“Korean Mass Media and the “Re-Evaluation” of Syngman Rhee: Chosun Ilbo and the 1995 “Syngman Rhee and State-Building” Exhibition”

Conference: The Asian Conference on Asian Studies (ACAS2022)
Title: “Korean Mass Media and the “Re-Evaluation” of Syngman Rhee: Chosun Ilbo and the 1995 “Syngman Rhee and State-Building” Exhibition”
Stream: Korean Studies
Presentation Type: Live-Stream Presentation
Patrick Vierthaler, Kyoto University, Japan


To date, disputes over the memory of Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) are dividing South Koreans. To one side, Rhee is the "father of the nation", the president who defended South Korea as a bulwark against communism, who laid the foundation for its later economic development. To the other side, Rhee is a "traitor to the Korean ethnicity", responsible for the on-going North-South division and un-successful de-colonialisation, who paved the way for decades of autocratic rule. These contested memories are at the core of South Korea’s disputes over its Cultural memory. Mnemonic struggles have significantly intensified since the mid-2000s, being labelled as "history wars" or a "psycho-historical fragmentation" by some scholars. In the present research, the author focuses on how such struggles over Cultural memory first openly emerged in society in the mid-1990s, amidst years that both mark the age of post-Cold War triumphalism, and an era of hope towards further institutional democratization and transitional justice for former democratization activists. Through the case study of discussions surrounding a 1995 exhibition on Syngman Rhee, the author traces how a nexus of historians, journalists and activists was involved in attempts to re-shape South Korean Cultural memory. A particular focus is on the two major dailies Chosun ilbo and Hankyoreh.
The present research provides insights not only into the origins and ideological institutionalization of South Korea’s present-day mnemonic polarization, but also sheds light on continuities between the mid-1990s and the following decades. This is crucial to understand the intensification into "history wars" since the mid-2000s.

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