Culture of Remembrance in Late Choson Korea: Bringing an Unknown War Hero Back into History

By Kim, Sun Joo | Journal of Social History, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Culture of Remembrance in Late Choson Korea: Bringing an Unknown War Hero Back into History


Kim, Sun Joo, Journal of Social History


Numerous scholarly works have been produced on "memory projects" as the culture and politics of nation-states in the modern world. Yet remaking of the past is not the monopoly of modernity. This paper investigates the problem of engineering memory in Choson Korea (1392-1910) through the case of Kim Kyongso, a commanding general during the Ming-Choson joint war against the rising Jurchen in 1619. I examine competing memories constructed by various social political groups and the historical and cultural contexts in which such construction took place. In particular, I analyze the processes of inventing, commemorating, and enshrining "public memory" as a way for a disadvantaged social group of local elites from Choson's northwestern region to overcome social and political discrimination against them.

In early 2007, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) issued a set of seven new stamps (see Figure 1). (1) Like many stamp and currency designs throughout the world, historically famous personalities were engraved prominently on them. The seven are: Ulchi Mundok (n.d.), a general of the Koguryo kingdom (37 BCE ?-668) who defeated the invading army of the Sui Chinese dynasty (581-618) in 612; Yon Kaesomun (?-665), a de facto power-holder of Koguryo who took a hardliner foreign policy toward Tang-dynasty China (618-907); So Hui (942-98), who used diplomatic persuasion to make the invading Khitan people who established the Liao dynasty (947-1125) withdraw in 993; Kang Kamch'an (948-1031), a Koryo (918-1392) general who crushed the Khitan invaders in 1018; Yi Kyubo (1168-1241), a late Koryo scholar-official who composed an epic in which he glorified the legendary Koguryo founder, King Tongmyong, as a sage; Mun Ikchom (1329-98), who smuggled cotton seeds from China to Korea and subsequently revolutionized clothing culture; and Kim Ungso (1564-1624), a military official of Choson Korea (1392-1910)--also known by his revised name, Kim Kyongso--who gained great merit during the Japanese invasions of 1592-98. All except Kim Ungso (hereafter Kyongso) are quite well-known heroes from the pre-Choson period whose names frequently appear in school history textbooks from the elementary grades on up in both North and South Korea.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Kim Kyongso, the only Choson person depicted in the series, is relatively unknown to the Korean historical imagination. Compared to his contemporaries Yi Sunsin (1545-98) and Kwak Chaeu (1552-1617)--who were deified as "national heroes" for their military accomplishments during the Japanese invasions, in which they served as a naval commander and a militia leader, respectively--Kim has been a stranger even to historians. (2) It is curious, then, that Kim suddenly entered the pantheon of national heroes in the North Korean imagination. (3) If he is a new invention in North Korean historical consciousness, and if we concur with Eric Hobsbawm that "inventing traditions ... is essentially a process of formalization and ritualization, characterized by reference to the past," then what sort of historical past now brings Kim to the forefront of national history in North Korea? (4) Moreover, what historical ties around Kim have caused amnesia about him in Korea's historical memory to date?

It may not he too much to argue that the single most important element in answering both these questions is the fact that Kim was a northerner (sobugin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) from the district of Yonggang, P'yongan Province (see Map). In Choson Korea, men from the three northern provinces were discriminated against in their bureaucratic careers and socially insulted for their allegedly non-Confucian cultural traits. (5) In addition, their history and culture have been largely buried under the nationalistic interpretation of Korean history in modern historical scholarship. Just as Pierre Nora indicates that practitioners of "total" history represent only a particular memory while repressing and forgetting others, (6) nation-centered historical studies in Korean historiography have fundamentally ignored the particular historical experiences of different regions of the Korean peninsula, and the northern region in particular. …

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