Diving into the Korean War

February 24, 2020

Until this week, I knew almost nothing of the Korean War. I knew the conflict had occurred in the 1950s on the Korean peninsula and that Canada (where I grew up as a Canadian citizen) had played a part in it. That was the extent of my knowledge. Previously I was more interested in older wars – the U.S. Revolutionary war, even very old English wars.

I feel differently now after having read Embattled Memories: Contested Meanings in Korean War Memorials by Suhi Choi (University of Nevada Press, 2014.) I loved this book. It held my rapt attention for all five chapters, including the epilogue. [Continued by clicking the link under the book cover.]



Embattled Memories examines five memory sites of the Korean War: U.S. media coverage of No Gun Ri; Female survivors’ memories of No Gun Ri; the PBS documentary Battle for Korea; the Utah Korean War Memorial; and the statue of General Douglas MacArthur in South Korea.

Through closely examining memory and counter-memory in regards to these Korean War memory sites, Choi, currently Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City, provides readers with a remarkable journey through memory construction. “The recent surge of counter-memories has significantly influenced the ways in which we remember the Korean War,” states Choi. “With unprecedented scope and intensity, these counter-memories have brought us unknown stories, alternative frameworks, and detailed contexts that problematize the official narrative of the Korean War in hegemony.”

Often called the forgotten war, the Korean War is often framed simply and follows a rigid narrative like this: The Korean War was a war between North Korea and South Korea when North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. The UN Security Council then voted to send an international force to Korea to stop the invasion of democratic South Korea by the communist North Koreans.


Screen shot of the summary by the National Army Museum UK on the Korean War. I liked their coverage and timeline on the website. 

Since the 1950s, many Americans believe the Truman administration defended a noncommunist government from invasion by communist troops. “Determined not to ‘lose’ another country to communism, and interested in shoring up its anticommunist credentials, the Truman administration found itself defending a nation a world away from U.S. soil.” (www.archives.gov)

In Embattled Memories, however, Choi takes us on a different journey in remembering the Korean War. The author describes how “counter-memories of the war have recently clashed with official, state-sanctioned memories.” The result is a fascinating look at how we understand and memorialize the Korean War, including a re-examination of MacArthur’s motives and objectives for the United States at the time. Choi asks readers to take a closer look at the conflict, and to re-examine iconoclastic, fixed summaries where counter-memories have been rebuffed or discounted from collective memory.

I was fascinated with Choi’s description of immoveable statues (e.g. MacArthur and/or the Utah memorial) and how they are impacted through time and space, and how counter-memories, protests, or emerging reactions then become part of the memorial’s overall ongoing memory functionality.

I thought Embattled Memories was an excellent read, and a thoughtful journey into memory studies as an important and thought-provoking part of public history.



Medal given by the United Nations for the Korean War servicemen