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Memorialization and the Limits of Reconciliation: Transnational Memory Circuits of the Korean War


The Korean War, as a “hot war” within the Cold War period with participation by 21 member nations of the UN and the People’s Republic of China, and also an unresolved civil war between South Korea and North Korea, is characterized by still-present animosities, which play out in contemporary politics in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as for the U.S. Furthermore, memoryscapes of the Korean War continue to be shaped and reshaped in the present. My dissertation examines built spaces and cultural texts of Korean War memorialization, focusing specifically on films, museums, and memorials in South Korea and the U.S. in the “post-Cold War” conjuncture. It focuses specifically on the theme of reconciliation to ask, how do Korean War memorial texts and spaces attempt to reconcile an unfinished Cold War conflict in a post-Cold War world?

I trace the theme of reconciliation in multiple ways – first, I utilize the common definition of reconciliation as an act of bringing issues to an agreement. For example, how do memorial texts and built spaces suture histories and memories into coherent or cohering narratives? Furthermore, I examine reconciliation as a specific affective theme in South Korean popular and national cultures, particularly through the imagined reunification between South Korea and North Korea, and/or separated family members stuck on opposite sides of the DMZ border as well as divided ideologically. Lastly, I examine reconciliation as a conceptual theme underlying memorialization of the Korean War in relation to Cold War memory and history – what is the relationship between memorialization and history, particularly as memorial and national texts attempt to make sense of Korean War history (as a technically unfinished war) with Cold War history (as a “finished” event)?

Memorials and national/popular memory of the Korean War are thus necessarily changing or constantly being amended in flux with changing presidential administrations as well as in response to veterans or civic groups in both the U.S. and South Korea. In studying the memory of war, it is impossible to ignore the ways in which memory and memorial discourses travel across geographic space in reference to each other, whether intentional or not. Drawing from the rich genealogy of Asian American cultural critique, this dissertation argues that critical Asian American memorial studies as methodology to study memorialization can bring out transnational narratives and allows for the multiple subjectivities of museum/memorial visitors and film viewers to enable readings beyond existing Cold War frameworks and narratives in both South Korea and the U.S. Through conducing a transnational study of Korean War memory, this dissertation rethinks the Korean War as “forgotten war” or as the benchmark for showcasing South Korean developmentalism (“forgotten victory” discourse), but rather the nuances in differential layers of forgettings and rememberings that constitute Korean War memoryscapes in the “post-Cold War” period.

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