top of page

The Korean War and Postmemory Generation:

Contemporary Korean Arts and Films   

(Routledge Advances in Korean Studies)

Dong-Yeon Koh

Table of contents


List of Figures



Introduction: The Korean War and Postmemory Generation in South Korea

Postwar South Korean Society and the Memories of the Korean War

The Postmemory Generation in South Korea: Theoretical Approach

Ambivalent Photographic Records and Arts of the Postmemory Generation

The Memory of the Korean War and Contemporary Arts in South Korea: 2000s-

Literature on Arts, Memories, and Victims of the Korean War

The Trace, Place, Family Documentary, Sense, and Memorial: Chapter Outline 


Ch 1. “Late Photography” and the Cold War Memories: Heungsoon Im, Onejoon Che, and Suyeon Yun

Documentary “Photography,” Postmemory Generation, and Historical Tragedies 

Late Photography and Postwar South Korean Societies

The History of Documentary Photography on the Korean War

Prayer (2012) and Belatedness in Nature: Heungsoon Im

Defunct Bunkers and Military Facilities: Onejoon Che

North Korean Defectors in South Korean Society: Suyeon Yun

Remembering/Forgetting Cold War in Photography


Ch 2. The Placeness of the DMZ: The Rise of DMZ Tourism and the Real DMZ Project

DMZ: No Man’s Land

The Theory of Placeness and DMZ

DMZ’s Eco-Tourism, and “Non-Place”

Revisiting “Placenesss”: Hayoun Kwon, Youngjoo Cho and Jisun Shin

The DMZ and Geographical Imagination: Minouk Lim

Deconstructing the DMZ’s Placeness


Ch 3. Postmemory Generation and Family Tragedies in South Korea:

My Father’s Emails (2014) and Dear Pyongyang (2006)

The Postmemory Generation and Family Tragedies

Cinematic Representation of the Korean War and Personal Documentaries

Trying to Break Father’s Silence

The Process of Reconciliation and Continued Trauma

Open-ended Narrative for the Postmemory Generation


Ch 4. Affective Memory: Senses, Media Installations, and the Korean War

Affective Memories: Senses, Media Installations

Traces for Empathy, Sense, and Contemporary Korean Art

Ten Single Shots: Sounds for Affective Experience

Emphatic Audition: Voice, Mirror Neuron, and Empathy

H’s Barbershop: Scents, Body, and Oblivion

Memory in Motion: Beyond Empathic Reaction


Ch 5. Remembering Soldiers of the Korean and Vietnam Wars:Memorials and Museums in Postwar South Korean Society

Post-Holocaust Memorials and Remembering Cold War Veterans

Remembering Wars and Soldiers in Museums and Memorials in South Korea

Heungsoon Im’s Homecoming Box (2008)

A Year of Work to Move Ahead (2016) at the National Museum of Korean History

Bring Them Home (2017): Recovering the Soldier’s Corpses of the Korean War 

The Shifting Definition of Memorials for War Victims



Where did you get started writing this book?

My doctoral thesis was about masculinity in the New York art world in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War, and from then on, weaving international politics into a detailed analysis of artwork has become an important theoretical approach. The book came out of my art journal article "Late Photography in South Korea" (2012), followed by reviews and academic journal articles on contemporary artistic practices on obscured traces and marks related to the Korean War in South Korea from the mid-2000s and onwards—when diverse historical viewpoints on the War had become finally possible in the post-militaristic dictatorial era. The book has also covered a range of artistic media such as documentary photography, film, participatory practice, media installations, and art exhibition practices of historical archives and materials.


What is the book's position in dealing with tragic historical memories of the Korean War in contemporary art?

This book focuses on situations in which memories of tragic history had been repressed for decades in South Korea, a country known for its long history of serious anti-communism. In Chapter 1, Heungsoon Im, for instance, started a documentary film and photography project of the Jeju April Third massacre (1947-1950) in 2010 with the report of this first civilian massacre just before the Korean War coming out by the History and Reconciliation Committee in 2006—almost six decades after the tragic incident. In this context, the generations of artists and filmmakers who had never experienced the War worked with fragments and traces—rather than with historical evidence, which is lacking—and historical oblivion on collective and personal levels to reflect the distinctive militaristic and cultural context of postwar South Korean society.


Why is the theory of postmemory generation theory in contemporary arts and films in South Korea?

What was interesting from Marianne Hirsch's The Generation of Postmemory (2012) is that the trace itself is not merely conceived as a 'true' record of historical events but, rather, is utilized as the means of provoking the imagination of artists and filmmakers who do not have direct experience of tragedies. First, "a sense of distance," meaning the spatial and temporal distance from a historical event, according to Hirsch, enables postmemory generation artists to seek to work with the mediated and secondary form of historical traces. Second, such distance due to the lack of proper historical information, thus, opened important possibilities for imaginary construction and intervention of historical memories in art. Third, postwar South Korean society equally lacks historical materials and evidence, which had been often purged or forged amidst anti-communist fervors and repressive military dictatorship.

What is the significance of the theory of the post-memory generation in postwar Korean society?

While Hirsch's studies about the post-memory generation have dealt with Holocaust survivors’ offspring, the book on the postmemory generation in postwar South Korean society has concentrated on the Korean peninsula where the war took place. It has not covered the case of diaspora as its primary focus is on the history of oblivion, repression, and erasure mostly occurring inside of the Korean peninsula.

Who are the postmemory generation in postwar South Korean society?

One can say that there are roughly three categories of generations in postwar society: the first category is the generation of Koreans, who were born in the 1940s and 1950s, before and immediately after the Korean war (1950-53); second is the generation, who were born in the 1960s and 70s and participated in the democratization movement throughout the 1980s; third is the generation, who were born in the mid-1980s to the 1990s and did not  have the first experience of not only the war, but also extremely repressive anti-communism under the military regime. The artists and filmmakers in the book belong to the second and third categories of Koreans, growing up in the 1970s or afterward to witness rapid industrialization, yet to hear about the devastation before and immediately after the war through secondary sources. Thus, unlike the older generation, whose views of the ongoing militaristic conflicts and Cold War had been formed from the War and anti-communist fervor, most of the artists and filmmakers in the book developed more open and diverse attitudes toward North Korea and the issue of unification of the Korean peninsula.


Who is the main focus group of artists in the book?

The book primarily highlights oblivious and repressive attitudes toward the Nation's most destructive event in modern history--namely the Korean War, which constitute the important backdrop of contemporary arts and films working with historical memories, fragments, and traces of the war. Sixteen South Korean artists in different genres of photography, media installations, and other conceptually-oriented arts from mostly the mid-to-late 2000s and 2010s. This corresponds to the era of the mid-2000s and afterward when diverse interpretations and factual information about the massacre of civilians during the war became readily available with the establishment of the Reconciliation Committee; artists are allowed to utilize and introduce the themes related to either tragic or obscured memories of the Korean War and Cold War in modern history over the last two decades. 

Please tell us about the structure of the book.

The book examines artistic media and genre widely used in the Korean avant-garde art world—documentary photography, audience-participatory works, independent women's films, media installations exhibitions using archives. I argue that these conceptually oriented artistic media might be more effective in working with the history of oblivion and traces to reflect the process through which contemporary artists can bring their present and interpretative perspectives—rather than merely representing tragic historical incidents and memories.

How is it different from existing references on contemporary Korean art and film?

This book combines art history and cultural theory—moving away from either monographic approaches toward individual artists or conventional art historical categorization of artistic movements prescribed in Western modern art history, such as modernism, minimalism, or conceptual art. The book has attempted to weave diplomatic, political, and militaristic histories in South Korea and people's changing perceptions of the Cold War and North Korea with contemporary art criticism. Thus, it can be considered an invaluable reference for understanding the development of contemporary Korean arts and culture in its context of postwar South Korea society throughout genres.

Who is the target audience of the book?

First, it will be helpful for students majoring in visual culture, and cultural research, and art history, perhaps as part of advanced Korean studies. Academic references on contemporary Korean society had been mostly confined to the domains of political science, anthropology, and art history, still under the influence of traditional archeological approaches. The book can attract readers interested in East Asian cultural history, particularly in recent artistic productions. The relationship between memory research and China, Japan, and Korea, among many other non-Western and Asian countries as the history of the Cold War emerged as one of the most important historical factors contributing to the formation of national and cultural identities in postwar Societies in Asia.


What are the additional significances of the book?

The history of the Cold War has formed important economic and military bases shared by East Asian countries China, Korea, and Japan. The book can provide the readers with comparative perspectives on how the Cold War history in Asia has forged and contributed to the formation of these nation's modern identities. Indeed, Kuan-Hsing Chen, the author of Asia as a Method (2010), has content that Asia should be conceived as a modern concept forged during the Cold War era, certainly from the American standpoint. It is not an exaggeration to say that Japan's concept as the defeated nation after the Second World War to the extent that Vietnam's modern cultural identity is inseparable from the Vietnam War and its dual relationship with the United States. Using the lens of the Cold War and Anti-communism, this book can also cater detailed and specific understanding of social and cultural upheavals in modern times; and how these contexts had influenced the recent development of contemporary arts in non-western countries.


“Dong Yeon Koh’s monograph explores the polemical issues of memory, post-memory and trauma from the Korea War to the present in South Korea. With the diverse theoretical framework of post-memory, Koh analyzes documentary photography, Korean films and moving images by contemporary Korea artists who are often distant from the historical events and tragedies and have no direct experiences of them. It is essential reading for understanding post-war Korean history, visual art and culture.” 

- Yeon Shim Chung (Professor of Art History and Theory, Hongik University, Seoul, Korea) 

“This richly documented volume, charts the shifting politics of memory of the Korean War and its post-war nationalist division among a younger generation of contemporary artists and filmmakers in Korea. It convincingly puts key questions concerning trauma, ideology and the damaging effects of military dictatorship into a broad international frame of studies on postmemory. It is an excellent and groundbreaking contribution to the study of contemporary arts in East Asia.”

- Adrian Favell (Chair in Sociology and Social Theory and Director of the Bauman Institute, University of Leeds)

244 Pages, 65 B/W Illustrations

Published July 28, 2021 by Routledge

Language: English

ISBN: 978-0-367-43974-3 (hbk)

ISBN: 978-1-032-03395-2 (pbk)

ISBN: 978-1-003-00889-7 (ebk)

Recipient of Publication Grants from the Korea Arts Management Service

© 2018. Koh, Dong-Yeon

bottom of page