AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 563

[ Korea Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 563: Violence and “Truth”-Telling in the Korean War

Organizer: Grace Chae, Wellesley College, USA

Chair: Ramsay Liem, Boston College, USA

Discussant: Ramsay Liem, Boston College, USA

What is “truth” in war? The Korean War and memories of it, both historical and psychological, are fraught with the complexity of collective and individual experience. In order to understand the violence of war, one must be conscious of how these experiences are narrated, interpreted, rationalized, and utilized, and how power comes to play in these processes. What are the different historical viewpoints and rhetorical strategies applied in telling the “truth” in war and what is their function for individual and state actors? This panel applies a multi-disciplinary approach using historical, literary, and psychological analyses to explore “truth”-telling as a tactic of war, a means of control, and a form of recovery with respect to violent episodes involving the U.S. military during the Korean War. Specifically, the papers cover the U.S.I.S.’ cultural management of violence perpetrated by the U.S. military against Korean citizens, North Korea’s protest against American firebombings and the role of this protest in war strategy and identity construction, racialized reasoning behind the American military’s policy of extreme counter-force in the POW camps under its command, and Hwang Sog-yong’s dialogic approach to the “truth” of the Sinch'on Massacres. The panel will also explore the psychological dimension of war and violence in relation to individual and collective memory with an expert discussant in the field of psychology. Together, the papers in this panel investigate the processes through which “truth” has been negotiated and told in relation to the Korean War and the individual and historical meanings of these “truths.”

Managing Violence: U.S. Cultural Policy during the Korean War and its Aftermath
Wol-san Liem, , South Korea

American anti-guerrilla tactics during the Korean War left millions of civilians dead. The traces of this violence can be found in the U.S.-Korea relationship forged through the war and the years of U.S. military government and dictatorial rule that preceded it. U.S. troops remained in Korea after the conclusion of the armistice and reports of civilians brutalized by American GIs were frequent in Korean newspapers during the late 1950s and 60s. Yet the U.S.-Korea relationship is known as a ‘special friendship’ due to a particular telling of history—a particular telling of the ‘truth.’ The telling of this truth was the responsibility of the United States Information Service, the agency charged with carrying out U.S. cultural policy during the Cold War. This paper investigates the relationship of cultural policy to American-perpetrated violence in the construction of U.S. cold war hegemony. It looks specifically at the establishment of USIS branches in Korea in response to peasant revolt against the policies of the U.S. Military Government (1945-1958), propaganda activities directed at refugee populations during the Korean War, and efforts to contain public outrage at violent crimes committed by U.S. soldiers in the war’s aftermath. I argue that managing social disorder and political critique that arose in response to American violence was a central function of cultural policy. Cultural-policy officers accomplished this task through a telling of the ‘truth’ that denied the significance of violent acts or erased American responsibility, and by emphasizing a ‘community of interests’ between the American and Korean people.

Politics of Persistence in the Korean War Bombings
Su-kyoung Hwang, University of California, USA

The firebombing of Korea during 1950-53 occupies an inconspicuous place in the Korean War scholarship, despite the extraordinary scale and duration of the destruction. Apart from the political sensitivity, the scholarly indifference more or less pertains to the difficulty of imagining and identifying with the experience on a ground level. A majority of works on the subject are operational histories authored by Air Force historians, who try to assess the effectiveness of the bombings with respect to future warfare. Political scientists, on the other hand, tend to conceptualize the bombings as a form of “political coercion.” A handful of historians denounce the bombings as “America’s holocaust” that wiped out all signs of life in Korean villages and cities. On the whole, the scholars focus on the politics of domination from the Allied standpoint, centered on the United States, but tend to overlook the dynamics of Korean responses to the destruction. The bombings elicited passionate reactions—ranging from public protests to comic satires—in North Korea since the 1950s and came to characterize country’s politics of persistence. This paper studies some of the key features of the communist protest against the bombings across the domains of political culture, international media, psychological warfare, and public rhetoric. While looking at the cultural manifestations of the politics of persistence, this paper questions the rhetorical interpretation of war propaganda and reflects on the ways in which such cultural responses were incorporated into the North Korean war strategy, social identity, and nationalism.

Orientalizing Violence in POW Camps during the Korean War
Grace Chae, Wellesley College, USA

While negotiators at the armistice negotiations argued over the issue of voluntary repatriation in 1952, tensions exploded within prisoner of war camps under U.N. Command. Reports of fanatical “Reds” committing egregious acts of violence against fellow prisoners and guards, never before seen in POW history, not only embarrassed the U.S. military, but also lead to an unforgiving disciplinary blow through a policy of “uncontested control.” The U.S. military’s account for its use of tanks, machine guns, and flame-throwers against prisoners deemed it necessary to stamp out the violence that had spilled over from the frontlines, viewing it as an extension of the Korean and Cold War contexts. Scholars of this history often frame their critiques according to this narrative. By moving beyond why the U.S. military tactically moved towards this extreme, this paper explores how it internally and publicly justified brutality by tapping into certain webs of meaning to give seemingly rational credence to the use of extreme force. Drawing upon Durkheim’s theory of the expressive nature of punishment, I more broadly consider questions regarding how the U.S. management of POWs relates to the larger history of America’s material and imagined relationship with East Asia. This paper not only explores how violence is represented, but also how it is rationalized beyond notions of order and retaliation. I discuss how earlier explanations for prisoner docility as a product of Confucian socialization used to justify POW reeducation programs were re-appropriated to explicate fanatic prisoner behavior, justifying a policy of excessive force as the only appropriate response.

Remembering the Sinch’on Massacres (1950): Truth as Dialogue and Act in Hwang Sog-yong’s The Guest (2001)
Seung-Hee Jeon, Yonsei University, USA

How can one speak about the unspeakable? Can one even hope to know what really happened? These are questions that writers and scholars have been grappling with in recent years, especially after the acts of atrocities during the last century, one of the most demonstrative examples being the Holocaust. Unlike most academic discussions that conveniently abandon the concept of truth, discourses on war brutalities have focused on redefining the concept of truth in such a way as to actively embrace its para-representational dimensions. This paper examines The Guest, Hwang Sog-yong’s novel about the Sinch’on Massacres during the Korean War, as one such example of an effort to redefine truth. The truth(s) of this incident, in which an estimated 35,000 civilians were brutally murdered, has long been shrouded in a veil of ideological discourses, with North Koreans showcasing it as a typical example of the U.S. brutalities while South Koreans define it as one of the communist brutalities. By incorporating fantastic elements into a realistic narrative, as well as by turning this narrative into an act of shamanistic ritual, The Guest creatively tackles the issue of the truth of this historical incident and presents a much more complex and radically different picture of the incident than the official versions. Drawing on Bakhtin’s concept of truth as heteroglossia and act, this paper highlights the multi-vocal and multi-layered approach to representation in this novel as well as its dual identity both as a multi-dimensional representation and as an act of cleansing and reconciliation.