우물 안 개구리


Korean War Criminals in the Movement to “Set History Straight”

Filed under: — Sayaka Chatani @ 1:54 am Print

Frog in a Well welcomes a guest posting from Sayaka Chatani on the issue of Korean War Criminals and the difficulty Korean historians have found in addressing them in modern Korean historiography. Sayaka is a PhD student in the History Department of Columbia University. Her research interests are in the transnational history of early to mid-twentieth century East Asia, mainly focusing on the colonization and decolonization of Korea and Taiwan.


Colonial legacies are one of the most hotly debated political issues in South Korea. The phrase “legacies of Japanese imperialism (ilche chanjae)” is ubiquitous in newspapers and in bookstores, and the topic not only triggers controversies among academics, but inspires social movements, and leads the government to adopt policies to resolve the remnant problems.

Among the many controversies surrounding the history of Japan’s colonial rule in Korea, much attention has centered on the question of collaborators. Many Korean historians argue that former pro-Japanese collaborators subsequently prevented Korea’s unification and brought about significant harm to South Korean society. They see punishing them as a prerequisite to restoring a healthy society.1 In the context of ‘setting history straight,’ The South Korean government has confiscated the property of descendants of nine collaborators.2 A presidential fact-finding panel has finished its second investigation to identify the names of pro-Japanese collaborators, and continues working on a third investigation.3

In contrast to their excitement over the issue of collaborators, historians have only given very limited attention and analysis to the issue of Korean war criminals despite the significant number of Koreans put on trial and executed as Japanese prison guards. When a few Japanese and Korean historians do face the issue, they tend to simplify the complex experiences of Korean war criminals to fit the dominant minjung discourse that blames a distinct group of collaborators for betraying the majority of Korean people. The fact that Korean war criminals were both victims and victimizers makes it difficult for nationalist historians to openly discuss the issue.


  1. For example, Ahn Byung-ook, “The Significance of Settling the Past in Modern Korean History,” Korea Journal, Autumn 2002, pp.7-17, and Chung Youn-tae, “Refracted Modernity and the Issue of Pro-Japanese Collaborators in Korea,” Korea Journal, Autumn 2002, pp.18-59 []
  2. New York Times, “World Briefing, Asia: South Korea: Crackdown On Collaborators” May 3rd 2007. []
  3. The Korea Times, “202 Pro-Japanese Collaborators Disclosed.” September 17, 2007 []


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 []


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.


History news round-up (brought to you by the Korea Times)

For some reason the Korea Times seems to be quite a decent source of history news these days, so in the absence of a more heavyweight post, here’s a round up of articles I’ve come across in the last week or so:

A couple of weeks ago the Korean Supreme Court released a bundle of court rulings from the early colonial period for the first time. The rulings date from 1912-1914 and the article notes how at that time custom still had an important influence on how the law was executed:

The court acknowledged concubines and gave supreme rights to the eldest sons of families. A person’s legal capacity was decided not by his or her age but by whether he or she had the intelligence to determine gains and losses.

Last week it was announced that a number of Chosŏn royal seals are missing, having been lost by various Korean museums. This is really not good for Korean museum PR:

The Board of Audit and Inspection also said that the surface of a royal seal made for the concubine of King Sonjo rusted away and a turtle-shaped seal, made of jade for the wife of King Sonjo, had been destroyed.

They said that every one of the of 316 seals owned by the National Palace Museum of Korea had been damaged in some way.

Two wooden ships found off the coast of China last year have turned out to be extremely rare examples of Koryŏ flat-bottomed wooden ships.

“It provides evidence that flat-bottom ships could sail as far as Shandong Province. Flat-bottom is a unique feature of ancient Korean ships unlike Chinese ships that had relatively pointy-shaped bottoms,” Choi Hang-soon, professor at the Department of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering at Seoul National University, told The Korea Times.

“It seems the Koryo ships arrived in the Chinese port, and had some big repairs there,” said Choi, who participated in the international academic conference on the ancient ships last week in Penglai.

And finally… A KT student guest columnist lauds the philanthropic attitude of Chosŏn dynasty sŏnbi (Confucian scholar-officials). This is something that interests me a lot as I’m planning to do some research on the ‘gift economy’ in Chosŏn Korea. However, I must admit that I can’t help being a bit put off an article when I see empty catchphrases like ‘sŏnbi spirit’ being thrown around and I’m not entirely convinced about the idea of seeing members of the exclusive and exploitative yangban class as moral models for our age, however philanthropic they may have been. Actually I could criticise numerous aspects of that column, but that would seem rather misanthropic of me…


The Marijuana Crisis of ’75

Filed under: — Owen @ 1:37 pm Print

I’ve been dipping into an excellent book on the history of Korean popular music now and then (이혜숙 & 손우석 – 한국대중음악사) and came across a fascinating passage on Park Chung-hee’s use of drugs scares to suppress the emerging youth culture that he found threatening. Here’s an excerpt (my rough translation):

After the defeat in Vietnam Park Chung-hee set about strengthening his dictatorship by stressing an external policy of self-reliant defence and an internal policy of ‘defending the system’. To that end, the possession of nuclear weapons, national harmony and traditional culture were all emphasised. However, the imitation of the Western youth culture of jeans, long hair, [folk] guitar and pop songs was widespread. At a time when it was necessary to defend the system and achieve national unity and a self-reliant defence it was impossible to remain indifferent to this degenerate Western youth culture. It was necessary to tighten social discipline. In the view of Park Chung-hee the base and degenerate culture of the West appeared in two forms: one was the folk guitar singers and the other was the entertainers who had originated in the [clubs frequented by] US Eighth Army soldiers. A crackdown on these people was urgent. He began by banninglarge numbers of pop songs and kayo and then moved on to a crackdown on marijuana. On December 2nd, 1975 a huge number of entertainers were banned completely from working in the so-called ‘marijuana crisis’ (대마초 파동). [한국대중음악사, p86]

The book goes on to quote Park Chung-hee himself on the marijuana problem:

“At this grave juncture that will settle the matter of life and death in our one-on-one [struggle] with the Communist Party, the smoking of marijuana by the youth is something that will bring ruin to our country… You must pull up by the roots the problem of marijuana smoking and similar activities by applying the maximum penalties currently available under the law.” [Chosun Ilbo, 3 February 1976, quoted in above book, p88]

There was a little bit more to this story, because the president’s own son, Park Ji-man, had smoked marijuana and been influenced by hippy culture. As the authors of the book point out, this was possibly further motivation for Park’s crackdown.

Of course there exist semi-conspiracy theories as to why marijuana is prohibited throughout the world and how it came to be prohibited in the first place. We can also ask the broader questions about why states would want to outlaw commodities for which there is a clear market and which could be so lucrative to both capitalist entrepreneurs and government tax revenues (David Harvey has some good passages on the limits of commoditisation in his recent book on neoliberalism).

This is probably not the place to get into all the historical reasons why this particular commodity happens to be prohibited. But the history of controlled drugs all over the world shows that social control is often one aspect in the calculations of governments enforcing prohibition laws. Korea was and continues to be a good example of this. The fact that illegal drug use is very low in Korea by world standards did not and does not stop the authorities from stamping down on the merest hint of usage, particularly when it comes to people in the public eye. As I’ve mentioned in a post before at my blog, there continue to be periodic scandals with prominent Korean entertainers being busted and sometimes having their careers ruined. And this is not confined to the world of pop singers or TV hosts – one of Korea’s most talented traditional musicians, percussionist and dancer Yi Kwangsu, has been in and out of jail a number of times as a result of his fondness for the odd reefer.

Of course, as a fibre crop hemp was crucial to the economies of both Korea and Japan for hundreds of years. But that’s another story…

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