Memory, Activism, and the Korean War: Korean American Construction of an Integrated Self

Friday, January 6, 2017: 11:10 AM
Centennial Ballroom A (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Ji-Yeon Yuh, Northwestern University
Three major strands have emerged in Korean American activism: 1) cultural reclamation, epitomized by Korean percussion groups; 2) civil rights and empowerment, marked by political enfranchisement campaigns; and 3) homeland issues, mostly revolving around peace and reunification. This paper argues that at the heart of these seemingly disparate activisms lies the material and psychic devastation wrought by the Korean War. More than six decades later, the Korean War still looms large in the collective memory of Korean Americans. This paper digs into the memories and meanings of that war for Korean American activists, most of whom were born after the fighting ended. Their activisms include learning and performing traditional Korean percussion known as pungmul, signing up immigrants for naturalization and voter registration, demonstrating for legalization of undocumented immigrants, organizing memorial events for both U.S. and Korean veterans, and advocating peaceful reunification. Based on oral history interviews with Korean American activists in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., this paper argues that these Korean Americans have inherited a legacy of memory, one that was first handed down as silence and puzzling vignettes, and is only now emerging in narratives as the older generation more freely speaks of their wartime experiences. This legacy of memory is marked by the younger generation’s search to understand the silences and small clues left by their elders. That search manifested itself in attempts to reclaim cultural heritage, claim full citizenship in the United States, and reunify the homeland. As efforts to construct an integrated sense of self with both a history and a future, these attempts necessitate engaging with the consequences of the Korean War. Although the three major strands of activism adopt different modes of engagement with the war, each attempts to come to terms with the war and its consequences.