National Memory and Identity of the Working Class in Korea (1910~1950)

National Memory and Identity of the Working Class in Korea (1910~1950)


  • Journal title: International Journal of Korean History
  • ISSN: 1598-2041 (print) 2508-5921 (online)
  • Publisher: Korea University, Center for Korean History
  • Country of publisher: korea, republic of
  • Date added to EuroPub: 2018/May/12

Subject and more

  • LCC Subject Category: History
  • Publisher's keywords: National Memory, Identity, the Working Class, Korea
  • Language of fulltext: english
  • Full-text formats available: PDF


    Moo-yong Kim



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The Korean working class founded their construction of national memory and identity upon their resistance to Japanese domination. The origins of working class identity could be traced back to Korean perceptions of Japanese as lithe other" based on differences in tradition, culture and consciousness. During the colonial period however, workers continued to identify with nation over class as demonstrated by their widespread participation in national events such as the funeral of King Sunjong. This was also part of a process of reconstructing national memory. Although in the colonial period, the working class claimed a memory of resistance under modernity, they simultaneously constructed a memory of compliance through their voluntary labor and obedience to factory discipline. Modem memory changed rapidly once the working class were incorporated into a fascist war mobilization program. However, in spite of workers' strong resistance to colonial domination, they also developed a culture of submission founded on fear and terror. This duality interfered with the development of national memory and transformed national identity into one characterized by passive and tacit forms of working class resistance. Following the surrender of Japan in 1945, memory was reconstructed around a "community of liberation" as workers focused on state building in their quest for independence, power, and escape from the humiliations of colonial rule. Memory was thus readjusted in order to tie memory to the period of liberation and eliminate negative memories of the past. However, the South Korean government, established in 1948, split this "community of liberation," executing and exercising various forms of physical violence and social discrimination against those dissidents who refused to accept the Rhee regime. The working class, coerced by ruling forces into forgetting existing memories and accepting an "official" memory, was thus forced to construct new national memory in response to national division. This was not only a part of the national formation process but also indicated an involuntary shift in the labor movement away from the left. It was this coercive process that erased working class memory and convinced them into complacency. Under such pressures, national memory of the working class could not resist change. The general workforce was forced into submitting to the Rhee regime this submission was ultimately represented in national memory as a culture of compliance, reflecting working class experiences under national division, anti-communism and dictatorship. Korean working class identity was thus gradually transformed by forced silence and submission and expressed as a new memory of defeat and frustration.

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