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Monuments, Memory, and Identity

Constructing the Colonial Past in South Korea


Guy Podoler

Between 1910 and 1945 Korea was subjected to Japanese colonial rule. Monuments, Memory, and Identity investigates ways how postcolonial South Korea commemorated this difficult past in light of changing political and social conditions, and against the background of the divided nation. By analyzing museums, memorial halls, parks and monuments, the author deciphers and maps the South Korean commemorative landscape. He analyzes the layouts of the country’s well-known «sites of memory» and explores the on-site plaques, exhibits, and photos as well as the booklets and publications. This book underpins the shifts and trends in recollecting this important historical period by addressing the following questions: How has postcolonial South Korea been constructing and reconstructing its colonial past? Why were certain narratives and images chosen at different times? What debates, controversies, and challenges were involved in this dynamic process? Furthermore, the author discusses the South Korean case within the broader context of the postcolonial discourse.


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Introduction 11


11 Introduction This book is about the commemorative landscape of South Korea. It relies on the conception that commemorative landscapes can be construed as historical texts, the understanding of which sheds light on the way nations perceive, establish, and convey their identity. These landscapes – composed of museums, memorial halls, cemeteries, monu- ments, etc. – operate as historical texts from two aspects. First, they con- struct and narrate historical narratives, which, like all other types of historical narratives, are controversial by nature. Second, the history of a commemorative landscape is a part of the socio-political history of the society that has constructed it. In Korea, after the curtain was drawn on the nation’s colonial period, the peninsula was divided and a battle over legitimacy com- menced over the question of who should be regarded as the true heir and legitimate representative of pre-1945 Korea and Koreans. Since then, one offshoot of the ongoing ideological, international, and political rivalry between South and North Korea has been the struggle over memory. “Memory,” Jeffrey Olick and Joyce Robbins remind us, “is a central, if not the central, medium through which identities are cons- tituted” (1998, 133). Thus, the emerging state of South Korea was required to define which symbols, practices, heroes, historical events, etc., should be adopted in order to create ideological and sentimental identification among people and between people and government. Through this, national identity and cohesiveness were to be ensured in the face of an existing sister-adversary that shared the same pre-1945 history....

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