South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol waves a national flag during a ceremony to celebrate Korean Liberation Day from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, at the presidential office square in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022. 

Imagining empire: Part II

Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter, takes a deep dive this week into the ways in which memorialization in South Korea is an act of present politics.

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

Memorials are made in the present and for the present. Monuments to the past, especially statues linked to specific historical events and persons, are active statements about what parts of the past should be remembered, by who, and in what way. Last week, Critical State looked at the way President Vladimir Putin’s commitment to an imperial understanding of Russia led him to cite the removal of Soviet statues in Ukraine as a casus belli. This week, the question of memory and empire turns to relations between South Korea and Japan.

Memorialization is an act of present politics, argues Eun A Jo in “Memory, Institutions, and the Domestic Politics of South Korean–Japanese Relations.” Eun A points to a “memory boom” that had found form in the erection of “dozens of ‘comfort women’ statues, commemorating victims of Japanese sexual slavery during World War II” across South Korea in the past decade. These statues, along with efforts since the 1990s by survivors of forced labor to win reparations from Japanese companies through courts, are acts about historical memory with a present political context.

“Today’s historical disputes cannot be understood separately from the battling and intermingling domestic narratives in South Korea over its future as a postcolonial and post-authoritarian society,” Eun A writes. 

A postcolonial identity is primarily domestic and about how a country understands its relation to its former occupiers. This is the historical grounding of South Korea’s memory practices, highlighting the longevity of abuses from the 35-year Japanese occupation of Korea. But the post-authoritarian nature of South Korea is crucial to understanding why historical memory of atrocity carries weight, even when the governments formally normalized relations in 1965. In linking the abuses of authoritarian government at home to the legacy of colonial rule, protest movements in South Korea made redress for grievances historic and present into sympathetic movements.

One major shift in South Korea was the emergence of nongovernmental organizations and the fall of authoritarian rulers from power. This meant, in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, new actors in the public sphere could shape memory, whereas previously, under less democratic rulers, the security imperatives of cooperation with Japan had shaped some narratives away from past abuses.

“In this new colonial-authoritarian frame, grievances against Japan and grievances against the state were mutually supportive; postcolonial reckoning required post-authoritarian justice,” writes Eun A. “It was as new narrators entered the stage and their narratives of humiliation and shame found broader traction that, for the first time in South Korean history, collective memory truly began to bind.”

Collective memory in the post-authoritarian era has been shaped by actors outside the state, constraining both domestic and foreign policy choices taken in the name of colonial victims without directly consulting with those victims. For South Korea, any path forward in politics has to reckon with public understanding of memory rather than trying to route around it in secret.

More broadly, writes Eun A, “the plurality of memories in the public sphere may be indicative of democratic cohesion; and what should be worrisome, instead, are the proliferating attempts to rehabilitate the past in service of a thick mnemonic consensus.”

Critical State is your weekly fix of foreign policy analysis from the staff at Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

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