Futures Interrupted: Going North and the History of Korean Modernism

Janet Poole, Associate Professor, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto

Teaching East Asia

As first two separate zones of occupation and then opposing states emerged on the Korean peninsula in the wake of the collapse of the Japanese empire, many Koreans crossed the 38th parallel: some were refugees fleeing the new regimes, others were still trying to return home after the forced mobilizations of the Asia Pacific War, and still others were expressing through movement their dreams for the shape of the future. Artists and writers figured prominently among those who chose to go north, especially the famous figures involved in the vibrant modernist movements of the late colonial era. Going north meant their work was banned for decades in anti-communist South Korea, and their ultimate fates were often grim—including execution and exile during the mid-1950s consolidation of power by Kim Il Sung. Silenced by two national histories, the utopian impulse of Korean modernist art and literature tells much about the experience of Japanese colonialism and these artists’ commitment to making a new art in a brave new world: postcolonial but also now part of the global Cold War. This talk follows the work and lives of some of Korea’s most talented artists of the mid-twentieth century, illuminating the tale of global modernism that lies at the origins of North Korean literature.