The Korea Herald


[Korea Beyond Korea] Early Korean history remains virtually unknown abroad

In addition to lack of ancient and medieval Korean history professors teaching overseas, political problems at home cloud future of Korean history studies

By Kim So-hyun

Published : Sept. 18, 2023 - 14:11

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A Goguryeo-era painting depicting an outing by a noble couple and their family in the 5th century, found in an ancient tomb in Susahn-ri, Gangseo-gun, South Pyongan Province, North Korea. (Northeast Asian History Foundation) A Goguryeo-era painting depicting an outing by a noble couple and their family in the 5th century, found in an ancient tomb in Susahn-ri, Gangseo-gun, South Pyongan Province, North Korea. (Northeast Asian History Foundation)

Over 70 million Koreans in both South and North Korea learn in school that Gojoseon, founded in 2,333 BC by Dangun, was the first kingdom on the Korean Peninsula.

They are taught that from this point on, various early states like Buyeo, Okjeo, Dongye, Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla, Balhae and Goryeo flourished on the peninsula and in the now-Chinese territory of Manchuria, collectively shaping the early part of Korea’s five-millennia-long history.

But virtually no universities outside Korea offer any regular courses on Korean history before the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) primarily because they lack scholars specializing in ancient or medieval Korean history.

“There are almost no scholars studying Early Korea in the US, almost no new book-length publications related to Early Korea in English (since 2018), and no museum exhibitions or university classes related to ancient Korean history,” said Jack Davey, an archaeologist specializing in early Korea who teaches at George Washington University in the US as a part-time faculty member.

The global popularity of Korean culture -- referred to as the Korean Wave -- has opened up opportunities in the field of Korean studies, but ancient and pre-Joseon era history have been neglected and are in dire need of revitalization, scholars in these fields and officials stressed.

A neglected field

Over twenty years ago, China claimed Goguryeo (37 BC – AD 668) as part of its history through its state-funded Northeast Project, a five-year research project that ended in 2007 on the history and current situation of the frontiers of Northeast China, setting off a major academic and diplomatic controversy.

In response, the South Korean government in 2004 launched the Goguryeo Research Foundation, which was renamed the Northeast Asian History Foundation in 2006.

That year, the NAHF and other South Korean state-funded institutes initiated a multi-year grant program dedicated to the research of early Korean history and archaeology at Harvard University.

Dubbed the Early Korea Project, it focused on the periods prior to the 10th century and primarily consisted of lectures, workshops and publications.

But after being embroiled in a political controversy in Seoul, funding was cut, resulting in the suspension of the entire project in 2018.

After the only major funding for early Korean history research and publications was eliminated, a number of the handful of scholars in the US who had been interested in ancient Korean history and archaeology left the field and found jobs outside academia, according to Davey.

Korean historians generally agree it is time the South Korean government, businesses and institutions resume funding similar academic projects at overseas universities, especially as Korean studies is gaining more traction abroad now thanks to the worldwide interest in Korea’s popular culture.

The NAHF has begun sharing Korean historians’ latest research on ancient Korea with the American academic community.

In May, Korean historians gave presentations on the material cultures of Gojoseon, Buyeo, Okjeo, Goguryeo and Balhae in a seminar in Washington with American scholars who are writing textbooks on ancient Korean history.

Gojoseon, for instance, is widely known and taught here as the first kingdom on the Korean Peninsula. But as there are no remains of dwelling sites such as towns, or relics suggesting the existence of a king until around 300-400 BC, historians and archaeologists, including some in Korea, believe it existed in the form of an early, proto-state until then.

“The material culture of Gojoseon is not acknowledged in US and UK academia as of yet,” Park Sun-mi, director of the NAHF’s Institute of Pre-modern Korean History, told The Korea Herald.

“But recently, we have been seeing more scholars studying archaeological materials from southern Manchuria, and the Korean archaeological community, which had previously not discussed Gojoseon, is now holding seminars on the archaeology of Gojoseon. So things are improving.”

As for Goguyreo and Balhae, China had claimed them as part of its own history in the past, but now the Chinese don’t mention them in their history textbooks.

“Previously, we would ask the Chinese to correct distortions about Goguryeo and Balhae, but we can’t do that now because Korea’s ancient history has been eliminated from China’s world history books,” Park said.

“What we need to do now is let academia abroad know about Goguryeo and Balhae as ancient Korean states," said the NAHF director.

Obstacles to revival

China is investing heavily in academia through the state-funded Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and more than 10 students in the country’s masters’ programs each year are specializing in studying Balhae, according to Park.

On the contrary, Korean state-funded research organizations have been faced with budget cuts in recent years, with the NAFH looking at a 40 percent reduction in its annual budget for projects next year.

State-funded institutions also remain cautious about funding Korean history projects abroad for fear of touching off a political controversy like the one that ended the Early Korea Project years ago due to disagreements within the community of Korean historians.

At the time, a faction of nonmainstream historians launched a nationalistic attack on state-funded projects pertaining to early Korean history research and archaeology, claiming that they were reinforcing -- instead of countering -- “Sino-centric and colonial Japan’s” views of Korean history.

Lee Deok-il, head of the Seoul-based Hangaram History and Culture Institute and who was one of the most vocal critics at that time, took issue with one of the books published as part of the Harvard project, titled “The Han Commanderies in Early Korean History.”

According to the book, China’s Han Dynasty established four Han Commanderies in 108 BC in the northwestern part of the Korean Peninsula and southeastern Manchuria after defeating Gojoseon, resulting in its collapse. One of the commanderies, known as Lelang, was located in what is now Pyongyang, according to the book and mainstream Korean historians. Lee, however, claims that this was colonial Japan’s view of history, and that the Lelang Commandery was in fact located outside the Korean Peninsula.

Lee, in an interview with The Korea Herald, said that while he agrees that Koreans should help expand the study of ancient Korean history abroad, if the history they teach is “not right,” it'd be better for them not to teach anything.

Among Lee's claims, many of which were taken from his predecessors and made popular in Korea through his books, is one that asserts that Baekje (18 BC-AD 660) ruled a territory within mainland China.

Other historians have argued that thousands of relics discovered in the Pyongyang area are proof that the Han commandery existed there. Many have expressed concern over Lee and others who have strong ethno-nationalist opinions about history and propagate wild theories, many of which have already been academically debunked.

“Academic authenticity aside, it is just sad that in Korean society, the opinions of a few people or criticism linked to politics can overturn all the results of research that have accumulated over many years,” said a professor of history at a university in Seoul, on condition of anonymity.

“Korean Studies Beyond Korea” explores the current landscape of Korean studies through interviews, in-depth analyses and on-the-ground stories told from diverse world areas. Funded by the Korea Press Foundation, this series will delve into the challenges and opportunities facing the field as Korea's rise as a cultural powerhouse has drawn interest from scholars, researchers and leaders from around the globe. – Ed.