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Korea's Environmental History in World-Historical Perspective


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This lecture aims to situate the environmental history of Chosŏn Korea (1392-1910) in comparative and transnational perspectives. Its goal is to show how environmental-historical topics help elucidate features of Korean history that, to this date, have been underemphasized or ignored. Environmental history is one of the fastest-growing subfields of the historical profession. In an age of global convergence, scholars have found they need more permeable lenses that reveal both commonalities and distinctive features across different regions.

First, the Chosŏn state will be re-examined through a description of the development of state forestry on the Korean peninsula between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Chosŏn state forestry system will be examined as part of a wider early modern trend, where bureaucratic and demographic expansion coincided with rising demand for timber across Eurasia. Chosŏn state forestry fits into a wider Eurasian pattern by which military and political exigencies sparked government anxieties about timber scarcity and subsequent regulation of forest resources. However, Chosŏn state forestry had a particular distinction: the government invested its attention on one type of tree in particular, the pine, with severe implications for Korean society and ecologies.

Next, the lecture will move from a comparative to a transnational lens, examining the environmental legacy of the Mongol Empire in Korea. It can be argued that Mongol patterns of resource utilization and settlement in medieval Korea, particularly their horse ranching practices in the southwest, left a significant institutional and environmental legacy in subsequent centuries on the Korean peninsula. A consideration of Mongol environmental legacies in northeast Asian littoral areas serves to enrich our understanding of the relationship between empire, ecology, and state formation across post-Mongol Eurasia. Together, this comparative and transnational analysis will locate Korea in a more inclusive global history of environmental change while also sparking new questions about the trajectories of Korea’s past.

Dr. John S. Lee is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Agrarian Studies program at Yale University. Originally from southern California, he received his Ph.D. in History and East Asian Languages in 2017 from the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. His Ph.D. dissertation, “Protect the Pines, Punish the People: Forests and the State in Pre-Industrial Korea, 918-1897,” is the first English-language treatment of Korea’s pre-industrial environmental history. He is currently revising his dissertation into a monograph titled, Kingdom of Pines: State Forestry and the Making of Korea. His other current project examines the environmental legacy of the Mongol Empire in Korea, focusing particularly on the long-term impact of Inner Asian equine culture on Korean society and ecologies. His article, “Postwar Pines: The Military and the Expansion of State Forests in Post-Imjin Korea, 1598-1684,” appears in the recent May issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. His research has been supported by grants from the Fulbright Program, the Korea Foundation, the Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies at Seoul National University, and the Harvard Korea Institute.