Archive for 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).

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.

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. That may be the only thing North Korea has today that South Korea doesn’t, and you can see emotional hunger for this sense among certain demographics in South Korea, though no to the same extent as the North Koreans’ physical hunger for South Korean rice and ChocoPies. Somehow, I don’t think Koreans would be so prosaic about the genesis of their form of government if they had to mobilize to Israeli proportions to defend it.

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. It’s much harder to understand why the Russians could justify behaving like this toward Koreans, whom they themselves recognized as victims of fascism and colonialism:

A North Korean who tried to bring a drunk Soviet lieutenant to justice said, “I cannot forgive the Soviet soldier who raped my wife. Many such perpetrators went unpunished. Though another lieutenant colonel urged the Soviet military police to punish the perpetrators to maintain military discipline several times, his words went unheeded, the report said.

The 25th Primorsky Krai unit commander of the Soviet Far East Army arrived at Pyongyang Airport on Aug. 26, 1945, and described the Soviet army as liberators. “Remember fellow Koreans! Your happiness is up to you. You have achieved freedom and independence. Everything is up to you now,” he said. The report, however, quoted the commander as threatening to “hang half of the Koreans” if they rise up against the Soviet army in protest of their abuses.

The commander held a party with his subordinates for 22 hours in a row in downtown Haeju on Nov. 16, 1945. A fire broke out and burned houses, but he said the fire was an act of arson committed by dissidents and received 300,000 yen as compensation.

The report quoted another Soviet colonel as saying privately, “The Korean people were enslaved for the past 35 years. It’s okay for them be enslaved a little longer.

We all eagerly await the calls for an inquiry by some Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In fact, let me just put it out there that Charles J. Hanley, having recycled the No Gun Ri story at least three times now, might actually find some fresh material here.

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. In the next chapter, I found an astonishing passage that discusses the founding of DJ’s overseas political organization, Hanmintong, after his effective exile to Japan in 1972, citing a 2002 report in the conservative and anti-DJ Monthly Chosun:

Returning to Japan, he opened the Hanmintong office there with the financial and moral support of the pro-North residents’ federation…. Pro-Pyongyang elements joined Hanmintong with strong support from pro-North residents in Japan. Their priority, driven by Pyongyang, was socialist revolution. Through the pro-North federation DJ and members of the group received regular infusions of funds covering hotel, living, and trevaling expense, including those incurred in the United States. Those who provided DJ with the money “were all spies from North Korea,” the Monthly Chosun wrote of the investigation.

Wondering whether Kirk was indeed referring to North Korea’s notorious Japanese front organization Chongryon, a/k/a Chosen Soren, I e-mailed Kirk for confirmation, which he provided. Kirk goes on:

Kim Dae Jung claimed to have been receiving donations from relatives and in-laws, including members of his wife’s extended family, business people, and one anonymous donor who contacted him through a mutual friend, and he said he had a complete accounting of how the money was spent. Kim Dae Jung’s pro-North contacts had assured him at the opening of the Hanmintong in Tokyo’s sumptuous Keio Plaza Hotel on July 13, 1973, that “many wealthy people” would “be willing to support” the group.

The Hanmintong organizers were referred to as “Viet Cong factions,” although it’s not clear whether this was in jest, whether this was how they referred to themselves, or how others referred to them. These events immediately preceded the South Korean government’s kidnapping and attempted murder of DJ, thus elevating him from the fringe to a living martyr. And whatever you may say about DJ and his associations — knowing even this — DJ continued his political activities in the face of more persecution.

The association with Chosen Soren, however, ought to be a legacy-killer. The most charitable characterization of Chosen Soren is that it is a cross between an organized crime syndicate and cult. Chongryon used to funnel millions of dollars in remittances, drug money, and pachinko revenues to North Korea each year. It encouraged thousands of ethnic Koreans to emigrate to North Korea, where they were effectively robbed of their assets and put under exceptionally close surveillance by the regime. Japan tolerated this for years, but Chosen Soren’s suspected involvement in the kidnappings of Japanese citizens to train North Korean spies finally provoked the Japanese government to bring down the hammer and strip Chosen Soren of its tax-exempt status. But even all of this disregards Chosen Soren’s role in the financing the slavery of millions more, slavery that Kim Dae Jung conspicuously failed to denounce and did much to perpetuate with South Korean taxpayer funds, some of them transferred illegally.

Say what you will about DJ — the man repaid his debts.

Chosen Soren today is a pale shadow of what it was in the 1970′s and 1980′s when it played a major role in boosting Kim Dae Jung to the presidency of South Korea. But the idea that DJ allowed himself to accumulate a political and financial debt to such a repellent organization is a scandal — not just because DJ could be elected President in spite of this, but because those associations were mentioned in almost none of the reporting of Kim Dae Jung or his legacy.

I should note that I’m not even halfway through Kirk’s book yet, mostly because of competing demands on my time. By the way, if you live in the Washington, DC area, Kirk will appear at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to discuss his book on January 5th, at 2:00.

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.

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. She said it was quite interesting that, for the most part, representatives of various government bodies said their body should be in charge of the Archives, while speakers from NGOs said it should stay in the private sector.

Read more

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.

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.

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. Say it with me:  thank God Christopher Hill disarmed these people in time!

My worst fear, at least aside from more North Korean nuclear proliferation, is for the fate of the two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who are still prisoners of Kim Jong Il.

By itself, North Korea’s unilateral nullification of the 1953 Korean War Armistice means very little, and by the end of the trading day, South Korean share prices will prove me right.

There are two reasons for this; first, the Korean War didn’t begin with North Korea’s invasion.  Begin with the continuum of Korean politics and nationhood since 1945, functionally the Year Zero of modern Korea, and a year that I’ve sometimes compared to Spain in 1936.  Both nations were about to be transformed from feudal to industrial societies.  Both nations were politically immature and emotional, with dozens of vehement and mutually opposed factions shooting each other’s leaders.  In both cases, Communist groups proved better organized than their rivals and formed armed militias.  The comparison ends with the Spanish Republic’s inclusion of those Communist militias in their armed forces; in South Korea, Communists launched a guerrilla campaign against the government.  The guerrilla war was marked by widespread atrocities on both sides, and didn’t end completely until 1953.

Nor did the Korean War end with the 1953 Armistice.  The Armistice marked the end of the Soviet and Chinese commitments to conventional mechanized warfare, but as any American who served in Korea in 1968 can tell you, it certainly wasn’t the end of firefights along the DMZ or North Korean attacks.  That year, North Korea shot down an American surveillance plane, seized the U.S.S. Pueblo, and sent a team of commandos to kill South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee.  The commandos never got close to Park, but dozens of civilians were killed in their last stand, in a busy intersection in downtown Seoul.

North Korea is still believed to hold about 500 surviving prisoners or war it failed to repatriate after 1953, plus hundreds (or tens of thousans) of South Korean civilians, depending on when you start counting and whose figures you believe.  Periodically, those prisoners still manage to escape from the North.  This is to say nothing of North Korea’s infiltration of the South with an active Fifth Column of South Koreans who are loyal to its ideology.

This announcement almost certainly does not signal the beginning of large-scale hostilities.  North Korea’s conventional forces could do terrible damage to South Korea with artillery, missiles, and infiltrated special forces, but its air force is decrepit, and without air superiority, an invasion force would be slaughtered.

It may, however, mean that North Korea returns to the maintenance of a higher level of tension through the provocation of incidents along the DMZ, or along South Korea’s coasts.