Since its first impact on East Asia in the latter half of the nineteenth century, European civilization has been considered a primary reference of modernity and for modernization. Ever since enlightened intellectuals began introducing Western knowledge for the purposes of ‘strengthening the state and enlightening the people’ of Korea, the social influence of modernity-related discourses has been paramount. From the moment Korea opened its doors to the world in 1876, however, the process has always been a contested one, leading to societal disputes over the necessity, priority and methods of importing ‘civilization’. As foreign influence and, in particular, Japanese power increased, the dilemmas of negotiating between voluntary reform and foreign intervention, as well as between traditional identity and global change, further complicated the conflict. During the colonial period, these issues remained unresolved in the tensions between colonizers and nationalists, radicals and gradualists, and urban elites and rural peasants. After political liberation in 1945 and even leading up to the twenty first century, disputes – over national division and legitimacy between South and North Korea, over authoritarian developmentalism and over the controversial issue of school history textbooks – are ineluctably rooted in the contentious understanding of complex modernization.
One way to resolve such conflicts is to locate Korean modern history in a global transformation: one that sees dynamic modernization processes as neither Eurocentric nor ethnocentric.