Stirring up debate on a Korean Caesar
April-June 2017
By: Sang-young Rhyu

As the first of a planned two-volume history, this first volume devotes more attention to the roots of militarism in Japan’s modernization, the cultural pattern that evolved in Manchukuo and at the MMA, Park’s way of life, education, discipline and combat training, and Chosŏn military institutions and history, than to the story of Park himself. Through very specific stories, the author also analyzes the perceptions held by students at the MMA and JMA on such topics as politics, power and race; he considers their conception of the relationship between state and society; their ideology and tactics of revolution and reform; and their unique perceptions of capitalism, socialism and chaebols, South Korea’s large conglomerates.

There are two dominant features of this book. The first, as Eckert states himself, is a thick description of historical facts. The author tracked down classmates from the MMA who remembered Park Chung Hee, and he is also meticulous in identifying sources scattered throughout Japan, South Korea and China, describing each with as much detail as possible. He also collected and analyzed diaries, memoirs and curricula from the MMA. Through the use of imagination and a vivid description of the past, the author takes the reader back to the formative period of Park’s life to uncover what he was thinking and why. This book could also serve as an academic wake-up call for South Korean society, which is obsessed with the political evaluation of Park, based not on accurate historical facts, but on political interests. In historical debates, we must first describe what happened before we attempt to explain it.

Second, the author, in keeping with his motto that “in history, context is everything,” attempts to put Park into context. It seems that Eckert is trying to capture the “butterfly effect,” or contingent flux in history, on the premise that a small event or meeting could have significantly impacted Park and the modernization of South Korea. The book attempts to find the roots of the first wave of South Korea’s militarization in 1866. It also seeks to attribute the roots of the Meiji Restoration and Japanese militarist culture in Manchukuo to the “absolute obedience” promoted by Maj. Klemens Wilhelm Jacob Meckel of the Prussian Army during the training of Japan’s Meiji military at the end of the 19th century, and to the later “lightning strikes” of Adolf Hitler.

What also attracts me about this book is that the author attempts to include much linguistic context in his work. Readers who have no knowledge of Korean, Japanese or Chinese are likely to miss much of this linguistic context. Emphasizing the pernicious effects of the market dominance of the chaebols, Eckert, for example, employs the expression “monstrous power” and includes the Korean phrase “musi musihan” in phonetic English to provide a more accurate translation. Additionally, Eckert’s use of the Japanese concept of the “majime ideal” in depicting the apparent devotion, discipline and seriousness of Park as a cadet is a reflection of his approach to writing, which places emphasis on linguistic context.

Eckert also uses extensive endnotes to introduce many additional resources and supplementary information. Although a careful reading of such copious notes requires patience, I would advise readers not to neglect the endnotes if they desire to fully comprehend this book.

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