Youngju Ryu, Teaching about Korea in the Time of Palestine

As campuses and cities around the country have been in the throes of vigils, rallies, and counter-rallies since October 7, I am teaching a course called “From Truman to Trump: Introduction to US-Korea Relations.” The course examines the seventy-year period extending from Harry Truman’s presidency to Donald Trump’s, a period during which the US played a decisive role in dividing and maintaining the partition of the Korean peninsula, fought a catastrophic war on Korean soil, and expanded its military presence around the globe. Designed as a sustained exercise in anti-imperialist thinking, the course offers lessons aplenty for our contemporary moment, but I have yet to discuss what is happening in Gaza with the class. And the silence has grown to deafening proportions in my own mind over the last month as Israel’s ostensible war against a burrowed terrorist organization, fought with the support of the Biden administration, unfurls over a ground densely populated with civilians and now littered with their corpses. 

One of the objectives of “From Truman to Trump” is to learn from the lessons of the unended and unending Korean War. Even though the course bills itself as an “Introduction to US-Korea Relations,” it eschews the conventional international relations (IR) approach and relies heavily on cultural texts instead. This is largely because I am a literary scholar by training and would not be able to take up IR in any serious way even if I wanted to, but also because I feel strongly that where the Korean peninsula is concerned, the IR approach has been singularly unable to give us practical solutions to problems that continue to shackle people’s lives there, like ending the Korean War once and for all by replacing the 70-year-old armistice with a peace agreement. So in our class, we try to understand the relations between the US and Korea by reading primary materials ourselves, and turning to writers and artists, not political scientists, to diagnose the problems and imagine creative solutions.

The first assigned reading is Henry Luce’s “The American Century,” the famous 1941 essay that preached the gospel of American exceptionalism and interventionism to a public as yet unwilling to wade fully into other people’s troubles. The last text we read is a short story by Pak Wan-sŏ called “Granny Flowers,” set in a Korean village under American control during the Korean War where the soldiers’ nightly prowl in search of sex keeps women in a constant state of fear. Pak’s story traces how this fear of American violence turns into a sense of relief and even gratitude when the women are made to imagine the greater brutality they would suffer under Russians and the Japanese. The process of transmutation is further mediated by the materiality of American goods.

What are the lessons of the unended and unending Korean War that we have discussed in the class so far? Here is one: the moral bankruptcy of “rationalizing” collateral damage as a necessary wartime evil by applying the “rational” principle of proportionality to it. Of the Korean War’s four million casualties, more than half were civilian (Cumings 2010). What precise ratio of combatant and non-combatant deaths could ever be considered proportionate enough to set our minds at ease over so much destruction and human suffering? How is the category of “civilian” refracted through the lens of race in the first place, so that not all deaths of civilians “count” and are grievable in the same way? 

Here is another lesson: the ineffectiveness, let alone the inhumanity, of aerial bombardment campaigns in totally eliminating the enemy. Throughout the Korean War, US airstrikes succeeded in razing much of North Korea to the ground by dropping more bombs there than in the entire Pacific theater of World War II. By the US military’s own estimates, more than twelve North Korean cities were destroyed at 75 percent or more. Seventy years after the last American bomb was dropped, the brutality of the air war remains a fresh fount of memory that continues to feed a virulently self-defensive nationalism in North Korea. Americans, on the other hand, are constantly surprised whenever a new, “unprovoked” provocation by North Korea makes its way into the news cycle, having had the luxury to forget. Here in the US, we have long had the habit of conflating ignorance, especially of historical context, with innocence, and innocence, in turn, with virtue.

A different kind of forgetting has strengthened the US-ROK “alliance” (tongmaeng). In December of 1950, facing the onset of Chinese People’s Volunteers, the US forces withdrew from North Korea by sea. Panicked at the news of the imminent withdrawal, Korean civilians amassed in large numbers at the port of Hŭngnam, clamoring to find a way to escape with the retreating US forces. In an episode that has been celebrated as one of the greatest displays of American humanitarianism in history, a Merchant Marine freighter dumped materiel to make room for 14,000 refugees, who thereby became the human cargo of “Operation Christmas Cargo.” Today, in South Korea’s Geoje Island where this cargo was offloaded, a monument commemorates the humanitarian “rescue.” Alluded to time and again by South Korean presidents on their US state visits, the operation has become part of the lore elevating a military alliance into a moral one. As hyŏlmaeng, an “alliance forged in blood,” indeed an alliance baptized by blood, US-ROK tongmaeng becomes sacrosanct, not merely strategic. Peering, however, at the list of North Korean cities destroyed by American bombs and encountering the name of Hŭngnam there, one is forced to ask a simple question at the enormity of the knowledge that the withdrawal of the US forces marked the beginning of aerial bombardment that left only 15 percent of the port city standing: From what were the Korean refugees who made up the Christmas cargo fleeing? The Chinese “human wave” or American carpet bombing? 

There are many other lessons besides that extend beyond the active years of warfare. The tortuous saga of the efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula has shown that adjectives like “evil” and “savage” should be permanently ejected from the discursive universe of international relations as the idiom of warmongers, not peacemakers. Anyone who advocates a peace achieved as a victory of “civilization” over “barbarism” speaks with a forked tongue. In the Korean “theater,” it has also become clear that competing discourses of victimhood impoverish the collective political imagination of humanity as a whole. Hazel Smith (2000) has written that Western perceptions of North Korea fall into three caricatures: “bad, mad, sad.” Of the three, I have found “sad” to be the most intractable, precisely because it emanates from the desire to feel sympathy for the North Korean people. But it takes little reflection to realize that the very desire to turn the North Korean people into pure, sad victims of the North Korean state denies them the dignity of their own political subjectivity. This is why the only North Koreans who can be embraced in the West are negativities: “women and children,” the objectionable shorthand for turning people into human-animals that cannot occupy the position of human-subjects because their lives are seen as playing out on a terrain of desperate survival where all possibility of political will has been evacuated; or “defectors,” the human-animals who can now speak as human-subjects having escaped the terrain of mere survival to reach the land of opportunity, but whose political subjectivity can be recognized only when they speak against the North Korean state.  

Here is the last lesson, perhaps the most important one of all: the danger of a fused short-circuit between subject positions that require a slower and more meandering traversal. I once heard Kim Dong-choon, a sociologist who led South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2005 to 2010, describe the difficulty he had in trying to change the nomenclature around acts of state terror committed before, during, and after the Korean War. A substantial proportion of civilian casualty from the war had come not only from the “punitive” killing of those suspected of having aided the enemy, but also from the “preemptive” slaughter of those whose suspected proclivities may lead them to aid the enemy in the future. For the period of 1952-1953 alone, 122,799 civilian deaths have been officially categorized by the South Korean government as resulting from haksal or “massacre.” Until quite recently, the standard term referring to such state violence was yangmin haksal, literally the slaughter of “good folk.” “Good folk” being a veiled way of referring to people who are not communist, the assumption underlying the term was that only the violence perpetrated against those who are ideologically “clean” can be considered unjustified. Objecting to the implied suggestion that it was okay for the South Korean state to kill civilians if they held, or were suspected of holding, leftist views, Kim Dong-choon proposed that the official term be changed from yangmin haksal to min’ganin haksal, the slaughter of civilians rather than the slaughter of “good folk.”

Ironically, the staunchest resistance to the change came from the families of the victims themselves. Through the long decades of anti-communist authoritarian rule that followed the unended Korean War, the victims’ families had lived under the shadow of “guilt by association,” suffering persecution for the crime of being blood kin to those that the government had seen fit to eliminate. In order to secure the conditions of their survival, many of these families ended up internalizing as well as externalizing the state ideology. The little appreciated tragedy of this history is that every family seeking justice for their father by declaring that he was one of the “good folk”–and therefore the government had no right to slaughter him–also ended up damning another family, another father. It took years for the change of terminology from yangmin haksal to min’ganin haksal to take effect, and for there to be broader acceptance of the view that all civilians, even the ones who might hold communist beliefs, deserve the due process of law. 

As the death count in Palestine climbs and surpasses 10,000, one reads with utter dismay published opinions that clash on the bombing of civilian targets like hospitals. Who’s more inhumane, they ask, the belligerent that is willing to use humans as “human shields” or the belligerent that is no longer deterred by human shields in its quest to extirpate the enemy? This way of debating justification for the war demeans the humanity common to us all. So I have decided that the lessons of Korea are too important to ignore in the time of Palestine, though I am wary of the differences of opinions and passions that I might encounter among my students on a subject about which it might be impossible to “agree just to disagree.” With painful freshness untempered by the distance of time, the ironies of the Korean War, a “police action” undertaken to repel an invasion that itself turned into an invasion, a “limited war” that ended up counting its casualty numbers in the millions, impress themselves anew. In the classroom discussion that will conclude “From Truman to Trump,” I will start by inviting my students to agree with me that we ignore history at our own peril.   

Youngju Ryu is associate professor of Korean literature at the University of Michigan.


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