Part three of the NK NEWS Study Guide focuses on eight of the Korean peninsula’s most crucial years between 1945 and 1953. It was during these years that the Korean peninsula embarked on a path of internal division, a division that still persists today and continues to influence Northeast Asian stability.
It was this division that determined the size and role of U.S. involvement in the Asia-Pacific, the nature of U.S. relations with China, Japan, its neighbors, and the bitter rivalry between Washington D.C. and Moscow. The Cold War has long ended, but the seeds sewn in this period still affect contemporary political and diplomatic rhetoric.
Today, the entire Korean peninsula is still (technically) a war zone – albeit one suspended in time. Rarely does an article about North and South Korea fail to begin without the mandatory sentences that explain why “no peace treaty was ever signed”, why “North and South Korea are technically still at war”, or without mentioning the “38th parallel” that divides the two states. However, whilst these might be tired clichés to some, to what extent do we really understand the deep-seated and long-lasting internal divisions that culminated in today’s divided peninsula? Why did the two sides of a decolonized and liberated Korea remain divided after what was supposed to be a ‘temporary’ partition in 1945? How did they drift so drastically apart over the next five years before the Korean War broke out?
HOW DID WAR BREAK OUT?
We do have an answer to the more visible ‘how’ question; we know that the North invaded the South on 25th June 1950. This is an accepted historical fact worldwide, except for in North Korea and, perhaps unsurprisingly, China – North Korea’s closest ally, literally and politically. Nonetheless, we do not hear detailed accounts of the 1945-1950 period very often. The general historiography rarely reports the names of important protagonists and events in that period other than the well-known Kim Il Sung, Douglas MacArthur, Syngman Rhee, Mao Zedong and Stalin. This is perhaps the most fascinating thing about the Korean War and the history of contemporary Korea: although there were more deaths during the Korean War in 3 years than there were in almost a decade of fighting in Vietnam, the Korean War has been somewhat ‘forgotten’ by history.
So what exactly happened, and how? As we saw in Part 2 of the NK NEWS Study Guide, the colonial experience left indelible marks on Korean society, splitting the country between those from a mainly middle and upper class section of society who favored Japanese influence as a vehicle of socio-economic development, and a predominantly lower and middle class group who resisted colonial rule and favored full independence. When World War II came to an end, these domestic rivalries began to overheat, until they literally exploded in 1950, with war.
Events were, of course, far more complex than this. The Japanese occupation and whatever was left of anti-colonial resistance (on both communist and nationalist fronts, in ideological terms) had been crushed or forced to flee the country, so the Koreans only had a semi-official government-in-exile located in China, and groups of anti-Japanese guerrilla hiding in Manchuria as the main reference points for any future government of an independent state. This means that divisions in Korean politics preceded and conditioned anything that happened after the country’s liberation in 1945.
Although Korea did not represent a priority in the postwar plans of the Allies, its condition and future had been discussed during the Cairo Conference in 1943, where the US, the UK and the Soviet Union “mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, […] determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent”. The in due course here is one of the keys to understand how different expectations (those of the Korean people and those of the Allies) would determine the fate of the country.
Liberation, division and political turmoil (1945 – 1950)
This is a condensed timeline of events of during the 1945 -1950 period:
1945: Shortly before the surrender of Japan, the Allies divide the Korean peninsula between Soviet and American occupation zones at the 38th parallel (see this article by Mark Barry for further details on the Allies’ decision to divide the peninsula). Soviet tanks enter Korea early in August, as Japanese troops begin to surrender. U.S. troops do not arrive in the South until late September. Contrary to initial U.S. fears, Soviet soldiers do not cross the 38th parallel and remain in the northern half of the peninsula. At this point, initial contacts between the two occupying forces are still friendly. However, the decision to split the country is neither understood nor accepted by Koreans. The 38th parallel is an artificial boundary line, with no historical root or connection of any sort to either side of Korea other than in geographic coincidence. Koreans regard their country as one and, initially, they continue to move with relative freedom from one side to another. There seems to be no plan, at this point, for a permanent division, but some Korean politicians are already worried that separation may become permanent.
THE FIRST ‘KOREAN PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC’
On the northern side, power is handed by the Red Army onto the local PCKI Commissions in Pyongyang. The PCKI holds a Congress of local People’s Communities, representing the traditional social fabric of the (former) Korean State, therefore establishing its claim to being a legitimate national government. In the South, a nationalist movement led by Yuh Woon-hyung (a left-wing politician with a large popular following) seeks to establish an independent Korean People’s Republic (KPR – not to be confused with the future Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – DPRK, in the North), with no interference from foreign powers. The KPR program is something that neither US forces nor right-wing politicians in the South see positively. Among other points, it includes “the confiscation without compensation of lands held by the Japanese and their collaborators, with free redistribution to the peasants; nationalization of major industries; state supervision of small and mid-sized companies; guaranteed basic human rights and freedoms, including those of speech, press, assembly, and faith; universal suffrage to adults over the age of eighteen; and equality for women”. The KPR also calls for the “establishment of close relations with the United States, USSR, United Kingdom, and China, and positive opposition to any foreign influences interfering with the domestic affairs of the state”.
U.S. ARMY MILITARY GOVERNMENT IN KOREA
The movement only lasts a few months due to strong opposition by right-wing nationalists (including future South Korean president Syngman Rhee) and the US command in Korea (United States Army Military Government in Korea – USAMGIK). After the KPR experiment failed, Yuh Woon-hyung was murdered (in 1947) by Han Ji-geun, a member of the secret society ‘Baek-ui-sa” (백의사). meanwhile, the USAMGIK forms a “Provisional Government”, in the South. Koreans now find the country effectively divided between North and South Korea, although no side has yet proclaimed its sovereignty as a separate state. Later in September, Kim Il Sung and other Korean officers of the Soviet Army arrive in Wonsan (North Korea) from Russia. A few local (and popular) communist leaders, such as Hyon Chun Hyok, are assassinated in Pyongyang. In October, the Soviet command in North Korea calls for a gathering of Five Peoples Committees, divided equally between communists and nationalists, representing the five North Korean Provinces; the meeting results in the creation of the Five Provinces Administrative Bureau which is the first stage of a functional North Korean Government. Kim Il Sung makes his first public appearance in post-war Korea at a political rally in Pyongyang. In the meantime, Syngman Rhee, one of the main independence activist in exile, returns to Seoul. A nationalist, and authoritarian anti-communist, Rhee tries to work both against U.S. domination (yet accepting US presence and aid) and in order to prevent the North from becoming independent, his long-term goal being the presidency of a unified and independent Korean state. On December 18th, Kim Il Sung assumes the title of Chairman of the newly established Communist Party of North Korea, and, just after Christmas, the Moscow Conference imposes a trusteeship on Korea.
1946: Early in January, President Harry Truman indicates that the US would not recognize future communist governments. Fearing Soviet influence or domination of Korea, the U.S. Military Government in Korea, holding power in much of the South, declares the Northern Government, set up with Soviet assistance, as “illegal”. The Korean Communist Party announces support for trusteeship. Cho Man Sik, a Northern independence activist, originally indicated by the Soviets as a potential leader, publicly opposes the trusteeship, holding a nationalist stance for complete independence from any foreign power. He is later forced to resign from his position of Chairman of the Provisional People’s Committee for the Five Provinces, and placed under house arrest in Pyongyang by Soviet Forces. Soon afterwards, he disappears. Other fellow independent Nationalists are quickly moved out of power, purged, arrested or secretly executed.
THE CHILLY WAR GETS COLDER
The Joint American-Soviet Commission,created during the Moscow Conference examines the Soviet demands that only those Koreans that accept the trusteeship are to be consulted on the political future of Korea. The U.S. disagrees, halting de facto the negotiations on the future of Korea, as the US-USSR Joint-Commission on the formation of a Korean Government reaches an impasse and is soon dissolved. In spring, Kim Il Sung announces his Twenty Points Program, for the establishing North Korean State. The North nationalizes all of its industry plants, at the time still legally held by Japanese firms. The North also implements its Land Reform Law, a crucial move that redesigns society and part of the economy in North Korea. In the South, workers’ strikes begin to take a violent turn. Police cracks down on Communists and anyone suspected to be a “Leftist”.
1947: With the Truman Doctrine, the U.S. take a hardened stance against Soviet Influence across the world, particularly in Asia. It’s full Cold War by now, and the consequences are enormous for the future of Korea. In the South, after the assassination of Yuh Woon-hyun, hopes are lost for a popular government and Syngman Rhee remains the only U.S.-supported candidate in power. The UN and the U.S. make a few more tentative gestures towards Korean independence, and the United Nations establishes the Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK). The commission, however, is not recognized in the North and the gulf developing between the two Korean sides widens by the day.
A TALE OF TWO KOREAS
1948: Koreans in the North establish the Korean People’s Army (KPA), which reaches a strength of 60,000 men by the end of 1948. The Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) holds its 2nd congress in Pyongyang, determining a major purge of the domestic Communist Party in the North, rooting out Communist Nationalists who opposed Soviet influence on Korean affairs. Both sides are still ruled by provisional authorities, influenced by foreign actors, but in the South a Communist-led uprising begins on Jeju Island. The uprising is crushed brutally by military and police forces, resulting in over 30,000 casualties. As Seoul holds National Assembly elections (for which citizens in the northern half are not allowed to participate in), Syngman Rhee is appointed as the President of the Republic of Korea (ROK), which is formally proclaimed a sovereign state on August 15. The North replies almost immediately, promulgating its own constitution and proclaiming the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK). Both governments see themselves as the only legitimate political entity for the entire peninsula, a fact which persists today. Compared with the North, however, the South seems to have much less socio-political cohesion, and it is plagued by continuous rebellions (such as the Yosu Military rebellion), mostly originating in its Southwest provinces, a traditional stronghold of fiercely nationalistic left-wing forces. Syngman Rhee holds onto power with the help of the U.S. military and a brutal police apparatus. All subsequent uprisings are suppressed with brutal force, casualties run high. The political turmoil in the South later becomes one of the determining factors in Kim Il Sung’s decision to declare war in 1950, as he believed that most Koreans on the Southern side of the demarcation line would have greeted the KPA as a ‘liberation army’.
1949: One of Syngman Rhee’s main adversaries, the nationalist political leader Kim Gu, is murdered in Seoul. Together with Yuh Woon Hyun, or even Cho Man-Sik, Kim could have been a better candidate to lead the peninsula towards independence. Indeed, had any of these three politicians been allowed to live, the history of Korea would arguably have been very different.
THE RISE OF RHEE AND THE FALL OF OLD CHINA: IT’S ALL ABOUT TAIWAN
After Gu’s death, Rhee’s dominance on the Southern political scene became absolute. A few key events unfold: in October, Communist forces in China win a long civil war with the Kuomintang and found the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC). At almost the same time, U.S. Congress passes the “mutual defense assistance act” funding a Korean Army of 65,000 men in the South. The initial project, however, is originally established to cover U.S. withdrawal from Korea.
1950: In January, the U.S. seems to clarify its position in Asia: President Harry Truman announces the ceasing of all military aid to the Nationalist Government of China, headed by Chiang Kai-shek on the Island of Taiwan, while Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivers a policy speech at a press club in which he excludes the mainland of Asia (thus Korea) from the U.S. defensive perimeter in the East. U.S. troops prepare to leave Korea as American presence in Asia seems to focus on China and a more general strategy of containment of the perceived ‘Communist threat’. In Korea, Kim Il Sung persuades Stalin to support a DPRK military offensive against the South “in general terms”. Russia provides technical assistance, but no soldiers. The approval of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party comes shortly after, but under different conditions (Mao allegedly agrees to enter the war to prevent any possibility of having U.S. or South Korean troops next to the border – but fighting the “American Imperialists” gives legitimacy to Mao’s claims over Taiwan where U.S. influence runs high). The final approval from both sides materializes later in June, while Kim Il Sung finalizes the details of the attack.
By this time, internal migration has already altered the demographic balance of the peninsula, as many families left the North fearing a communist regime. The North Korean revolution (namely the drastic changes in social status, economic opportunities and classes within North Korea instigated by the DPRK leadership) pushed former landlords, wealthy families or surviving former collaborators to flee South. The flow of refugees continues throughout the conflict. In Seoul, the ROK National Assembly holds new elections and, this time, most members previously seated in the Assembly are replaced by more neutral ones. The South and the North patrol the 38th parallel, conducting a series of military drills. Shots are exchanged between the two sides on occasion (including some medium-scale skirmishes) but, on June 25th, the North launches a full-scale invasion of the South, crossing the 38th parallel. The Korean War begins.
THE KOREAN WAR 1950 – 1953
Most of the conflict’s crucial events take place in 1950, although fighting goes on for three years. After the June 25 invasion, DPRK troops effortlessly run over South Korean and U.S. defense lines, conquering Seoul in a few days. The rest of the ROK, South Korea, falls in a matter of weeks. The UN Security Council demands the DPRK to stop its attack and return to its borders. President Truman commits US Troops to enforce UN demand, and the United Nations Command is created under General Douglas MacArthur. U.S./UN and South Korean troops retreat to the Busan perimeter, (a defense line in the southwest tip of the peninsula, anchored along the Naktong river), where Syngman Rhee’s government is temporarily moved. Here, the fight goes on for about 2 months, in a desperate effort to contain the DPRK assault. In September, US/UN troops land in well-executed pincer attack at Incheon, temporarily reverting the course of the war. DPRK troops are cut from their supply lines and start to retreat north.
US troops reconquer Seoul and shortly after they cross the 38th parallel northbound in an attempt to reunify all of Korea, this time under the South Korean and UN Flag. In October, Chinese troops (described at the time as ‘voluntary’ by the Chinese Government) enter North Korea crossing the Yalu river, while U.S. and South Korean troops conquer Pyongyang. U.S. and UN troops control nearly all the peninsula, when Chinese troops begin their advance, pushing the front back to the 38th parallel again. In 1951 and 1952, Seoul changes hands a number of times, as the battle moves constantly back and forth along the division line. However, while ground troops seem to be locked in a stalemate (which causes a disproportionate amount of deaths), North Korea has no air defense – the few planes it had were destroyed by U.S. air forces back at the beginning of the conflict. Although the Soviet Union provides some help in this regard (with MiG fighter jets) control of the North Norean skies is soon reestablished by U.S. forces, adopting a carpet bombing strategy for the duration of the rest of the conflict. North Korean infrastructure and urban areas are quickly reduced to rubble and ash (some say the U.S. ran out of targets after the first few months, but continued bombing to lower the enemy’s morale), while the population and their factories and military facilities move underground. Towards the end of the war, the U.S. bombs North Korean dams, in an attempt to flood arable land and force the DPRK to surrender.
PEACE TIME, SORT OF
The fighting goes on around the 38th parallel throughout all of 1952, and part of 1953. Negotiation attempts between all parties fail due to territorial disputes or issues related to POWs. During the conflict, Gen. MacArthur is removed from his position, while the U.S. government faces for the first time the reality of a war that is different, in all aspects, from World War II. The use of atomic weapons is for some time contemplated, but never really put into practice – although MacArthur is keen to turn the Sino-Korean border regions into a “wasteland”. Finally, in 1953, the two sides reach an agreement for an armistice (that is, a cease-fire, not a peace treaty). The armistice document is signed by North Korean military authorities and U.S.-UN forces. Syngman Rhee refuses to sign the truce, as doing so would mean to acknowledge the existence of North Korea as a separate state. The two sides begin an exchange of prisoners, and refugees on both sides find each other separated from their families in a war that was supposed to be ‘limited’. The North started the Korean War under full confidence that Koreans in the South would have supported reunification under the DPRK flag. Three years after its outbreak, the conflict leaves the two sides at the starting point, claimimg millions of victims (among others, Mao Zedong’s son would die in battle – a symbole of Chinese commitment to the war), the total destruction of an economy and a fractured national Korean identity.
The implications of national division and the unsolved issues of the Korean War
The decision to divide Korea was arguably one of the biggest mistakes in the history of international relations – a mistake that the Korean people still, in many ways, suffer from. Such a decision could only have come from powers who where utterly ignorant of the history and the culture of Korea, and blind to the problems that forty years of Japanese colonial domination had brought to the country, not to mention the chaotic and sped-up nature with which Korea was decolonized. What began as a power vacuum, ended as an explosion.
For all its weight however, the Allies’ decision only represents half of the problem. There was a pre-existing fracture within Korean society, as people did not have the time to adjust to modernity, being catapulted from the the quiet isolationism of the late Choson dynasty into fast-paced developments under Japanese rule (broadcasting, radio, press etc were all most heavily developed under Japanese imperial rule). This fact is still hard to admit for some Koreans, who prefer to blame Korea’s hardships in the 1900s entirely on foreign intervention.
Despite this, evidence supports the argument that the Korean conflict was a civil war in many aspects, albeit with a significant degree of external influence to exacerbate these pre-existing problems. The years 1945 to 1950 saw the U.S. and Soviet Union make seemingly short-term decisions that would become long-term problems for the Korean people. Had they opted for candidates with a much better standing among the population (Yuh Woon-hyung, Cho Man-sik, Kim Gu etc), maybe things would have been different.
In any case, Koreans of opposing ideologies had ‘unfinished business’ with each other – stemming from 40 years of colonial rule, where a minority chose to side with the occupiers, much as had happened in Vichy France or the Salo Republic (or Italian Social Republic). The issue of collaborators and the diverging ideas on the future of Korea were the some of the reasons behind numerous massacres and civil war crimes to take place all over the peninsula, both before and during the conflict. In recent years, South Korea has made great strides to come to terms with its past, establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, although some of its anti-Japanese sentiment (much of it aimed at former collaborators, called ‘Chinilpa’) was revived in recent years, especially under Roh Moo-hyun.
The Center for the Study of the Korean War – The Center for the Study of the Korean War is located on the Independence campus of Graceland University. Founded in 1989, this non-profit organization began as the personal library of Dr. Paul Edwards, a scholar and educator on the subject of the Korean War.
The W. Wilson Center Korean War Archives – A collection of primary source documents related to the Korean War. Obtained largely from Russian archives, the documents include reports on Chinese and Soviet aid to North Korea, allegations that America used biological weapons, and the armistice.
H. S. Truman Archives – Interesting selection of texts, images, audio and video material covering the period 1945 – 1953, from the US side, with specific focus on H.S. Truman correspondence and personal accounts.
The Origins of the Korean War; An Interpretation from the Soviet Archives- Evgueni Bajanov – This online article is based on recently declassified Soviet archives. The article was originally presented by Dr. Evgeni Bajanov to the conference on “The Korean War, An assessment of the Historical Record,” 24-25 July 1995, Georgetown Univ., Washington, D.C. Dr. Evgueni Bajanov is Director of the Institute for Contemporary International Problems, Russian Foreign Ministry, Moscow, Russia. Only the first three of ten sections of his article are shown.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission, The Commission promotes investigation and reconciliation on war crimes, human rights abuses, issues related to the colonial past and the massacres of civilians during authoritarian regimes. (Website in Korean and English)
Video Lectures, Movies/ Documentaries
Jiseul a recent South Korean film depicting the events of the 1948 Jeju Island uprising and its brutal repression by South Korean police forces.
Excerpt: Cumings, Chairman of the Department of History at the University of Chicago and author of The Korean War: A History, joins MSL Dean Lawrence R. Velvel to discuss the historical origins of the Korean war, from the early disputes between North and South Korea and then on through to the more recent history of North Korea, from General MacArthur’s massive underestimation of the North Korean army, to the North’s involvement with China, all the way to the great famine and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
These two parts of a long interview (with interesting video footage and comments) are about 1 hour each and for the most part they run quite smoothly; there are a few commercial breaks by the MSL, as the videos are part of its archives, but they only last for a few minutes and can easily be skipped on youtube. These videos are a good introduction to Cumings’ latest book on the Korean War (as well as his earlier work on the topic), or a limited alternative to reading it, if you do not have the time.
B. Cumings – “Apocalypse, Amnesia, and Kim Jong Il: Why the Korean War is ‘Forgotten’ “, Nam Center for Korean Studies Colloquium Series
Excerpt: Cumings’ lecture examines the extraordinary destructiveness of the Korean War, why this remains a burned-in memory in North Korea, why South Koreans are only now able to comprehend how terrible this war was, why Americans know next to nothing about this apocalypse (absence) and/or choose to forget (amnesia), the peculiar way in which Kim Jong Il signifies to Americans everything that is wrong with North Korea, and the ways in which this mutual incomprehension still affects U.S.-North Korean relations nearly sixty years after the armistice.
The Korean War 1950 – 1953, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
A short yet very detailed documentary, recapping the most important phases of the conflict, with some very good footage and a balanced commentary. Not perfect (no reconstruction of events is, in the end), but certainly accurate.
The Korean war, unlike the pre-war period, has been covered by a number of specialists from all sides, therefore this list is purposely limited, with just a few basic suggestions for those who want to deepen their understanding of what happened in the crucial years 1945 – 1953:
Armstrong, Charles, The North Korean Revolution, 1945 – 1950, Cornell, 2003.
- Simply put, a book that should be in the reading list of every North Korea-related BA/MA program. Well-written and thoroughly researched, it spares the non-specialized reader the effort of having to go through literal mountains of archival material, to untie some of the most important yet overlooked knots of North Korea’s history. Armstrong covers a crucial period, from 1945, year of Japan’s defeat and liberation of the northern side of Korea by Soviet troops, to 1950, when the Korean war broke out. Through a number of declassified sources he reveals how Kim Il Sung’s personal power grew from a prominent rank to a leading figure. It also sheds some light on Kim’s early allies and antagonists, on the struggle for power among several factions in the North Korean leadership and about the role of China and the Soviet union: More importantly, perhaps, this book clarifies the true nature of North Korea and explains its sources of resiliency. Studying the 1945-1950 period is essential to understand North Korea as a ‘partisan state’, born from the ashes of the Japanese empire, shaped and led by a restricted group of guerrilla fighters, who aimed at winning the support of the North Korean people by reshaping society, turning upside down the balance of power and eliminating all external influences. Definitely a book that could help some US policy-makers understand why sanctions and isolation have not worked so far with North Korea.
Clay Blair Jr, The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953, Naval Institute Press, 2003.
- While there are numerous accounts made by foreign (mainly US) writers and reporters (some of whom participated in the conflict), few books are at the same time detailed, accurate and readable. I think ‘The Forgotten War’ is one of those, although it really dedicates more space to the early phases of the conflict (the years 1952 and 1953 are condensed in less than 30 pages). It makes for a good reading if you are interested in details of military operations and US perspective (and debate) on the war.
Cumings, Bruce, The Origins of the Korean War – part 1: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945 – 1947, Princeton, NJ, 1981; and The Origins of the Korean War, part 2: The Roaring of the Cataract, 1947 – 1950, Princeton, NJ, 1981.
Cumings, Bruce, The Korean War: A History, Modern Library Chronicles, New York, 2010.
- The two volumes of ‘Origins of the Korean war’ are undoubtedly a must read; Cumings owes some of his fame to these works and I think that is for the most part well deserved. ‘Origins’ is based on extensive archival research (pretty much like ‘The North Korean Revolution’ by Armstrong – some of the sources are the same: a large collection of early North Korean archives captured by US forces during the war). The smaller, much more compact volume ‘The Korean War’ somehow summarizes (with a few additions and revisions) part of what was published in ‘Origins’, making it accessible to a larger public. The work of Cumings focuses equally on both Korean sides, as well as on the role of US forces in some of the darkest pages of the conflict, related to the massacre of civilians on north and south of the DMZ, before and during the conflict.
Park, Hyun Ok, Two Dreams in One Bed: Empire, Social Life, and the Origins of the North Korean Revolution in Manchuria, Duke University Press, 2005.
- This book could have been in the list for the previous episode of our study guide, but it has been placed here as it complements, in my view, the information found on Armstrong’s work. Through a detailed account of regional history, even stronger emphasis is placed here on the Manchurian origin of the North Korean State well before its official political inception in 1948. The history of regional migrations, ethnic groups and colonialism in Northeast Asia is crucial to understanding the kind of ‘social-nationalism’ so deep-rooted in contemporary North Korean ideology and Park’s book provides an excellent analysis of the topic.
Springer, Chris, with Szalontai, Balazs, North Korea Caught in Time – Images of War and Reconstruction, Garnet, 2009.
- A fascinating work, this book offers a visual overview of what wartime and immediate post-war North Korea looked like. Most of the photos come from Hungarian archives, where they were sent by the KCNA. It is therefore a collection of North Korean images, with all the possible cautionary word that can be said about the manipulation of images. In the words of the author, “it should be noted that each of these photos is both an image recording a particular time and place, and an artifact produced for a propaganda campaign. Whatever the veracity of the images themselves, the authenticity of the photos as propaganda artifacts is not in dispute. This distinction is important because, in many of these photos, what is truly ‘caught in time’ are the values then held by the North Korean regime. Later, the regime not only abandoned some of those values, but also erased them from official histories, as if they never existed”. As so much has been done by the North Korean propaganda machine to erase any trace of the past that did not conform with the personality cult of Kim Il Sung, Springer’s work provides the chance for non-specialists to get acquainted with important political figures in the early days of North Korea; it also shows how some of these personalities who originally enjoyed a power status were later removed from photographic memory (in parallel with political purges going on in the country). The collection of images is introduced with an essay by Hungarian Scholar B. Szalontai (‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in North Korea – The Forgotten Side of a Not-So-Forgotten War’), which is ‘primarily based on archival documents located in the Hungarian National Archives, almost all of which were written by Hungarian diplomats accredited to the DPRK’, focusing for the most part on post-1953 events.
Stone, Isidor, F. The Hidden History of the Korean War, Monthly Review Press; First Edition (1952), Republished in 1988 .
- An excerpt from the author: ‘This book serves a threefold purpose. It is a case-study in the cold war. It is also a study in war propaganda, in how to read newspapers and official documents in wartime. Emphasis, omission, and distortion rather than outright lying are the tools of the war propagandists, and this book may help the reader to learn how to examine their output – and sift out the facts – for himself. Finally this book is what it purports to be, not “inside stuff” or keyhole revelations but the hidden history of the Korean War, the facts to be found in the official accounts themselves if texts are carefully examined and reports collated’.
Thompson, Reginald, Cry Korea: The Korean War: A Reporter’s Notebook, Reportage Press, 2010.
- ‘Required reading at the United Nations and in the chancelleries of the West’, according to The Economist, Cry Korea by R. Thompson, is a direct, vivid report, first published in 1951 of four intense months of fighting in Korea (from the Incheon landing to the Chinese intervention and offensive). Thompson was at the time an experienced war correspondent, having covered World War II. The book has been praised by authors such as B. Cumings.
Yoo, Young-Bok (translated by Paul T. Kim), Tears of Blood. A Korean POW’s fight for Freedom, family and Justice, Won Books, 2012.
- Don’t let the vaguely ‘Americanized’ title fool you: this book, originally published in Korea as ‘Starry Nights in Hell’ is the personal account of 50 years of detention, forced labour, escape to the South and other life events by Yoo Young-bok , a ROK solider who found himself on the other side of the DMZ, captured in battle and separated from his family for half a century. The book has been nicely translated by Paul T. Kim (while still in high school, quite impressive) and brings to the readers’ attention the issue of hundreds of South Korean POWs, still alive in North Korea, yet never formally reclaimed by any ROK government. If you have liked something like ‘Nothing to Envy’, then i suggest you read this book as it contains similar elements: it’s lighter than an academic work and yet very informative. For instance, through the life account of Mr. Yoo, the reader can learn much about life at the lower end of the North Korean social system, the countryside, the mines, the salaries and price of goods, and so forth. A number of very interesting details, which add to the story (quite touching). It is worth noticing that of an initial group of nearly 60,000 South Korean POWs who were captured during the war, only a few made it back to the South. At the end of the book, the author provides a list of POWs he knows to be still alive in North Korea.
Sources for dates, names, places can be found in the National Archives of Korea, mongoliareport.com, koreanhistory.or.kr, korea.net, and koreanhistory.info
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