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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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Chapter 2: The Face of Colonialism 71


71 Chapter 2: The Face of Colonialism As we have seen in the previous chapter, heroism functions as the linchpin of a tangibly created pre-colonial continuous Korean past. Since heroism functions as a crucial theme in colonial-period historiography as well, it is essential for South Korea’s national narrative to illustrate the colonial situation itself. The following description represents the com- monly held historical framework regarding the perception of the colonial period: […] The Korean people were actually put under a militaristic rule which drove them into slavery in the suffocating atmosphere of fear. They lost not only their national independence, but also their land, their rights, and every aspect of their lives came under the control of Japanese rules and regulations […] The Japanese called Korea “a thriving land,” but to the Koreans Japanese rule symbolized oppression and exploitation. The Korean people, their land, and natural resources were ruthlessly exploited by the Japanese capitalists. If Korea was thriving, it was doing so for the imperialistic ambitions of Japan and not for the Koreans (Nahm 1988, 223–224). Accordingly, although “colonialism” in Korean is singminjui, Koreans commonly refer to this period as ilche kangjm – imperial Japan’s occupation. The general description above leads us to the three issues that are treated in the present chapter: life under colonial rule, the brutality of the colonizer, and the issue of collaboration. Through these themes the explored memorial sites form the framework of the memory of the South Korean anti-colonial struggle, which will be the subject of...

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