Yongusil 66: Suzy Kim, Cross-Currents and the (De)Memorialization of the Memorial

By | April 22, 2015 | No Comments

Readers of Sino-NK will recall our roundtable consideration of Suzy Kim’s substantial 2013 text Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950. Dr. Kim’s noble effort to reconstruct the excitement and energy which some on the northern half of the Korean peninsula undoubtedly felt during the mid-1940s seems now to have been the opening salvo in a growing body of scholarship that is determined to reconfigure the academic consensus of the vital first moments of governance and sovereignty in Pyongyang.

In doing so, such scholarship re-oxygenates the tanks of memory and memorialization of an extraordinary time; new lines of flight are drawn, and new, living connections made. Here at Sino-NK we spend a great deal of our analytical energies on pondering Pyongyang’s own version of this process; examining, for instance, how governmental and ideological narratives flatten temporality so that the power of the three emanations of Kimist authority can function in the contemporary era, and thus the schoolchildren of North Korea today can (up to a point) re-territorialize and re-temporalize the mythic past and its congruent footsteps.

In the latest edition of UC Berkeley’s fascinating open-access journal Cross Currents, Suzy Kim crystallizes an array of similar re-temporalizations. Investigating the structures, architectures, terrains, and memorializations of both the Korean War and the fallout of the post-liberation/post-war periods, the journal’s latest special issue, “(De)Memorializing the Korean War: A Critical Intervention,” maneuvers to unblock, melt and otherwise fracture what the authors surely regard as a repertoire of forgetting and misremembering. For Dr. Kim, such structures exist, ultimately, to extend the lifespan of what is eloquently described as the “division system,” and to further obfuscate and delay all realistic hopes of a resolution to the sovereign, political and social rupture of the Korean peninsula.

Museums and memorials, to the extent they are conceived as terrains of memory, scholarship and pedagogy, are re-contextualized as existing in a collaborative relationship with this pan-national process of forgetting. Daniel Kim, in his paper “Nationalist Technologies of Cultural Memory and the Korean War: Militarism and Neo-Liberalism in The Price of Freedom and the War Memorial of Korea,” rigorously critiques the impact of neoliberal modalities of control and beneficence in the reproduction of narratives of legitimatory imperial war. Kim articulates the extraordinary processes behind sponsor Kenneth Behring’s embedding of a combat-weathered Huey helicopter in the exhibition hall of a new exhibition at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). The injured and now-redundant bird serves as much to embed romanticized technologies of death in the historiography of the museum as it does to promote remembrance of contorted narratives of struggle. In fact, it appears that the helicopter’s domination of the space of memory in the museum serves to lessen the impact of the tiny space devoted to the Korean War. Kim also sees technology deployed to envelop and overwhelm in the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul, wherein the visitor is bombarded by nationalist militarism in, as he writes,  “a baptismal chamber of remembrance and celebration (or Stygian chamber of forgetting).”

North of the 38th parallel, Suzy Kim and Sunghoon Han examine the memorial spaces of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang and Museum of American War Atrocities in Sinchon, respectively. Though less focused on digital and high-tech representations of war and suffering than those in Washington DC, these North Korean institutions deploy the same technological tropes and strategies in their propagation of Pyongyang’s very different memory of the period.

Sunghoon Han makes internationalist connection with memorial institutions dedicated to the maintenance of memory of the Third Reich, such as the State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the subtler spaces of the My Lai memorial in Vietnam, but any similarity of encounter ends at the door. The blood-stained flags and axes of Sinchon are not designed to passively memorialize, but to concretely educate the current generation as to the victimhood of those caught in the massacre and the culpability of the Americans held responsible for it, avoiding entirely the more troublesome local narrative of violent rightist fellow citizens. There is no such connection in Suzy Kim’s Pyongyang; in the Museum’s vigorous exhibitions are seen a determinedly modernist conception of historical narrative, one whose flow leaves the victim behind in its pursuit of necessary victory, and whose monumentality (now in the guise of enormous statues of Kim Il-sung rather than an elaborate rotating diorama) leaves no room; no space for alternative memory or remembrance.

Finally, Seunghei Clara Hong and Brendan Wright examine the memorial spaces dedicated to what are termed “civilian massacres” in the context of both the Korean War and the post-War period, one in which, Wright asserts, the Syngman Rhee government engaged in actions of “politicide” against populations it saw as potentially revolutionary, combative, or Communist. Their papers deal with moments of horror and degradation which are most determinedly buried events, particularly when compared to those on show in other, grander spaces of memory: In the case of the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park, remembrance was entirely proscribed for years. Through a process of reconciliation, those who had been touched by injustice and death in the late 1940s and early 1950s were empowered to uncover their memories. This beginning of the process of memorialization is a task which this special issue heartily recounts.

The emotion emerging from this process is clearly still very raw, and as deft as the writers of this special issue may be, their (de)memorializations succeed in something else entirely. Through the process of (de)memorialization, authors reterritorialize and revive the field of memory and experience, once again activating its content and reality, reenacting and re-memorializing it in equal measure. For this author, what lingers longest in the memory here is the revival of the twin ghosts of Cold War pain and victimhood, consumed by unresolved anger and bitterness.