Theses Doctoral

War at the Exhibition: Militarism and Mass Culture in South Korea, 1946-1973

Ryan, Thomas Michael

This dissertation is a cultural history of total war (ch’ongnyŏkchŏn) mobilization in South Korea from the 1946 outbreak of mass uprisings in the U.S.-occupied southern provinces to the withdrawal of Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) troops from the Vietnam War in 1973. It focuses more specifically on the role of cultural production in programs of anticommunist pacification in postcolonial South Korea. Following the collapse of the Japanese Empire and the division of the Korean peninsula in 1945, U.S. and South Korean elites confronted popular insurgencies in Taegu (1946), Cheju Island (1948-49), and South Chŏlla Province (1948). Acknowledging the mass character of these rebellions, anticommunist ideologues emphasized the importance of campaigns—variously referred to as culture war (munhwajŏn), thought war (sasangjŏn), or psychological warfare (simnijŏn)—targeting the home front (hubang) as a refuge for communist subversion. Cultural production would remain a central element of war mobilization in the subsequent Korean War (1950-1953) and Vietnam War (1965-1973), as well as in the militarized village development schemes of the 1950s and 1960s.

In exploring the cultural dimension of unending war in divided Korea, this dissertation draws on a wide variety of documentary media, including roundtables, war correspondence, reportage, travelogues, ethnographies, memoirs, diaries, realist literature, illustrations, photographs, and oral histories, among other such sources. These genres, often sponsored or otherwise influenced by the state, functioned to investigate the historical causes of insurgency and propose suitable modes of prevention. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, such investigations evolved, moving from a post-liberation fixation on repatriated “war victims” (chŏnjaemin) to studies of other displaced groups purportedly vulnerable to communist subversion: refugees, POWs, vagrants, juvenile delinquents, peasants, lepers, and, in the Vietnam War, National Liberation Front (NLF) recruits. In South Korea, documentary media was emblematic of a Cold War “exhibitionary complex” founded upon claims to a pure reality unmediated by ideology. This study argues that the peculiar conditions of divided Korea ensured that anticommunist exhibitions did not just broadcast the messages of power but served in themselves to display and facilitate punishment. I further argue that the functional nature of embedded texts—as mechanisms of identification and surveillance as well as representation—lies behind their value as historical sources.

This dissertation also argues for a conception of South Korean militarism (kunsajuŭi) capable of integrating such artifacts of literary, mass, and popular culture. Building on and departing from the foundations of South Korean anticommunist ideology in the 1940s and 1950s, the Park Chung Hee regime (1961-1979) offered a vision of the North Korean enemy as invisibly embedded in the socioeconomic contradictions of the home front. The Park-era discourse of “indirect invasion” (kanjŏp ch’imnyak) projected the masses as a hotbed of potential subversion, encouraging new forms of civilian participation in the militarized development schemes of the 1960s. The participation of non-state actors—whether as philanthropists, entrepreneurs, educators, proselytizers, performers, writers, or artists—in the reproduction and justification of war at home and in South Vietnam throughout the 1960s is one critical aspect of South Korean militarism overlooked in existing studies. This total mobilization of an emergent civil society into war and militarized development, however, produced unintended consequences, obstructing reporters’ attempts to represent the Vietnam War and incentivizing the exploitation of labor export programs and support initiatives aimed at the home front. These contradictions helped fuel the re-emergence, in late 1960s and early 1970s South Korea, of documentary writing as a vehicle of anti-capitalist critique rather than state propaganda.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Nguyen, Lien-Hang T.
Stephanson, Anders
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 13, 2022