(And other grumbling about factual errors, limited perspectives, and received wisdom)
I've come across a few books and articles about the negative influence of the US on Korea over the past few years that I started to write about but never got around to finishing; now that my book project is finished, I finally have.
My attention was turned a few weeks ago to an article at Salon by Marie Myung-Ok Lee titled "The 'Squid Game' critique is also a love letter to a unified Korea," and which has the subtitle "What the west doesn't understand about Netflix's hit show is that much of it is a critique of the US influence." The central argument is that "if there is a villain, it's seated in the root wound of the Korean people: the partitioning of the peninsula by the U.S." Perhaps "the root wound of the Korean people" appears to be "the partitioning of the peninsula by the U.S." from a progressive vantage point in the US, but the view from South Korea (in textbooks, media, and popular culture) would suggest that root is popularly perceived to be the colonization of Korea by Japan.
The article makes interesting points about the fratricidal conflict between brothers and Sae-byeok's pure Korean name, and makes the assertion that the banjiha (half-basement) rooms in buildings built in the 1970s were only meant to be bunkers (something I rather doubt, since Seoul's population increased steadily by 8 million between 1960 and 1990 – an average of 730 per day (!) – and there was a dire need for housing throughout that time). Those few interesting points, however, are unfortunately marred by either a shallow or biased understanding of the history involved, of a sort that I've seen on many occasions.
From the viewpoint of a non-American, it's fascinating to see how, whether on the left or right, some Americans demand that their country be placed at the center of so many historical narratives; the irony when it comes from those on the left is that, in the name of decrying the loss of Korean political agency at the hands of US imperialism, they create narratives which themselves deny Koreans any historical agency. I find it hard to imagine an assertion more offensive to North Koreans than the statement that their country "was originally created by the U.S. itself"– as if Koreans north of the line (and the Soviets) had no role to play in the formation of the North Korean state. (I would also imagine that making such a statement during a visit to North Korea would either indefinitely extend or abruptly end your stay.)
Minimizing the involvement of the USSR in such 'America first' arguments about the division of Korea and the Korean war is par for the course, but even here I was surprised by the statement that the location of the line that divided the peninsula was influenced by a desire to "appease the Soviets, who were threatening to invade, anyway." The plan since the Yalta Conference in early 1945 had been for the USSR to invade Manchuria and Korea in August 1945, and Soviet troops were on the verge of invading northern Korea at the time Rusk and Bonesteel were drawing lines on maps on the night of August 9, 1945. As well, at the Potsdam Conference two weeks earlier, the Soviets had asked the US if they could coordinate an attack on Korea from the south. The US declined, but they divided the sea around and air above Korea into zones of US and USSR operations. (See here.)
As for the assertion that "the Korean people play[ed] no part in the decision" to divide the peninsula, this is correct, but the division decision was influenced by Syngman Rhee, as David P. Fields' book Foreign Friends: Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea, makes clear (I summarized it here, but it's well worth listening to his lecture here). Rhee, of course, never wanted division, but successfully mobilized prominent American politicians who pushed for the US government to take action to stop Korea from being handed over to the Soviets. Dean Rusk himself noted that Korea was divided for "symbolic purposes," not strategic ones. The decision was also a State Department one, not a military one.
As for "the giddy days following Japan's" defeat which "lasted however many months before both U.S. and Russian military forced their way onto the peninsula," it should be noted that only the Soviets "forced their way" into Korea (against the Japanese), and that they were present before the fighting stopped on August 15. The Americans arrived 3-4 weeks after liberation, and the claim that they "forced their way" are belied by all of those photos of crowds cheering their arrival.
The mind also boggles at the description of Sae-byeok as being like "an urchin wandering the streets not unlike the scores of orphans crying in the gutters of Seoul after their families were killed in American bombings during the Korean war." I'm at a loss to understand how that association was made, though the fact that the orphans' families are assumed to have died due to US bombing and not due to political executions by the North (or South) Koreans or artillery fire from the Chinese - three belligerents mysteriously absent from this only mention of the events of the war - likely speaks for itself.
Regarding "Again, not thinking of Koreans, U.S. military left behind not peace but a shaky, hastily created ceasefire agreement," I'm not sure how two years of negotiations can be described as 'hasty.' It was in fact the fault of Stalin that the war was prolonged by two years because he wanted to keep the US bogged down in Asia while he rearmed eastern Europe, and used the issue of anti-communist KPA POWs (ie. those forced into the KPA) who did not want to return to North Korea as the means to extend the negotiations.
As for the claim that the American-brokered ceasefire left "the South Korean president so frustrated that he wasn't even invited to the signing for fear he wouldn't sign the document," this is astonishingly incorrect. There was no fear Rhee wouldn't sign the armistice because it was well known to the US that he did not want to end the war without achieving unification, and that if it had to end, he wanted a mutual defense treaty signed before the armistice. (See here for more.) When he got neither, he ordered the release of the anti-communist POWs from POW camps on June 18, 1953, the day North Korea, China, and the UN planned to sign the armistice, disrupting the ceremony. Once again, this rendering of Rhee as a mere victim of unilateral US actions removes all agency from Syngman Rhee, and also ignores the fact that the North Koreans were also marginalized in the armistice negotiations by their Soviet and Chinese allies.
Ultimately, I think that any benefit derived from viewing Squid Game in the light of this analysis is offset by the one-sided, distorted view of history it depends on. (For more interesting takes on Squid Game, I would recommend this or this.)
That said, it is far more informed than Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom by Stephen Gowans. According to this book review,
Stephen Gowans is not a writer to mince words or to defer to mainstream distortions. He makes no concessions to the standard self-serving Western narrative, and this is one of the reasons his work is so consistently refreshing. Gowans is also noted for his careful research and masterly knack for deploying information in support of logical analysis.
For an example of his 'careful research,' feel free to read this page of end notes:
So, 26 of 32 citations on that page refer to a single source. Needless to say, if I want to read Bruce Cumings, I'll read one of his books rather than an inferior knock-off. The book is summarized by its author as follows:
Korea has long struggled for freedom, from Japanese control in the first half of the twentieth century, and subsequently from US domination from 1945 to today. This is the story of the patriots who have fought for independence and of the empire-builders and traitors who have opposed them. [Pg. 15]
He also describes the Korean war as one fought by "an army of traitors vs. an army of patriots," as he describes the ROK and DPRK, respectively. On the bright side, I did appreciate being told right at the book's beginning that were would be no nuance or objectivity in the pages ahead. Thus, I did not read the entire book, but I did wonder what the pages about the Gwangju Uprising looked like (pgs 150-151). (The citations (rendered as '') match the page of end notes posted above.)
Park’s presidency was quickly followed by a December 12, 1979 military coup d’état, carried out by General Chun Doo Hwan, commander of the ROK army’s Ninth Division. Chun, at the time, was under the command of US General John A. Wickham, Jr., head of the US-ROK Combined Forces Command. A veteran of military intelligence, Chun, in power, expanded the intelligence function as a force of internal repression. The paramilitary riot police force was expanded, until it numbered around 150,000 by the mid-1980s. Wickham approved a role for the ROK military in politics. The army would vet political candidates. At the same time, it would supervise all political activity, preventing challenges to the state.
To clarify: Chun was never commander of the ninth division. At the time of Park Chung-hee's assassination he was the head of Defense Security Command, which - to correct the second sentence - was not under Combined Forces Command Operational Control (CFC OPCON). And, far from "approv[ing] a role for the ROK military in politics," after Chun's 12.12 coup, Wickham spent months all but lecturing his ROK counterparts on the need for the ROK military to focus on its job and stay out of politics.
In the spring of 1980, students took to the streets of Gwangju to protest Chun’s dictatorship. Wickham approved the deployment of two ROK special forces brigades to quell the disturbance and enforce martial law. On May 18, elite paratroopers landed in the city and began to indiscriminately murder demonstrators, including women and children. Outraged, the citizens of Gwangju fought back. Hundreds of thousands of local people drove the soldiers out of the city. It’s estimated that as many as 1,500 people died in the fighting. In the aftermath, a citizens’ council was established. Resembling the Paris Commune, the revolutionary people’s government that ruled Paris in the spring of 1871, the council governed Gwangju for the next five days.When student protests initially took place in Gwangju (and Seoul and elsewhere) in the spring of 1980, Chun was not yet in power; the author seems to not understand the chronology at all. The ROK's special forces were never under CFC OPCON, and Wickham wasn't even in the country on May 18. The paratroopers were most certainly utterly brutal on May 18, but describing them as "indiscriminately murder[ing] demonstrators, including women and children" on that day is hyperbole. And the 'citizens' council' was initially more conservative and gradually replaced by a competing student-led council, which itself had factions, among which the 'fight to the end' faction eventually prevailed. (The fact that he brings up a comparison to the Paris Commune but does not cite George Katsiaficas is another problem, as is the near absence of Tim Shorrock from the end notes.)
As the citizens of Gwangju were driving the US-commanded South Korean army out of the city, the US National Security Council was meeting at the White House to plan a response. US President Jimmy Carter, along with Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security adviser, and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, decided to approve a military intervention. Wickham ordered the ROK army’s Twentieth Division to deploy to Gwangju to crush the rebellion, a mission it successfully carried out a few days later. But Washington took no chances. To guarantee the success of the mission, the arrival of troops in Gwangju was delayed by three days to allow a US naval armada led by the aircraft carrier Midway to reach Korean waters, should reinforcements be required.69Again, the ROK forces in Gwangju were not US-commanded, nor were they under CFC OPCON when the uprising began. The meeting at the White House was a Periodic Review Committee (PRC) meeting intended to discuss events in the ROK that was planned over a week in advance; it was not convened in response to events in Gwangju, nor was Jimmy Carter present, as is implied above. Chun's military group had always planned to end things with force (if negotiation didn't work), and though the PRC did condone the use of "the minimum use of force necessary" if negotiations failed, it also "advised them to use moderation" (see here; scroll down). In regard to the final sentence, the US urged the ROK to wait at least two days hoping that it would allow time to reach a negotiated settlement, not because they wanted to use American reinforcements aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea (not Midway) during the recapture of Gwangju; the aircraft carrier was sent to intimidate North Korea into not taking advantage of the situation. As for the idea that "Wickham ordered the ROK army’s Twentieth Division to deploy to Gwangju to crush the rebellion," that was hardly possible because the Twentieth Division had been removed from CFC OPCON on May 16. It is also worth noting that all troops used in the retaking of Gwangju on May 27 were already on the city's outskirts by May 21; the May 22 White House meeting had no effect on troop movements. All of what is written in the paragraph quoted above suggests the US was wholeheartedly supporting Chun, when at that meeting Brzezinski stated the need to make clear to Chun's military group "the dangers of imposing a military dictatorship on a population as sophisticated as South Korea."
On May 18 about 500 people took to Kwangju’s streets, demanding the repeal of martial law. Elite paratroopers, widely thought to have been on drugs, landed in the city and began the indiscriminate murder of students, women, children—anyone who got in their way. One woman student was pilloried near the town square, where a paratrooper attacked her breasts with his bayonet. Other students had their faces erased with flamethrowers. By May 21 hundreds of thousands of local people had driven the soldiers from the city, which citizen’s councils controlled for the next five days. These councils determined that 500 people had already died and that some 960 were missing. The citizens’ councils appealed to the U.S. embassy to intervene, but it was left to General Wickham to release the Twentieth Division of the ROK Army from its duties along the DMZ on May 22. A 1988 ROK National Assembly report alleged that the suppression forces waited for three days to enter Kwangju, until the U.S. aircraft carrier Midway and other American naval ships could arrive in Korean waters.
Many western media outlets have written censorious, chest-beating accounts of his despotic governance and the massacres he perpetrated - something they rarely bothered to do when he was actively perpetrating them in broad daylight before their eyes.
Another article of note criticizing the American military presence in Korea is Tim Shorrock's "Welcome to the Monkey House: Confronting the ugly legacy of military prostitution in South Korea," from 2019. This article is a far cry from the articles and book examined above in that the subjectivity of Koreans (i.e. seeing the events from Koreans' points of view) is extensively presented as it delves into the role of both the US and ROK governments in regimenting sex work around around US bases and details the atrocious treatment of sex workers with STIs.
As well, unlike what is criticized above, this article is not plagued by historical errors; there is just one exception: it wrongly says of convicted murderer Kenneth Markle that he "became the first American turned over to South Korea for a criminal trial; in 1993, he was convicted and sentenced to life." This suggests that during the first 25 years of the SOFA agreement, the Korean government did not punish American soldiers who committed crimes in Korea, but this is simply not true; Billy Cox, who was indicted by Korean prosecutors for arson and assault on March 29, 1967, six weeks after SOFA came into effect, was the first GI to be prosecuted, and many, many more followed (more on that here).
I will, however, quibble with the inclusion in an article about militarized prostitution of the story of the traffic accident involving USFK vehicles and middle school girls in 2002. As well, I find it hard to laud the actions of the National Campaign for the Eradication of Crimes by U.S. Troops in Korea, whose greatest victory came after kindling outrage over the traffic accident in 2002, which they accomplished in part by placing large posters of the girls' mangled bodies, brains spilling out of their heads, in many subway stations. Since I saw these in person, the utter lack of respect for the girls, their families, or the passersby who saw the posters is something I remember quite well. The same can be said for their treatment of murdered sex worker Yun Geum-i in 1992 and the photo of her body – not for nothing did Kim-Yun Eun-mi write in the feminist magazine Ilda that "the effect aroused by Yun Geum-i's photo and internet porn with a rape motif have something in common. They both aim to arouse an intense impression of violence inflicted upon women's bodies." Former sex worker and activist Kim Yeon-ja didn't mince words about the campaign surrounding Yun Geum-i's murder: "There were dozens of girls who died before Yoon Geum-yi died. But no one ever tried to help us when we called for help," she said. "I felt that Yoon Geum-yi was just used as a tool for anti-American protests."
My main reason for bringing up this article, however, is that readers are promised a report on the legacy of military prostitution in Korea, but we learn nothing about sex work associated with the far-more-numerous ROK military. According to ROK government statistics, there were almost one million sex workers in the late 1970s, but only 40,000 GIs. Even if there were one sex worker per GI (there weren't), 40,000 is only 1/25 of a million, so most sex workers had nothing to do with the US gijichon system. I'd be curious to know how the treatment of the women who did not service GIs compared to those who did. How were brothel workers treated as compared to “gisaeng” who serviced the over 600,000 Japanese tourists per year in the late 1970s? How did this compare to sex workers around ROK military bases? Did the same onerous loan and fee systems that trapped them in place exist? Was it only sex workers around US bases who were confined if they tested positive for an STI? Was the system put in place around US bases more oppressive than for other forms of sex work, or was it not? How did the agency of these women differ according to various types of sex work? Did policies developed by both governments around US bases influence policies in other areas of the ROK? Did they reflect already-existing ROK policies? Were they a mixture of both?
To be fair, the kind of wide-ranging research and comparative approach needed to answer the above questions would be difficult to summarize in a single article, and would more suit a book, so it's not surprising we don't see it here. At the same time, I strongly doubt that such questions are of much interest to the authors, whether Korean or American, of such articles focusing on US camp town prostitution (or the article and book mentioned above), since their main goal is to criticize American foreign policy and the actions of the US military abroad or to portray the victimization of Koreans at the hands of the US.
In this post I mentioned an exception to this: Hyun Sook Kim's chapter (in Dangerous Women: Gender and Korean Nationalism) "Yanggongju as an allegory of the nation," in which she criticized the relegation of Korean women involved in militarized prostitution to the category of 'victim of American imperialism' and nothing more. The chapter begins with this story:
In February 1995, a former sex worker (Kim Yon-ja [who is mentioned above]) and two activists from Korea (a female, feminist writer and a male videomaker/photographer) led a three-week tour through major cities in the United States. The purpose of the tour was to Americans’ awareness about the problem of militarized prostitution foreigners in Korea and its impact on the lives of Korean women their children.
She went on to describe how a forum she attended was held "at one of the major academic institutions where the audience was comprised of mainly feminist students and faculty."
The forum concluded with Kim Yon-ja's presentation of her experience of working and living in Kijich'on. Kim spoke in detail about the physical, psychological and economic hardship she endured in sexual labor for twenty-five years, from 1964 to 1989. She also discussed the importance of her religious faith as a source of self-empowerment which, she said, helped her to sustain hope and eventually to escape the life of a sex worker. Kim also mentioned that ever since becoming a preacher in 1989 she has used her missionary role to advocate the rights of working-class Korean women and their children living in military camptowns in Korea.
On the whole, the forum was successful in conveying important information about the history of U.S. imperialism in Korea since 1945 and the destructive impact of U.S. militarism on the lives of Korean civilians. However, as a Korean-American academic-activist sitting in the audience, I observed that the activists and the audience had very different ways of approaching the question of militarized prostitution. For example, the audience invited Kim to elaborate on her daily coping strategies in sexual labor, her views about the circumstances that forced her into sexual labor, and her views on patriarchy and militarism. Several adherents of liberation and feminist theology begged Kim to expand upon her description of how religious faith had guided her survival in (and eventual escape from) sexual labor. However, the young Korean American woman interpreter, who was responsible for providing simultaneous translation of questions and answers from English to Korean and vice versa, screened and censored the questions directed to Kim. Insisting that the forum time be devoted to the delivery of the group line, which aimed to "educate" Americans about the impact of U.S. imperialism and militarization on Korean lives, the activists overlooked and neglected to translate questions addressed to Kim. Attempts from the audience to ask about Kim's personal experience in Kijich'on were repeatedly ignored. The activists judged Kim's talk as "testimonial" and "evangelical" because her focus on the personal and daily struggle in sexual labor left no room for discussing the larger and, in the activists' eyes, more signiﬁcant dimension of imperialism and domination of Korea by United States.
Kim Yon-ja's testimony was relegated to the margins of this forum because the writer and videomaker analyzed the problem of military prostitution simply in terms of U.S. militarism and imperialism, thus locating the blame on Americans for the exploitation of Korean women working in Kijich'on. Their emphasis on the United States' culpability left little room to discuss the intricate relations of economic, cultural, and ideological hierarchies that reinforce women's subordination, including militarized prostitution among Koreans, in which Korean women provide sexual service to Korean soldiers near Korean military installations, and the role that the Korean dictatorships and patriarchy have played in encouraging Korean women into prostitution.
The first three instances examined above present narratives that overlook or even ignore Korean agency, while the fourth feels too limited and begs for a wider net to be cast to better understand how militarized sex work for Americans fit into the larger context of the sex industry in Korea. All four, viewing Korea from an American (or in Gowan's case, Canadian) vantage point, tend toward presenting Koreans as mere victims of American imperialism, but as as Hyun Sook Kim put it, "we must recognize that military sex workers have not been completely colonized by patriarchy, militarism, imperialism or neo-colonialism; the women do assert agency and subjectivity as Korean women."
In some ways, the above-examined articles and book are quite different from each other, but they share a tendency to focus more on the (neo)colonizing power than on Koreans, and may reflect a lack of awareness about the ways in which these narratives are influenced by, compliment, or are utilized by Korean nationalist narratives that highlight Korea's victimization at the hands of outsiders. In Gowan's case, the narrow focus of his narrative is due in some part to the nature of his main source, Bruce Cumings' Korea's Place in the Sun, which I first read shortly after arriving in Korea in 2001, and which exerted a strong influence on my thinking about Korea. But when I reread it four years ago for a class, I was struck by the near-constancy of his denunciations of American foreign policy. My attempt at an ironic and pithy review would be, "A well written book - I just wish it had been about Korea."
As David Fields noted in his book Foreign Friends, for American policymakers, Korea was always about someplace else, with decisions affecting Korea made by American presidents in 1905, 1919, and 1943 deriving from an American focus on relations with Japan, China, or the USSR. Perhaps the same can be said about the above writers and those like them who view Korea through the narrow lens of US foreign policy. From 1945 until the present, and particularly with the ROK's incorporation into the US-constructed cold war system of alliances, the US has exerted a powerful influence over Korea, and decisions made by its diplomats and military leaders have at times had a catastrophic impact upon the lives of Koreans. Examining these decisions and actions in a critical manner can help to highlight the past in the hope that they won't be repeated again (perhaps a dim hope, considering the way memories of the evacuation of refugees from Indochina in 1975 only bubbled to the surface once the airlift from Afghanistan was underway). But criticizing this history in Korea by deploying incorrect 'facts,' pretending that the US was the only actor creating negative outcomes, ignoring the complex interplay between Korean, American, and other actors, or minimizing the role of Koreans in their own story does a disservice to both Americans and Koreans and obscures more than it reveals.
I couldn't help but smile reading a couple weeks ago that Democratic Party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung said during a meeting with U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff, that "the reason Korea was annexed by Japan was because the United States approved it through the Taft-Katsura Agreement." As the Korea Times helpfully (if incorrectly) explained, "The Taft-Katsura agreement is a 1905 pact in which the U.S. condoned Japanese rule over Korea, while Japan acknowledged the U.S. governing over the Philippines."
In Korean the term used to describe is 밀약, or secret treaty. The problem is that it wasn't secret (the New York Times mentioned it after it was reported on in Japan), and it wasn't an agreement; as this must-read article puts it, it was "an 'Agreed Memorandum,' which technically is merely an agreement by both sides that the description of what was spoken in the conversation is actually what was said," which later "shifted [in the minds of historians] to become an agreement, pact, or even (secret) treaty." Roosevelt certainly supported Japanese dominance in Korea, but this was just a conversation, and not any kind of agreement. If Lee were to say "and let's not forget that time Teddy Roosevelt sided with the Japanese as they moved to take over Korea," that would be correct.
Mind you, I don't think that US approval had much effect on the outcome of Japan's step-by-step takeover of the peninsula. A more important influence, I think, was the UK-Japanese Alliance, which allowed Japan to defeat Russia, and which the British renewed several years early (in summer 1905) and explicitly wrote into the agreement that it recognized Japan's paramount interest in Korea. But the UK doesn't have the kind of influence over the ROK that the US does today, so no one really cares.
Amid all this misunderstanding, it was nice to see this Ohmynews article refute the idea that it was a treaty. In fact, it goes even further to argue that it only became a so-called "agreement" after the Japanese government leaked to a newspaper details of the conversation in the aftermath of the Hibiya riots in September 1905, and that Korean historians uncritically accepted this distortion by the Japanese. As a result, it has appeared in textbooks for over 50 years, something which needs to change. So… should this happen (and 20-30 years from now the kids who learn from new textbooks take positions of prominence in the media and academia and create a new consensus on its meaning), hurrah for Lee Jae-myung, I guess.