A curiosity of South Korea’s history is the way in which dictatorships incubate memory. From 1948 to 1954 the regime of Syngman Rhee was responsible for a minimum of two hundred thousand deaths through political murder and massacre, of which roughly thirty thousand were killed in the suppression of the Cheju Rebellion. There were many more massacres when the Republic of Korea military, the national police, and rampaging rightwing youth groups occupied the North in October and November 1950, but we have little evidence of those deaths. Seeking any kind of redress for the demise of loved ones—locally, nationally, through the press, or through the court system—was impossible as long as Rhee was in power. Trying to do anything about these atrocities meant jail, torture, and death. Endless blacklists put the families of victims into a kind of living purgatory. When Rhee was finally overthrown in the 1960 April Revolution, a brief window of democracy opened and victims and survivors were able, if only for a moment, to call attention to what happened, seek redress, build monuments to the dead, or send certain perpetrators—like local police—to their own early deaths. Park Chung Hee closed that window in May 1961 and immediately set about destroying whatever monuments, petitions, and shouted memories might have briefly existed.
In this manner, the personal truths of numberless victims and survivors were muted for four decades, minus a doomed interruption of a few months. What these survivors knew to be true could not be said. It could [End Page 181] be remembered, reconnoitered in dreams, visited by ghosts, or suppressed in the unconscious, but it could never be spoken of openly. Getting along in South Korean society meant saying that a rebellious father, son, daughter, or brother was actually killed by Communists.
The kongsandang (Communist party) became the ubiquitous signifier for a bogeyman, a Frankenstein, the devil himself. When I taught in a boys’ middle school in 1968 in the aftermath of the guerrilla attack on the Blue House and the North Korean seizure of the U.S. spy ship Pueblo, the Park regime was engaged in a months-long propaganda campaign described as pan’gong p’angch’ŏp—or “anti-Communism, catch spies.” The entire student body would line up in their Japanese-bequeathed black uniforms and caps, heads shaved, listening to a supposed defector tell them that North Koreans couldn’t even have watches and had only thin rubber shoes to wear in the winter. My students would turn in essays about Communists sneaking into their homes in the middle of the night to rape and kill their sisters. All this was a by-product of the ways in which Japanese colonizers had intimidated and terrorized Koreans with their own fierce anti-Communism, rampant for fourteen years after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
When South Korea democratized in the 1990s, suppressed and repressed memories finally had an outlet. The truths about the actual perpetrators of mass violence that a few scholars had dug out of various foreign archives suddenly seemed scant compared to the welling up of personal and popular truths that poured out, often with a thunder of outrage and recrimination. But this outpouring was entirely nonviolent, and the Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided a sober, careful venue for these truths to see the light of day. Somehow, after forty years of silence, Koreans seemed to have intuited that their country had suffered quite enough violence. But the memories were alive and burning, and they resulted in dozens of books, documentaries, commemorations, and new monuments large and small—a proper requiem for a people for whom history, personal truth, and family honor are so important. The assembled papers in this special issue detail much of that outpouring, and collectively they make for an important leap forward in our understanding of political violence in postwar Korea and the intertwining of history and memory.
In February 2015 I visited Cheju Island for the first time since 1972. I was with a group of scholars that included Kim Seong-nae, who has contributed [End Page 182] so brilliantly to enlightening us about the memories...