History, Memory, and Progress: The Culture War in South Korea
Namhee Lee - Associate Professor of Modern Korean History, UCLA
From the Park Chung-hee syndrome to the contentious debates surrounding the legislation to deal with “pro-Japanese collaborators” of the colonial period and the rise of the New Right the textbook controversy, South Korea in the last two decades has been waging internecine struggles so fierce and contentious, it has been called a civil war, tout court. These debates reveal that Korean society is deeply divided over how centrally their country’s history of overcoming the colonial and authoritarian past should underlie current political consciousness and a vision for the future. Should South Korea’s commitment to democracy and its future vision require that it continue to remind itself of its colonial and authoritarian legacies? Or are these legacies—seven decades after the liberation of the country from Japanese colonial rule, four decades after the death of Park Chung-hee, and three decades after the historic 1987 grand march of democracy—rather inconsequential for contemporary and future of South Korea? Should not “truth” about the past and any of the unresolved historical issue be left to future historical judgment? Might not repeated and public retelling of the “shameful” stories of Korea’s past, as some on the conservatives have insisted, actually get in the way of standing tall as a modern democracy and a global economic powerhouse? The talk will focus on the revisionist scholarship of the New Right in South Korea and its postcolonial critique of the nationalist scholarship of the post-1945 authoritarian era, situating the scholarship and the ensuing public debates in the context of the persistence of the cold war in the Korean peninsula as well as the global transformation of neoliberal restructuring.
Namhee Lee is associate professor of modern Korean history and director of the Center for Korean Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her publications include The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea (Cornell University Press, 2007) and The South Korean Democratization Movement: A Sourcebook (co-edited with Kim Won, Academy of Korean Studies, 2016). She is currently working on a book about social memory of the 1980s in the context of the persistence of the cold war in Korea as well as the globalization and neoliberalism.