AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 310

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Session 310: Between History and Literature: Establishing, Molding, and Subverting Hegemonic Narratives in South(ern) Korea 1945-1980

Organizer: Seunghei C. Hong, Yonsei University, South Korea

Chair: Yeong-Seo Paek, Yonsei University, South Korea

Discussant: Youngju Ryu, University of Michigan, USA

The past one hundred years of Korean history has witnessed the major transformations of colonization, war, partition, authoritarian rule, democratization, and industrialization. Throughout these historical changes, ruling powers established and modified hegemonic historical narratives to legitimize their rule, defining the scope of the “speakable” and the “unspeakable” as a means to silence delegitimizing voices. Literature has taken on an active role in the construction and deconstruction of these narratives. Since the establishment of hegemonic historical narratives does not occur through a simple linear process, literature often creates new understandings and fills in the gaps left by the complex processes involved in the formation of historical narratives. This panel will address this relationship between historical and literary discourse—a relationship of constant flux where these two discourses repeatedly converge and diverge—by examining the ways in which literature participated in establishing, molding, and subverting hegemonic historical narratives. This panel will pay particular attention to historical narratives that construct “Korea” through defining its relationship with the past, specifically in the historical discourse relating to decolonization, nation, modernization, and national division. Jonathan Glade looks at efforts in post-World War II Korea to construct a “new” Korea through defining its relationship with the past. Kim Hyun-Ju analyzes the ways in which Hong I-sop and Kim Yunsik’s work on colonial period writers challenged established historical discourse. Seunghei Clara Hong discusses how Pak Wanso attempts to give voice to the unspeakable past through the trope of traumatic memory.

Constructing the Present and Yi T’ae-jun’s “Before and After Liberation”
Jonathan Glade, Michigan State University, USA

The disintegration of the Japanese Empire in August of 1945 plunged the Korean Peninsula into a state of flux where numerous competing factions form in the struggle to define and shape the now stateless Korea. Members of the Korean Writers Association (Choson munhakka tongmaeng), one of the main literary organizations of the period, actively strove to narrate the historical transformations occurring on the peninsula as a means to not only establish historical narratives but to also create a “new national literature” (shinminjok munhak). They sought to construct the “present” through promoting a process of decolonization that would wipe out all “imperial remnants” and clearly separate Korea from its “colonial” and “feudal” past. This paper will examine how Yi T’ae-jun, a central figure in the Korean Writers Association, narrates the transition from the “colonial” to the “postcolonial” and delineates a clean break from the historical past in his short story “Before and After Liberation” (“Haebang chonhu, 1946). The text, which has a markedly optimistic tone, represents the future of Korean literature as ripe with potential. The presence of the US Military, however, which shows up symbolically in the form of Jeeps and as an obstacle to the decolonization process, seems to pose a threat to the establishment of a new Korean literature. The Korean Writers Association is somewhat successful in establishing their narrative as “hegemonic,” but by 1948 this narrative becomes the object of harsh criticism as the hegemonic historical narratives of the new South Korean state begin to emerge.

Two-Way Street: Traversing History and Literature in Hong I-sop and Kim Yunsik, 1960-70
Hyun Joo Kim, Yonsei University, South Korea

In the aftermath of the April 19 Movement of 1960, as “nationalism” and “modernization” became the major thrust of knowledge production, Korean Studies emerged as a new force in academia. Historians strove to contest long-held theories of stagnation and heteronomy to found a theory of independent development. Taking the histories of national movements and social economics during the mid-seventeenth to mid-nineteenth centuries as their main focus, these historians aimed to develop an “independent” and “scientific” historical narrative—one that harmoniously integrated the sovereignty of the nation with the modernization of its social structures. This paper examines the seminal efforts taken up by historian Hong I-sop (1914-1974) and literary critic Kim Yunsik (1936-present) to study the histories of social thought and literature of the colonial period amid this backdrop. Hong I-sop deemed social thought to be the fundamental mediator between social structures and human activities and deliberately incorporated literary works as source materials. At the same time, Kim Yunsik sought to establish a modern Korean literary history by way of a historical perspective. A comparative analysis of Hong I-sop’s and Kim Yunsik’s critical writings on writers from the colonial period will reveal how, and through which processes, Korea’s history of social thought and literary history came to appropriate literature. In exploring this nascent encounter—and exchange—between history and literature, my paper will show how the histories of social thought and literature challenged, even as they were informed by, established “independent” and “scientific” historical discourses and methodologies on the “modern” “nation.”

Stammering from the Dark Recesses of Memory: Traumatic Recall and Broken Narratives of the Past in Pak Wanso’s Early Works
Seunghei C. Hong, Yonsei University, South Korea

As its epithet “literature of han” (pain, suffering, grief) attests, modern Korean literature has always had a close relationship with history in South Korea. Standing, at times, alongside and, at others, against history, literature has doggedly borne witness to the lived experiences of history’s devastations. This was never more evident than in the 1970s when (hi)stories unbefitting of the nation’s hegemonic historical narrative were brutally excised and forcefully silenced; and, unsurprisingly, writers emerged to rescue and re-present “the past.” To read literary works from the 1970s is thus to engage with multiply layered and tortuously entwined narratives caught between the historical and the literary. Under the guise of imagination, figuration, and indirection, writers maneuvered around and beyond the speakable that would repress and deny so as to find new ways of speaking the unspeakable—social and personal, collective and individual. My paper examines Pak Wanso’s The Naked Tree (Namok, 1970) and “At Buddha’s Side” (“Puch’onim kunch’o,” 1973), to investigate how Pak Wanso utilizes the trope of memory to confront—re-collect and re-present—a past so traumatic, painful, and complex as to resist intelligibility—when a bifurcated politics of division dictates both the contents and methods of remembering. As the two protagonists repeatedly stammer and falter in the face of traumatic recollection and enforced amnesia, they raise questions about the difficulty of recovering a silenced past in and through speech. This is not to re-emphasize trauma as unspeakable, but, rather, to show how traumatic recall impacts our ways of narrativizing history.