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Yadav3,R (pgr)

September 17th, 2020

Review Essay | Right to Mourn: Trauma, Empathy, and Korean War Memorials by Suhi Choi

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Yadav3,R (pgr)

September 17th, 2020

Review Essay | Right to Mourn: Trauma, Empathy, and Korean War Memorials by Suhi Choi

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In the post-World War era, an increasing number of western democracies have sought to achieve legitimacy by acknowledging the violence tainting their historic pasts. These admissions have resulted in the creation of reconcilliation commissions, courts prosecuting war criminals, restitution to the victims of conflict, and the construction of memorials. Here, Akshita Mathur reviews Suhi Choi’s ‘Right to Mourn’ – a unique contribution to trauma and conflict studies that focuses on the Korean War, a non-west narrative. Mathur analyses Choi’s work in its own socio-geographic space and, more broadly, muses on the impact of such studies in anatomising the politics of memory and mourning.

The turn of the twentieth century saw forms of official memorialisation shift from one that was centred on symbolising glorious pasts to one that commemorated the negative pasts of nation-states[1]. This stemmed largely from the institutionalisation of international politics post-world war II, and the greater emphasis that was placed on acknowledging the bloody atrocities perpetrated during wartime. Acting as proxies for the democratic commitment of emerging governments to global unity and transparency, these new forms of memorialisation were to honour the United Nation’s call to “never again” repeat the gross human rights abuses that had occured in the preceding centuries.

Suhi Choi’s Right to Mourn: Trauma, Empathy, and Korean War Memorials is situated in this moment of memorialisation that, in South Korea, began post-1990’s when the “Rashomon-like”[2] narrative of the Korean War first began to be publicly challenged. Taking us through South Korea’s “topography of terror”[3] which arose as a result of its colonial legacies, anticommunist regimes, and the highly biased narrativisation of the Korean War by the US-allied governments, Choi interrogates the efficacy of memorials in transferring counter-memories and depicting trauma. The three protagonists of Choi’s ethnography are the recently instituted Jeju April 3 Peace Park, the Gurye Memorial and the No Gun Ri Peace Park, with each individual chapter exploring a singular site of memory and consequently demonstrating the fault lines of this state-driven enterprise of public memories.

Choi tells us that prior to the 1990s, memories of atrocities from the pre-war and war era in South Korea were mere private remembrances spoken, if at all, in hushed tones, shrouded in the fear of further persecution at the hand of the anticommunist state. This decades-worth of suppression led to stunted grief and trauma that was not just invisibilised, but criminalised. Choi writes, “the abusive system of guilt-by-association turned family obituaries into tabooed texts that[,] if told[,] could unjustly inflict hardship on descendants’ lives”[4]. Consequently, Choi names the survivors of these memories “suppressed mourners,” driving home the multiple layers of grief these mourners carry, and subsequently, the multiple layers that have to be addressed in a state’s efforts at commemorating these memories.

The twentieth century “tidal wave of apologies, truth commissions, reparations, and investigations of historical crimes”[5] world over is testament to this effort. Under the neologism of transitional justice, states are no longer held accountable just for the atrocities committed in the past, but also for the suppression of these memories thereafter. The crime perpeted is two-fold, and so sentences have to be compounded in accordance with the ravages of time.

As Choi takes us through the Jeju April 3 Peace Park, one is instantly able to feel the weight of this compounded sentence. What was once denied materiality altogether is now written in stone. Unlike a Truth and Reconciliation Commission or a reparation, which is finite in temporality and intentions, the cartography of the Peace Park, Choi shows us, is carved such that it not only acknowledges the event of the Jeju killings and the state’s role in it, but it also accords the hitherto dwarfed grieving process permanence through a lexicon of local tradition and practices.

For instance, the carefully designed paths of the park provide an almost “sacred movement of mourning” which spiritually facilitates mourners to process their now-public grief.[6] A distinct act of vulnerability can also be noted in the Park’s act of keeping stones empty for future engravings of names. These empty stones represent the state’s willingness to remain open to future revelations, as incriminating as they may be, and its commitment to providing them with the space and time for mourning upon discovery. The blueprint of the Jeju Peace Park is therefore designed keeping the state’s crimes in mind- both the tangible as well as the intangible (so to say).

However, while government-funded memorials do act as symbolic reparations of state-sponsored violence, they remain live theatres of political conflicts. Writing on the moral ambiguities of events like the Algerian War in France or the Vietnam War in the United States, Jay Winter observes, “There was no moral consensus about the nature of those conflicts; hence there was no moral consensus about what was being remembered in public, and when and where were the appropriate time and place to remember those wars.”[7]

Hence while the twentieth century “memory boom” was deeply embedded in morally demarcated events such as the Shoah, it was problematised when confronted with events which were morally and symbolically still undeclared. This can be seen at the entrance of the Jeju Peace Park’s indoor museum which merely holds a blank gravestone titled the “Unnamed Monument”. The caption simply reads, “As the Jeju incident still does not have historical definition, its monument has no inscription”.[8] If the act of naming is at all seen as a consolation in times of grief, this instance of the “Unnamed Monument” loudly makes clear the ideological (and perhaps moral) battle that continues to silently rage for the ownership of the past.

Choi’s investigation into this “Janus-faced nature” of memories, and the battle for narrativist hegemony waged by governments on its peoples, is most keenly observed in her accounting of the Gurye Memorial. Easily the peak of her ethnographic study, the Gurye Memorial is a fascinating manifestation of the politics of memories as it, in hauntingly plain eloquence, conveys a hierarchy of memories.

A remembrance of the Yosun Killings of 1948, the Gurye memorial simultaneously houses the commemoration sites for the veterans of the Korean and Vietnam war on one end, and that of the victims of the state-sponsored Yosun killings on the other. Perpetrators and victims, socially at odds, inhabit the same physical space here. However, despite being an ideal heterogenous memoryscape on paper, this ideologically complex space has built in a hierarchy of mourning by relegating memories of the victims of the Yosun killings to shrines easily mistaken for empty basements. Meanwhile that of the veterans’ who perpetrated atrocities on the same victims recieve centre stage. Thus, though one could say that the Yosun killings have been recognised and acknowledged by the state, it has by no means been put on an equal footing with the war memory sponsored by the state. The fault lines of memorials, thus, become clearer and clearer.

Choi’s chapter on this particular memorial reads like a parallel, though intimately connected, reel to Judith Butler’s Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? In her masterpiece, Butler astutely observes that “grievability precedes and makes possible the apprehension of the living being as living…,”[9] that is, people are divided into those who are grievable and those who are not, and in this organising and categorising lies the lens through which we perceive some people (or groups of people) as live and living, and some as not. In the realm of politics then, such an identity marker has explosive potential. What happens when those on the seemingly other side of a region’s politics are grieved just as loudly and openly as those on one’s own side? Butler asserts, “Open grieving is bound up with outrage, and outrage in the face of injustice or indeed of unbearable loss has enormous political potential”[10] (p 39). We see this play out in real time in the Gurye Memorial.

While Choi doesn’t go so far as to explicitly articulate or theorise these depicted faultlines, she does link this hierarchy to patriotism, which again mirrors Butler’s observations on the identity politics of grieving. Choi tells us “Koreans in wartime deliberately or inadvertently performed multifaceted political identities”.[11] This meant that several leftist groups who had been broadly categorised as enemy sympathisers or collaborators by the anticommunist state during wartime had gone unacknowledged for their contributions to imagining a new Korean identity. Indigenous movements for the betterment of the country did not match the criterias for nationalism and patriotism that were carved out of the Korean War, and they instead faced brutal criminalisation. On the whole then, the Korean War defined patriotism narrowly, and measured who was worth memorialising or not, depending on this definition that remains, to this day, inherently deficient and grossly inadequate.

We feel this politics of mourning most acutely in the dialogue Choi shares with a participant about the Gurye Memorial:

‘Why are the victims’ names placed in a basement under the memorial? Why aren’t they inscribed on some more visible parts of the memorial, just like the names of soldiers and police officers are on other memorials in the park?’, Choi asks.

‘Because we are the guilty ones,’ the participant replies. [12]

Memorialisation, then, Choi demonstrates to us, has close links to who is considered a first-grade citizen and who a second-grade citizen, and while in a normative sense memorials may uphold the virtues of transitional justice and symbolic healing, their architecture inevitably betrays their corporatised efforts at state-making.

This business of memorialisation gets hinted at in the ethnography of the No Gun Ri Peace Park. Choi shows us that there is an intrinsic conflict in multimedia representations of trauma. On the one hand, they act as experiential aids in transmitting memories, counteracting the mortality of their origins. This becomes integral when one keeps in mind that the already sparse documentation of non-western atrocities in mainstream academia[13] runs the real risk of being completely forgotten to time given its aging witnesses. To this extent, the No Gun Ri Peace Park relies heavily on the personal effects of victims to create a mnemonic display of memories. Sodaro[14] reminds us that the technologies of seeing employed in the No Gun Ri Peace Park, as Choi relays them to us, largely fits the trope of museum memorials whose aim is to transfer an experience to the visitor, an experience they have in all probability never witnessed first hand, but nevertheless must be provided to them in all its authenticity. However, these tropes run the risk of abstractions.

Choi, thus, shows that the corporeality of trauma conveyed by these objects falls short in relaying the richness of the lives they represent. That is, like the personal effects displayed themselves, the stories they were symbolic of have now rusted and lost their uniqueness due to their abstract and thinned out curation. So while multimedia representations of counter-war memories facilitate experiential processes of developing empathy, in practical and real terms, they risk becoming caricatures of the trauma themselves if not curated keeping the heterogeneity of stories intact.

Choi argues that without adequate identity markers, this “aestheticisation of trauma”[15] leaves the viewer a mere detached consumer of provocative representations of war. As Choi draws for us the landscape of the No Gun Ri Peace Park, including its sculptures of the No Gun Ri subjects, she reveals to us that while on the surface it seems as if the memorial has showed us objects that enable visitors to identify with the victims and thus evoke empathy, in reality, the images shown to visitors do nothing except evoke “nostalgic feelings solely about the traditional aspects of Korean lives”[16]. These “displays of traditionalism” are further made obscure with vague captions calling for “global peace” and “human rights”[17]. The artefacts which could have brought to the fore the suppressed inner worlds of victims and survivors, the violence inflicted upon them and the resistances shown, their aspirations and suffering, instead only mustered up a “one-dimensional proof of violence”. [18]

The No Gun Ri Peace Park, then, hints at the “commercialization of suffering”[19] that has occured at the turn of the twentieth century with transitional justice becoming a standard formula, a go-to idiom, for political regimes seeking legitimacy, both internally and externally. As has been mentioned by Arthur Kleinman and Joan Kleinman, exceedingly in recent times, “suffering is presented as if it existed free of local people and local worlds.”[20] This comes at the behest of a commodification of experiences, suffering and grief, both for entertainment and politics.

The stark differences in a commercial enterprise and the representation of an authentic experience can be instantaneously felt as Choi compares the No Gun Ri Peace Park to the No Gun Ri Bridge outside which was the main stage for the killings. Writing of the memorial, in relation to the bridge, Choi observes, “[The] [No Gun Ri Peace Park] invites visitors to have the virtual experience of the bridge, yet it simultaneously distracts them from walking into its actual tunnels”[21]. This present-yet-absent memoryscape, full of objects yet brimming with non-meaning, ends up distorting the very suffering it has set out to make clear. Unfortunately, by the end of her book, what stands true for all the memorials that form part of her fieldsite is something that Choi resignedly observes of the Gurye Memorial, “.. the Korean War paradoxically still remains unknown in this newly built memorial park about the war”[22].

The distinct contribution of the book is that Choi shows us the operation of trauma and memorialisation in South Korea, for a war that as she astutely observes “is still one of the most unknown and thus uncontested contemporary wars”[23]. This forms an insightful treatment of the Korean war as though trauma studies has seen its own progression towards inclusivity, it still remains largely a Eurocentric/American discipline, with non-western approaches to remembering, to the politics of remembering, its aesthetics and semiotics, largely remaining neglected.[24] Although the book shies away from explicitly stating its theoretical contributions and shifts the burden of voice solely to the ethnographic evidence, the reader is still left with the pleasant aftertaste of insight and knowledge that hasn’t been worn down with heavy jargon or loaded semantics.

On the whole, Choi’s work overwhelmingly displays how the inaccessibility of stories invariably constricts the process of empathic mourning. The constant motif in her chapters is that of the mentally distanced, and therefore physically distanced, stories of atrocities that marks these sites. Though this quickly fading lexicon of experiences has recently found shelter in public memory, by no means a small feat itself, they remain huddled in the dark corners of memorials devoid of their textures. Choi’s fieldwork, then, is testament to the growing trends of states acknowledging atrocities merely for the sake of keeping intact their democratic charade. She ends her book by asking how we can envision a site of mourning that has the capacity to house myriad, and often dissonant, memoryscapes. The point, she iterates, is not merely the sentencing or the judgement that is conveyed in memorials, but rather the space for be-ing that is cultivated.

Choi calls for, above all, empathic mourning and the conscious peeling away of previously instituted convictions so that such mourning can be achieved. She asserts, “empathy does not occur when we are certain that we can comprehend others; rather, it ironically manifests at the verge of losing our conviction to know the other”[25]. That suffering and empathy meet at the peripheries of human consciousness instantly resonates with Cathy Caruth’s gentle observations on trauma, where she asks, “how does one listen to what is impossible”?[26] With the truth of trauma residing not merely in the recollection of facts but in the fact that the mere occurrence of these facts lies beyond comprehension, the testimony of trauma serves a dualistic purpose. Choi’s work implies the same goes for our listening of it as well, and as Caruth herself observes, it’s the listening that requires the most deliberate effort.

In the end, while Choi does not leave us with a conclusive finale, she does ponder on an open-ended question. What are the possible futures of the cacophony of memories from Korea’s war and pre-war era in the event of a unification? In the utopian world where the cartographic divide of the Korean partition is overcome, how could different people remember the same event in different ways and in a singular place? Can there be such a possibility?

In reference to his film, Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah, once said, “To portray the Holocaust, one has to create a work of art.”[27] Choi leaves us with the same challenge of imagination.


Akshita Mathur is a writer based in New-Delhi. She was awarded an MSc in Politics, Violence and Crime by University College London (UCL), and has worked for several research-based organisations including Centre for Civil Society (Delhi), and the Economic and Political Weekly (India).

Featured Image: A Korean child sits in smoldering ruins of his home destroyed by fire in the Suwon area on February 3, 1951, as allied troops burned dwellings which might provide shelter for red troops. Taken from The Atlantic. By Jim Pringle, Associated Press



[1] Sodaro, A. (2018): Memorial Museums: The Emergence of a New Form. In Exhibiting Atrocity: Memorial Museums and the Politics of Past Violence (pp. 12-29). New Brunswick, Camden, Newark, New Jersey; London: Rutgers University Press.

[2] Choi, S. (2019): Right to Mourn: Trauma, Empathy, and Korean War Memorials. Oxford University Press.

[3] Ibid, p 86.

[4] Ibid, p 22.

[5] Schwelling, B. (2012). Transnational Civil Society’s Contribution to Reconciliation: An Introduction. In Schwelling B. (Ed.), Reconciliation, Civil Society, and the Politics of Memory: Transnational Initiatives in the 20th and 21st Century (pp. 7-22). Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag. Retrieved September 3, 2020.

[6] Choi, p.47

[7] Winter, J. (2010): Sites of Memory. In Radstone S. & Schwarz B. (Eds.), Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates (pp. 312-324). New York: Fordham University Press.; p 313

[8] Choi, p.39

[9] Butler, J. (2016). Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (Radical Thinkers) (Reprint ed.). Verso.; p 15

[10] Ibid, p 39.

[11] Choi, p.83

[12] Ibid, p 97.

[13] Bisschoff, L. & Van De Peer, S., (2013):Trauma in Africa: Representations of Reconciliation. In: L. Bisschoff & S. Van De Peer, eds. Music, Visual Arts, Literature and Film. s.l.:I.B. Tauris.

[14]  Sodaro, A. (2018): MEMORIAL MUSEUMS: The Emergence of a New Form. In Exhibiting Atrocity: Memorial Museums and the Politics of Past Violence (pp. 12-29). New Brunswick, Camden, Newark, New Jersey; London: Rutgers University Press.

[15] Choi, p 118.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, p.119

[19] Kleinman, A., & Kleinman, J. (1996). The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times. Daedalus, 125(1), 1-23. Retrieved September 3, 2020.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Choi, p 120.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid, p 73.

[24] Bisschoff, L. & Van De Peer, S., (2013):Trauma in Africa: Representations of Reconciliation. In: L. Bisschoff & S. Van De Peer, eds. Music, Visual Arts, Literature and Film. s.l.:I.B. Tauris.

[25] Choi, p 29.

[26] Caruth, C. (1995). Recapturing the Past: Introduction. In: Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.

[27] Schumacher, C. (1998). Introduction. In: 1st, ed. Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah in Drama and Performanc. s.l.:Cambridge University Press.

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