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  Global Views
Imperial Korea
Special Contribution
By Marcus Garvey
Madagascar, or Republic of Madagascar, is an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa.

South Korea has learned well from Japan, its onetime imperial master—how to be an imperialist. Witness the recent deal between the Republic of Korea and Madagascar, brokered by Daewoo Logistics, for a 99-year lease of 3.2 million acres, half of Madagascar's arable land. "The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" indeed! Except South Korea, too, is now a master.

One might have thought that the suffering endured under Japanese imperialism had taught Korea to sympathize with poor and oppressed peoples. That, in the person of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, South Korea pointed the way to equity between the white bourgeois and the colored proletarians and peasants of the world. As a Black man who has suffered from the tyranny of the "white man's burden," I thought Koreans might prove soul mates. But Korean employers requiring photos to screen out Black applicants exploded that wishful thought.

Nevertheless I eagerly applauded the Seoul street protests last spring, apparently against American beef but really against Anglo-American imperialism and its chaebol and yangban flunkies. President Lee Myung-bak apologized to the people. I felt humble before the might of the ordinary Korean. They truly seemed the beacon of the true democracy necessarily anchored in the proletariat and the peasantry.

I sought historical perspective for the beef protests and found it in the "Tonghak" ("Eastern Learning") of native Korea as opposed to the "Western Learning" of Europe. Its slogan: "Drive out the Japanese dwarfs and the Western barbarians, and praise righteousness." Its author: Choe Cheu, a wandering peasant martyred in 1864. He inspired the Tonghak rebellion of 1894, which compelled the Korean aristocracy to bring in 1500 Chinese troops to suppress it. He inspired "Chondogyo" ("Society of the Heavenly Way"), the indigenous religion of Korea that had changed its name from Tonghak in 1905. The first signer of the March 1, 1919 Declaration of Independence from Japan was Son Pyong-hi, leader of Chondogyo, which provided 15 of the 33 signers.

Choe Cheu—author of Tonghak and of Chondogyo—is the true hero of Korea. His Tonghak philosophy and his Chondogyo religion seem the portals for discovering Korean identity. When, last spring, I saw the beef protests as a 2008 Tonghak rebellion, I envisioned Choe Cheu as the archetype of modern Korea. Just as Luke Skywalker led the Rebellion against Darth Vader's Empire, the specter of Choe Cheu haunted the "new world order" from the streets of Seoul.

But South Korea lately seems more like Park Chung-hee, the mastermind who modeled South Korea after Japan. He epitomizes the Korean bourgeoisie even as Choe Cheu epitomizes its proletariat and peasantry. In America, Thomas Jefferson had advocated agrarian democracy and limited government—states' rights—as against monopoly capitalism as commandeered by the imperial government of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton won the debate, for first president George Washington sided with his Secretary of the Treasury against his Secretary of State.

Although not contemporaries like Jefferson and Hamilton, Choe Cheu and Park Chung-hee are the grand interlocutors of Korean destiny. Tonghak is one portal; imperialism is the other. The "Republic of Korea" and "Imperial Korea" are the terms of the debate between the agrarian hero and the capitalist dictator. The beef protests argue for Choe Cheu; for Tonghak; for Korea as Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight. But the Madagascar deal argues for Park Chung-hee; for Imperial Korea; for Korea as Anakin Skywalker nee Sith Lord Darth Vader.

"Imperialism," of course, is a heavy word, perhaps the heaviest word of current political discourse. Before we proceed with the question of Imperial Korea we would do well to come to terms with it. For, as Confucius reminds us in Book 13 Chapter 3 of "The Analects," semantics are the essence of sound government. Asked by Tzu-lu the first thing the governor must do, Confucius replies "rectification of names." He explains: "If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success." So without further ado let's rectify "imperialism" and thus put South Korea's deal with Madagascar in perspective.

According to Merriam-Webster, "imperialism" is "the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas." V.I. Lenin's economic treatise, "Imperialism: the Final Stage of Capitalism" (1916), expands this definition. He first of all insists that imperialism is in essence economic, a mere function of finance capital. That imperialism is "monopoly capitalism" writ large. That imperialism is "parasitism" whereby the ruling class of the oppressor nation uses colonies to enrich itself at their expense. That imperialism has for its complement "opportunism," that is, corruption of the elite bureaucrats of the proletariat by means of bribery. That imperialism creates privileged sections of the proletariat who thus detach themselves from the proletarian and peasant masses, what we would call tokenism.

Is there really any doubt, given the above rectification of "imperialism," that South Korea is not now colonizing Madagascar? That it is not now Imperial Korea? That the bureaucrats of Madagascar who are making this deal aren't Uncle Toms selling out their people just as Esau sold out his birthright to Jacob? Interestingly, Lenin cites Japan as an example of imperialism for its then recent annexation of Korea. History has come full vicious circle, for now Korea is exhibit A of imperialism for its annexation of Madagascar.






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