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Korea's peaceful history

By Mark Peterson

In my first articles for The Korea Times, over a year ago, I wrote about how my own views of Korean history are different from the orthodox history taught in Korea ― I described myself as a frog outside the well.

I'm pleased to report that many of my views are receiving a welcome reception. I was fearful that my presentation of Korean history would be discarded, out of hand, because I've seen scholars and graduate students attack those who present new or unorthodox ideas. And I've had some criticisms, as well ― I guess we all have. But largely, my views are starting to win acceptance by a broad reach of Korean citizens.

I am thinking of the responses my work has received on my YouTube channel. The majority of responses to my YouTube channel are positive and agree with me, and encourage me to continue to make my presentations. This has been greatly encouraging because I've seen scholars and students criticized severely for unorthodox ideas.

In fact, I think there is a kind of "unhealthy oppressive orthodoxy" in Korean historical circles these days. Look at how the Seoul National University history department is being criticized for things one of their key professors did and said during the Japanese era.

I am greatly encouraged to continue my presentations particularly about Korea's "peaceful history" ― I put the phrase in quotation marks because Korea has certainly has had its share of wars and turmoil. But I'm suggesting we don't need to let the war motif overwhelm the peace motif. This is especially true if we look at Korea after the Three Kingdoms period and before the 20th century. Yes, excluding those two bookends is excluding a lot, but still, there are so many aspects of the peaceful tradition of Korea that dominate from the Silla Unification (668) until the end of the 20th century ― nearly 1,200 years.

Martina Deuchler and other prominent scholars have commented on the unbroken class of aristocracy that has controlled Korea for 1,500 years ― from the late Three Kingdoms period to the present day. This idea is reinforced in the appearance of surnames in Korea; 21 percent of the population today are named Kim. This is an exceptional image. And it's not just Kim ― 15 percent are Yi (Lee), and 9 percent are Pak (Park). Any of these three ― all names of past royalty ― would be a dominating surname group in most countries of the world.

In fact, the number 10 name, Shin, and even the number 20 name, Hong, has a large enough percentage of the population to be a dominant surname in most other countries. There is a larger percentage of Hong in Korea than Sato in Japan, and Sato is the most common surname in Japan. The Korean surnames with the largest percentage of population are all names that originated in the Silla Kingdom. Silla is alive and well in Korea today.

What I intend to do here is to present my ideas on "peaceful Korea" as they have developed in the last year through writing for this column and my YouTube page, "Frog Outside the Well". I have a "Top Ten" list of factors that argue for the view of Korea as a peaceful country ― actually any one of these factors is solid evidence ― but all 10 of them, I think, is overwhelmingly convincing that Korea has one of the most peaceful traditions of all the nations of the world.

This is not to say they have had no war ― they've had their share of war ― but my position is we should not ignore the peace factors. Historiography likes war. It's interesting; it attracts ink. Peace is boring, even if it's a preferable thing.

On the Top Ten list are:
1. The longest dynasties in the world (other countries have one or two; Korea has seven at 500 years)
2. Smooth transitions between dynasties
3. Relatively few invasions
4. Has never invaded another country
5. The longest unchanged border in the world
6. Royal tombs not plundered
7. Seonbi culture, not samurai culture
8. Balance of civilian and military control
9. Royal control of the court (not military or eunuchs)
10. Few surnames, a symbol of long-running aristocracy

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to explain how I perceive these factors that describe the peaceful traditions of Korea. Again, any one of these factors makes one cock his head to the side and say this doesn't fit with a war-torn, war-like country. As a whole, they describe a history dominated by peace and civil culture. That is Korea!


Mark Peterson (markpeterson@byu.edu) is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.


By Mark Peterson

In my first articles for The Korea Times, over a year ago, I wrote about how my own views of Korean history are different from the orthodox history taught in Korea ― I described myself as a frog outside the well.

I'm pleased to report that many of my views are receiving a welcome reception. I was fearful that my presentation of Korean history would be discarded, out of hand, because I've seen scholars and graduate students attack those who present new or unorthodox ideas. And I've had some criticisms, as well ― I guess we all have. But largely, my views are starting to win acceptance by a broad reach of Korean citizens.

I am thinking of the responses my work has received on my YouTube channel. The majority of responses to my YouTube channel are positive and agree with me, and encourage me to continue to make my presentations. This has been greatly encouraging because I've seen scholars and students criticized severely for unorthodox ideas.

In fact, I think there is a kind of "unhealthy oppressive orthodoxy" in Korean historical circles these days. Look at how the Seoul National University history department is being criticized for things one of their key professors did and said during the Japanese era.

I am greatly encouraged to continue my presentations particularly about Korea's "peaceful history" ― I put the phrase in quotation marks because Korea has certainly has had its share of wars and turmoil. But I'm suggesting we don't need to let the war motif overwhelm the peace motif. This is especially true if we look at Korea after the Three Kingdoms period and before the 20th century. Yes, excluding those two bookends is excluding a lot, but still, there are so many aspects of the peaceful tradition of Korea that dominate from the Silla Unification (668) until the end of the 20th century ― nearly 1,200 years.

Martina Deuchler and other prominent scholars have commented on the unbroken class of aristocracy that has controlled Korea for 1,500 years ― from the late Three Kingdoms period to the present day. This idea is reinforced in the appearance of surnames in Korea; 21 percent of the population today are named Kim. This is an exceptional image. And it's not just Kim ― 15 percent are Yi (Lee), and 9 percent are Pak (Park). Any of these three ― all names of past royalty ― would be a dominating surname group in most countries of the world.

In fact, the number 10 name, Shin, and even the number 20 name, Hong, has a large enough percentage of the population to be a dominant surname in most other countries. There is a larger percentage of Hong in Korea than Sato in Japan, and Sato is the most common surname in Japan. The Korean surnames with the largest percentage of population are all names that originated in the Silla Kingdom. Silla is alive and well in Korea today.

What I intend to do here is to present my ideas on "peaceful Korea" as they have developed in the last year through writing for this column and my YouTube page, "Frog Outside the Well". I have a "Top Ten" list of factors that argue for the view of Korea as a peaceful country ― actually any one of these factors is solid evidence ― but all 10 of them, I think, is overwhelmingly convincing that Korea has one of the most peaceful traditions of all the nations of the world.

This is not to say they have had no war ― they've had their share of war ― but my position is we should not ignore the peace factors. Historiography likes war. It's interesting; it attracts ink. Peace is boring, even if it's a preferable thing.

On the Top Ten list are:
1. The longest dynasties in the world (other countries have one or two; Korea has seven at 500 years)
2. Smooth transitions between dynasties
3. Relatively few invasions
4. Has never invaded another country
5. The longest unchanged border in the world
6. Royal tombs not plundered
7. Seonbi culture, not samurai culture
8. Balance of civilian and military control
9. Royal control of the court (not military or eunuchs)
10. Few surnames, a symbol of long-running aristocracy

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to explain how I perceive these factors that describe the peaceful traditions of Korea. Again, any one of these factors makes one cock his head to the side and say this doesn't fit with a war-torn, war-like country. As a whole, they describe a history dominated by peace and civil culture. That is Korea!


Mark Peterson (markpeterson@byu.edu) is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.




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