transformation of the Korean society and the world as well. Too much emphasis on nationalism in the study of Korean anarchism, in other words, has resulted in overlooking the complex colonial contexts in which nationalism arose with the rise and popularity of radicalism for social change. Needless to say, the rise of nationalism in colonies or semicolonies was closely tied with the emergence and subsequent popularity of radicalism, including anarchism, which connotes the complex relationship between an emerging, growing national consciousness against foreign colonialism and radical ideas that not only resisted imperialism and foreign domination but also criticized and challenged the existing state and social order/problems under capitalism.

In a Eurocentric understanding of anarchism, nationalism could often be separated from it, and Korean anarchism is thus viewed as one that lost “the basic principles in anarchism,” “depart[ed] from anarchist principles,” and finally “reduced ‘anarchism’ to a liberal concept” or nationalism.[8] The waning fate of Korean anarchism in the 1960s was even attributed by a Korean anarchist in Japan to its origins in nationalism.[9] Since its nationalist aspects are underlined more than the transnational, social revolutionary messages and goals of anarchism, Korean anarchists appear in the existing scholarship not as anarchists but rather as nationalists or, at best, as those whose anarchism was a “deviation” (iltal) from anarchism, abandoning the “real character” (bollyeong) of it in its European origins—especially as Korean anarchists supported in the 1930s and ’40s the ideas of working with the Provisional Government of Korea in China and of supporting the establishment of a government of Korea after independence.[10] This simplest, Eurocentric interpretation of Korean anarchism too accounts for the reason why its history has long been placed within the history of Korean independence movement, without enticing any serious scholarly challenge to the dominant line of its nationalist interpretation.

The recent political climate of South Korea for the past years under the conservative, rightist regimes has prevented South Korean historians from taking anarchism (in general, radicalism) seriously, placing the academics under the pressure of political risks in writing about and speaking in favor of radical or anarchist ideas. Under the situation, anarchism is still understood mainly as a nationalist ideology and scrutinized mostly in relation to and within the history of Korean independence movement, that is, national history, rather than within the history of radicalism or socialism in Korea or the region. Within the context of the rise of national consciousness in colonial situations, however, the relationship between anarchism and nationalism could be more complicated than it was in Europe. The complex, colonial context has been simply missing or put aside, albeit this is not to suggest that anarchism can be reduced to nationalism and vice versa.[11] In short, one of the tasks this book undertakes is to challenge the conventional understanding that the role of anarchism was to serve Korea’s independence from Japan, which depicts it as part of a nationalist ideology without explaining its complex relationship with nationalism

Furthermore, many historians tend to identify the characteristics of Korean anarchism with its earlier emphasis on “terrorist actions” that were undoubtedly motivated by the goal of independence from Japanese colonialism and therefore recognized as justifiable due to the righteous cause of anticolonialism. As a result, rather than understood as a social revolutionary idea that served the goal of not only national liberation but a radical social transformation of Korean society, anarchism is still studied in the existing scholarship mainly as an idea that was adopted, for example, by “radical nationalists” who in the process of pursuing national independence used violence righteously and “utilized” anarchist ideas mainly to achieve their national goal of independence.[12] It is true that many Korean anarchists adopted and used in many cases “terrorism” as a means and even a concrete form of direct action to resist Japanese colonialism, but, as I demonstrate in this study, they nevertheless did so with the vision and programs to foster in the end the implementation of anarchist ideals. Social revolution was always their eventual destination, no matter how it was pursued and envisioned.

When nationalism evidently was an initial force to draw most Korean radicals and independence activists to anarchism, they all came to face a question of how to deal with the universal messages of anarchism while still pursuing their immediate national goal. This kind of question continued to arise as they came to realize the nature of their contemporary society and world at the time. For instance, the sufferings and maltreatment Chinese female workers received from the Western capitalist employers were to raise a question among Korean anarchists regarding the plight of the masses in capitalist system and help them realize the transnational issues of social justice and economic inequality in colonial and semicolonial societies including Korea, finally generating a sense of a shared fate among colonized peoples. This was exactly what occurred to Jeong Hwaam (1896–1981), one of the most active Korean anarchists in China before 1945, and an active participant in various anarchist and socialism-oriented political parties in South Korea after 1945.[13] Jeong recalls that between late 1924 and early 1925 he witnessed the maltreatment of Chinese female workers at a British-owned factory in Shanghai and began to have a “sense” that the goal for liberation of the oppressed peoples was the same as that of Korean independence movement. Removing such social and economic contradictions in a colony under capitalism as excessive work hours and unequal treatment of workers was, he came to conclude, a goal of anarchist movement. His realization of such social problems and ills in capitalist society subsequently prompted him to actively support the activities of Chinese and Taiwanese anarchists, let alone to participate in Korean independence activities in China.[14]

In the process of such a realization, Korean anarchists were to commonly confront a tension between a universal idea that promised as its ultimate goal, according to anarchist Yi Jeonggyu (1897–1984), a world of “great unity” (daedong in Korean or datong in Chinese), that is, a cosmopolitan world,[15] and nationalist aspirations to achieve an immediate goal of retaking independence from Japanese colonialism. Anarchist Sim Yongcheol (1914–?), one of Korean anarchists active in China but who became a Chinese citizen, describes the tension in the following terms:

Korean anarchists, since they were slaves who lost their country, had to rely with affection on nationalism and patriotism and thus had difficulties in practice in discerning which was their main idea and which was their secondary idea. The reason [for the difficulties] was due to that their enemy was the only one—Japanese imperialism. My life is one that has drifted along with this kind of contradiction inside.[16]

What we see here is a combination of the universal idea and the nationalist goal, with which Sim lived, which was indicative of the complex relationship (in Sim’s word, the “contradiction”) in colonial context between national consciousness and transnational concerns. Historian Henry Em, in his study of Shin Chaeho (1880–1936), a prominent Korean historian, journalist, writer, and anarchist, also indicates a possibility of the tension between Shin’s earlier writings on the nation (minjok) and his later emphasis on the people (minjung), in which not only the Korean people but also the “have nots” of the world were included.[17]

Echoes to Sim’s description of his complex life as both an anarchist and a nationalist can be found in Yi Jeonggyu’s recall. Yi, a prominent anarchist active in various educational and rural movements before and after 1945, too poses his life as one with such a tension but, in his case, shifting further toward anarchism that offered him a vision of social revolution, rather than simply a nationalism-driven political revolution that aimed merely at national independence. Yi explains the shift that occurred in his life as follows:

The first half of my life had gone through a life for struggle for independence movement, and [then in the second half] turned for a movement for social revolution of an ideological idea [sic] that has been viewed in this world, without any good reason, as too extreme. [The second half has been] a life as one of the pioneers, who has been indulged in anarchism, that is, no-government movement [mujeongbu juui undong].[18]

Undoubtedly, the goal of Korean independence movement was to regain independence from Japanese colonialism, to which Yi had devoted himself with anarchism. However, he began to move gradually away from a simple, political nationalist independence movement, going beyond the question of independence and then stepping further toward the realization of anarchist ideals that inevitably embraced social dimensions of revolution. Yi’s life after 1945 certainly demonstrates his endeavors to implement anarchist ideals mainly through the revival of rural villages, as I examine in chapter 5. This shift or tension in the cases of Sim, Shin, and Yi has long been disregarded as unimportant or missing in our understanding of anarchism in Korea. As Xioaqun Xu argues in his study of the Chenbao fujuan (Morning News Supplement), there was, among Chinese intellectuals in the 1920s, “the tension between cosmopolitanism as cultural longing and nationalism as political imperative,”[19] a tension that the Korean anarchists too had in the process of receiving anarchism and concretizing their ideals for their country and the world. The transnationality in Korean anarchism can be best described with the tension that sometimes allowed Korean anarchists to resist their national boundaries and even reject the existence of the state or “fatherland,” but other times provided a space for reconfiguration of ideas and practices for their national goal in place-based setting with their confirmation of the significance of national goal and boundaries.

Emphasizing the colonial contexts of which Korean anarchism was a product, I argue that it had the ultimate transnational goal of social revolution bent on anarchist principles. Central to it was the vision of and the agreement on social revolution as the key for the liberation of Korea and its masses from Japanese colonialism, and, subsequently, for the liberation of the exploited, oppressed masses of the world from capitalism. Just like their Chinese counterparts,[20] Korean anarchists prioritized social revolution to political revolution or political movement, since the latter, in their minds, would end up only achieving independence (or at best reform under colonial condition) with all social problems and political/revolutionary questions unanswered and unsolved. In fact, as I demonstrate, Korean anarchists were drawn to anarchism through their contacts and associations with Chinese and Japanese anarchists or their readings of anarchist writings, either in original texts or translation in Chinese and/or Japanese, which evidences the role played by transnational elements from the inception in the rise of Korean anarchism.[21] As a colonized people, Korean radicals and/or students either were exiled to China to take political refuge or went to Japan for their study abroad, where they all contacted, were exposed, and accepted anarchism via their interactions, direct or indirect, with Asian counterparts. In short, Korean anarchists’ interactions in the forms of introduction to, acceptance of, articulation of anarchism, as well as of joint activities, both organizational and publication, with their Asian counterparts in such locations as Tokyo and Shanghai, were, I argue, one of the decisive elements that disposed them to take seriously the transnational and cosmopolitan messages anarchist ideals offered and, in turn, to understand them in their national context.

Korean anarchists’ idea on social revolution is of significance as evidence of their shared and transnational vision in anarchist principles, which in most cases drove them to take actions with their Asian counterparts. Achieving a social revolution had broader consequences than a political revolution. Korean anarchists before 1945 placed the former within a broader context of liberating the masses of people globally from their domination and exploitation under capitalism.[22] Their concrete, various methods to build a future world seemed to be shared with other Eastern Asian anarchists as exemplified in the following chapters in such joint activities and shared ideals in education and national development strategies that intended to combine mental and physical labors in education and building autonomous local communities through the combination of industry and agriculture for alternative development. Although they varied according to the time and space they were placed in, these ideas for an alternative education and national development seemed to be widely shared as crucial for an ideal society that Korean anarchists envisioned, and they even experimented often among anarchists in the region, which points to their anarchism as a product of regional anarchism. The post-1945 activities of Korean anarchists also demonstrate the deep ties in ideals and practices between Korean anarchists and other anarchists circulated in the region before 1945. I will explain the regional aspect of Korean anarchism in more detail below.

Serving the goal of social revolution, anarchism certainly played an important part in radical politics in Korea. However, little is known about it outside Korean-language circles, not to mention its regional and transnational aspects. As I emphasize the transnational character of anarchism in Korea, I would like to offer in this book a history of anarchism in Korea with particular attention to its East Asian regional context. Hence, my approach below employs a transnational and regional perspective with emphasis on the various interactions among anarchists across borders. In other words, I look into the ways that anarchist ideas were introduced, understood, and received by Korean anarchists, first in China and Japan, and then by examining the interactions in various forms between Korean anarchists and their counterparts in China and Japan before 1945. I also examine how the transnational and regional characters played out in various anarchist ventures and experiments in post-1945 South Korea. My transnational and regional approach here may tell us about the relationships between Eastern Asian anarchism and anarchism in its European origins, and, more importantly, about regional anarchism and Korean anarchism, both of which will account for the complexities in understanding and acceptance of anarchism in non-European societies. Korean anarchism, in other words, I argue, must be understood in a broader regional context, as Arif Dirlik notes, that underscores “interactions among radicals” that are “absent from or marginal to nationally based accounts.”[23]

Locations are important in understanding the regional aspect of Korean anarchism. Koreans were introduced and converted to anarchism in various locations outside the Korean peninsula, such as Tokyo, Osaka, Beijing, and Shanghai, and took actions together there in most cases in league with their Asian counterparts. What is problematic in the existing scholarship, therefore, is the lack of considerations of how anarchism was first received by Korean radicals abroad and then practiced there accordingly by them who were scattered spatially here and there in the region (and even within the Korean peninsula as well).[24] Undeniable is that anarchism was first accepted by Korean exiles in China and radical study-abroad students in Japan.[25] The regional context has long been opted out in nationalist historiography.

There has already been growing scholarly attention to regional perspective. Recent works on the formation of radical politics in China, for instance, have revealed the usefulness of regional perspectives on, and the importance of transnational approaches to the history of modern East Asian history. Unlike earlier studies of regionalism in East Asia, which focused on the cultural arena, these underline the importance of direct and indirect interactions among radicals circulating in the region and, as a result, the role of transnationalism in the formation of national discourses. Arif Dirlik has pointed to the importance of a regional context in understanding the ups and downs of socialism in China.[26] Rebecca E. Karl’s study of late Qing radicalism at the turn of the twentieth century likewise has revealed the importance of regional interactions in the formation of radical national discourses,[27] while Christopher E. Goscha has demonstrated the importance of a regional perspective in the study of the rise of Vietnamese communism.[28] Drawing on these works, I have also suggested that the rise and development of Korean anarchism since 1919 be understood as a product of regional radicalism, more specifically regional anarchism.[29] By regional anarchism I don’t mean that there was a substantial existence that can be called regional or “East Asian anarchism,” but want to indicate that the rise and development of Korean anarchism in the twentieth century were products of the direct and indirect interactions, both physical and intellectual, between Korean anarchists and other anarchists circulating in the region, particularly in those cities in China and Japan. In other words, Korean anarchists shared many common concerns, goals, and even solutions with other anarchists. As a result, the former embraced many of those transnational goals and ideas of the latter, and in some cases experimented with them together. As I demonstrate, Korean anarchists continuously materialized and experimented with the goals and ideals, even after 1945, in the process of concretizing and eventually Koreanizing their version of anarchist ideals. I do not suggest, however, that there was uniformity among all regional (and Korean) anarchists or no concern for their own distinctive national/local problems, to which I now turn.

In relation to my regional perspective, I take up, below, the question of place in the practice of anarchism among Korean anarchists. I argue that the history of Korean anarchism needs to be constructed as part of regional anarchism, with special attention to translocal connections among anarchists and place-based practices of anarchism by anarchists in various locations in the region. Arif Dirlik argues that “Anarchism in China is best grasped through a regional perspective that makes it possible to glimpse the many translocal ties within which anarchism flourished,” “producing localized discourses on revolution.”[30] So is anarchism in Korea, I argue. What distinguished Korean anarchism from Chinese anarchism was that the former was by and large a product of exiled radicals and their activities in China and the study-abroad students in Japan, whose common goal was the retaking of independence, but whose practice of anarchism went through a slightly different localized process of articulation and concretization, respectively, as I argue in this study. Anarchists in colonial Korea and Manchuria were no exception in this regard. Obvious in Korean anarchism were locally diverse discourses on and practices of anarchist ideals according to the locations of anarchists and the environment they faced there, which lead to an argument against the unity and uniformity in Korean anarchism.

The question of place in the rise of Korean anarchism has not received any attention from South Korean scholars. They have not been attentive to the importance of different locations where anarchists were concentrated and were exposed to various versions of anarchist ideals, subsequently bringing them into diverse practices. As a result, Korean anarchism has been unwisely described as the product of a coherent, unified principle or movement of Korean anarchists, no matter where they were placed and no matter how differently they practiced anarchism. They are thus often understood as a group in unity and conformity to both the national and anarchist goals and means, with almost the same understanding and practice of anarchism or, at best, with slight differences among them, which are usually negligible. However, as they were scattered in and constantly on the move to various places such as Beijing, Shanghai, Quanzhou, Tokyo, Osaka, Manchuria, and colonial Korea, they evidently encountered and dealt with different and diverse local-based issues and concerns. Their approaches to them differed, therefore. I posit that locations predisposed Korean anarchists to different local versions and practices of anarchism, pulling them frequently into the discussion of local-based issues and concerns with reference to universal problems. Even their strategies for their respective movement were different, as well as their sources for the understanding of anarchism, be they direct ones through their interactions with other anarchists or indirect through reading printed materials, chiefly books. What I think of as significant is, given the frequent movement of Korean anarchists from one to other locations, not only the importance of location but also interlocation or translocal connections in the rise of Korean anarchism, which requires a broad regional approach in the study of Korean anarchism. The case in question here is those anarchists who moved, for example, from Tokyo to Shanghai, from Tokyo and Manchuria to colonial Korea, and even from one to other cities within China, Japan, and the Korean peninsula.

Although Korean anarchists commonly designated national liberation and independence as their primary goal, for which they were united, they interpreted and then applied anarchism to the concrete environment of the location they were placed in, which helped them articulate its universal messages with the help of local language, issues, and concerns. Rather than constructing the history of Korean anarchist movement as the coherent story of a group of anarchists with unity and unanimity in theory and practice, regardless of the local, internal differences among them, I point to the internal divisions among Korean anarchists, if not conflicts, corresponding to their respective location and practice, over the question, for example, as to what issues and concerns deserved their priority, be they local, national, or universal in nature. And the divisions shifted according to changes in the situation in their locations. This, however, is not to deny that Korean anarchists, regardless of their different locations and practices, endeavored together with some kind of common consciousness to realize both national and anarchist goals; but to recognize localized versions of anarchism, which in many cases allowed them to identify their priorities with different, immediate issues they faced, and thus necessitated slightly different practices of anarchism.

In analyzing “the relation between social circumstances and a temporally associated form of ideology” during the periods of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the rise of European socialism, Robert Wuthnow uses the term “communities of discourse,” where “a process of mutual influence, adjustment, accommodation” occurred and produced “culture as a form of behavior and as the tangible results of that behavior.”[31] I posit that there was a similar process in such locations as Shanghai and Tokyo, of which Korean anarchism was a product; the process produced the transnational radical networks of discourse and practice.[32] My assumption is that Tokyo and Shanghai, among other places, served as the nodes of the transnational radical networks in early twentieth century. There, Eastern Asian anarchists (or radicals, broadly speaking) met each other either through printed materials or in person, got to know one another, discussed the issues of their own countries and of the world, shared much of them in common, and finally, in many cases, organized themselves and took actions together; after sharing the common discourse, vision, and activities, many of them moved back to their countries or other cities to begin their own various radical/anarchist projects/movements. From the turn of the twentieth century, Tokyo had been a popular and ultimate destination for study abroad and political refuge for many Eastern Asian students and radicals, and Shanghai had also become a gathering place of many radicals and political refugees from colonies and semicolonies. Tokyo and Shanghai, among other places, served as crucibles within which radicals with various backgrounds met each other, and consequently radical cultures and languages were forged and informed there as much by their immediate environments as they were by more distant goals of national independence. To many, anarchism was most suitable at once for the articulation of their own location within the radical networks of discourse and practice in their immediate environments.

It may be even possible to call the regional range of the Eastern Asian anarchists’ interactions an “ecumene” where “intense and sustained cultural interactions” among Eastern Asian radicals took place.[33] Whatever we call it, the point here is the consistent intense interactions, direct and indirect, of radicals circulating in the region, that were the product of mutual influence and inspiration in such cities among radicals in the forms of discourse using radical languages and transnational concerns; and practices that often resulted in joint activities, either organizational or publication, both of which being the long-lasting source of their common radical culture.[34] These radical networks gave rise to transnational connections in the region in the 1920s, utilizing cities like Tokyo and Shanghai as their nodes, from which it is possible to argue that the history of Korean anarchism is part of the history of regional anarchism, and vice versa.[35]

Kim San’s descriptions of Tokyo and Shanghai in 1919 tell us about how the radical networks of discourse and practice functioned. Kim San (1905–1938), whose real name was Jang Jirak, had begun his revolutionary career as an anarchist but soon converted to communism in China, participated in the Guangzhou Uprising of 1927 led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and went to Yan’an, the CCP’s revolutionary base from 1937 to 1947, where he as a CCP member raised and educated Korean revolutionaries but was charged and executed for being a spy of Japan in 1938. In his interview with Helen Foster in Yan’an, which developed later into a book titled Song of Ariran,[36] Kim recalls that Tokyo in 1919 was “the Mecca for students [from] all over the Far East and a refuge for revolutionaries of many kinds” and Shanghai, in the same year, was “the new center of the nationalist movement where the Korean provisional government was functioning.” In the cities Kim, like many other Korean and Eastern Asian radicals, “met all kinds of people and was thrown into a maelstrom of conflicting political ideas and discussions.”[37] While Tokyo offered many sources for their radicalization, such as both original and translated works on socialism, including anarchism, Shanghai as a colonial “contact zone” provided a favorable space for Korean anarchists to organize and take actions with other anarchists directly against Japanese imperialism for independence, which was one of the main reasons, as I demonstrate later, why many Korean anarchists in the late 1920s and early 1930s moved from Tokyo to Shanghai after being radicalized, particularly after having witnessed the tightened surveillance and oppression of Japanese police in colonial Korea and Japan. In Shanghai they interacted with other Asian radicals and anarchists, as well as their compatriots, with all of whom they would come to share national and/or social goals, let alone begin various activities together.

The Korean anarchist discourse was to go far beyond independence and present problems pertinent both to their society and the world, which would result in the production of radical culture and language with their own meanings attached to them. Korean anarchists, of course, were not initial producers of the discourse and language. For example, a language of revolution was a contribution of the Paris Chinese anarchists, while the problem of modernity was what the Tokyo Chinese anarchists had wrestled with.[38] The resistance against centralized authority was the focus of the Japanese anarchists between the mid-1910s and 1923. And Ōsugi Sakae’s (1885–1923) passionate commitment to “individual liberation” in his support of the aims and methods of anarcho-syndicalism[39] could have been deeply influenced how Bak Yeol (1902–1074) and his fellow Japan-based anarchists understood the importance of individuals in making an anarchist society, as I demonstrate in chapter 2.[40] The point here is the significance of the interaction itself, and the resulting mutual inspiration and influence among East Asian anarchists in the rise of anarchism in East Asia.

Kim San particularly notes the special influence of Japan in radical thinking among Koreans and the outcome of it as the following:

From 1919 to 1923 Korean students were far in advance of Chinese in social thinking, partly because of our more pressing need for revolution and partly because of our closer contacts with Japan, the fountainhead of the radical movement, both anarchist and Marxist, in the Far East at that time. It was from Japanese translations of Marxism that both Koreans and Chinese first became acquainted with this theory.[41] (Emphasis added)

Reading such translated Japanese books that were available, Korean anarchists were first exposed to the languages of Japanese (and Chinese) anarchists, and used them to participate in the production (and reproduction) of a radical discourse on and activities for Korea’s independence and social revolution. Such anarchist languages as “democracy” and, most importantly, “freedom” particularly had strong appeal to many Korean radicals abroad, according to Kim San.[42] In any case, Korean anarchists, to be sure, were active participants in the discourse and practice, using the languages of revolution so that they came to share many concerns and vision in common with other anarchists. And they finally were to “select” from the languages what they thought necessary and crucial for Korean independence and society and related them to the problems of the world. During the process of “selection,” it is again noteworthy, Korean anarchists had probably to face a tension between their national goal and transnational concerns and vision, and attempted to reconcile the two seeming contradictory tasks.

In chapter 5, I examine how the pre-1945 anarchist discourse and language played out in post-1945 South Korea, and how Korean anarchists deradicalized them to cope with the unfavorable political climate under which they used to become an easy target of political suppression by the undemocratic and military regimes in South Korea since 1948. While the transnational linkages and regional elements continued to play a role in formulating the post-1945 direction and character of Korean anarchism, they removed its revolutionary agenda and vision and launched an experimental, but failed anarchist political party. Their focus of activities gradually shifted to social movements for the goal of national development on the basis of national autonomy in both political and economic senses. This deradicalization was caused under the political climate of South Korea that was unfavorable and even appeared as a threat to Korean anarchists, but had also its roots in the idea of the national front (minjok jeonseon) from the 1930s, which gave its priority to national liberation over transnational goal and, at the same time, to the national problem over social problem.

As I demonstrate in chapter 4, the national front idea was actively proposed and put into practice after Japan’s all-out invasion of China in the 1930s, by many anarchists who saw the wartime situation in China and the world as a new opportunity for Korea’s independence. Understanding that their anarchist goal could never be achieved without national liberation, Korean anarchists came up with a plan that stressed their national goal through the national front idea to put aside all the differences, social and ideological, among all Korean revolutionaries and independence activists. They were even willing to work and cooperate with, and even support the Korean Provisional Government under the leadership of conservative nationalists. An anarchist society could never be realized in Korea, they concluded, if Korea remained as Japan’s colony, which required a prioritization of national unity to fight their common enemy. The world situation where various forms of united front, including the United Front in China and the People’s Front in Spain, were formed as responses to Japan’s invasion in China and fascism in Europe, respectively, prompted them to have their own national front. The idea of national front proposed and accepted by Korean anarchists in China turned out to be determinant in the direction of post-1945 Korean anarchism with its emphasis on national development.

Korean anarchists after 1945 never discarded anarchist principles and ideals, mostly Kropotkinite ones, such as mutual aid, spontaneity, the combination of mental and intellectual labor, and the combination of agriculture and industry in development. Indeed, Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) left the deepest influence on Koreans’ initial interest in and conversion to anarchism, no matter where they were, and was probably the most important anarchist theoretician to have widespread influence in East Asia.[43] In particular, Korean anarchists, just like their regional counterparts, must have found in his mutual aid idea a response to the social Darwinist explanation of human progress, and even saw its affinity to the cooperative principle Korean rural villagers had long practiced. They toiled strenuously, though, to maintain “national voice” in practicing the universal principle, as I demonstrate in chapter 5.

Korean anarchists after 1945 even began to identify themselves not just as anarchists but rather also as “believers in an autonomous government” (jayul jeongbu juuija) and “autonomous persons” (jaju in), and even renamed anarchism “democratic socialism” (minju sahoe juui), without much reference to its radical social revolutionary premises. And after failing in their experiments with political parties, anarchism was gradually translated into a more practical idea of social movement, which underscored the importance of rural villages in the course of national development and the preparedness of farmers to become responsible citizens whose role was deemed crucial to make Korea a modern, developed nation in its transition to modernity. The point was to maintain the balances between the rural and urban areas in development and between traditions and modern benefits. And the main focus of anarchist activities was on redirecting the state-led modernization to an alternative developmental trajectory that could reflect anarchist ideas, because the state-projected modernization would only end up sacrificing and thus ruining rural villages for the sake of the urban and the modern.

This idea, widely practiced in the 1960s and ’70s, however, needs not be seen as a sign of deviation or deterioration from anarchism in European origins. It rather reflects, I argue, a process of localization of anarchism, more broadly a “Koreanization” to accommodate the atmosphere after 1945 under which anarchism was redefined to cope with the division of Korea and meet the new demands of the time for national liberation and development. Anarchists endeavored to avoid a false accusation of anarchism being a “cousin of communism”[44] and thus survive the suppression by dictatorial anticommunist South Korean regimes. When I call this a Koreanization of anarchism, I do not emphasize the roles of Korean culture and past in the Korean understanding of anarchism but point to a place-based modification of anarchism. This deradicalized and Koreanized anarchism by Yi Jeonggyu and his fellow anarchists, as I demonstrate in chapter 5, obviously threw out its revolutionary agenda and vision; its main focus was placed until the 1980s on boosting national economy through the revival of rural villages, along with increased income for farmers.

To sum up, this study first underlines the role of nationalism in converting Koreans to anarchism but also, more importantly, points to various forms of interactions among anarchists themselves circulating in the region, to demonstrate, first, that transnationalism, too, played an important role in the acceptance and development of Korean anarchism; Korean anarchists accepted anarchism not only for independence but ultimately for a social revolution that was a shared goal with other anarchists in many locations in the region. The origins and development of Korean anarchism, therefore, I argue, need to be understood in the context of the rise and development of anarchism, more broadly of radical ideas and culture, in the region, with reference to its various localized means and goals for an anarchist ideal society. Korean anarchists as a product of the transnational radical networks of discourse and practice also developed, maintained, and displayed concerns for prevailing social and political problems under capitalism that were marked by anarchist inspiration. In response to the concerns and problems, they envisioned a future country and world through joint projects with their Asian counterparts, based on such fundamental anarchist principles and ideas as “spontaneous alliance,” “mutual aid,” and “individual freedom” of a radical bent. This was, I think, how a regional identity as “Asians” (versus the invader Westerners) or broadly a transnational identity as “oppressed peoples” arose among anarchists beyond their respective national identity and came to play a role in the transnational and translocal interactions and solidarity among them, including Koreans in China and Japan.[45] Many accounts of anarchism in the region miss the regional identity, the transnational aspects, and the movement of anarchists themselves and their ideas within the region. All of these were still visible in the post-1945 movement of Korean anarchists. What I will consider below are these Korean anarchists in motion in the region, pursuing their transnational as much as national goal through various place-based practices of anarchism,[46] in some cases with their Asian counterparts.

From :

Research Interests: Radicalism and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Eastern Asia, The Guomindang Leftists in the 1920s, Wartime Collaboration in China during the Pacific War. (From:


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