Blog #6 – The Ethics of History: New Understandings of the Korean War Through Oral History

“Oral history changes the writing of history much as the modern novel transformed the writing of literary fiction.”

~Portelli in What Makes Oral History Different, pp.69

In certain cases, I believe that by leaving out oral history you commit a fundamental moral wrongdoing as a historian. While Thompson briefly speaks of the vividness that oral accounts allowed in understanding World War One oral accounts become even more important when they exonerate repressed events or memories of the public. World War One is one of the most well documented and most written about wars in the discipline of history, the Korean War on the other hand is a war which memory of has been severely oppressed by the hegemony of South Korea’s successive authoritarian rulers straight up until the 1990’s (as well a U.S. cold war warriors). This repressed memory of the war has led to a simplistic and abstract understanding of the war as a cold-war binary which saw it only as an international conflict between two giant superpowers (the U.S. and the USSR). But unsurprisingly, it was far more complicated than what military historians and cold-war political historians have fashioned it to be. It is only thanks to oral histories done within the past two decades (as cold war hysteria has died down) that the true nuances of the war have been “recovered” from the previously silenced population of South Korea. Historians like Yoon Taek-Lim by conducting research into oral accounts bridged understandings of the Korean War with the people who actually experienced it. Indeed, these oral accounts shone a different light to the events of the Korean War than did government-officiated narratives. The oral accounts made clear that, for the Koreans themselves, the war was not so much between discrete political ideologies but rather a chaotic conflict “between people” themselves- akin to a civil war. The war was part of a broader context whose origins was largely in the civil fractures caused by the two Koreas’ recent post-colonial liberation and division.

It is literally the case here that as the Korean government has become more democratic, so has their history. The Korean War is a great example of Portelli’s statement that, “The first thing that makes oral history different, therefore, is that it tells us less about events than about their meaning” (pp. 67). What oral accounts of the Korean War tell is not necessarily facts about the war, the number of casualties or dates, but I would argue it did something far more important, which was transform understandings of the war and restore the meaning of the war to the Korean public.



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