chapter  5
33 Pages

Korean Expatriate Writing and the History of the Korean Peninsula

In the South of Korea, one particular decade-that between 1935 and 1945-is an empty cupboard: millions of people used and abused by the Japanese cannot get records on what they know to have happened to them, and thousands of Koreans who worked with the Japanese have simply erased that history as if it had never happened. (Korea’s Place in the Sun, qtd. Park, p. 193)

The empty cupboard to which Cumings refers-that of the period of Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea and its aftermath-is poignantly phrased.1 If this is true for the millions who suffered under colonial rule, it is also the case that the Korean War, the bifurcation of the Korean peninsula by foreign powers in 1953, and the terrible suffering of the North Korean people under the repressive communist regime of Kim Il Sung in the decades that followed, are similarly shrouded pasts concealing unprecedented hardship,

starvation and the loss of political and personal freedom. The dilemma for the personal memoirists, fi ctionalists and historians who have sought to reverse this omission in the latter part of the twentieth century onwardsto fi ll the empty cupboard-is the compelling yet vexing question of this chapter; that is to say, how best to achieve this? In her memoir Home Was the Land of Morning Calm K. Connie Kang voices this very concern:

We have the indelible scars on our psyches of the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the partition that still keeps eleven million Korean families separated [ . . . ] we have many stories to tell, but we have been reticent. Where do we begin? (Home Was the Land of Morning Calm, p. xvi)

It is perhaps even more diffi cult for Korean female voices, whose perspectives have often been delegitimized, and who have traditionally been constrained by the Korean Confucian ethic that discourages any forthrightness of female expression, as well as struggling against a prevailing androcentric discourse of national history in Korea2, as novelist Mia Yun asserts: “I saw how Korean women, the descendents of the she-bear woman and the son of the king of heaven, lived in the folds of history”, and consequently as she laments, the “stories of Korean women-were not there” (House of the Winds, p. 56; p. 172). Yet twentieth-century Korean history is Korean women’s history, as well as a record of external and colonial involvement, from Japan as the century opened to the United States today, as Chungmoo Choi observes in Dangerous Women: Gender and Korean Nationalism, when she refers to Korea’s “gendered and sexualized international relationship” (p. 15).