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Public Culture 14.2 (2002) 387-409

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Monumental Histories:
Manliness, the Military, and the War Memorial

Sheila Miyoshi Jager


Our ancestors were manly men until the middle ages, but this masculine character disappeared by the time of the establishment of the Choson Dynasty. . . . Sorrow is the only reward we can get from surveying our past history.

President Park Chung-hee, Major Speeches by Korea's Park Chung-hee

How does one commemorate a war that is technically not yet over? While the Korean War, at least for Americans, "ended" in 1953, the discourse of commemoration about the war has not been brought to closure in Korean society. 1 How does one bring closure to a war for which the central narrative is one of division and dissent, a war whose history is still in the process of being made?

In South Korea, the official commemoration of the Korean War has always had an anti-North Korean character. But this official view was questioned in the [End Page 387] wake of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's historic meeting in Py|ngyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in June 2000. Indeed, to the surprise (and dismay) of the hundreds of veterans who had gathered in Seoul to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean War in June 2000, it was announced that most of the planned commemorative events, including a large parade and a historical reenactment of the 1950 Inch|n landing, were to be canceled.

Of course, the official historical narrative of the Korean War, including the anti-North Korean rhetoric embedded within it, has always been open to question in South Korea, but it was not until very recently that these new views—and new perceptions of North Korea in particular—have been able to be aired freely. Any commemorative act, especially concerning war, is a form of history making that aims to promote and secure a particular interpretation of events while at the same time blocking or erasing potentially contestatory readings. In the case of South Korea, official memory about the war has always been constituted within a discourse of national self-definition aimed at promoting the legitimacy of the state. In the Korean official culture of commemoration, the Korean War has played a fundamental role in defining the masculinist language of national self-definition and state legitimacy in South Korea. Not only has this official commemorative culture perpetuated and generated a view of the past in terms of a masculine ideal, but memories of the war have also affirmed the identification of the national subject with the authority of these masculine images aimed at perpetuating the state's vision of a future reunified Korea. The purpose of this essay is to explore the masculinist logic of this official commemorative culture through [End Page 388] a detailed examination of the War Memorial, a huge architectural complex located in Yongsan-gu, Seoul. Conceived under the Roh Tae-woo regime in 1988, the War Memorial opened to the public in 1994, soon after the election of Kim Yong-sam, Korea's first civilian president in over thirty years of military rule. The War Memorial glorifies the ancient and eternal character of the nation, which it links to the lost "manly" past of a forgotten martial tradition, while it simultaneously emphasizes the unprecedented novelty of the modern nation, which it links to the "recovery" of ancient military values. Connecting the military, manliness, and nationalism, the War Memorial illustrates how history was written by those who saw themselves as the privileged "subjects" of the nation, and, more important, how the gender ideals implicit in that history—in this case, martial masculinity—were appropriated by the state for political ends to affirm its legitimacy vis-à-vis NorthKorea. The War Memorial not only tells the story of the manly and strong nation against the plight of its war-torn past, it also advocates manliness and brotherly strength as patriotic values against the plight of its divided future.

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