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).

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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. At least 30,000 of them were said to be organized in a Red Army unit. They were apparently under the leadership of two veteran Korean leftists, Park Hoon and Kim Kun.

The Worriers. In Chungking last week the Korean Provisional Government chafed anxiously, hoped hard for Chinese and U.S. air transport homeward. While waiting, Foreign Minister T. Josowang paid public tribute to Korean troops with the Red Army and with the Chinese Communists, who last month suddenly sponsored a Korean Independence League (TIME, Aug. 20). “We welcome any allies,” he said, “marching in … for the purpose of liberating . . . the fatherland.”  [Time, Sept. 10, 1945]

At the same time, dormant opportunists were already  emerging to  compete  with the exile groups.  Thus, the story of Korea’s politics really began in 1945, but only for a brief interlude until it was truncated by a zero-sum struggle between two repressive systems, albeit systems that would follow two very different trajectories.

In the North, politics ended almost as soon as the Soviets arrived with Kim Il Sung in their baggage.  Despite some initial American insistence on the protection of free speech, little political dissent or competition — beyond fratricidal intra-party purges — appears to have survived beyond 1946.

Before Syngman Rhee established his political supremacy in the South, patterns of political speech and taxonomy emerged that seem familiar to Korea watchers to this day.  As soon as the Americans arrived in September, there was an immediate proliferation of political groups, parties, debates, and demonstrations.  The Japanese occupation, however, didn’t instill Koreans with much sense of political tolerance or civic debate.

continuum-pol-banner.jpg   continuum-political-posters.jpg

(Once again, the photographs come from the flickr page of Tok1, otherwise known as Don O’Brien.)

O’Brien photographed a couple of those groups demonstrating, the first in some forgotten place, the second in Seoul.

continuum-unidentified-organization.jpg     continuum-demonstration.jpg

Politics coalesced around political groupings that would be familiar to a modern observer:

Korea today has almost no politics, and legions of politicians. Seventy-odd parties stepped up to be counted at General Hodge’s request. The best guess is that they will shake down to three: 1) a “democratic” party, conservative and nationalist; 2) an extreme left-wing party, Communist-dominated; 3) a middle or pinkish party, claiming a position comparable to Labor’s in Britain.

All parties are for independence, nationalism, turning the Jap rascals out. Where they differ is on methodology, nationalizing industry, and on local issues. After years of political frustration there are few strong personalities. One is plump, man-of -good-will Woon Heung Lyuh (pronounced Yuh), 60, head of the provisional commission for rebuilding Korea, nucleus of party No. 3. He is out of circulation at the moment (it appears there were a couple of fist fights). Lyuh told me he wants to set all good Koreans — Communists included — help the reconstruction.

Song Chin Woo, a fiftyish editor with a long record in the secret nationalist movement, is remaining aloof from parties while things jell. Cho Mansik, called the Gandhi of Korea, is a Christian church elder whom the Russians reportedly brought out of retirement to head the municipal government of industrial Pyengyang. As for the long-exiled government at Chungking, some Koreans would welcome it as a ready-made instrument for wielding political power. More likely, its members will return as private individuals.

In Korean eyes the two tragedies of their country are that the Japanese were here from 1910 on, and the Russians are here now. Eventually the Koreans must solve the problem of transforming their schizoid country into a nation. Meanwhile it is our problem too, and what the U.S. does here in the next year or so will be the tip-off to our future role in the Orient.  [Time, Sept. 8, 1945]

Two weeks Later, dozens of political parties were  lobbying the Americans for influence:

From Seoul, LIFE Photographer George Silk cabled: “I am writing this during a party in Korea’s leading geisha house. The party is the third in a succession of 51 such parties. In the last few weeks 51 Korean political organizations have mushroomed and each tried to reach American military authorities. Failing, they are entertaining the U.S. press. Some of the new parties’ names: Republican, Democratic, Communist, New Korea, Party for the Control of Law and Order, and Party for Cooperation with the Party for the Control of Law and Order.”  [Time, Sept. 24, 1945]

By the following spring, as the authorities north of the 38th Parallel stamped out dissent,  Syngman Rhee had established his own control and begun to do the same in the South.  Tok1 captured General Hodge with Rhee and his people at a ceremony that sure seemed like a hand-off.  Hodge was under tremendous pressure to turn the reigns of power over to Koreans, which was hard enough, but harder yet because collaborators were also off-limits.  Rhee had the additional advantages of an ivy league education, an excellent command of English, and an understanding of how to manipulate foreign public opinion.

continuum-hodge-with-rok-official.jpg     continuum-hodge-with-rhee.jpg

By 1946, the South Korean left had came under the domination of violent, pro-North cadres who began to assert their views through  a  brutal insurgency, and  through the promiscuous propagation of half-truths and anti-Americanism.  It is stories like these that cause me to speak of modern Korean history as a continuum:

Southern leftists too were throwing their weight around. A Communist-inspired “Battle Front Formation Convention” met in Seoul to denounce U.S. occupation measures. One speaker brought the house down with a report on World War II. Gist of the report: when Germany was near collapse in 1944, the U.S. jumped into the European war for spoils. After ineffectual skirmishes by U.S. troops on minor South Pacific islands, Russia staggered Japan with tremendous blows by the mighty Red Army.  [Time, Mar. 4, 1946]

Rhee no doubt accelerated the communization of the Korean left by elimination — by suppressing leftists who weren’t siding with the communists.  To say that the non-communist left was “non-violent,” however, would also have been inaccurate.  In those early years, Seoul was plagued with assassinations, but mostly directed at politicians.  The communists broadened their terror campaign to target broad swathes of the population, and Rhee would respond in kind with an equally  brutal counterinsurgency campaign.
Korean politics was a high-stakes game in those days.   Song Chin-Woo didn’t even survive 1945 before an assassin got him.  The assassin was a nationalist who was angry at Song for supporting a U.S.-Soviet trusteeship.  Along with fellow activist Kim Song-Su, Song was one of the founders of the Dong-A Ilbo.

Woon Heung Lyu, a/k/a Yo Un Hyung, a/k/a Yuh Woon Hyung, pictured here at right, was assassinated in 1947.  Some say a right-wing North Korean refugee did it; others say it was Kim Ku’s people who did it.  Yo/Yuh/Lyu himself was also something of a political question mark, called a leftist by some and an American stooge by others, and with enemies on the left and right alike.  Yo was one of the first reunificationistas, insisting that North and South eshew their superpower sponsors and unite, something that still may have seemed almost possible in those times.  He briefly edited the Chungang Daily News, not to be confused with today’s Joongang Ilbo.  You can still find his ardent admirers on the Web.  This one also quotes extended passages from the discredited leftist hack Bruce Cummings … so be warned.

Kim Koo was blessed with an exceedingly long life by the standards of contemporary Korean politicians, surviving until June 1949.  The building he was assassinated is now Samsung Hospital, which isn’t far from the old West Gate, Sodaemun (fifty-one years later, my mother-in-law-to-be died in that  very same building).  Suspicions have fallen on Syngman Rhee for having had a role. 

The Soviets placed  Cho Man Sik under house arrest in 1946.  He was executed in a North Korean prison camp in October  1950, as U.N. forces moved North following the second Incheon landings.

Continue Reading

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. No one could say how few, if any, of the nation of 23,000,000 knew that China, the U.S. and Britain, at Cairo last November, had promised to restore their freedom “in due course.” In Chungking, greying Kim Koo, head of a Korean provisional government, declared that Koreans want “full and immediate independence” after the war. But strategic Korea, after long years of bondage, seems more likely to become the ward of an international condominium until she has learned the ways of self government again.  [Time, Mar. 13, 1944]

As the war raged in other theatres, Korea was left mostly untouched by World War Two.  Japan and the Soviet Union had fought a very large and mostly forgotten battle at  Khalkhin Gol in August 1939, one month before Hitler invaded Poland.  The battle ended in a decisive Soviet victory and the elevation of  Georgi Zhukov, one of the few  capable Soviet officers to survive the  purges of the 1930’s. 


Torgau on the Imjin:  American and Soviet soldiers meet at the 38th Parallel, 1945.  

By  April 1945,  Zhukov’s tanks were  racing  those of Marshals Koniev and Rokossovsky  to Berlin over the remnants of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS.  The  final Soviet offensive began on April 16th,  as Hitler made the decision to die in his Bunker.   That same day, Time reported that  the Soviet Foreign Commisariat had summoned Japanese Ambassador Naotake Sato to inform him that the Soviets were abrogating the two nations’ 1941  neutrality pact, signed two months before Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa.   The writing was on the wall, notwithstanding the frequency with which the words “free and independent,” qualified by  “in due course,” would  appear in declarations, conferences, and on leaflets showered on Seoul at the start of the U.S. occupation.  The Americans, however,  were not the first to arrive:

For 25,000,000 Koreans a new era had begun. Russian marines patrolled Seoul, Korea’s capital. Elsewhere in the Land of Morning Calm, Red Army paratroopers and truck-borne infantry had taken over airfields, harbors, railway junctions. Moscow reported that the Red flag waved in Korean towns, that Korean crowds were wildly cheering their liberators, that self-government committees were operating, and that a purge of collaborationists had begun.  [Time, Sept. 10, 1945]


Seoul, 1945:  The Soviet and American flags fly together on a welcome banner.

What do I love about this photograph?  The font.  What American soldier has served in Korea who hasn’t seen it on hundreds of  off-post storefronts, advertising tailors, plaque shops, and nightclubs?  Like all of the photos here, it comes from tok1’s flickr page, where you can see larger-size versions of most of these photos, and more.

In  January 1946, the erstwhile allies were still talking about the mechanics of governance, peace, and reunification:

The communiqués, released without [French Foreign Minister Georges]  Bidault’s okay, set up a procedure on drafting peace treaties far closer to the Russian than to the U.S.-British proposals at London. The Russians at Moscow agreed to a general conference, but the Big Powers will handle the first & last drafts.


[The Secretary of War visits General Hodge in Seoul, 1945]

Government by Gadget. On Japan the U.S. stood fairly firm. To save Russian face it set up an eleven-power policy-making commission and a four-power council to “implement” the policy. The commission would operate under veto provisions, so that little or no action could pass through this Rube Goldberg international machinery. Fortunately, General MacArthur can make interim decisions. The General, however, did not like it. He said: “On Oct. 31 my final disagreement was [radioed to Washington that] the terms ‘in my opinion are not acceptable.’ Since that time my views have not been sought. . . . Whatever the merits or demerits of the plan it is my firm intent … to try to make it work.”

In Korea a U.S.-Soviet commission will attempt to set up a provisional government, may recommend establishment of the first of the trusteeships envisaged in the San Francisco Charter. If so, Korea will be run by the U.S., Russia, Britain and China for five years, after which it will be free. Koreans in the U.S. zone greeted the trusteeship with mass strikes and attacks on American soldiers.  [Time, Jan. 7, 1946]

By  May of  1946, the differences had only sharpened.  All of this seems typical enough of that year’s machinations when put in the context of similar ongoing  disputes over Poland, Germany, and Japan  — where the Americans barely preempted Soviet landings in Hokkaido  — and the massive westward shift of the borders lying between Moscow and Berlin.  Clearly, the Koreans’ post-colonial euphoria had begun to fray:

The pleasant May afternoon in Seoul has been disturbed for several hours now by a long blast of Korean oratory, hurled into the streets from a loudspeaker in a former Japanese bank building. “We will fight for independence,” an unseen speaker shouts, “until the last Korean is dead!” Other voices are summoning Koreans to a mass meeting on behalf of freedom.


[Seoul, 1945:  Political posters angrily denounce the “trust rule system.”]

U.S. military-government officials are paying no evident attention to the oratory, which has much the flavor of a political campaign in Chicago or Seattle. In America’s Korea, as in Chicago or Seattle, free speech has been the rule since the U.S. Army arrived last fall to take charge below the 38th parallel. In fact, U.S. insistence on free speech for Koreans has become the newest impaling post of Soviet-American relations.

A Matter of Semantics. Seven weeks ago a delegation of 120 Russians came down from their zone north of the 38th parallel. They were led by rotund Colonel General Terenty Shtykov, who said: “The Soviet people warmly support … a free way of life … for the Korean people.” Inside the pillared grey walls of Seoul’s Duk Soo Palace, General Shtykov and four top comrades began a series of talks with five U.S. officers, led by strapping Major General Archibald V. Arnold.

The joint commission sought to “implement the directive” (as they say in Washington) of last December’s Conference of Foreign Ministers in Moscow, which called for a provisional Korean government. Koreans were supposed to be consulted, but the Russian idea of which Koreans to consult differed radically from the American.

A Formula for Purging. Koreans, remembering Japan’s tutelage, were disappointed when the Moscow Conference decided upon another trusteeship, under the U.S. and Russia, for five years. Rightist groups in the American zone, loosely amalgamated in the Representative Democratic Council under elder statesman Syngman Rhee, protested heatedly, berated both the U.S. and Russia. But leftists, gathered under Communist domination in the Democratic People’s Front, espoused trusteeship and opposed immediate independence, although Communists all over the world were yipping for the freedom of India and Indonesia.

In the Duk Soo Palace, Soviet negotiators demanded that all Koreans who had spoken against trusteeship be barred from consultation. The Russian attitude, as one American put it, was: “The gods have spoken. Korea is going to have trusteeship. Why listen to those who oppose it?” They went even further. They asked that members of the Representative Democratic Council be disqualified from any provisional government.

The Americans balked over what, in effect, was a political purge in favor of pro-Russian parties. Since there was no meeting of minds on that issue, the Americans shifted to another. Would the Russians consent to “remove the 38th degree parallel boundary as an obstacle to the reunification of Korea?” The Russians refused to consider it.   [Time, William Gray, May 20, 1946]

No such acrimony would be tolerated in Pyongyang:

A dog-eared copy of the one-page North Korea Communist mouthpiece Chawng Lo (Right Way) turned up in the U.S. zone last week. From it, South Koreans, eager for news of their northern countrymen, learned of a two-day meeting in P’yongyang to plan a provisional government for the Soviet-occupied area. The self-government murmurs had strong overtones of the Internationale.

Chairman of the conference, Chawng Lo said, was Kim II Sung, “a 32-year-old hero” who appeared “in a Red Army uniform . . . proudly wearing medals received from the Russian Government.” Chawng Lo reported: “All of Kim II Sung’s bills passed unopposed.” Delegates had set up an Interim Peoples Committee and voted a platform which included extermination of pro-Japanese and antidemocratic elements, confiscation of land, extermination of imperialistic ideas. “Plans were drafted,” Chawng Lo proclaimed, “for the benefit of the human race.”

In the U.S. zone skeptics called the provisional regime a “Soviet puppet,” charged that Kim II Sung was an impostor trading on the name of a legendary Korean resistance leader.  [Time, Mar. 4, 1946]

The charge that Kim Il Sung was an impostor is of dubious merit, but there’s little question that Kim was a Stalinist puppet.  There was dissent in the North, too … briefly.  Once, at a meeting of the North Korean Freedom Coalition, I met an elderly man who claimed to have been a member of an anti-Soviet student group in Pyongyang.  When the Communists came for him, he wasn’t home, but his mother was.  She packed him a bag, and he  fled to Seoul.  He never saw her again.

Continue Reading

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. The Japs took their horses away, so it is closed. Near the South Gate, called Nam Tai Moon, the brick railway station was seething with refugees and other travelers. Nobody was northbound–that way lay Manchuria. Only a handful of Russian liaison officers–no troops–had appeared in Seoul. When one carload neared the city, they were politely turned back.

In their letters home, the Americans would remark that in Seoul the palaces face south, the city wall is all but gone, a tycoon is a yang ban, the favorite dish is shinsunro (beef, eggs, fish, chestnuts, etc.), the housewives wash their white clothes endlessly, and countrymen still wear miniature, translucent top hats, the traditional insigne of the married man. Very friendly people, too–everybody beaming and waving, and the children tagging along behind jeeps shrieking “Hello! hello!”

A wonderful place. But the G.I.s could hardly wait to get home.  [link]

Once again,  the pictures are from dok1’s flickr page.

Continue Reading

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. One small boat met the U.S. convoy 20 miles offshore. In it was a Korean who nominated himself for Finance Minister.  [….]

In Seoul, General Hodge heard from General MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo (which had heard from Washington). Hodge changed his policy, dismissed Abe and other high Jap Army officials.

U.S. prestige in Korea–and elsewhere–had suffered. Said the N.Y. Times: “A major error of political strategy and principle.”  [Time, Sept. 24, 1945]

I take several things from this, and the first is the great flaw of hindsight, the fact that  it never shows you  how badly things might have gone had you chosen a different course, or whether a good one even existed. 

The other thing I take from this is that General Hodge was an ass who  came to Korea with little knowledge of, or use for, Korea or its people.  Hodge’s ignorance sowed grudges that are held against America to this day.

Photo:   LTG Hodge with a Korean official, 1945, from dok1’s must-see flickr page.

Continue Reading

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!   We’re number one!     Be sure you shout it twice.

And the purpose of a multi-billion-dollar military commitment to this country is what, exactly?  (More)

Continue Reading

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. [Prof. Sung-Yoon Lee in the Asia Times]

That last point merits reconsideration, and it deserves a prominent place in Kim Jong Il’s indictment. North Korea’s systematic discrimination against hereditary social groups extended to depriving them of food. Were it not for Stalin’s self-serving intervention when the U.N. was writing its definition of genocide, Kim Jong Il’s starvation of the “hostile” classes, like Stalin’s starvation of the Ukrainian kulaks, would have been classifiable as such.

Still, it’s a rare day when anyone can start with a self-oblivious KCNA screed and end with an interesting and relevant argument. Lee goes runs through a bill of particulars and reaches a conclusion that requires some intellectual rigor — that Koreans have been far more ruthless at oppressing their fellow Koreans than the Japanese ever were. I wonder how ordinary South Koreans would react to his conclusion:

In fact, on account of the deprivation of all these basic freedoms, life in colonial Korea was far freer than that in North Korea under the Kim Il-sung – Kim Jong-il continuum throughout the sweep of the North’s political existence since 1948.

As repressive and humiliating as Japanese colonial rule was for Koreans, when measured against the indices of “widespread and systemic crimes against civilians”, the North Korean regime comes through on top unsurpassed in its criminal feats – in degree, kind and duration.

Let’s all hope the people he’ll be spending his next chusok with won’t be reading that.

(Sigh) If only I could write as well in my first language as Lee does in his second.

Continue Reading

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. But until the 1970’s, when it began to be hollowed out because of the inherent contradictions of command economics, North Korea was more industrialized and prosperous than South Korea. It has always, and proudly, had the upper hand in a key nationalistic category — foreign troops are not based on its soil. When I visited Pyongyang in 1989 (a long time ago, but North Korea’s cryonic rhetoric has changed little in half a century), officials I met were obsessed by two things: the threat posed by American troops on their doorstep and South Korea’s cowardly acceptance of these foreigners. It was not unlike, I now realize, the religious fervor with which Islamic conservatives criticized the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia and the cowardly royal family that welcomed them (when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990).

Continue Reading