360° Analysis

Images of the Colonial Past and Identity Politics on the Korean Peninsula


January 12, 2012 00:28 EDT
Two states emerged on the Korean Peninsula in 1948 in the aftermath of Japanese colonial rule and the deep involvement of foreign powers in the region. Since their founding, each state has claimed to be the sole legitimate representative of the Korean people, each engaged in redefining, establishing, and promoting its national identity.

The formation of national identity is a dynamic process susceptible to both external and internal pressures and challenges. Fluctuations in the influence of several interconnected factors determine the nature of a "national identity" and to what degree the majority of the population can identify with it. One factor is the legitimacy the principal propeller of the dominant narrative—i.e., the state or the government – draws from society. Another factor is the compatibility between the dominant narrative and the myths and memories produced and held by individuals and collectively by smaller communities. Finally, a decisive factor is the ability, or lack thereof, ofthe state or government to advance its preferred narrative.

In order to consolidate national identity through consensual perceptions of history, culture, "us-them" dichotomies, etc., the dominant narrative—to draw from Roland Barthes's idea on "myth"—is constructed by the repetition of concepts and images in different forms and by overriding ambiguities and contradictions. The narrative is projected on both, and often simultaneous, internal and external trajectories. It is transferred to members of the nation by textbooks, national holidays, commemorative sites (monuments, museums, statues, etc.), and cultural activities. Highlights are displayed to foreigners during different international encounters.

In what follows, I do not intend to pass judgment on the validity of the historical narratives that are mentioned. Instead, I only aim to point as to how and why these narratives have been adopted and constructed in light of the unique conditions on the Peninsula.

In a similar vein with other nation-states, perceptions of a troubled past on the Korean Peninsula are viewed from the standpoint of perceived challenges of the present and have been influencing the defining and redefining of national identity. Two decisive factors in this regard have been the legacy of Japanese colonial rule and the South-North rivalry. Combined with these factors were the particular and changing socio-political domestic interests.

Japanese colonial rule started in August 1910 with the forced annexation treaty and later abdication of Korea's last king of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). It ended in 1945, leaving difficult questions of postcolonial identity for the two independent Korean states. How can one explain the humiliating deterioration into colonial rule? How should the Korean people's reactions to, and life under, colonial rule be understood? How significant is the fact that colonial rule ended with Japan's surrender to the Allies, rather than in the Koreans' ability to drive the perpetrator out? How should the postcolonial Japanese "other" be depicted?

Just like in other nation-states, the key for the two Koreas to deal with a troubled past and its thorny issues was by relying on the concepts of struggle, resistance, and heroism. In light of their different ideological agendas and their leaders’ personal and political interests, the idea of what anti-colonial valor was manifested itself in competing historical narratives. While it is beyond the scope of the present essay to provide detailed analyses of these complex narratives, it is possible to highlight some of their central components.

In North Korea the story has been consistent. At the center of this socialist/communist-dictatorial state’s historical narrative stands the heroic activity of its founder and "eternal president," Kim Il Sung. Kim, a partisan who fought the Japanese in the 1930s and early 1940s, is praised as the patriotic leader and hero of the anti-colonial struggle; the one who saved the Korean people through his exceptional personal and leadership capabilities. Kim's heroism is projected and instilled through school textbooks and memorial sites that construct a larger-than-life militarist and benevolent image of Kim, while also anchoring the image of his son and heir Kim Jong Il. It was reported that recently, in the summer of 2010, the first bronze statue of Kim the son was unveiled next to the statues of his parents. The third side of the North Korean "triangle of valor"—or "the Three Generals of Mt. Baekdu," as they are called—consists of Kim Jong Suk, Kim Il Sung's wife and Kim Jong Il's mother. Dubbed "The Mother of Korea," Kim Jong Suk too took part in the anti-Japanese struggle at the time. The statues, pictures, and artworks of the three dominate the country’s patriotic landscape.

The image of the heroic Kim lineage is also constructed by going further back into the middle of the nineteenth century. Every June and October, North Korea marks the anniversaries of the birth and the death of Kim Ung U, Kim Il Sung's great grandfather. Kim Ung U is praised for his role in organizing the fight against the American armed merchant ship General Sherman in 1866. In a 2008 Korean Central News Agency article, North Korea describes the incident as a struggle against US imperialist aggression, and Kim Ung U as one who "ardently loved the country and people and resolutely opposed feudal bureaucrats and foreign invaders."

Interestingly, Kim Ung U is also depicted as the one who aroused the people again when the U.S.S. Shenandoah arrived in 1868. In the same Korean Central News Agency article, North Koreans claim that the ship's crew committed "murder, incendiary attacks, and pillage," but other sources, such as Woong Joe Kang’s book The Korean Struggle for International Identity in the Foreground of the Shufeldt Negotiation, 1866-1882, state that the ship was sent on a mission to bring back survivors from the "General Sherman incident" of 1866, and that it had left Korea after its Captain, who was in contact with Korean officials, became convinced that there were no survivors.

Kim Il Sung died of a heart attack in July 1994. Given the North Korean state's prolonged grip over all aspects of citizen life and the lack of alternative narratives, it may be safe to assume that many of those who mourned his death truly believed that a national tragedy had occurred.

In North Korea, an undisputed North Korean national identity revolving around the god-like figure of Kim Il Sung has been grounded. By constructing and amplifying the heroic image of Kim and his family, the colonial past was appropriated to legitimize both the postcolonial leaders and state. The historical narrative the North Korean state has constructed, however, is quite different from the one its sister to the south has about the same, shared period.

South Korea's dominating images of the colonial past have gone through several phases. Under Syngman Rhee, the first president, the bureaucracy and police force were staffed by "collaborators"—Koreans who had formerly held positions under Japanese colonial authorities.  At the same time, Rhee did make an attempt to create a bond between himself and the physical anti-colonial struggle, specifically with the March First Independence Movement of 1919. In what has become the biggest show of anti-colonial resistance, approximately one million people demonstrated nationwide against the colonial rulers for months. The Japanese were finally able to quell the demonstrations by applying harsh and brutal measures. Indeed, Rhee was an activist who was involved in the attempts to regain Korea's independence. However, throughout most of the colonial period he did so from his seat in the US and thus did not take part in the March First Movement. This did not prevent him from erecting his statue in central Seoul in a place called Pagoda Park, the spot from where the Movement evolved.

The fate of the statue was similar to that of the figure it represented: it was brought down by the demonstrators that toppled Rhee's repressive and corrupt regime in 1960. A year later, Park Chung Hee took over the country, and among the many other things necessary for "building a nation," he systematically invested in instilling a consciousness of the past.

Under Park's rule (1961-1979), and as a part of the significant rebuilding of Korea, the patriotic landscape changed. Most notably, Park—a former army general himself—had the statue of Admiral Yi Sun Shin (1545-1598), the military hero who had fought the Japanese invasions in the sixteenth century, erected at the heart of the capital. The statue remains one of Seoul's landmarks to date.

More and more monuments and memorial sites connected to the colonial period were built, including major works in Pagoda Park. Most importantly, this trend gained momentum in the 1970s, the final phase of Park's rule that was also his most authoritarian. Despite, or perhaps in light of, the fact that Park's résumé was stained by his military service under the Japanese Empire in the early 1940s, it seems that this historical government-inspired narrative was a means to obtaining domestic legitimacy in response to the regime's iron-fist rule and the continuing legitimacy struggle with the North.

A further boost to the official "colonial memory" arrived in the early 1980s, following General Chun Doo Hwan’s rise to power. Chun had taken over the country through violent and illegitimate means and thus already had an acute legitimacy problem once he became president in late 1980. An opportunity to at least try to amend this problem soon arrived in the context of relations with Japan.

In 1984 Chun became the first Korean leader to visit Japan. However, two years earlier anti-Japanese feelings had surged following what Koreans saw as the distortion of Korean history in Japanese textbooks. The government decided to pursue a hard-line policy toward the former colonizer, giving Chun an opportunity to form a united front with the public. Under this context—and most likely also thanks to the fact that in comparison to both Rhee and Park, Chun had no "colonial skeleton" lying in his closet—Chun decided to build Independence Hall in the summer of 1982.

Independence Hall is South Korea's biggest and most popular museum and memorial site, dedicated to the colonial past. Through its layout and exhibitions it projects a strong message of Korean suffering and heroism that extends to both the pre-colonial and post-colonial eras. When the Hall opened in August 1987 after four years of construction, it was dubbed "the nation's shrine."

Independence Hall signaled a new era in the way South Korea commemorates the colonial period. Most importantly, the issue of anti-colonial struggle and resistance has become more prominent than before, and the memory of the colonial period has been projected through a wave of the construction and renovation of monuments and memorial sites.

 One will find quite different features of the colonial past in South Korea in comparison with North Korea. One important example is related to the Korean Provisional Government (KPG) that was formed in Shanghai in 1919 and was active until the final days of the colonial period. While South Korea considers this government as representing the entire nation and as the body that introduced a constitutional democratic republican system, North Korea sees its members as corrupt opportunists. The reason for this is obvious: while for the North there could be no potent and effective leadership other than that of Kim Il Sung and his family, South Korea—where members of the KPG returned to after the end of the colonial period and where they are also buried—emphasizes its role as the natural heir of pre-divided Korea.

Another interesting difference between the South and the North is related to each state’s most pronounced heroine. While in North Korea this role is reserved to the abovementioned Kim Jong Suk, South Korea's most revered and known heroine is Ryu Kwan Sun, who led an anti-colonial demonstration during the March First Movement of 1919. Ryu was captured by the Japanese, tortured, and died in prison at the young age of 18. With regard to heroes, it is also worth mentioning that there is one particular colonial-period related hero who is highly revered by both Koreas: An Jung Geun. In October 1909 An assassinated Ito Hirobumi, the Japanese statesman who many Koreans consider as one of the dominating figures responsible for the Japanese takeover.  

A final noticeable difference is the way the two states construct their "Japanese other." For North Korea, which does not have diplomatic relations with Japan, the Japanese are generally still evildoers plotting to regain control over Korea. This is part of the state's anti-imperialist rhetoric where both Japan and the South Korean government are depicted as US lackeys. For South Korea, which has had diplomatic relations with the former colonizer since 1965, the picture is a bit more complicated. Without delving into the history of South Korea-Japan relations, suffice it to point out that while Japanese brutality and cruelty are well shown and described through various means, and while thorny unresolved issues still rise occasionally to create tensions between the two countries, the "Japanese other" is a much more complicated figure. This is not only due to the fact that the countries have diplomatic relations, but it is also a result of the cultural connections that have been established on the popular level. For example, although the South Korean government began to lift the decades-old ban on Japanese cultural products in 1998, a vibrant local black market had supplied the demand for such products for years earlier.

In both Koreas, a narrative of a colonial past of heroism and resistance has been a crucial part of each state's national identity. The contents of the narratives have been shaped and reshaped throughout the years in accordance with both the legitimacy rivalry and each state's domestic developments. Had Korea not been divided, historical narratives and national identities different from what we see today would have emerged. Observers of Korean national identities 20 years from now will likely have plenty of new material to interpret. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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