Su-kyoung Hwang. Korea’s Grievous War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 264 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4845-6.
Reviewed by Charles Kim (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Published on H-Diplo (February, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
In Korea’s Grievous War, Su-kyoung Hwang details, contextualizes, and reflects on the profound and long-lasting suffering of victims and bereaved family members who survived the unjust violence perpetrated against Korean civilians during, and beyond, the three years of Korean War combat. She demonstrates that the South Korean military, national police, and state and US military personnel and civilian decision makers were responsible for much of the outsized and largely avoidable violence committed against civilians in South Korea and in North Korea. Political motivations, racist assumptions, and cold expedience were factors behind these killings, as well as in the meting out of various forms of physical, psychological, and institutionally embedded harm among ordinary people. Hwang’s aim is to restore to the historical record the full humanity of survivors and the deceased, who have been in large part “dehumanized” and rendered “ungrievable” due to the stigma of having supported communist ideology. She demonstrates that this stigmatization—which was absolutely crucial in the anticommunist milieu of the 1940s to the 1980s—was often based on misunderstanding, embellishment, and outright fabrication.
The key period of the study starts with the onset and escalation of the civil struggle on Cheju Island in 1947-49 and concludes with violence against civilians in South Korea and North Korea, especially during the first two years of the Korean War, 1950-51. In the process of examining this key period, she moves deftly across a much broader swath of time to show various historical factors behind prewar and wartime violence, as well as behind subsequent memories and amnesia of that violence. In this regard, the author’s analysis is animated by relevant phenomena and processes of the colonial era (1910-45); early postliberation politics (1945-48); the short-lived democratic opening during which civilian groups first attempted to remember the victims of war and recuperate their reputations (1960-61); renewed anticommunist simplification and suppression of memories under the authoritarian rule of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo-hwan (1960s to 1980s); and the period following South Korea’s democratic transition of 1987, with a focus on civilian and governmental efforts to unearth and come to terms with the long-suppressed secrets of the midcentury past.
It is important to note that the author incorporates the half century after the end of Korean War combat into her study in order to emphasize the ways in which the struggle to remember the violence at the collective level—and, in the process, to rehumanize its victims—have had to contend with the dominant, post-1945 national narratives of South Korea and the United States. For South Korea, the prevailing narrative has highlighted the country’s positive achievements but has largely remained within the general bounds of anticommunism, which has militated against the fuller remembrance of ideologically driven violence committed during the war, and during the authoritarian era. For the latter, the dominant story line, with respect to US military policies and actions, focuses on the necessity of maintaining anticommunist vigilance by almost any means—including the summary suppression and wiping out of civilians merely suspected of harboring communist sympathies—in order to uphold America’s geopolitical prestige and, putatively, to defend the sovereignty of “friendly” postcolonial states, especially in areas believed to be under the threat of communist expansion. Within this narrative frame, the Korean War—despite and because of most Americans’ lack of knowledge about the event’s complexities and the excessive violence inflicted on the nonmilitary—serves as an early, important, and, for the most part, uncontested example of a seemingly justifiable US intervention in a Cold War, postcolonial conflict, especially when placed in contrast with Americans’ divided views of the Vietnam War.
This is a painstakingly researched study. Hwang pored through materials at the US National Archives and then “lived as a backpacker” for half a year to conduct interviews with fifty-seven survivors and bereaved family members in an array of South Korean sites (p. 14). The two forms of research, each of which poses its own unique challenges, add to the richness and persuasiveness of the study. Quite effectively, Hwang places these sources and midcentury violence against civilians into the historical context of Korea’s political struggles and nation-building efforts in the early postcolonial period, as well as of the peak of US anticommunism—at home and in foreign policy—at a juncture when American leaders were overseeing the country’s post-1945 transition into a perpetual “warfare state.”
In chapter 1, Hwang examines the Cheju Uprising of April 3, 1948. Her chapter centers on the question of why an incident that began with only 350 rebels escalated into a horrific massacre of at least 30,000 civilians (p. 29). To answer this question, the author focuses on three interconnected factors: the widespread representation of the uprising as a Soviet- or North Korea-instigated action; the role of kinship and family relations in the deepening of the local conflict; and the geopolitical implications of the event, which played out as a vicious local struggle over territory. For starters, Hwang explains that the 1948 rebellion was not orchestrated by external communist agents but was a local protest that called into question three things: the highly unpopular imposition of rule on Cheju Island by US military-backed South Korean rightists; the heightened right-wing repression that arose in response to the early peaceful demonstration of March 1, 1947, and that continued into the following year; and the upcoming national election of May 10, 1948, controversial on Cheju and throughout southern Korea. She details the direct participation of US military advisors who sought to ensure that South Korean rightists retained control of Cheju by suppressing rebels, savagely exterminating civilians deemed to be hostile, and contributing to the misrepresentation of the rebellion as one that had been fomented externally. In the process, she draws a salient parallel between racial violence in the United States and ideological violence perpetrated by rightists against rebels and civilians. Finally, she includes victims’ perspectives—most powerfully, by recounting the harrowing experiences of two interviewees.
Hwang’s examination of the massacre in Cheju establishes the basic contours of the entire book, which focuses on the parts played by Americans and South Korean rightists in violence against civilians; the culpability of US personnel in this violence, which has typically been explained away by, among other things, shifting the blame to Korean rightists and citing the exigencies of anticommunist military strategy; the racism-like dehumanization of victims in the name of anticommunism; and the suffering and (when applicable) the long-term travails of victims, survivors, and bereaved family members.
In chapter 2, Hwang focuses on the declaration of states of emergency both in South Korea (October 17, 1948) and in the United States (December 16, 1950). By giving legal sanction to the arbitrary and summary exercise of brutal and often deadly violence against civilians, she argues, the passage of emergency laws resulted in the utter suspension of human rights in South Korea. In her discussion of this topic, Hwang places the South Korean case into global perspective by pointing out other twentieth-century instances in which the declaration of national emergency was used to justify state violence, including Weimar Germany’s suppression of communists and France’s suppression of anticolonial resisters in Algeria.
Chapter 3 is on the mass executions of National Guidance Alliance members during the first year of the Korean War. Hwang begins by explaining that the Alliance was established in 1948 as a key ideological apparatus that aimed at raising the incipient South Korean state’s low levels of political legitimacy. The author then examines how communists and noncommunists were made to join the apparatus and were inculcated in the official “one people” nationalism of the Syngman Rhee regime. She traces the origins of this process of ideological conversion to the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, while drawing a parallel between the intensification of anticommunism in late 1940s South Korea and McCarthy-era America. Her detailed examination of the formation and operation of the Alliance is highly informative. In the second half of the chapter, Hwang turns to the mass executions, which claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 people, or nearly two-thirds of the Alliance’s membership (p. 106). Many of those killed had either never subscribed to communism, or were former communists who had renounced their beliefs well prior to their deaths.
In chapter 4, Hwang raises the issue of the complicity of third-party observers who witnessed the South Korean military’s massacre of political prisoners, as well as atrocities and human rights abuses committed against civilians believed to be potential or actual collaborators with communist forces. Women and children were among the victims. Hwang scrutinizes the International Committee of the Red Cross, Syngman Rhee and other South Korean politicians, and foreign war correspondents as third-party observers. But her chief concern is the US military personnel who not only may have given tacit sanction to the violence as nonintervening onlookers but also recorded it in photographs, many of which are presently housed in the National Archives. The latter action of depicting “powerless, vulnerable people,” she points out by quoting media scholar Susie Linfield, “is a fraught enterprise that can easily veer into condescension” (p. 135). Additionally, citing Susan Sontag’s meditations on photography, Hwang suggests that the macabre record-keeping of American photographers, as “invisible observers” to the massacres, may have constituted acts of “sublimated murder” (p. 135). The author’s critical consideration of the US servicemen who silently witnessed South Korea’s killing fields is quite thought-provoking.
Chapter 5 delves into the massive bombing campaigns carried out by the US Air Force in South Korea and, in particular, North Korea during the war. The primary strategy behind these campaigns, which included the use of incendiary bombs on military and civilian targets, was to demoralize the enemy by implanting fears of the Americans’ technological superiority and destructive prowess—the latter epitomized by devastating napalm attacks. Hwang suggests that while this tremendous and excessive display of power did strike considerable fear in people, the strategy backfired because it was ultimately based on the fallacious—and immoral—reasoning that the death and injury of civilians, as inevitable “collateral damage,” were a reasonable cost in the broader effort to defeat North Korean and Chinese forces (p. 138). The author opens this chapter with an original and extremely interesting discussion of evidence that a sizable number of USAF pilots were themselves unable to continue their participation in bombing missions in Korea, due to knowledge of the horrors that they were inflicting on defenseless civilians on the ground.
In the final chapter, the author goes into a detailed examination of the lives of seven of her interviewees. In contrast to her close-ups of interviewees in earlier chapters, Hwang focuses here on the personal struggles of these seven survivors throughout the authoritarian era, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. During those years, the system of “guilt by association” (yŏnjwaje) was in place and created additional obstacles in education, employment, and other areas for survivors and surviving family members. She also briefly examines some of the challenges to seeking historical justice experienced by former victims in the postdemocratization era. In the book’s conclusion, Hwang discusses salient aspects of present-day, mainstream understandings of South Korea and North Korea—primarily in South Korean and American public discourse—in order to underscore the importance of properly remembering the brutal anticommunist violence inflicted on Korean civilians at midcentury.
Hwang has used her meticulous research in the US National Archives to put forth new and insightful perspectives on her topic. I do think that with chapter 4, the author might have bolstered her provocative point about “invisible observers” by incorporating additional sources. One possibility might have been the inclusion of selected US military photographic representations of Americans acting with or upon Koreans—but not in the immediate context of an atrocity committed against civilians. This may have added further texture and support to her argument about the complicity of US observers. Incorporating the brief, but fine-toothed, analysis of a few passages from reports or testimonies by American personnel who witnessed South Korean killings might have contributed in a similar fashion. A bit more consideration in this vein, in turn, could have been a way for the author to reconnect to the book’s broader argument about the racialized attitudes typically harbored by American servicemen in Korea. Notwithstanding this rather specific quibble (which is based on the presumption that such images and passages are actually available), Hwang does advance her well-taken point about observers’ complicity quite sufficiently in this chapter.
Hwang’s extensive interview research is also commendable. It enables her to show the chilling and, indeed, grievous ways in which tactical decisions and statist actions had profound impacts on ordinary people at midcentury, and in the decades that followed. The final chapter is particularly effective in this regard. Throughout the book, Hwang offers numerous brief but very interesting comments on the interview process. In my opinion, a fuller statement on the subject, including the relevance of her positionality as a researcher, would have been useful for readers with an interest in methodological issues.
Overall, Hwang has contributed a valuable, erudite, and rigorously researched study that places Korean War-related atrocities and human rights abuses in the context of twentieth-century global history. Her book is a welcome addition to the growing English-language historiography on the immediate and longitudinal effects of Korea’s division and the Korean War, which includes Bruce Cumings’s The Korean War: A History (2010); Dong-choon Kim’s The Unending Korean War: A Social History (2009); and Hun Joon Kim’s The Massacres at Mt. Halla: Sixty Years of Truth Seeking in South Korea (2014). It is suitable for undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars with interests in a variety of topics, including modern East Asian and Korean history, Cold War social history, US military history, and human rights studies.
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Charles Kim. Review of Hwang, Su-kyoung, Korea’s Grievous War.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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