Theses Doctoral

Regional Rebirths: Imperialization, Pan-Asianism, and Narratives of "Conversion" in Colonial Korea

Shim, Mi-Ryong

This dissertation examines writings that major Korean intellectuals produced during the Asia-Pacific War, when the Japanese empire embarked upon an aggressive expansion into the Asian continent and eventually entered into war against the United States. As the empire mobilized its colonized populations for the war effort under the banner of imperialization (hwangminhwa/kōminka), the reach of the colonial state penetrated to nearly all aspects of Korean society. As a result, this period has been narrated within postwar nationalist Korean historiography as a particularly traumatic experience. Within this narrative, many of the texts I examine in this dissertation have been explained as the intellectuals' abandonment of their original ideological or philosophical positions of Korean nationalism or anti-imperial socialism to turn "pro-Japanese" (ch'inil/shinnichi, literally "intimate with Japan") in engaging with or supporting the empire's wartime propaganda. But instead of the usual emphasis on the shift or break, I consider the period as a continuation or development of the intellectuals' existing socio-political and cultural concerns, particularly regarding the relationship between the intellectuals and the masses.Although the intellectuals' engagements with the wartime discourses of imperialization, conversion (chŏnhyang/tenkō), and Pan-Asianism - all of which were taken up by the colonial state to mobilize the Korean population - are seen as collaboration with the colonizers, the future that these Korean intellectuals envisioned cannot be adequately explained as "Japanese." Rather, the writers I discuss sought to explore during the late colonial period the possibilities of different alternatives to an older imperialist "universalism," where domination of foreign peoples and lands was justified in the name of spreading universal values. Japan's colonization of Korea under the mission of bringing "civilization and enlightenment" (bunmei kaika) was one most immediate manifestation of the contradiction that such problematic "universalism" brought on in the colony. But the relation between Japan and Korea was not the only problematic site that concerned the Korean intellectuals. They also grappled with issues of increasing social and cultural gap between the urban and the rural, as well as the anxiety that they had merely imitated the West in their pursuit of modernity, at the expense of their own cultural authenticity. In response to these key questions regarding the experience of Korean modernity, Korean intellectuals employed discourses of agrarianism, dialectical materialism, and nativism that had emerged before the wartime period. I examine how the Korean intellectuals continued to explore key elements of these discourses in their discussions of conversion, imperialization, and Pan-Asianism. Through examining editorials, letters of public confessions, and literary texts that narrated instances of ideological conversion whereby individuals critical of imperialism - often from a Marxist position - would come to support the Japanese empire, the first chapter explores how ideological conversion may have served as one of the earliest forms of imperialization. The second chapter delineates the ambivalent stance taken up by the philosopher and cultural critic Sŏ In-sik (1906-?) regarding the East Asian Community (tong'a hyŏptongch'e, tōa kyōdōtai), a vision of a new social order that would overcome the limits of both bourgeois liberalism and fascist nationalism. I demonstrate that while the philosophical basis for the ideals the East Asian Community appealed to Sŏ for its dialectical reasoning, Sŏ also sought to use dialectics to formulate a position of skepticism regarding the realization of the new social order. The third chapter provides a historically contextualized close-reading of essays and literary works by the writer Yi Hyo-sŏk (1907-1942) to demonstrate a case of Korean nativist aesthetics intersecting with multiculturalist Pan-Asian regional identity championed by the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere to decenter the West. The fourth chapter traces how writers and literary critics such as Ch'oe Chae-sŏ (1908-1964) envisioned the integration of colonial Korea and Japan proper as a dialectical process that would leave both parties fundamentally transformed.By linking these Korean intellectuals' engagements with wartime discourses to their earlier concerns, the dissertation moves away from views of the wartime period as historical aberration and suggests a longer history of imperialization in colonial Korea. It also intervenes in the growing scholarship on the history of Japanese empire by highlighting the engagement of colonized intellectuals. This perspective underscores the ways in which East Asian imperial formations consisted of multiple metropolitan forces, thus illuminating the complex functioning of empire that can often elide a singular colonizer and colonized binary.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Hughes, Theodore Q.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 20, 2014