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Co-Sponsored Event: "The Banishment of Comrade Vera Khan"

Date and time April 10, 2014 - 12:00pm - 1:30pm
Location 918 International Affairs Building

Colloquium Series on Korean Cultural Studies

"The Banishment of Comrade Vera Khan"
Ruth Barraclough, Lecturer, School of Culture, History & Language, Australian National University
Thursday, April 10, 2014
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
918 International Affairs Building

No registration required.

At 2pm on the 15th of March 1938, the Korean communist Vera Khan (1899-1954) was summoned for interrogation at the Lubyanka in downtown Moscow, the offices of the NKVD. Vera Khan was one of Korea's most outspoken communist feminists.  She had arrived back in Moscow in 1934 after a disastrous mission in Shanghai ended with the arrest of her husband the revolutionary Pak Hŏn-yŏng by Japanese police. Vera resumed her life in Moscow as a student and later proof-reader and editor, only to be arrested in the Great Purge of 1937-39 that targeted communist intellectuals. She was exiled for 5 years to Kyzylorda in present day Kazakhstan, one of the constellation of camps that made up the Gulag Archipelago. Following her release in May 1943 and resumption of life as a restricted (banished) Soviet subject in Kyzylorda, Vera quite by chance discovered from a copy of Pravda in 1946 that the communists, her old comrades, had come to power in North Korea. Prominent among them was her first husband Pak Hŏn-yŏng, whom rumour had reported dying in a Japanese prison in the 1930s, now Head of the Workers Party of South Korea.

This talk is about one of Korea's most notable feminist figures who lived at the very centre of major political events of the twentieth century. Although she was never allowed to return to North Korea, and her story was left to languish in the former Soviet Union interrupted only by the perfunctory "rehabilitation" stamped on her file in 1989, Vera Khan continues to be a compelling figure in Korean history. In 2007 the South Korean government awarded her a posthumous Medal of Patriotic Honour which her daughter, raised in an orphanage in Moscow, travelled to Seoul to collect. Vera Khan's story has been re-told as part of Korea's wounded Cold War past but her contribution to feminist activism has long been passed over. Too closely associated with troublesome and long discarded terms such as 'communist feminist', and 'sexually emancipated woman', Vera Khan and her comrades along with the memory of their feminist challenge were purged in South and North Korea. This talk examines Vera Khan as part of the suppressed history of female political leadership mutually bequeathed and maintained by South and North Korea. The talk concludes by asking what it means for feminism to have lost these histories.​​