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Korean Anarchists Pursuing Third Way

category eastern asia | anarchist movement | review author Thursday February 01, 2007 19:00author by Seo Dong-shin - Korea Times Report this post to the editors

South Korea’s school textbooks have presented prominent independence fighter Shin Chae-ho (1880-1936), a proclaimed anarchist, to be a hero. Since 2000, others such as Yu Rim (1894-1961), Park Ryol (1902-1972) and Yu Cha-myong (1891-1985) have been designated independence activists of the month by the Ministry of Patriots and Veteran Affairs

It was only two years ago that prominent socialist and communist independence fighters like Yo Un-hyung (1886-1947) received posthumous state decorations here. As South Korea has been in an ideological war against the North since the division of the country, it took time before leftist efforts aimed at liberating the nation from the 1910-45 Japanese colonial rule became officially recognized in the South.

One is tempted to think that it would have taken more time for anarchist activists to get recognition, as on the ideological spectrum anarchism is usually considered more radical than socialism or communism, which at least had respect for the party. Anarchists fight against any form of compulsory, authoritarian government.

But South Korea’s school textbooks have presented prominent independence fighter Shin Chae-ho (1880-1936), a proclaimed anarchist, to be a hero. Since 2000, others such as Yu Rim (1894-1961), Park Ryol (1902-1972) and Yu Cha-myong (1891-1985) have been designated independence activists of the month by the Ministry of Patriots and Veteran Affairs. Those recognitions were barely noticed, in contrast to the heated debates that ensued when the socialist and communist independence activists were restored to honor.

Reading Kim Seung-kuk’s book ``Korean Anarchist: Warrior of Freedom and Liberation,’’ which was published this week, one may understand why.

Kim is a sociology professor at Pusan National University who served as president of the Korea Sociological Association. The Seoul National University graduate, who earned his doctorate degree in the United States, is also an anarchist and the leader of the Korea Anarchist Studies Society. He believes that the pioneering paths Korean anarchists walked as a minority will guide people today, who are suffering under a government system that works like a huge machine.

Aanarchists, who formed a third faction during Korean independence movements against Japanese colonial rule, did not leave political heirs, unlike right-or left-wingers who still spar ideologically. The word ``anarchism’’ has largely been forgotten. It does not seem as dangerous as it did decades ago, when there were threats of terrorist attacks.

Korean anarchist independence fighters were essentially nationalists. John Crump, a late British socialist, once described them as ``something of a shock’’ and ``atypical’’ in his paper titled ``Anarchism and Nationalism in East Asia.’’

But Kim argues that anarchism and nationalism were compatible, especially in the case of Korea, the sole place to develop anarchist ideas while suffering under colonial forces. Specific historical conditions need to be considered, he writes. ``If Proudhon, Bakunin, or Kropotkin saw their lands fall under colonialism, they too would have chosen anarchism as a weapon to liberate their people,’’ Kim writes, referring to the founding fathers of anarchism.

It is in Shin, the first of the five leading anarchists in modern Korean history presented in Kim’s six-chaptered book, that Kim observes how anarchism sprang from concern for the fettered country, as a third way against the rightist or leftist ideologies. Kim rebuffs previous historians who interpreted that Shin was not a true anarchist but rather someone who adopted anarchism as a means to nationalism. He argues that Shin, a journalist, historian and activist, would have sought for a free and equal society based on anarchism after national liberation.

Yu Cha-myong, meanwhile, was a dual figure. He was the brain behind Uiyoldan, or Practice Justice Bravely Society, a radical terrorist group formed in 1919 aiming at assassinating high-ranking Japanese officials and destroying institutions. But he was also an expert in agricultural studies, and he taught students at a Chinese university until he died in 1985.

Park Ryol was a nihilistic activist based in Japan. He is well-known for his alleged plan to assassinate the Japanese emperor as well as for his love for a Japanese woman, Fumiko Kaneko. But he remained largely unknown in the South because he died in the North in 1974.

Yu Rim’s career was what pure anarchists could call compromising, revisionist and degenerative, as he became an elected politician after the Korean War. But, Kim argues, Yu was a pioneer, whose death in 1961 ended the anarchists’ experiments in actual politics in failure.

Ha Ki-rak (1912-1997), a philosophy professor at Kyungpook National University and Keimyung University, was the last of the first-generation anarchists and godfather of the next-generation anarchists in South Korea. Aside from writing and translating, he also tried to maintain links with international anarchist society.

The book ``Korean Anarchists’’ consists primarily of academic papers that discuss the five anarchists’ ideas. This may come across as dry and require prior background knowledge. Kim also seems to romanticize his heroes at times.

Overall, however, the book is an attempt to refresh the memory of an almost forgotten ideology, and its meaning for the present and future. Against the rightist and leftist arguments still dominating the South Korean political arena, it is interesting to imagine that anarchism may offer an alternative.

Kim argues that anarchism can now empower a new social movement. The air of romance that hangs above the past’s revolutionary activists may be an extra plus.

By Seo Dong-shin
Staff Reporter
01-26-2007 19:30

From Koreatimes.

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author by Kim Keyser - Anarkismopublication date Tue Feb 06, 2007 20:28author address author phone Report this post to the editors

This is a cut-n-paste comment from a person called Anon from another site which featured the same article. I found it informative, so I decided to publish it here as well:

I lived in S. Korea for awhile in the mid-1990s and met people who knew Ha Ki-rak. They described a 1987 Anarchist Conference in Seoul going on at the same time that as many as 1 million protestors were out on the streets of Seoul and other cities fighting the cops in demos against the military dictatorship. Ha Ki-rak and his comrades didn't agree with the student and worker protestors, so refused to take part. The protests grew larger and larger and by the summer of 1987, with most of the economy paralyzed with strikes, they toppled the Chun Do Hwan regime and forced him to throw out the concession of popular elections. Unfortunately, most people went for the bait and the anti-dictatorship movement fizzled out.

At that 1987 Anarchist Conference, representative came from the U.S.--I think one or two people who started Bound Together were there--and the U.K. Both the American and the Brit told me that the conference was so rigid and boring that they spent their entire time in Seoul watching the street fighting from the sidelines. They said it was fantastic and they had never seen more miltant protestors in their lives.

Even the Korean radicals I met in Seoul said that were NOT nationalists and that the tradition of Ha Ki-rak was Anarchist in name only. And the only reason for that was during the Japanese occupation, they advocated propaganda by deed. The radicals I knew were discovering the Situationists, Council Communists, Russian Anarchists and other traditions that censorship--remember, this before the internet--had prevently them from learning about. They called Ha Ki-rak and his Korean Federation of Anarchist nationalist wingnuts. After reading an English translation of the history of the KAF and how they opposed the 1946 nationwide South Korean General Strike, that began with radical railroad workers in Taegu, I could only agree with my contemporary Korean comrades. The KAF even went so far as to call for Koreans to "work together" with the occupying U.S. Army to end labor strife and to collectively work with the American for "peace" and to "rebuild their country." Nationalists aren't anarchist and they certainly aren't revolutionaries.


author by Andrewpublication date Tue Feb 06, 2007 22:18author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I'm a little wary of that comment.

For instance conferences probably should be more boring than street fighting. They are not generally not intended to provide entertainment but to fill a needed function. I'd wonder about western anarchists who may or may not have spoken Korean who decide that spectating on a riot is more 'interesting' - perhaps it tells us more about the politics of the western observers than about the Korean anarchist conference. Also in that years the rioting and strikes were happening all the time so I don't think much can be concluded from the fact that on one or two of these days the Korean anarchists decided to go ahead with their conference. If they were indeed 'opposed' to these events that would be a lot more significant although I'd like to know what exactly 'opposed' meant and what their reasons are.

Secondly there is nothing surprising that other 'Korean radicals' who were under the influence of 'Situationists, Council Communists, ' would describe as nationalist a group that had played a major part in fighting Japanese imperialism. These marxist political tendencies refuse to distinguish between anti-imperialism and nationalism so taking this into account the comment tells us nothing we wouldn't expect from already knowing the politics of those making the comment.

Here are some extracts from a talk on the topic that gives a rather different interpretation

"Among the two million Koreans in Manchuria the KAF in Manchuria was able to sink deep roots immediately after its formation in 1929. The Federation's main organiser, Kim Jong-Jin, drew up a plan which he put to the anti-Japanese guerillas. It covered voluntary collectives for farmers, free education up to age 18 with adult education for those older and arms training for all responsible adults. Discussions followed and eventually an anarchist plan was agree which was described as being "according to the free federation principle based upon the spontaneous free will of man".

The difficulty that was not really addressed was how to deal with the Stalinists who were also organising in this region and were slandering the anarchists and others as "tyrants". The young anarchists around Yu-Rim wanted to fight ideology with ideology and demonstrate the superiority of their ideas. The older anti-Japanese guerillas around Kim Jwa-Jin (sometimes called the Korean Makhno) thought it was enough to state their support for anarchism but that they could ignore the Stalinists until national independence was won because only then would real politics come to the forefront.

By August 1929 the anarchists had formed an administration in Shinmin (one of the three Manchurian provinces). Whether this was a government is still a point of contention among anarchists. Organised as the Korean People's Association in Manchuria it declared its aim as "an independent self-governing cooperative system of the Korean people who assembled their full power to save our nation by struggling against Japan". The structure was federal going from village meetings to district and area conferences. The general association was composed of delegates from the districts and areas.

The general association set up executive departments to deal with agriculture, education, propaganda, finance, military affairs, social health, youth and general affairs. The staff of the departments received no more than the average wage.

We would expect that the organisation would start at village level and then federate upwards. However the EAPM believed that the war situation made this impossible to apply the principle immediately. In the interim they appointed the staffs and appointed them from the top down. Organisation and propaganda teams were then sent out to agitate for support and for the creation of village assemblies and committees. In one village a rice mill capable of milling over 1 million bushels was built to allow the local co-op to break from reliance on merchants. Seemingly all these teams reported a good response and were made welcome wherever they went.

The local administration of the anti-Japanese fighters in Shimin voluntarily dissolved itself and lent its support to KAPM. As the anarchists grew in numbers and support the Stalinists and the pro-Japanese elements in manchuria felt their own power bases threatened.

On January 20th the anarchist general Kim Jwa-Jin was assassinated while doing repair work on the rice mill I just mentioned. The killer escaped but his handler was caught and executed.

At a meeting in June in Peking of the KAFC it was decided to divert all resources outside Korea itself to Manchuria and most KAFC members moved to the anarchist zone in northern Manchuria. It should be noted that women comrades were active as agitators and arms smugglers.

From late 1930 onwards the Japanese were attacking in waves from the South and the stalinists, supported by the USSR, from the North. In early 1931 the stalinists sent assassination and kidnapping teams into the anarchist zone to murder leading activists. They believed that if they wiped out the KAFM the KAPM would wither and die. By the summer of 1941 many leading anarchists were dead and the war on two fronts was devastating the region. It was decided to go underground. Anarchist Shimin was no more."

It is easy to see why 'Situationists and Council Communists' would consider this nationalism but to me it seems a good bit more complex then to deserve simply being written off with that one word.

I should guess that the political pressures on Korean anarchism are somewhat similar to those that faced Chinese anarchism in the same period. In China the anarchists essentially founded the socialist movement and led some of the earliest strikes. They also saw the imperialist occupations that China was under as an important struggle. However with the growth of the Chinese communist party it seems many of the intellectual anarchists either decided to go with the CCP or with the Kumantang as they had failed to build a viable anarchist movement.

In Korea the anarchists were obviously a lot more successful but with the military defeat of Korean anarchism in 1941 it is quite probable that Korean anarchists were forced to make similar choices and that this path led to similar places. (One of the prominent Chinese anarchists ended up in the Kumantang government in Taiwan).

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author by Andrewpublication date Tue Feb 06, 2007 23:32author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The text I quote from above is now on Anarkismo at

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