115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sublimating Necropolitics: Recovery of the Militarized Romantic Subject in Descendants of the Sun

Lindsay Schaffer, University of California, Riverside

This paper will examine the how South Korean television drama Descendants of the Sun (2016) recovers the soldier as a romantic subject.  I will illustrate how the narrative elements function to sublimate the necropolitical into the humanist rhetoric of world peace.


The Korean Broadcasting System’s 2016 television drama Descendants of the Sun (T’aeyang ŭi huye) was a rousing success both domestically and internationally.  With a high of 38.8% (Nielsen Korea), the ratings giant dominated its timeslot and maintained its spot as the highest ranked network drama for 2016.  Although the star system provides a cursory justification for the initial interest in the drama, it seems insufficient to explain why the extreme nationalistic overtones of the narrative in a time of increasing state criticism retained public enthusiasm.  In contemporary popular film and television, military figures as protagonists remain predominately in the realm of Korean War blockbusters or as familiar celebrities suffering through the challenges of mandatory military service in the variety show Real Men (Chintcha sanai).  Different from the double agents whose glamor, sex appeal, and danger allow for diverse representations, ranging from the familiar James Bond-esque tuxedo to the combat chic, the visual assault of the military uniform continually reminds the spectator of the character’s belonging to an organ of the state.  Two regimes of military dictators in South Korea from 1961 to 1987 have at once solidified representations of soldiers as the individual agents of death and the figures of an authoritarian past.  As the ultimate symbol of necropolitics, the soldier is only able to recover his (or her) individual humanity when the narrative invokes sovereignty as a motivator, commonly seen in Korean War films, or as a pathetic victim of mandatory military service.  Yet neither of these recuperated figures create romantic characters enticing enough to compete with the cosmopolitan chaebŏl heir who gives Cinderella the key to his kingdom and his credit card. 

This paper will examine the how Descendants of the Sun recovers the soldier as a romantic subject.  I will illustrate how the narrative elements function to sublimate the necropolitical into the humanist rhetoric of world peace.  By placing the life of the citizens over the political ties of state, the army as the protector of the nation becomes distinct from national and international politics.  It is through the identification of the soldier as a guardian of the nation, the individual national subject, and the fictional Middle Eastern third world country, Uruk, that the violence of peacekeeping is justified.  Yet what allows the soldier to become a romantic figure is the central moral dilemma of the female protagonist, Dr. Kang Mo-yŏn.  As a surgeon, she is fundamentally opposed to Captain Yu Si-jin’s occupation.  Through multiple conflicts such as natural disasters and gun-wielding antagonists, this seemingly moral incompatibility is transformed; because he protects her in times of crisis, she can save lives, and by extension, so can he. 


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