'Punishing the traitor, producing the citizen': South Korean prison reform 1945-61

James D. Hillmer
Tuesday, February 11, 2020 -
7:30pm to 9:00pm
Second floor Residents’ Lounge, Somerset Palace
W10,000 for non-members; W5,000 student non-members (with student ID); free for members

Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch lecture series


'Punishing the traitor, producing the citizen':

South Korean prison reform 1945-61


After liberation from Japan in August 1945, Korea’s prisons were virtually emptied. Crowds famously gathered to welcome freed independence activists at the prison gates, and some of these prominent figures set about building an independent Korean nation. However, these hopes were short-lived, as the prisons were soon filled up again with unprecedented numbers of political prisoners and innocents caught up in popular uprisings against the U.S. military government and division of the Korean Peninsula. Prisons became sites of Korean War massacres, and nearly all of South Korea’s penal facilities were destroyed in the war. During postwar reconstruction, the country rebuilt prison facilities and reframed the guiding ideology of the penal system under “Democratic Punishment” (minju haenghyeong). Korean penal reformers also began visiting Cold War ally nations and adopting their rehabilitative models of reform that emphasized prisoner education, vocational training, and artistic production. Throughout the 1950s, the repressive Syngman Rhee regime’s penal apparatus attempted to sell idealistic narratives of prisoner rehabilitation and redemption while Korea experienced staggering poverty. This lecture highlights the 1948-60 First Republic of Korea’s penological journey from massacres to art shows -- from punishing the ‘traitor’ to producing the ideal citizen.

To better understand social and political forces shaping contemporary South Korea, one can look to the recent history of punishment and ask, “Who was imprisoned, and why?” More concretely, this lecture asks, “What material, political and cultural forces shaped the development of South Korean prisons and penology?” This lecture surveys early South Korean penal history to excavate the role of the prison in the formation of South Korean national identity and a Cold War anticommunist consciousness. It highlights forms of overt ideological indoctrination and subtler programs of social rehabilitation used especially by South Korea’s First Republic to convert criminals into ideal, anticommunist citizens.

James D. Hillmer is a PhD candidate in the Department of Asian Languages & Cultures at the University of California-Los Angeles. His research interests include contemporary Korean history, state violence and wartime massacres, and the symbolic role of punishment and redemption in South Korean society. He is currently finishing eight months of Fulbright-Hayes doctoral dissertation research based at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. 

Venue:          Second floor Residents’ Lounge, Somerset Palace,

                      Gwanghwamun (near Anguk Station, across street from Japanese Embassy)

                      * Free parking is available for the attendees of the lecture.


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Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch
Room 611, Korean Christian Building, Daehak-ro 19 (Yeonji-dong), Jongno-gu, Seoul 03129
[03129] 서울시 종로구 대학로 19 (연지동) 한국기독교회관 611호

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