- Literature and Film in Cold War South Korea: Freedom’s Frontier by Theodore Hughes
During the past twenty years or so, scholarship on modern Korea has largely concentrated on the period of Japanese colonial rule, exploring how the Koreans actively participated in the formation of their own “modernity” within the colonial crucible and, most recently, how they responded to the wartime imperial mobilization of the late 1930s and early 1940s. For the most part, such scholarship has confined itself to the colonial era itself, with perhaps a brief glance at the post-1945 world in a concluding chapter or epilogue. Some of the newer scholarship on modern Korea, however, including much coming out of South Korea itself, is turning its gaze to the periods after Japan’s defeat, as two new Korean states on a divided peninsula first took shape and began to trace out separate but deeply intertwined paths. Theodore Hughes’s book is a welcome and thoughtful study of some of the cultural aspects of this new “contemporary history” (hyŏndaesa), as it is known to scholars of modern Korea.
In contrast to earlier scholarship that focused more on colonial experiences than on their postcolonial legacies and effects, Hughes stresses the enduring presence of the colonial in the postcolonial, still hidden from view by what he sees as a distorting lens of political change in 1945. As a scholar of Korean literature, he finds his evidence in works of post-1945 South Korean writers, as well as artists and filmmakers, and his argument is compelling. Eschewing a simple idea of continuity, Hughes instead suggests that what occurred was a complicated process of appropriation and reworking, of forgetting and erasing. On the one hand, it was carried out by the new South Korean [End Page 241] state. But a similar process occurred in South Korean society, led by writers and artists more often than not critical of what the state had become in the context of post-1945 militarization and war, both cold and hot, international and local, and in the throes of relentless economic development, especially during the Park Chung Hee era (1961–1979). If South Korean writers were still actively engaged with the sensibilities and even the vocabulary of the colonial era, in which many of the basic questions of Korean modernity had first been posed, they were also able in their work to subvert the central myth of the South Korean state, especially under Park, and also of its political adversaries, both of which defined themselves in terms of an absolute binary between the imperialism of the past each claimed to reject and the nationalism of the present each claimed to represent.
Ch’oe In-hun’s satiric Voice of the Governor-General, for example, which was published in the 1960s and 1970s and which Hughes discusses toward the end of his book, exposes the artificiality and hollowness of this binary. Ch’oe’s work is an extended imaginary in which Korea’s last Japanese colonial Governor General, heartened by what he regards as the “polite farewell” of the Korean population in 1945, decides to remain covertly in Korea, broadcasting his pointed commentaries on Korean society year after year from an underground station to an allegedly still loyal imperial following. In this brilliant and unsettling work, both the fanatic nationalist developmentalism of Park and the zealous ethnonationalism of the “peoples” or “minjok” groups who opposed him are revealed as “devolutions” of colonial wartime mobilization and its insistence on the rectification of what the Japanese in their time had called the “national polity” or kokutai. In the work of Ch’oe and others the “universalism” of the “free world,” in which South Korea situated itself after 1945, seems suddenly to look, sound, and feel all too much like the “universalism” of the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,” in which Korea had been assigned a strategic place only a few decades earlier.
Hughes’s book is not always easy to read. The writing is dense, sometimes repetitive, and suffused...