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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Modern Korean literature as testimony to war : from the Korean War to the Vietnam War Zur, Dafna


The Korean War was one of the most traumatic events in twentieth-century Korea. The war reshaped Korea's physical landscape and transformed its social and political structures. The war was, in origin, a civil conflict, a struggle between two opposing ideologies and a war that ended with an armistice that divided the Korean peninsula. These factors affected the way Korean writers expressed their experiences in it. The works I examine in my thesis are imbued with a strong sense of helplessness. Applying trauma theory used in psychoanalysis, I find that the helplessness is the result of a failure to deal with the traumatic events of the Korean War, a failure that I attribute to political and social causes. I examine the inability to resolve trauma in the works, and arrive at an understanding of the significance of an audience and a shared collective narrative in the resolution of private and public trauma. Between 1967 and 1975, South Korea was involved in the Vietnam War. During the two decades following the Korean War, political and social changes had taken place on the peninsula. Several works about the Vietnam War reflect Korea's turbulent changes. I show how the Vietnam War presented Koreans with the temporal and spatial opportunity to reflect upon the past, and paved the way to express unresolved trauma and explore forgotten memories. Literature about the Korean and Vietnam Wars contributes to our understanding of war and appoints the reader to the complex function of listener to experiences of trauma, hence allowing for a resolution of the authors' (and listeners') trauma. At the same time, reading literature as testimony is complicated when the reader takes into account the way texts are shaped by the political and social contexts surrounding their creation and the ways in which texts are read. I discuss how the anti-communist struggle as a collective narrative stifled the expressions of trauma and shaped the way memory is discussed in Korean War literature, and show how Vietnam War literature provides insights into how social and political changes allowed for the beginning of the resolution of Korean War trauma.

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