우물 안 개구리


An Interpreter’s Tale

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 7:59 am Print

I have been collecting notes for a study of the treason of interpreters. This may not make it into my dissertation, but I find the topic fascinating. In the history of collaboration, interpreters often figure prominently. They speak for the occupier, they ask questions for him, they feed him the information he needs to establish and maintain power. They usually come to their position by virtue of their language abilities, but very often such abilities are the product of a long and deep intimacy with the culture and people of the occupier, either through prolonged residence or study in the occupier’s country, personal relationships, or a hybrid identity.

I'm Just the Interpreter

A Classic Image of the Treasonous Interpreter

(From the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing)

These treasonous interpreters are often portrayed as the quintessential running dogs of the enemy, groveling selfish figures standing just behind their master who sell out their nation for whatever benefits might come their way. It is not surprising, then, to find them a major target of attack by insurgents. Interpreters for the Israelis in Gaza, for the Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, for the Japanese in China and Korea, indeed everywhere, including hated German-Norwegians who interpreted for the German occupation in my own hometown in Stavanger, are often tried as traitors in the aftermath of a conflict, but are also frequently the victims of brutal assassinations and torture by forces of the resistance.

Of course, the language skills of these interpreters are not necessarily indicative of their sympathy for the enemy. Like any other collaborator who freely chooses or are, to various degrees, coerced into working for the occupation, these interpreters often merely see themselves as continuing their trade, or making use of suddenly useful skill. I think this observation can cut both ways: their constant visual proximity and ability to speak for the invader has led to a demonization of interpreters that is well out of proportion to their crime, when seen as a kind of trade of services for the enemy (as opposed to helping them run puppet regimes, for example, or carry out acts of violence on their behalf). On the other hand, as with everyone else whose continued provision of the services of labor and goods to an occupier or other enemy in wartime enable it to maintain its power, the consequences have moral implications.1 Now let us look at one case that offers what I think is a rather typical case of the most common twists and turns in the career of a treasonous interpreter.

Kim Yong Hyun

The recent anniversary of the opening of the most violent stage of the Korean civil war on June 25, 1950, when North Korea launched a full invasion of the south, found me in the National Library in Taiwan. Organizing some of my notes on North Korea there, I got distracted reading the memoir of a Korean interpreter Kim Yong Hyun.2

Kim, who spoke good English, served the US forces for a time as an interpreter for the 2nd infantry division. Then, captured by Chinese forces he eventually found himself face to face with an aggressive North Korean soldier in an interaction that could have gone much worse for him than it did.

In his answers to the queries of the North Korean, we learn that Kim had attended middle school in Japan, leaving Hiroshima only a year before the city was destroyed. His association with Japan is not something a suspect person would want to carry about given the risk of being called a pro-Japanese traitor, but as we will see, even North Korean officers could have a Japanese higher education in their past. Kim trained to become a teacher, which is a career that always risks putting him among the class of the intellectual bourgeoisie. Finally, he fled North Korea, moving to the south in February 1946. This, the North Korean informed him, made him a “traitor” and a “running dog.”

This is true, in legal terms, as North Korean law made fleeing to South Korea a treasonous crime until 1999, when a distinction was made between migrants and treasonous defectors.3 While technically, Kim could have been shot for this treason, at least at this early stage, North Korea seems to have been going relatively easy on those who “illegally crossed the border” (불법월경) or “guiding someone across the border (월경안내). In trial records found in captured North Korean documents in the National Archives in Washington DC, it seems the going rate for such a crime was 1-3 years.4 Add to this the fact that Kim had worked for the Americans, and he found himself to be a real “American running dog.” Fortunately for Kim, he claims the Chinese military refused to hand him over to his North Korean accuser.5

Despite his anti-communist tone, Kim has glowing praise for the Chinese soldiers who kept him in captivity. This is consistent with much I have seen out there on the unusually benevolent Communist Chinese policy towards prisoners (though there are important exceptions and they often lacked supplies to fully feed them. Read more in these two postings.), whether they were Japanese or Americans. They, “never gave us any harsh lectures on ideological issues. They didn’t bother our prisoners in any way.”6 That same night Kim found himself in a position that I think is the key dilemma for talented multi-linguals in a wartime or occupation situation. Called over by a Chinese officer, Kim would be offered a proposition he would have been either extremely courageous or foolish to turn down:

“Comrade,” the [Korean-Chinese] interpreter began, “Would you be kind enough to interpret in English for us.

I nodded. They ushered in an American prisoner. I recognized him instantly because he was from my own outfit – a full sergeant who was one of our platoon leaders. We nodded in mutual agreement.”7

After this first job for the Chinese, he was asked to become a regular interpreter for the Chinese, translating Americans who were being interrogated by their Chinese captors. He accepted,

Well, what can I say? The offer was too good to refuse. My instinct to survive dominated my mind at that moment. “I would be happy to oblige.”

Kim would receive good food and treatment for his work but he was at once placed in a new position as a “running dog” for the Chinese. Later he served North Koreans more directly, a camp commandant, again translating during an interrogation of an American soldier and, moreover, asked to pretend he was a North Korean officer despite continuing to wear an American uniform while in captivity.8

In an amazingly frank exchange, if true, between this prisoner and the North Korean commandant, the latter said he was a college student in Japan during the war, when he was conscripted into the Japanese military. He was eventually captured by American forces in the Philippines who, despite the Japanese propaganda suggesting otherwise, he found to be “very civilized.”9 After returning to Korea he was a professor for a time but moved north to see the workings of Communism himself. Here was a Japanese trained North Korean camp commandant in charge of the imprisonment and interrogation of American forces, which he had once himself been a prisoner of.

The story that follows traces the escape of Kim from North Korea, or rather, his return to Seoul as a “Liberated UN soldier” and his escape thereafter across the lines. He returns to work as an interpreter for the Americans, serving as a G-2 officer and interpreter under a colonel in the 73rd Heavy Tank Battalion.10

As with all memoirs, especially those which contain whole dialogues between the author and people that are based on conversations many decades earlier, the source must be treated with great care. A very familiar, at least to me, picture emerges, however: Kim memoir is a world in which characters are divided roughly between those who are “hard-core” communists, thus blinded by ideology, and the more mixed up humane characters who are just trying to get by. It is a world where collaborators survive and live on, where the Viktor Komarovskies (from Dr. Zhivago) are not the villains.11 You can almost hear that great quote by Komarovsky in the film:

There are two kinds of men, and only two, and that young man is one kind. He is high-minded. He is pure. He is the kind of man that the world pretends to look up to and in fact despises. … There’s another kind. Not high-minded, not pure, but alive.12

Update: Charles Montgomery over at Korean Modern Literature in Translation was kind enough to mention this post here and says it reminds him of a passage in a work by Kim Yong-Ik. The quote is so apt for the discussion here:

“Eating greedily he looked curiously at my concise English-Korean dictionary on the shelf. ‘The language of an occupying army is a meal ticket, you know.’ He smiled faintly” (Kim, Home Again (1945) 27).

  1. I don’t think I have ever gone into much detail on my own views of this, but to sum up my position when it comes to the “treasonous” nature of such acts: I don’t have a problem with calling things treason when they are, but for me, treason is never, by itself, morally objectionable. This should be kept in mind whenever I raise related issues here at Frog in a Well. []
  2. Yong Hyun Kim, Susanne Kim Nelson ed. Into the Vortex of War: A Korean Interpreter’s Close Encounter with the Enemy. (AuthorHouse, 2008) []
  3. As of the major 1975 revision, it was covered in the section for “counter-revolutionary crimes” in articles 52 or 53 of the criminal law, which apparently states that fleeing to a foreign country is punishable by death and confiscation of all property. Institute of North Korean Studies. North Korea’s Criminal Law (1991). In Sup Han has a discussion of the recent changes to this law over time, In Sup Han “The 2004 Revision of Criminal Law in North Korea: — a take-off?” Santa Clara Journal of International Law 1 (2006), 130. []
  4. See RG242 SA 2005 6/43. By contrast, a case of “Reactionary attempted rape” (反動 強姦未遂) I saw there got 1 year and 6 months. []
  5. Yong Hyun Kim Into the Vortex of War: A Korean Interpreter’s Close Encounter with the Enemy (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2008), 46-48. []
  6. Ibid., 48. []
  7. Ibid., 48. []
  8. Ibid., 56. []
  9. Ibid., 60. []
  10. Ibid., 82 []
  11. Of course, those familiar with Korean literature need not look to Viktor Komarovsky or the Good Soldier Švejk. Reading Kim’s memoir I was reminded of the fantastic character of Kapitan Ri (꺼삐딴 리) in the short story of that name by Chŏn Kwangyong, who managed to survive under Japanese, Soviet, and US regimes. []
  12. Is it in the written version as well? It has to be one of my absolute favorite lines. []


The Will of a Traitor

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 12:20 am Print

In The Will of a Traitor, posted next door at 井底之蛙, I write about the controversial will of China’s most famous collaborator, and an interesting English translation of the text by Kim Bonggi, one of the founders of a newspaper that eventually became today’s Korea Herald.


AAS 2010 Blogging: Annexation Centennial

Final exams crash onto my desk tomorrow, but I’m as organized as I can be in advance, so I thought I’d do a little belated AAS blogging, especially about the pair of panels on Saturday commemorating the centennial of Japan’s annexation of Korea and the 50th anniversary of Hilary Conroy’s groundbreaking study of same.


The Sideshow in Korea?

Yet the costly Iraq war must also be recognised as a sideshow in the Bush global counteroffensive against Islamist militancy, just as the far more costly Korean war was a sideshow to global cold war containment.

So says Edward Luttwak, in an extensive attempt to speed up the process by which History justifies and valorizes the policies of this administration. [via] He’s mostly engaged in a bit of dramatic post hoc, ergo propter hoc whereby a shift in government policies towards extremist Islamic groups is the result of Pres. Bush’s Trumanesque firmness, but the damage done to the success — military and diplomatic — of the initial Afghanistan campaign by the Iraq campaign isn’t taken into account at all.1 The Korean war — which I have a lot of trouble seeing as a “sideshow,” given the direct involvement of Chinese and Russian forces and a lot more actual shooting than in Europe — advanced the cause of anti-communism. It was a success, in the sense that it preserved South Korea as a non-communist state and it was the last full-scale conflict between the great powers for some time. The only sense in which Korea could be called a “sideshow” is that Truman’s containment policy engaged a lot of other parts of the world as well.

He then goes on to mangle Chinese history — Tang, Song and Ming dynasties never conquered anyone, right? — and to cast the future of Asia in binaries (China: convergence or communist collapse? India: corruption stagnation or “traditional” good Brahmin governance?), as well as giving the administration credit for North Korean disarmament instead of noting their years of footdragging on same which have exacerbated the proliferation problem.

Truman deserves better.

  1. He’s also assuming that al Qaeda’s “call to action” attacks were likely to inspire imitators rather than revulsion in the short run, which seems like he’s taking their own rhetoric way too seriously. Romantic nihilists have been claiming that “the masses are on the brink of revolution” and “dramatic action will awaken them” for over two centuries now. []


Korean (Gender) Studies at ASPAC

In spite of the lovely Korean Studies Center which headquartered the conference, ASPAC 2007 didn’t have a lot of Korean content. In fact, with the exception of one paper on a mixed panel, I think I saw it all.

AAS President-Elect Robert Buswell gave the keynote address at the banquet on Saturday night, speaking on “Korean Buddhist Journeys to Lands Real and Imagined.” Though it was a bit long and specialized for an after-dinner discourse, I found it thought-provoking. I didn’t however, take notes, so you’ll have to wait for the paper (I’m sure there’s a paper in the works) to get the details. I was struck by a few thoughts, though.

  • Given the frequency of Korean Buddhist travel as far as India, and the ease with which they navigated China in particular, I think we need to reconsider travel in Asian history. It’s clearly more of a norm than an exception, at least for certain categories of people. That means a great deal more integration among elites, more awareness of neighboring (and even distant) cultures than our traditional national-limited cultural histories suggest. It also means that western travellers like Marco Polo need to be considered a very small part of a much larger travelling and writing public; yes, I’m reconsidering Marco Polo, somewhat, because narratives like the ones Buswell described put his journies into a much more plausible context.
  • The “imagined” travelogues to legendary and/or allegorical lands constitute a rich fantastical literature which ought to be considered in comparison with work like The Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.



… and then they came for Taekwondo

Filed under: — Owen @ 11:21 am Print

Another sign of Korea’s increasing sense of insecurity in the face of rapidly growing Chinese economic and political power, or another sign of China’s aggressive attitude toward Korean cultural heritage, designed to assert cultural hegemony and keep its ethnic minorities in check? This time the Chinese have apparently got their sights on Taekwondo:

Concern is rising among Korean officials that China might try to assert taekwondo as its own homegrown sport.

Ko Eui-min, chairman of the World Taekwondo Federation Technical Committee, said, “China is doubted to have been adopting its Northeast Asia Project in taekwondo.”

Northeast Asia Project is an attempt to distort ancient Korean history in the northeastern territory of what is now China, including the Koguryo Kingdom (37 B.C.-A.D. 668) and the Palhae Kingdom (698-926).

“I was really upset to hear that the broadcaster at Changping Stadium in Beijing said taekwondo is a Chinese martial art, during the 2007 World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) Championships,” he said.

On the first day of the biennial competition, he introduced taekwondo, saying, “Taekwondo originated from Korea, combining Japanese and Chinese martial arts.”

The paradox is that Taekwondo is both a highly nationalistic subject in South Korea and perhaps Korea’s most well-recognised international cultural export. Can something like this be globalised and at the same time so firmly embedded in nationalistic discourse? The next paragraph in the above-linked article actually brought a wry smile to my face (my emphasis):

“I feel really sorry that we have not tried to protect taekwondo while China is preparing for the event. Although many renovations have been under way inside the taekwondo governing body after new leaders like the president and general secretary took office, we still have a lot of things to do,” said the 68-year-old taekwondo master, who resides in Germany.

It is a bit unfortunate that this blog hasn’t covered the whole Koguryŏ history controversy in much greater detail. Fortunately though, the subject has produced plenty of good English-language commentary over the last six months or so. The stand out examples are Andrei Lankov’s piece at Japan Focus; Yonson Ahn’s article at History News Network; Andrew Leonard’s introduction at Salon.com; and Choe Sang-hun in the International Herald Tribune. If you still want some more, I’ve managed to collect a variety of related internet resources in my del.icio.us links tagged Koguryŏ.


Two talks this week

Filed under: — Owen @ 12:38 pm Print

A couple of very interesting talks coming up at short notice for anyone who happens to be around in LA or Seoul in the next couple of days (or perhaps both if you’re the jetsetting type).

Tomorrow fellow frog blogger Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov) will be giving a lecture at the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch:

Politics of Conscription: Militarized Statehood in Postcolonial Korea – Dr. Vladimir Tikhonov
Tuesday May 22, 2007, 7:30 pm
2nd Floor, Somerset Palace, Seoul

Meanwhile, on Wednesday afternoon, Jeong-il Lee will be giving a talk about Kija in late Chosŏn Korea along with another talk about Korean memories of Ming China at the UCLA Asia Institute:

“Kija with Qizi: Re-packing Antiquity and Civilization in Late Choson Korea” – Jeong-Il Lee
Wednesday May 23, 3:30-5:30 pm
10367 Bunche Hall, Los Angeles


Asian History News Dump, March 2007

This is a “dump”: all the Asia related stuff I’ve saved over the last…. two months? Anyway, nobody else has blogged about it, so I thought I’d toss it out there. I hope to resume more … measured blogging soon.
[Crossposted at all three Frog Blogs; sorry about the irrelevant stuff.]


AHC Call for Posts, plus

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:00 am Print

Roy Berman, the MutantFrog himself, will host the next Asian History Carnival at Mutant Frog Travelogue on the 18th. Get your nominations in to him directly (roy dot berman at gmail dot com), through blogcarnival.com or with del.icio.us tags. Remember, if you don’t submit anything, we may pick the worst thing you ever posted publicly….

A few other news notes:

Korean-American relations have always been tense says Daniel Sneider. This is an excellent brief survey of the last fifty years, a stark reminder that even our staunchest allies have minds of their own….

And in the “full employment for nationalist historians” category, Korea-China History Wars Continue, in anticipation of the collapse of North Korea. Or not, but they continue anyway.


Who Owns Koguryo Now?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:22 pm Print

Yonson Ahn’s article in the latest Japan Focus tracks the historiography of the Korean/Manchurian Koguryo state up to the present “textbook wars.” I’ve always found the division between the Silla-focused South Korean and Koguryo-focused North Korean scholarship quite interesting, and a very useful example for students of how contemporary politics can affect the historiography.

I don’t have a strong opinion on this, but as someone who teaches East Asia it makes more sense to me to include it in Korean history where it can get more attention, than in Chinese history where we’re already shoehorning in as much as humanly possible….

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