우물 안 개구리


1948.7 – Mission Accomplished

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 3:15 am Print

I couldn’t help of thinking about a certain speech when I saw this headline in the July 4th, 1948 issue of the The Korean Free Press (자유신문 自由新聞).

Military Operations in Cheju are For the Most Part Completed

Major Operations Over

In April, 1948 the island of Cheju-do erupted in what became a major uprising that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Koreans, or an estimated 10% of the island’s population. The above article, with its optimistic headline, is found months before the violence reaches its peak, and only a few weeks before troops heading to crush the rebellion themselves rebel in the port town of Yŏsu in October. An article from the same day carrying the same news in the much more conservative newspaper 대동신문 (大東新聞) is even more direct.

Military Operations in Cheju are Complete

Cheju Military Operations are Complete

1949 Banning Japanese Subtitles

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:51 am Print

On the second page of the June 25th issue of The Korean Free Press (자유신문 自由新聞) there is a very small article which shows how long the process of eliminating the most outwardly visible elements of “Japanese remnants” (일제잔재) could take. While newspaper articles today continue to point to long lasting legacies of the Japanese colonial period, more than four years after the end of Japanese colonial period legislation and executive orders continued to be used to get rid of some of the more glaring reminders of the recent colonial past, including the use of Japanese subtitles for foreign movies.

The Showing of Movies with Japanese Subtitles will be Prohibited after the End of This Month

Japanese subtitles banned

That was not the only Japanese remnant to be dealt with in the newspaper on that day in 1949. The newspaper article just above this one reported that 柳混龍, a 43 year old former “Kempei spy” (憲兵密偵) had been arrested in Cheju-do.


The Stranglehold of Foreign Films in Korea 1948

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 4:57 am Print

The impact of foreign films on the Korean movie industry is frequently addressed in the Korean media. The Korean government, media, and the industry itself have long debated how many foreign films should be shown in domestic cinemas and the degree to which Korea should or should not open up to cultural products from Japan.

These concerns go back further than I had imagined, as you can see from this cartoon found in The Korean Free Press (자유신문 自由新聞) from Christmas Day, 1948:


In the cartoon the Korean film and theatrical industry is being strangled by “Foreign Movies” and stepped upon by a 10% tax rate.

On the day before this cartoon was published, in the Christmas Eve issue, you can see an advertisement for one of the offending foreign films, the 1946 English movie “The Captive Heart” which opened on that day.


On the day after this cartoon was published, December 26th, the following advertisement for the Korean play “임 오시는 길”, opening at 동양극장 on that day is found alongside a smaller advertisement for the Universal pictures movie, “독개비騷動” (독깨비 소동) which I think is the 1948 film “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein


The same page of the Christmas Day issue which carried the initial cartoon also has two other articles more representative of the kinds of issues of the day:

拷問致死事件證人尋問繼續 (Questioning of Witness Continues in the Incident of a Death Resulting from Torture) – Articles on police torture of suspects are found frequently in both conservative and more moderate newspapers in 1948, and are also common throughout the newspapers of the 1945-1949 period I have been looking at.

暴動未然防止:市民은警察信賴하라 (Prevent Violence Before it Happens: Citizens, Trust the Police!) – Articles pleading for people to trust the police are very often found on the same page as articles covering police torture, police corruption, or other problems of police quality (악질경찰 惡質警察).


The 30-second tour of historical Pukchon

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:28 am Print

When I was in Korea last month I stayed at a lovely place in the area of Seoul known as Pukchon or ‘North Village’ that lies between the two big palaces. It’s actually an area made up of many small neighbourhoods (tongs) that was once favoured by yangban aristocrats and now by the the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. It’s been discovered as a tourist area and parts of it have been ‘conserved’ while others have come to have a distinctly up-market feel with trendy cafes and so on. Having said that, not everyone there is convinced that what is being done to conserve and promote the area is actually in its best interests, as this site run by a British expat recounts.

While staying there I happened to notice a few sites of historical importance that might be overlooked on your average tour, and they are all conveniently within a few metres of one another and a stone’s throw away from the walls of Ch’angdokkung Palace in Kye-dong. None of these sites are anything to look at, as you will see from my pictures, but they should have some significance to anyone interested in the history of Korea with about half a minute to spare. So, I proudly present my 30-second tour of historical Pukchon:

Starting out from the front gate of Ch’angdokkung, take the small road up the left-hand side of the palace wall, passing the big Hyundai buildings on your left. When you come to the first left turning take this, going up a short hill. Just over the top of this on the right-hand side of the road is my first site: an engraved stone marking the site of Yŏ Un-hyŏng’s house:

Site of Yo Un-hyong's house
I’ve written something on my own site before about Yŏ Un-hyŏng, a moderate leftist nationalist who found himself in the way of Kim Ku in the late 1940s and was assassinated not that far away from Pukchon, on the other side of Ch’angdokkung, in Hyehwa-dong. Yo was one of those important historical figures who has been somewhat swept aside by history – he had apparently met Lenin when he visited Moscow in 1922, had worked for Chiang Kai-shek and was one of the founders of the short-lived Korean People’s Republic in 1945.

Moving a little further down the street and a building that might be mistaken for a large house turns out to be the offices of the Yŏksa Munje Yŏn’guso (Institute for Korean Historical Studies):

Yoksa munje yon'guso
In some ways this is an organisation that has historical importance in its own right as the main left nationalist history association to emerge from the political turmoil and radicalisation of the 1980s in South Korea. This is the organisation that founded the Yoksa Pip’yŏngsa (Historical Criticism) publishing company whose books will be found on the shelves of any historian of Korea and which publishes the important historical journal Yŏksa Pip’yŏng. The views associated with this organisation and its members are generally regarded as having achieved the status of historical orthodoxy in the Korean academy, although these days they are being challenged by new trends such as ‘postnationalism‘ and quantitative history.

Finally, if you retrace your steps a little and take the first turning on the left up a narrow street, a signboard on a building on the left side of the street should catch your attention. It’s the headquarters of the Min clan:

Min-ssi HQ
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of this one family in the history of late nineteenth century Korea. Somehow though, its current manifestation seems inappropriately prosaic, especially with the little scooter parked outside.


National Archives: Captured North Korean Documents

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 6:57 pm Print

I returned last week from the second of what will be four trips to the National Archives before I leave for Korea in June. On my first trip I had only two days and decided to stick to easily accessible microfilms of early postwar South Korea related State Department documents that were not available in published reproductions in the Harvard-Yenching library. My second trip however, and in other trips to come, I have been focusing entirely on North Korean documents captured by the United States during the Korean War found in Record Group (RG) 242.

A lot of the best research related to the early postcolonial history of northern Korea and the first years of the North Korean regime to come out in recent years has made use of RG242 material. The captured North Korean documents only make up a tiny fragment of RG242, a record group which is primarily made up of the vast ocean of captured documents from World War II Germany, but is still said to consist of more than 1.6 million pages of wonderful material.

There are some articles floating around in English about the archive1 and I understand that there are several papers and a full length index of the collection available in Korean. In his book on the North Korean Revolution, Charles Armstrong has a great appendix dedicated to these sources, and also reports that many of the documents have been reproduced in a Korean source collection that I hope to get a look at when I no longer have easy access to the originals in Washington D.C.

So what is to be found in this collection? Well, just about every sort of document you might imagine, though the majority of what I have seen dates from 1946-1950. For a short time during the Korean War the United States was in control of large proportion of North Korean territory and the fleeing North Korean forces certainly weren’t able to burn or evacuate documents fast enough to prevent many materials from falling into the hands of US/UN forces. A lot of this material, however, clearly seemed to be of a normal published nature. Many of the documents, photos, books, newspapers, and magazines found by troops in North Korea were put together, organized by date and location of capture and sent back to the US divided up into a collection of boxes grouped by Shipping Advices (SA). A few items appear to have been removed from the collection during and after the Korean war for “local exploitation” and not all of these items were returned to the archive. Most of this material was declassified in the late 1970s and I only saw a handful of items in the index blanked out and accompanied with a sheet designating an item as restricted.2

You can find a hundred page handbook on swine-raising for farmers3 listed in the same original shipping box with three thousand pages or so run of a journal on Korean linguistics.4 You can find a book of military songs5 in the same original shipping box with the minutes of a Peasant League Committee on village defence.6 You can find applications to join the North Korean Democratic Boy Scouts7 or a bunch of handwritten reports on education in Christian sunday schools8. There are long lists of Chinese and Japanese residents in various counties throughout North Korea9 or a handwritten “table of truant school children.”10 There are trial records, police records, financial records, salary receipts, student lecture notes and idle doodles, propaganda books, election posters, literature, folders full of photos, political cartoons, thousands of pages of newspapers and journals, lots of speech compilations and meeting minutes. It is, in a word, overwhelming.

I spent an entire day at the National Archives just going through the large English-language index to the collection available on a single reel of microfilm which allowed me to locate potential items that are of interest to me in my own research. This index divides the RG242 captured North Korean materials up by SA (2005-2013, and 10181), Box number, and Item number. It shows the date and location of capture for each box. Each item has a one or two line description in English of what it contains. However, I have learnt to treat this information with caution, because occasionally what you actually get when you request the material is more or less, and sometimes somewhat different from what this index shows. I sympathize with the monumental task the indexers faced, however, because many “items” consist of a vanilla folder which contains a pile of sometimes completely unrelated handwritten documents.

It is truly wonderful that any of us can walk into the National Archives, which is a short metro subway and bus ride from Washington D.C. at the College Park complex (Archives II), sit down in their wonderful second floor reading room, and look through these documents at our leisure. But how do you request this material? Below I offer a few tips for anyone who would like to look at this collection:

  1. Including Thomas Hosuck Kang “North Korean Captured Records at the Washington National Records Center, Suitland, Maryland,” in The Association for Asian Studies, Committee Asia Libraries Bulletin (Feb 1979). 30-37. []
  2. Classified materials appear to include SA 2009 1/31 “Handwritten sheet, titled “Roster of Informants” containing the personal history of ******* born on 5 Aug 31 and dwelling at MANSU-dong, INCHON city, dated 14 Sep 50, belonging to NAM-dong Police Substation, 1 p.” – withdrawn 3/10/77 because it contained “Otherwise restricted information” and an item in SA 2011 box number 8: “Handwritten and typewritten file of personal history of civilians living in Pusan, ROK August 1950 written by ***** pp. 45″ Also withheld for “Otherwise restricted information” 3/10/77. I did not try to request these materials so I don’t know if they are still restricted. []
  3. SA 2012 1/131 []
  4. SA 2012 1/24 []
  5. SA 2012 5/12 []
  6. SA 2012 5/145 []
  7. SA 2005 4/30 []
  8. SA 2005 4/41 []
  9. SA 2005 all over box 9, those interested in Japanese repatriation, Chinese minorities in Korea or in Korean-Japanese intermarriage could potentially find some great material here and I have no idea if this has been exploited yet []
  10. SA 2005 10/17 []


Hankyoreh opens up the world of Korean convicted war criminals

Filed under: — Owen @ 8:49 am Print

At the risk of attracting more trackbacks from the lovely people at Occidentalism, I thought I’d bring people’s attention to this really fascinating piece on Korean convicted war criminals translated from Hankyoreh 21. Here’s a sample:

“I cannot deny that the prisoner camp conditions were deplorable,” said Lee. Food, medicine, and clothes were not properly provided, and many forced laborers lost their lives due to wounds and diseases that went untreated. In the month of March 1943 alone, a full quarter of the 800 Australian prisoners were hospitalized. One hundred died. For good reason, the Australian military prosecutors could not forgive the Japanese for putting their men through hell on Earth. They were eager to pursue those responsible for the deaths of their comrades, but in their fury were not about to lend an ear to the plight of a youth caught up in the gears of the imperial war machine.

Lee served as a supervisor of the prisoners at Hintok. As a civilian hired by the Japanese military, he was lower down on the chain of command than a private. However in the trial proceedings, he had somehow been transformed into the “Camp Commandant.” The reason for this was that the military prosecutors took the testimony of the prisoners at their word, without an objective investigation into the situation. Most of the Australian prisoners did not know Lee’s Japanese name. Instead, they gave the various guards nicknames, which in the case of Lee was “lizard.” The origin of this name is unknown.

Hankyoreh also has a more analytical piece on the subject here, which includes this succinct description of the catch 22 in which the former war criminals found themselves once they were released:

Even upon release, however, the convicted war criminals were left in a difficult position. Though Japan enforced the prisoners’ Japanese citizenship during their prison term, the newly freed men were not given the according financial support afforded to other veterans of the Imperial Army. “It’s absurd,” lamented the director of the Committee for Reparation to Victims of the Pacific War. “They were punished for being Japanese, but were rejected aid for not being Japanese.” The war criminals were also denounced in Korea as pro-Japanese collaborators. Upon liberation, most were in their mid 30s. Succumbing to depression, two committed suicide.

It’s quite likely that I’m barking up the wrong tree here, but the name of the support organisation founded in the fifties by the convicted Korean war criminals – Dongjinhoe (同進會) – sounds remarkably similar to the name of the early twentieth century pro-Japanese organisation called the Ilchinhoe (一進會). I suppose it’s possible that since they were operating in Japan they chose a name that might be amenable to the Japanese authorities.


Getting Out the Vote

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 10:56 pm Print

In the weeks leading up to May 10th, 1948, the United States run interim Military Government in southern Korea was busy preparing the national assembly elections that create the first legislature of a soon-to-be independent Republic of Korea. Things were not going well, however, for America’s trusteeship in Korea. A general strike broke out in February, a rebellion erupted in Cheju-do in early April, and the only two major alternatives to the aging future president Rhee, Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik, frequently voiced their opposition to the elections and went north to Pyongyang to participate, or at least, hang around the entrance of, a political conference in North Korea designed to condemn the separate elections in the south and argue for the creation of a united “democratic” Korea. While much greater violence was to come, several hundred Koreans died in political violence in the first few months of 1948.

Meanwhile, in civil war China, the country’s ruling GMD nationalists were in steep decline, suffering major defeats in the summer of 1947 and as a Communist offensive in September of that year got underway Lin Biao and other commanders of the CCP began to make serious progress in destroying nationalist opposition all over the northeast of China. The partition of India in August of 1947 sparked massive ethnic and religious violence in the migrations that followed. In January 1948, however, both of these countries would have delegates in the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) set up to monitor the May election in Korea (They may have been a Y. K. or a Y. W. Liu for nationalist China and K. P. S. Menon on the India side).

The US Military Government had its hands full with everything from designing ballot boxes (I found nice diagrams of them in State department archival documents), fixed the rules for post-election review procedures, releasing thousands of political prisoners (some half of the political prisoners that UNTCOK expressed concerns about) in an amnesty, and launched a massive public relations campaign to encourage voter registration (including the dropping of at least a million leaflets from the air). The election date was even moved from May 9th to May 10th on UNTCOK Liu’s recommendation because the solar eclipse on that day was seen as a bad omen by some. However, there were several very serious concerns that seem to dominate US discussion about the election in documents from April and early May: 1) A fear of low voter turnout 2) Concerns about Communist and leftist anti-election protests and violence in the lead up to the election 3) Violence and intimidation tactics by the many right-wing “youth groups” around the country (A “Youth” conference which representatives of many of these groups attended was held in late March and US representatives did their best to encourage responsible behavior. They also urged “youths” over 25 years in age to join organizations for grown-ups) and 4) Concerns that Korea’s police officers, whose propensity for random violence and brutal torture somehow reflected, to quote one US report, “oriental ideas about policing” would be a major obstacle to a free and fair election come May.

One despatch to the State department noted approvingly that on March 2nd, 1948, National Police director Cho Pyông-Ok gave a speech arguing that South Korea was not a “police state,” that Korea’s “young” police force was coming along nicely in its development and they would all work to play a helpful and constructive role in the election to come. The very next despatch in the microfilm I was reading through in the National Archives yesterday offered something a little less optimistic in its tone. It was a summary of one side of a conversation between the then Seoul Metropolitan police chief (and often a political rival to Cho), Chang T’aek-sang and America’s military commander in Korea, Lt. General John R. Hodge on March 22nd. Chang opened up and gave his appraisal of the situation:

I speak to you unofficially. I am expressing my private opinion but it is an honest one. Perhaps I am a pessimist but I have become convinced that Korea is doomed. Financially, spiritually, and morally Korea is bankrupt. People speak of emancipation. Emancipation from what? Korea is divided and caught between the Russian-American struggle. She can only be united by one of two ways – turning the country over to the communists or through a Russo-American war. The UN can never unite Korea. The Commission they sent to Korea does not care what happens to Korea. They are here only to hold an election but they can’t even do that without causing confusion. They insist upon “free atmosphere” and blame the police because it doesn’t exist. What is “free atmosphere”? The right to allow communists to burn, plunder, and kill whenever the urge strikes Stalin? Today, three police boxes were burned by the communists. Does the Comission know how many Koreans have been killed by communists since UNTCOK’s arrival? If the police try to prevent such action the UN bellows about infringement upon political freedom. Two-thirds of China is overrun by communists yet that ‘son of a bitch Liu’ is trying to solve Korea’s problems. And as for that Indian Delegate, why, more people are killed in India in one day than in many years in Korea! El Salvador has a population smaller than the City of Seoul. These are the representatives they send to solve our problems.

In my honest opinion no more than 25 to 30 per cent of the eligible voters will vote in the coming election. Americans fail to realise that 80% of the Koreans are illiterate. Will they walk many miles with a lunch box under their arms to vote for someone they don’t know or care about or for his political program which they will never understand? How does General Hodge think we manage to fill the stadium every time a demonstration is held? Those people didn’t go there willingly nor will they vote willingly. If the police don’t force the people to turn out for election day the government elected will never be recognized by the General Assembly. A government elected by 25% of the people will make nice propaganda for the Soviets and poor propaganda for the Americans when it is declared void by the General Assembly. It is necessary that the police ‘interfere’ in the election or the majority of the Korean people, who are little more than animals due to their educational deficiencies will sit in their ‘bloody, stinking rooms’ and not budge one foot to vote. The police should not attempt to tell the people how to vote but if they are not forced to the polls the Americans are due to be greatly embarrassed. (National Archives RG59 Department of State 895.00/3-29 49, p2)

It is hard for me to judge how much of this is a version of Chang’s views or Chang’s ideas mixed up with Hodge’s own similar hard-nosed pragmatic anti-communist views. Just as interesting in my view is the fact that the record of this meeting said nothing whatsoever about Hodge’s own replies to Chang. How did the US respond to this Seoul police chief’s plea to allow his men to engage in a massive herding of people to the polls—though without, of course, making any suggestions about who the people should vote for?

On May 10th, about 90% of the registered voters cast their ballots. Despite non-trivial election violence, an election boycott by many on the left and some other parties, localized irregularities and plenty of accusations, both the United States and at least some of the delegates UNTCOK were pleased with the results. Other delegates in UNTCOK voiced serious concerns about the election, including the high turnout, but did not launch any significant challenge to the election’s legitimacy in the aftermath. Since Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik did not participate in the election and had suffered a considerable blow to their popularity upon their return from the pre-election anti-election and pro-unification conference in North Korea, two of “the big three” found themselves quickly marginalized and Rhee continued his bumpy political rise towards authoritarian rule. The 1948 election is now remembered mostly as one big step on the road towards a permanent division of the Korean peninsula. In my next posting here, I’ll post some more contemporary views about the degree of “free atmosphere” in pre-invasion South Korea.


Boston and the Bamboo Grove

Filed under: — Owen @ 2:23 pm Print

I must admit that I’ve not felt at all keen on bringing up here the most recent Korea-related history controversy to hit the news. As many readers are probably already aware, many Korean-Americans and the majority of the South Korean media have been upset over the book So Far from the Bamboo Grove. I suppose my reluctance is due to the fact that I find something particularly depressing about the whole business. Perhaps it’s the sense that this seems to pit different immigrant groups in the US rather pointlessly against one another. In any case, I’ve been sent some links to articles on this matter by an editor at the Boston Globe, which I will post here in the interests of sharing information.

The first one covers the South Korean angle, noting that the South Korean consulate has asked the (Massachusetts) Department of Education to ‘rethink its use of the book’. The second concerns the author’s (Yoko Kawashima Watkins) response to the controversy at a recent press conference, where she seemed to admit to certain problems with her book by offering to see if a more extensive historical introduction could be included in future editions.

Personally, I think Professor Carter Eckert of Harvard already pinpointed rather well (in the same newspaper back in December – reg. required) the core of this controversy and why the use of the book as school text has upset Korean-Americans so much:

While Yoko’s story is compelling as a narrative of survival, it achieves its powerful effect in part by eliding the historical context in which Yoko and her family had been living Korea. That context, simply put, was a 40-year record of harsh colonial rule in Korea, which reached its apogee during the war years of 1937-45, when Yoko was growing up.

This is not an argument for censorship or banning books. There is no reason why Watkins’s book cannot be used in the schools. Introduced carefully and wisely, in conjunction, for example, with Richard Kim’s classic “Lost Names,” an autobiographical novel about a young Korean boy living at the end of Japanese colonial rule in the 1940s, it can help students understand how perspectives vary according to personal and historical circumstances.


Supply Drops for Prisoners of War

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 12:10 am Print

The Japanese emperor’s famous surrender announcement came at noon on August 15th, 1945. However, for Korea (and Manchuria) the date is of limited use, despite its symbolic importance today. Japanese troops did not formally surrender on the ground in the southern half of Korea until the 9th of September. August 15th also did not bring the immediate release of prisoners of war held in Japanese camps in Korea. There is, however, plenty of mention of them in US military documents from this early transition period. Before the prisoners were liberated, indeed, before US soldiers had landed in Korea, the US military began to drop food and supplies on the camps. The drops were important for morale, but also apparently reached the prisoners of war in large enough quantities that when medical inspectors evaluated the condition of the prisoners, they had difficulties in estimating the wartime nutritional conditions in the camps. Though they suffered from all manner of diseases and conditions were horrible in some camps, most prisoners (it is important to note that the only prisoners mentioned in the documents I have looked at so far are Western prisoners) had gained as much as 20 pounds from a recent deluge of supply drops and Red Cross packages and the special medical unit brought for their benefit was judged as unnecessary.

There is another more problematic side to these supply drops – delivered by air at a time when hostilities had already ended. In the official military History of the United States Armed Forces in Korea covering the period roughly up to the Korean War, we find this telling passage:

“The B-29s came in at a low altitude. Many of the parachutes to which [sic] from 30 to 50 percent of the supplies were unusable, and the fast-falling packages did a certain amount of damage. At Seoul they killed a Korean woman. At Inch’on they crashed through the roof of the prisoners’ hospital, broke the leg of one of the prisoners, killed one Korean, and injured eight Japanese. In spite of these serious mishaps, the prisoners benefited greatly in body and mind from the flights and from the supplies that were salvaged. The morale effect of the planes was tremendous.”1

In addition to killing people with falling supplies and the huge waste involved in these drops, they also created tensions with Russian troops in some areas, as in the case of the drops around one camp:

“The story of the drops made over the camp at Konan is more involved. When the first drops were made, at about the same time as the drops over the Seoul and Inch’on camps, Russian troops were in the area. Some of the packages hit a building occupied by Red Army troops and narrowly missed a colonel, as the Russians later explained. This occurence brought an order from the local Russian commander that any planes that might come over in the future to drop supplies should be intercepted and made to land before delivering their cargo, in order to avoid any more accidents.”2

The story doesn’t end there. Later a B-29 tried to drop more supplies in the area and four Russian fighter planes tried to get the bomber to land on an airfield far too small for its size. The bomber tried to fly back without dropping anything, but the Russians fired on the plane as it went out to sea (the military historian speculates that they thought the plane was Japanese with Allied markings). 6 of the crew bailed up, to be picked up by Korean fishermen, while the other 7 crash landed the plane and were picked up by the Russians, with whom they made amends. Not knowing what to do with the soldiers, they delivered them to the prison camp where they stayed, after delivering the plane’s supplies by hand…

1. 駐韓美軍史 (HUSAFIK History of the United States Armed Forces in Korea) published by 돌베개, p344
2. ibid

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