Category Archives: Korean History

Please buy Don Kirk’s new book on Okinawa and Jeju

A few weeks ago, it was my pleasure to meet up with Don Kirk for beers at the Press Club. Don was kind enough to give me a copy of his new book. I’ve only had time to poke through it so far, but it does (as you would expect) a comprehensive job of discussing the politics of military basing on both islands, each with its own history of conflict and controversy.


Don asked me to give it a plug, and I’m happy to oblige. Here’s the back cover blurb:


For those in the Pentagon, or who are serving in that area with the armed forces, this is something you’ll definitely want to read. It’s awfully expensive in hard cover, so you may want to buy it for your kindle, or use the kindle app (which I liked very much).

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The Continuum: U.S. Army film from South Korea, 1945-1948

It’s interesting to look back at history from the perspective of what we did not yet know:

The Japanese Army surrenders:

Like all propaganda, these films withhold unpleasant truths.  The sight of these South Korean kkotjaebi in Seoul is just heartbreaking.

North or South, videos like this are just hard to watch.  What bothers me almost as much as seeing this kids crying alone is seeing so many people walk without even stopping to help.

I often marvel at how much South Korea from long ago resembles North Korea today.

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Don’t Know Much About History

Just the latest example of historical myopia from the kids in South Korea.

As the university was announcing the plans, the Chosun Ilbo reported a Gallup poll in Korea that showed 62.9 percent of teens and 58.2 percent in their 20s did not know when the Korean War broke out. Also, only 43.9 percent of those surveyed said North Korea is to blame for starting the Korean War, with the figure among teenagers 38 percent and 36 percent for 20-somethings. Some 18 percent of teens and 25 percent of those in their 20s said both North and South Korea are responsible.

Until just a few years ago, some teachers who are members of the hardline Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union have been teaching that the Korean War was a battle for liberation led by the North. During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, a state-run broadcaster aired a documentary on Memorial Day praising China’s Mao Zedong, who backed the North in the Korean War. [Chosun Ilbo]

One of the points I’ve made for years about the USFK is that it’s an impediment to South Korea’s progress toward political maturity, which is in turn impeded by its lack of a confident sense of self-sufficient nationhood.

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Newly Released Soviet Report Details Atrocities in North Korea

Something tells me the Putinjugend Nashi web site isn’t going to feature, by popular demand, this newly released 1945 report by a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel who drove through Hwanghae and North and South Pyongyan provinces just after the war’s end. The officer’s detailed, 13-page report on the behavior of Russian soldiers in North Korea makes drunk G.I.’s in Itaewon look like Mormon missionaries by comparison:

The handwritten document in Russian was discovered by the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a U.S. think tank devoted to national security, and translated into English.

“The immoral behavior of our servicemen is horrible. Regardless of rank, they indulge in looting, violence and misconduct every day here and there. They continue to do so since few have been punished,” the document said. The lieutenant colonel described the atrocities of the Red Army, which described itself as “liberators” at the time. “The sound of gunfire never stops at night in areas where our troops are stationed,” he said.

“Drunk and disorderly soldiers commit immoral behavior and rape is prevalent.

It added, “Drunk soldiers are often spotted on the streets in broad daylight and drinking parties in more than 70 inns and public buildings take place every night. [Donga Ilbo]

Given the behavior of German soldiers on Russian soil, it’s possible to put the atrocious behavior of the Russians who invaded Germany in 1945 into some perspective, though it still doesn’t excuse the widespread mass rape of German women.

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Don Kirk’s Korea Betrayed is changing the way I think about Kim Dae Jung

And unless you already believe that DJ was a closet commie, Korea Betrayed might change the way you think, too.

Kirk, whose research of his subject is extensive, describes in detail how in his early life, DJ flirted with a number of leftist political organizations and unions, some of which were also linked to North Korea, but none of those associations necessarily linked DJ to the North Koreans. After all, North Korean troops almost shot DJ in 1950, and only the Incheon landings saved DJ from the firing squad.

Later on, however, Kirk tells of DJ’s friendship, in much later years, with a man who was almost certainly a North Korean spy:

His old friend Jung Tae Muk had gone to North Korea on a North Korean vessel in 1965, five years after his release from jail for pro-Communist activities, had undergone some training and returned to promote the election of Yun [Po Sun] as well as DJ. Jung met DJ in Mokpo and offered election advice but spurned DJ’s request to assist in his campaign. [Page 29]

I’d like to know more about just what “promotion” Jung was willing to offer, but what “assistance” he wasn’t. But this is far from the most damning thing Kirk writes about Kim Dae Jung.

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Video: Taegu in 1972

I’m struck by two things as I watch this. First, one of South Korea’s poorer cities was completely transformed 30 years later, when I spent 18 months there. There nothing in this video I recognize. Second, it’s strikingly reminiscent of a North Korean provincial town today, right down to the traffic policewoman. The main differences are two things that are in abundance here: cars and signs. Enjoy.

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The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights Holds a Discussion of its Archives

NKDB Discussion of its Archives_500

On August 26, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) held a discussion about its Archives of North Korean human rights violations. The three-hour event took place at the Korean Bar Association, located near the Seocho subway station in southern Seoul.

NKDB has catalogued thousands of incidents from thousands of individuals, and is constantly interviewing recent defectors. In addition, they have a consultation and support program for North Koreans and also for South Koreans who spent time against their will in North Korea, such as abductees who later escaped. Also, this year they started a short daily radio program, which I will discuss below.

After several people gave welcoming remarks, the former director of NKDB, 윤여상, now at Johns Hopkins University, made a presentation, and then eight panelists and the moderator, a Yonsei University law professor, weighed in.

I sat next to a friend who works at NKDB, and she very kindly took some notes in English to summarize key points of some of the speakers. The following is based on those notes. As it happened, the viewpoints below lean toward government operation of the/an Archives, but other speakers (not represented in the notes) supported it being a private effort.

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Color Footage of Seoul, 1938

According to the YouTube caption, this video was taken by Swedish diplomat Thor Wiestlandt in 1938. The caption also diagnoses Wiestlandt with “orientalism,” whatever the f**k that means … probably some hippie sociologist’s P.C. tag for what others might more sensibly explain as interest and curiosity in a foreign culture that your average 1938-model Swede wouldn’t have experienced. Enjoy:

And if you wonder why I moderate my comments, just have a gawk at the comments on any YouTube thread for conclusive proof that evolution is a two-way street.

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35 Years Ago Today

Park Chung Hee was either exceptionally tough, exceptionally cold, or both of these. Of course, Korean culture was even less solicitous of sentimentalism then than now. And maybe this was Park’s idea of defiance and courage under fire. Either way, even after an assassin’s bullet had mortally wounded his wife, you can clearly hear Park tell the audience that he’s going right ahead with his speech.

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And in Other News, The Korean War Is On Again

It would be too unfair to entitle this post, “Obama restarts Korean War,” even in jest, but on the other hand, we may now safely abandon all hope that his election would pleasure the world with a gentle warming sensation, release our tensions, and leave us in a state of affectionate post-coital afterglow.  The world does not work that way.  I knew we were in for something like this as soon as Obama threw Kim Jong Il below the fold of Page One by picking a Supreme Court justice:

North Korea announced Wednesday that it is no longer bound by the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War, the latest and most profound diplomatic aftershock from the country’s latest nuclear test two days earlier. [Washington Post, Blaine Harden]

And because terrorism requires the object’s undivided attention, the North also made a veiled threat to attack ships off its western coastline, warned that any search of its ships by the South Korean Navy pursuant to the Proliferation Security Initiative will mean war, and restarted a plutonium reprocessing plant at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.  I was not able to confirm rumors of a third nuclear test, mentioned on Fox this morning.

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The Continuum: The Origins of Korean Politics

Before the allies arrived in Korea in September 1945, Korean politics existed only undergound and in exile, among  feuding  factions of various brands of radicals.  A search of Time’s  fascinating archives, which are completely free, shows that the American press paid little attention to events in Korea until American missionaries began reporting on Japan’s oppression.  This  attention increased in the 1930’s as  hostility rose between Japan and the United States, but exile politics received almost none of that attention.

Less than a week after the arrival of the first American soldiers  at Incheon in September 1945, Time  described the main groups of Korean exiles that  had begun  returning to compete for power:

The Exiles. Many Koreans went into exile. Some 300,000 found refuge in Siberia; more than 100,000 fled to China and a few thousand to Hawaii.

In 1919 the exiles organized a Provisional Government at Shanghai. For two decades they had factional troubles. In 1942 they united again, under the Presidency of earnest, greying Kim Koo, who had taken refuge in Chungking, and won financial support and de facto recognition from Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek. The new coalition of exiles did not include the 300,000 Koreans in Siberia. They remained aloof and inaccessible.

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The Continuum: Birth of a Nation

The restoration of Korea’s nationhood seemed to begin so harmoniously: 

It is their purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since 1914, and that all territories stolen from China shall be restored. Japan will be expelled from all other territories taken by violence and greed. In due course Korea shall become free and independent.

With these objects in view, the three Allies, in harmony with those of the United Nations at war with Japan, will persevere in the serious and prolonged operations necessary to procure the unconditional surrender of Japan.  [Time, Dec. 13, 1943, quoting the  joint Tehran declaration of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin]  

The following March, on the anniversary of the 1919 uprising, a Time correspondent wrote this prescient reflection:

The passive, unarmed revolt led to savage repression. The Japs arrested, tortured, executed the Committee of 33; they flogged 11,000 other Koreans. The rocky Asian peninsula at Japan’s back door, where China and Russia had vied for influence and may vie again, became a land of silent people.

Last week brought the 25th anniversary of the declaration of independence.  Korea was still a land of silent people.

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The Continuum: Down Range

seoul-1945-sailors.jpgFrom the Oct. 8, 1945 edition of Time:

The autumn air was brisk and clear. Eagles wheeled overhead against the white clouds, their shadows crossing palaces and hovels, crumbling temples and Western buildings. The city of Seoul (pronounced soul), home of a million people, was 550 years old. Yet the Americans felt like discoverers last week as they explored Korea’s mountain-ringed capital.

On the broad boulevards their jeeps competed with oxcarts, with bicycles thick as gnats. Tooting streetcars fairly bulged with grinning Koreans, all in white. Pedestrians gave ground to nothing on wheels; they did not walk like conquered men. In twisted alleys and along the teeming Bun Chung, G.I.s shopped for kimonos. In the “Grill Room Hollywood” they made faces over the villainous brandy. At the “International Cultural Association” they danced (at two yen a dance) with slack-clad Kihsang girls. Over & over, the eleven-piece band played My Blue Heaven.

seoul-red-light-district-1945.jpgIn the Chongno, street of the big bell, the visitors heard a legend: the city’s ten-foot bell has an overtone like the wail of a child, since an infant was among the treasures that went into it in 1396. It rang long & loud on liberation night. Part of the Japanese false front of modernism, they learned, was a race track beyond the East Gate.

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The Continuum: How (Else) to Screw Up an Occupation

hodge-1945.jpgA frequent criticism of the American occupation of Iraq was the “decision” to disband the Iraqi Army.  It’s been said in response that there wasn’t much to disband by the time we reached Baghdad, anyway, and that decision was distinct from (though not unrelated to) our failure to prevent Iraqis from looting their own capital. 

What if we’d done things badly in exactly  the opposite  different way?  Time’s wonderful archives take us back to events  that have  brought us  grief ever since  —  that very  brief interlude of joint U.S.-Japanese occupation in Seoul:

Meanwhile, Lieut. General John R. Hodge, unbriefed on Korea, landed there. The directive he had not seen told him to replace Japanese officials immediately. Hodge retained the Japs, including the notorious General Nobuyuki Abe [picture, wiki], ex-Governor of Korea, whom he thanked publicly for making the U.S. occupation “simple and easy.” Hodge also kept the Japanese police, holding that Koreans were “too excited” to perform police duty and that they were “the same breed of cat as the Japanese.” Koreans roared and rioted (Japanese soldiers machine-gunned one throng, killed two, wounded ten.)

Even before Hodge arrived they had been in a ferment. U.S. planes had dropped leaflets with Korean translations of the Cairo declaration promising Korea independence “in due course.” The Korean translation of “in due course” meant “in a few days.”

After 35 years of complete Japanese domination, Koreans were falling over themselves with pent-up political activity.

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With Friends Like These (Pt. 1)

Today is June 25, 2008, the 58th anniversary of Japan’s America’s North Korea’s invasion of South Korea.  I hope you’ll excuse my temporary confusion; my han has been acting up again:

More than half of teenagers here do not know when the Korean War broke out or who started it, showing ignorance about the country’s history and national security. 

The Ministry of Public Administration and Security said Monday that a survey of 1,016 middle and high school students showed nearly 57 percent didn’t know the war started on June 25, 1950.  Moreover, 51 percent did not know that the war started with North Korea’s invasion of the South. About 14 percent picked Japan as the nation responsible for the war; 13.4 percent, the United States, and 11 percent Russia. About 2 percent even said it was the South invading the North.

While the United States is regarded as the main ally of the country, 28 percent said it was the key “threat” for national security, 4 percentage points higher than North Korea.

Only 56 percent said they felt threatened by the North’s nuclear weapons development, adding that the chance of another Korean War taking place was very low.  [Korea Times, emphasis mine, ht to Brian]

Everybody — We’re number one!

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KCNA Trips Over the Truth on Human Rights

Writing in the Asia Times, Professor Sung Yoon Lee describes reading KCNA in the original Korean and finding, among the hackneyed sloganeering, that the writers “inadvertently rang with uncommon common sense, not to mention striking validity:”

A staple of the KCNA diet, such oft-stated claims [about Japanese abuses during colonial times] are indeed valid historical grievances that North Korea and Japan will have to resolve if the two are ever to normalize diplomatic relations. [OFK note: as if.] But the rare moment of unwitting cogency comes with chilling clarity in the very next sentence: “Any violator of international law is liable to punishment under this law without exception. No statute of limitations is applicable to the crimes against humanity [sic].”

When it comes to “crimes against humanity”, which Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines as “widespread or systemic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of attack”, there is simply no better candidate for prosecution than the Kim Jong-il regime.

Among the 10 specific systemic crimes against civilians defined in Article 7 as crimes against humanity – murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, sexual slavery, persecution against any identifiable group, enforced disappearance of person, and the crime of apartheid – the Kim Jong-il regime faithfully fulfills all but the last.

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MUST READ: NYT on Korean Nationalism, North and South


Today, even though it has a highly advanced economy — more than 80 percent of South Koreans have broadband Internet access at home, the highest rate in the world — the country has a nearly provincial relationship to its local heroes, like Ban Ki-moon, the foreign minister who will be the next U.N. secretary general. The most famous South Korean of recent times was Hwang Woo Suk, a scientist who in 2004 and 2005 announced breakthroughs in cloning. At home, he was worshiped, a hybrid of Einstein and Madonna. The government awarded him the title Supreme Scientist and gave him millions of dollars. The embrace was so intense that when a television news program reported on unethical conduct in Hwang’s lab, the program’s sponsors withdrew their ads and the show was temporarily taken off the air. The reporting was accurate — Hwang faked his research. The awards were withdrawn, prosecutors charged him with embezzlement — yet even so, supporters staged rallies, and a Web site in his honor pleads, “Please come back, Dr. Hwang.

In North Korea, nationalism has taken a different course and been put to different uses by a tyranny that exports counterfeit dollars and has been described, with amusing accuracy, as a “Soprano state,” after the Mafia family in the HBO series.

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