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16.00  Global Archive, Vying National Identities: Contested Korean Histories and UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme

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In contemporary South Korea, cosmopolitanism and global status signify the most coveted markers of identity on a personal, institutional, and national scale. While one might presume such aspirations reflect the desire to transcend, or escape from the parochial conflicts of a divided nation, appropriations of global recognition in fact continue to figure highly into contested, ideologically opposed national histories, not only between the two Korean states but also within South Korea. For example, a UNESCO designation confers arguably the preeminent global imprimatur of cultural prestige. The contrast is therefore striking between the only two modern archives representing South Korea’s documentary heritage in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme. One is the “1980 Archives for the May 18th Democratic Uprising against the Military Regime”; the other is the “Archives of the Saemaeul Undong (New Community Movement)” of the 1970s. Notably, the Saemaeul Undong is closely identified with President Park Chung-Hee, the military authoritarian dictator whose daughter is now South Korea’s president and scion of its conservative elite. It is therefore readily apparent that these two globally recognized repositories of documentary heritage stand for opposite ends of the South Korean political spectrum, offering not simply divergent but starkly conflicting interpretations of the national past. This paper considers the contemporary implications of this transnational extension of nam-nam galdeung—or ideologically driven political conflict within South Korea. Using ethnographic data, primary sources, and media accounts of these two clashing inscriptions of heritage in the form of archives, this paper analyzes how such vying interventions in the global circulation of cultural capital have been leveraged in an ongoing domestic competition over which version of history will represent the nation.  

This study addresses UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme, a project focused on preserving documentary heritage that had received relatively little international attention until recently. In late 2015, the program would make global headlines with the inscription of documents related to the Nanjing Massacre. Signifying the successful outcome of an application filed a year earlier by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the announcement that those documents would be added to the UNESCO register immediately drew vigorous objections from officials in Japan. That recent controversy serves to highlight the central research question unpinning the larger project from which this paper is drawn: How do situated groups and national governments engage with UNESCO to secure international recognition and thus gain greater influence in local or regional disputes over contested histories and cultural heritage?  

The specific circumstances of Korea offer a rich context for exploring this question, given the complexity of its memory politics, shaped by modern legacies of its colonial period under Japanese occupation, ongoing national division, rapid postwar economic transformation, and a contemporary zeitgeist that highly privileges cosmopolitanism. UNESCO, although active all over the world in cultural endeavours as a United Nations agency, nevertheless bears unique and remarkable connections with the modern development of Korea in particular. The Republic of Korea joined UNESCO on June 14, 1950, only eleven days prior to the outbreak of general warfare on the Korean peninsula. Given that the Korean War would become emblematic as the conflict where the UN Command was mobilized to intervene militarily, one part of this study considers how UNESCO in Korea was shaped by its roots as a Cold War institution and to what extent it later transformed beyond that politically and ideologically informed role. That is, beyond addressing transnational cultural capital as a realm of Cold War competition, this research also considers cosmopolitanism with respect to divided histories more broadly as it pertains to interpretations of heritage and questions of “universal value.”

Nan Kim


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