Street Violence, State-Making, and Popular Nationalism in South Korea
Mid-twentieth century Korea was a violent place. This violence had local aspects but it also intersected with wider processes, in particular decolonization and the emerging Cold War. Actors imbued this violence with social meaning: as resistance to colonial rule, empowerment of marginalized groups, waging of ideological battles, following of duty, or protection of family and homeland. One specialist in violence from this period was a man named Kim Tu-han. He was a larger-than-life figure and had a career that was immensely contradictory: he was both street thug and vigilante, orphan and son of a national hero, elected politician and convicted murderer. Intriguingly, South Korean popular culture has remembered Kim – who is known ubiquitously in the country – as a sort of folk hero. In his life and in later representations of his life, we can find narratives of what makes violence legitimate. Such narratives strike at the core of understandings of authority and collective identity. This lecture uses a discussion of Kim’s career and memory as a way to reflect on multiple themes: the contested meanings of public ideologies in the early Cold War, the formation of the South Korean state, and ethnic nationalism in contemporary South Korea.
Erik Mobrand is associate professor of Korean studies at the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University. His research and teaching areas cover development studies, democracy in Asia, and alternative approaches to Asian studies. Trained in political science, Erik has a regional focus on Korea and China. His articles on Korean and Chinese affairs have appeared in Journal of Asian Studies, Modern Asian Studies, Journal of Contemporary China, and Pacific Affairs, among other outlets. His recent research considers linkages between law and political space in South Korea. He taught previously at the National University of Singapore.