On Memorial Day, and Korea

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history and memory / Korean War / Pensee

One day in May back in the 1990s, an old man stood about ten meters from a small flag on my father’s grave in Minnesota and gave a speech about Korea, the ‘forgotten war.’ For me, the war hadn’t been so much forgotten as learned and immediately neglected. One simple dot-matrix printout had been made (being a hoarder who needs to read everything multiple times before forgetting it, I still have it) which said KOREAN WAR, ripped from a digital wonder tool in a junior high school. It had no marginalia; nothing had been added, no tell-tale signs of mental struggle. Perhaps the war had something to do with Harry Truman, a man about whom I had similarly only the most fleeting of impressions, having grown up basking in the warm folds of Ronald Reagan’s television mannerisms, and my mother’s occasional flashes of anger about what he wanted to do to the teacher’s unions? This old man at the cemetery said a few words about why Korea needed to be remembered. Not being such a compulsive recorder, my diary from the time is more or less barren of its mention, but today I dimly remember words like ‘valor’ being used, and ‘sacrifice.’ There was a place called South Korea. It was Memorial Day. As the Taps sounded from a remote corner of the cemetery on the edge of a small horse farm, a few dozen members of the community lay out on their blankets in front of me — the Pierces, surely, were there in some constellation of love and support, if not principled agreement of the gunshots which thrilled us as boys. Perhaps I thought, too, about the numbers the old man had mentioned. 15,000+ MIAs; that was bigger than Stillwater at the time. 38,000 dead; probably more people than lived in the heart of St. Paul, which I had thought of as the very model of urbanity, a place which had large coffeeshops to which we could retreat to conspire about changes for our Republic which would never come. Now the Korean War remains a more palpable shadow, its papers having multiplied and trailing me like so many dandelion seeds, while my father’s grave is untended by my own hands and only seldom recalled, like his hacking cough or the way his feet slushed around in such daily agony, and his laughter in spite of it.

Full Comment on Women Across the DMZ March

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American Foreign Policy / history and memory / North Korea / US-North Korea relations / War Crimes / 新闻自由
Coleen Baik image from Pyongyang, 22 May 2015

As observers of current events on the Korean peninsula will be aware, a group of peace activists is presently in North Korea and will be crossing the DMZ tomorrow, from Kaesong, into the South. Their efforts have been the focus of much conversation.  I was asked to share my views with the Christian Science Monitor, which yesterday published a short extract from the following remarks.

1. Do you see this event having any potential to spark meaningful movement toward peace/or reunification as the organizers claim, and why?

It is very difficult today to look at North and South Korea (and East Asia) as a whole and expect Korean unification in our lifetimes, or a measurable reduction in tensions. One thing that this group of women seems to possess is a very strong sense of the deep-rootedness of the problem: They don’t see the ongoing Korean War entirely as a conflict generated or perpetuated by North Korea alone (‘provocations’ can of course also be American, or South Korean).

If more Americans could understand the pressures North Korea was operating under, the organizers seem to argue, they might pressure the US government (as well as Japan, Canada, and EU countries) to lift sanctions and for South Korea to ratchet down military deterrence. Naturally this is built upon the so far entirely counterfactual assumption that given more breathing room, the North Korean state would demonstrate an ability to reorient its economy — indeed, its whole society — away from the “military-first” principle enunciated by Kim Jong-il and refrain from constructing yet another nationwide round of statues which serve as loci for a personality cult.

Fortunately it is not the responsibility of the peace group to explain in full detail the kind of more vigorously-interlinked societies that North or South Korea ought to become, nor is it incumbent upon them to put forth a fully detailed and feasible new security blueprint for the region. They are simply pointing out that the current situation is more or less insane, which it is, and that we are still living with unresolved issues dating back to the birth of the Cold War in Asia, which we are.
2. There has been a lot of criticism of the motives and prior statements of some attendees. Most recently, North Korean media has apparently quoted a participant saying that she was “touched” by Kim Il-sung’s life story and another saying that Kim had dedicated ” his entire life to the freedom and emancipation of North Koreans.” What do you say to those who say the march participants are playing into the regime’s hands?

I believe that these statements were published in a bottom corner of page 6 of the Rodong Sinmun, which is about where they belong in terms of newsworthiness. Last August a group of Japanese wrestlers toured the same site; some of them were still wearing their Mexican wrestling masks, which did not seem to be taken as an affront. I don’t think this is a big deal at all.

Tearful apologies for the heavy wartime bombing of North Korea by the US Air Force, on the other hand, would probably get more meaningful coverage in DPRK media, and would fit more neatly into North Korea’s own media framework. And North Korea has skill and experience in handling this sort of event and perspective; I’m thinking here of their hosting of the American activist Anna Louise Strong in 1946, or the British peace campaigner Monica Felton in 1951. (Both women were denounced in their home countries; Felton’s case was openly discussed as possibly treasonous in Parliament.)

I am certainly interested in what North Korean citizens have to say about their experiences during the Korean War, and curious to see how the state mobilizes those individual war memories. Ultimately a North Korean researcher is going to need to go the US National Archives and have a look at some fraction of the abundant DPRK government documents American troops hoovered up during the autumn of of 1950, or to watch the aerial footage from US planes bombing and strafing North Korean civilians. This was a nasty part of the Korean War, consuming tens of thousands of lives, and the fact that Kim Il-sung lit the fuse on the Ongjin peninsula in June 1950 does not make consideration of the air war and the scraping off the map of North Korean cities (not to mention the nuclear threats) thereafter a particularly simple matter for our consideration and moral calculus.

Rutgers University history professor Suzy Kim is on the trip and someone I look to for data from North Korean archives (currently held in College Park, Maryland) and productive interpretive clashes over that data. Dr. Kim is very fluent with the history and the historical debates; I hope she is able to make contact with North Korean academics and historians, as such discussions are as valuable for both sides as they are rare.

Image credit: Coleen Baik in Pyongyang, 22 May 2015. 

Unrest in the Southwest: The Linshui Protests in Historical Perspective

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Borderlands / China / Chinese communist party / history and memory / Sichuan

voyage-sichuanUnrest in the Southwest: The Linshui Protests in Historical Perspective

by Adam Cathcart and Li Wankun, University of Leeds

for University of Nottingham China Policy Institute Blog

Due to the outbreak of social disobedience and subsequent violent confrontation with police, this week the world is focusing on Linshui, a small city in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Since 16 May, tens of thousands of residents of Linshui gathered, demanding that a proposed high-speed railway linking Dazhou to Chongqing pass through their county, enabling business opportunities and convenience.

However, the authorities planed for the railway to arc more than 200km west and pass through Guang’an, the one-time hometown of the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Unconfirmed reports suggest that up to four people had died and more than 100 were injured due to violent confrontations between marchers in Linshui and police.

The pictures siphoned from the event are not unlike the unfiltered footage from any other mass incidents which cross our computer screens around the world: They are confusing, displaying of a vague sense of crowded anger, smashed metal, and malevolent force. Facing the shock of this new data, our task as scholars (rather than journalists) is less to untangle the specific narrative of how the protests were ignited, but to provide context for the broader problems they uncover. To appropriate a Maoist phrase, we may never understand “the spark,” but we can help to understand how it might become “a prairie fire.”

In this essay, we want to focus on the regional context. Whilst foreign attention to China’s periphery has tended to focus on obvious sites — the endemically “restive” northwest, the occasionally-flaming sprawl of ethnographic Tibet, or the perpetually looming “crackdown” on refugees on the border with Korea — the Han parts of Sichuan are also possible hotspots of trouble for the central government. Indeed, the Southwest as a whole continues to be problematic in its relationship to the centre, and decisions made in the 1997 (the creation of the Chongqing municipality) and the 1950s are still impacting how local residents view national policy.

Regions and Developmental Needs

One proverb is particularly apropos to this situation: “Want to be rich? Build roads first!” (yaoxiang fu, xian xiulu/ 要想富,先修路). While the rhyme may sound fanciful, the expansion of the high-speed rail is taken with great seriousness in China, and its absence has stimulated several demonstrations in rejected counties before.

We believe that these protests should of course be interpreted within their national context – protesters are, in a sense, expressing concerns that could be and have been expressed in any other part of China. From East China (Dengzhou and Xinye, two adjacent counties in Henan Province), to the Central China (Shaoyang and Loudi, two adjacent counties of Hunan Province), and now to the Southwest, people protest in order to express their desire to join the high-speed rail network.

As the PRC pushes massive propaganda campaigns about “Silk Roads” of prosperity stretching to nearly infinity (or North Korea), it would be impossible for citizens anywhere to be ignorant of the advantages that could be gained from joining the network.

The Southwest was designated one of the “great regions” in 1949, and the “Xibu dakaifa” (Develop the West) campaign was supposed to have brought great infrastructural gains to the region. The economies in Chengdu and Chongqing have done extremely well – they are now overcrowded monuments to ambition, unending mass transit construction, automobile traffic jams, foreign investment magnetism, and manufacturing prowess. The rural areas of Sichuan and around Chongqing (the latter was split off as a special administrative city in 1997) have fared less well, as can be easily recalled in the Wenchuan earthquake, areas of Tibetan majority in Xikang, and the valleys around Chongqing.

Linshui Left Out

For the resident of Linshui, it is therefore a simple matter to look around and see other communities thriving. Chongqing includes a large number of rural communities in its 29 million people, but Linshui is not one of them. Linshui locals require more than two hours of high-speed road driving to Chengdu but less than an hour to Chongqing. In terms of the all-important dialect, Linshui is also much more closer to Chongqing than Chengdu.

Nearby Guang’an clearly has more propaganda value from the standpoint of the central government. In 1996, when the Central Committee was discussing the dimensions of the city district of the new special administrative Chongqing, Li Peng, then the Premier of the PRC, disagreed with the plan that put Guang’an (including Linshui County) as one part of Chongqing. One of the reasons is that Deng Xiaoping always said, “I am a Sichuanese” – how could the CCP honor Deng if his hometown were pulled into Chongqing’s orbit so explicitly? The other reason was that Guang’an had many poor counties like Linshui around it, and the population for Chongqing was already huge. Li Peng said “small horses pull a huge carriage”(xiaoma la dache/ 小马拉大车). In other words, counties needed to serve the goals of urban areas. As “a small horse,” Linshui’s development in terms of GDP was far behind that other counties in Sichuan or Chongqing, so it would add little to the statistical bonanza that the new Chongqing boundaries was meant to create.

Meanwhile, Chongqing has fewer and fewer problems getting what it needed. As a port city connecting the Jialing and Yangtze Rivers, it could attract sufficient attention from the center. Much like the gangs on the Chaotianmen wharf controlling the port management in the ancient time, city bureaucrats could get what they needed.

Linshui’s perpetually peripheral status means that their inhabitants obviously feel left out of China’s transportation boom and its economic benefits. Looking even further back at the history of the Southwest in the consolidation period of the PRC risks taking on an obscure analytical lens, but in fact, many of the issues remain the same.

Angry at the State

Recent CPI writing about Sichuan has mirrored broader media trends, in that its analysis of the province has tended to fixate on big personalities. When the personalities involved are Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, and a security chief who smuggled himself into the US Consulate in Chengdu in the boot of a car, Wang Lijun, it would be foolish to argue that such writing is not significant, or has little bearing on the future of the PRC; quite the opposite! Ever since Sidney Rittenberg telegraphed Bo’s fall in a New York Times interview in November 2009, this metastasizing factional and internal struggle has been a driver of both narrative and policy. But beyond these ‘bangpai’, and the colourful trials of Chongqing gangs which happened from 2009 to 2011, we can recall a history of southwestern corruption and difficulty in relations with the central government.

Sichuan’s unique history has left particular scars amongst the population when it looks to Beijing. Even very young people without personal experience of the Mao years can easily connect to family histories. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the province was among the most violent in terms of Red Guard factions and reprisals. Looking further back, Sichuan, of course, was a Guomindang stronghold from 1938-1946. It was not coincidental that Jiang Jieshi’s last weeks on the mainland in November and December 1949 were spent not in Fujian, but in Chengdu. Judging from the rather extensive paper trail recently revealed in the December 2013 publication of Volume 1 of his revised and expanded Nianpu, Mao was extremely sensitive about consolidating the broader southwest. The Sichuan People’s Government was set up in early 1950, and the Land Reform Movement was started quite late.

As the CCP extended its control over the region’s land and grains, Sichuan became a high-producing area during the First-five Year Plan. From 1953-1958, Sichuan harvested 10 billion kilograms of grains, and 8.1 billion kilograms were transported to other regions. In other words, about 70% of the allocated grains were transported out of Sichuan province by the Yangtze River and 60% were transshipped at Chongqing. Once the famine began during the Great Leap Forward, scholars like Chris Bramall and Cao Shuji indicate, Sichuan’s death rate was among the highest nationally.


The Southwest as an area has a unique local history and a multiplicity of nationalities, and when looking at it, we need we pay more attention to collective experiences there and not just high-powered individuals or corruption cases. The protesters in Linshui have a strong memory of local history, and have experienced a sharp contrast in comparison with surrounding counties in the contemporary era. Because the CCP will continue to deploy physical repression mixed with media censorship, it seems that protests are unlikely to spread from Linshui. But there is cause for concern, and looking back at the legacy of central-peripheral relations in Sichuan since the founding of the PRC might yet yield lessons.

Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds, and tweets at @adamcathcart. Li Wankun is a doctoral student in Chinese history at Leeds, with an emphasis on grain markets and Chongqing local history. She holds a research M.A. from Shanghai Jiaotong University. [Blog image via Bonjour Shanghai.]

Recent Writings and Commentary on North Korea

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My Publications / North Korea


Purges, Baekdu, and the Moranbong Band: Data Points around General Hyon,’ Sino-NK, 16 May 2015 

Kim Jong-un’s vulnerability on display as North Korean rumours abound,’ The Guardian, 15 May 2015 

Satellites and State Media: Breaking Down Recent Execution Rumors,’ Sino-NK, 4 May 2015. 

Kim Jong-un: purges, paranoia, plots and the beloved leader’s cancelled trip to Moscow,’ The Conversation, 1 May 2015 

Media Comment


Last Call for Abe Shinzo Congressional Speech Op-eds

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history and memory / Japan / US-Japan relations
Abe at Congress

The Stimson Center’s Yuki Tatsumi threw down the gauntlet in The Diplomat on May 7 in a piece pointedly entitled ‘Stop Obsessing over Abe’s Congressional Speech.’ The conclusion read as follows:

Continuing to criticize Abe for his congressional speech is futile, even counterproductive. […] Would the audience have rather heard Abe spend most of his speech apologizing for Japan’s past wrongdoings and offer very little on his vision for Japan’s future, and the future of U.S.-Japan alliance? I would think not.

Now is not the time to nitpick and parse his speech text to death. Rather, Abe should be congratulated for his successful U.S. visit and a job well done. Of course, he can be encouraged to consider stepping out further as he crafts his statement on August 15 at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. But he needs to receive credit for his achievements first.

Tatsumi then went on to note that ‘endless criticism against Abe will make it more difficult for Abe to maneuver, providing him less incentive to make further efforts.’ So leave the poor man alone! He obviously has the history issue covered.

Unfortunately, if you are like me, you were way too busy during the actual Abe visit (late April-early May is a notoriously bad time for academics) to get any thing more than a couple of sloppy drafts prepared in an effort to look at historical aspects of Abe’s visit. Watching the actual speech might also be a good idea.

Obviously, judging from her Diplomat essay, Yuki Tatsumi obviously won’t be happy if you finally get around to updating, polishing, and submitting your drafts now, now that she’s ‘called time’ on the op-ed statute of limitations. Not only that, but don’t forget that your work would clearly and single-handedly (!) wedge Abe Shinzo, this very skillful LDP politician, into a corner in which his only option would be to become more revisionist in his views and action. (Did you know that every time John Dower writes an op-ed, a cabinet member is ordered straight to Yasukuni Shrine?) Well, I’m afraid that it’s a risk you may have to take.

Allow me to share a few prompts that may help you to get that essay off of your hard drive and into the welcoming void of cyberspace, the consequences be damned:

The “comfort women” issue: What is Prime Minister Abe saying — or not saying — about the comfort women issue? How does he want to frame the problem? To what extent has it been consistently raised or ignored either by US media, the American Congress, or the White House (including Michelle Obama, who has talked a lot about girls’ rights both in Japan and with the Japanese delegation in the US)? Are there historians visible in the media discussing this matter in the US? Do the Korean and Chinese goals of getting an explicit apology from Abe Shinzo, or full endorsement of the 1993 Kono declaration which admitted the system existed, seem likely to be achieved? What role have right-wing Japanese women played in cementing support for Abe Shinzo on this issue?

Other historical legacies: To what extent has Kishi Nobusuke (Abe’s grandfather, a former suspected war criminal, and Prime Minister from 1957-1960) been raised during the visit, and how? Is Japan winning or losing the battle over the popular perception of Kishi as a pro-US technocrat or unrepentant quasi-fascist? What about general memories of World War II? Which Americans, Koreans, or Chinese seem to be able to shape the public narrative about Japan during this visit?

Security issues: How much military independence does Japan really have from the United States, and what role does wariness of China and North Korea play in expanding the latitude the US is willing to give Japan?

Women: Before leaving Japan, Abe Shinzo wrote an op-ed for Bloomberg about “Womenomics,” and he has reemphasized those themes in his speech at the Kennedy School at Harvard and at other moments in his journey. Does Abe intend on really improving the ability of Japanese to be upwardly mobile in the corporate world, while simultaneously trying to get Japanese women to get married, have children, and solve Japan’s demographic crisis? Does his stonewalling on the ‘comfort women’ issue make him less popular with Japan’s female majority? 

If you’re looking for a convenient place to start, I would say that anything written by Anna Fifield, the Washington Post bureau chief in Tokyo, would be good, since she represents a mainstream US press voice about Japan, writing for, among other audiences, policy elites in Washington. Her author page or an article on the various historical issues clouding the Abe visit could be a good place to start.

Notes on the Sinchon Massacre

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history and memory / Kim Jong-un / Korean War / US-North Korea relations / War Crimes
Sinchon Poster 2015

The death of North Korean civilians at Sinchon is significant on a few levels. On the one hand, it calls our attention to the always fractious topic of war crimes in Korea, and the contested nature of the memory of those crimes. On the other hand, the Sinchon massacre has underpinned a great deal of anti-U.S. propaganda in the DPRK and today remains a touchstone of the North’s Korean War narrative highlighting the brutality of the United States.

Kim Jong-un visited the Sinchon Massacre Memorial last year with his sister. His visit underscored not just the salience of state memory of the event as North Korea sits under heavy scrutiny for its own human rights abuses, but for the specificity of the body count, alleged to be 35,383 Koreans killed during “52 days of US occupation.” Subsequently, this past March the DPRK announced that a new train service to the Sinchon Massacre Memorial site was being opened up.

At his on-site inspection, Kim Jong-un stated that he had toured the memorial previously with Kim Jong-il back in 1998, and of course had deep memories of the event. Whether or not this would have actually been possible — the future successor would have been about 14 or 15, and possibly in Switzerland — could certainly be asked, as factual fidelity has never been a North Korean strong suit when it comes to the biographies of the leadership. However, if we assume the statement to be true, it is worth noting that Kim Jong-un would also have recalled the educational presence of future traitor-for-the-ages Jang Song-taek along on the 1998 visit as well:

Kim Jong Il visits Sinchon Museum
Pyongyang, November 23, 1998 (KCNA) – General Secretary Kim Jong Il visited the refurbished Sinchon Museum on Sunday. He was accompanied by Ri Yong Chol and Jang Song Thaek, first vice department directors of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee. The visiting party included generals of the Korean People’s Army Hyon Chol Hae, Kim Ha Gyu and Pak Jae Gyong. General Secretary Kim Jong Il looked round the education ground, waiting place lounge room and other facilities of the museum built by soldiers in a short span of time. He expressed great satisfaction and highly praised soldiers for having completed the project successfully. He then saw the exhibits of the museum and went to the tombs of 5,605 patriots, 400 mothers and 102 children murdered by U.S. imperialist aggressors. The Chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission described the Sinchon Museum as an important place to inform the world people of the brutal crimes committed by U.S. imperialism against the Koreans during the last Korean War and educate the party members, working people, servicemen, students and schoolchildren in class consciousness. He called for intensifying class education in face of the vicious anti-DPRK moves of U.S.-led imperialists and reactionaries. The Sinchon Museum is a very important place to educate the Korean people in class consciousness, he said, and gave important tasks to intensify education and manage the museum.

Interestingly enough, Kim Jong-un’s remarks at the museum sixteen years later are not absolutely identical to his father’s, nor is the body count. However, it appears that DPRK historians and propagandists had indeed settled on the 35,383 overall figure of civilians killed at Sinchon prior to the Kim Jong-il inspection. In a July 3, 1998, Korean Central News Agency dispatch entitled ‘Sinchon simmering with rage,’ a more detailed version of events is given, replete with American dogs (yes, military hounds) killing 1200 North Koreans:

More than 10,000 people from different parts of the country and abroad visit Sinchon, South Hwanghae Province, every day around June 25, the day when the U.S. imperialists provoked the Korean War 48 years ago from now. Sinchon indicts the U.S. imperialist aggressors for crimes that make the brutes blush. Upon occupying Sinchon in October Juche 39 (1950), the aggressors got to massacre inconceivable for men of normal brains. The then commander of the U.S. Forces present in the Sinchon area Harison, said that the communists should be stamped out. He showed up at a powder depot in Wonam-ri and told his soldiers to keep women and their children separated from each other so as to make the detainees feel very much troubled and vexed to death, adding that they might be happy to be detained in the same place. The Yankees separated the mothers from their children before pouring gasoline at the children and babies who were crying for drinking water and milk. When the children and babies sucked gasoline and were crying, feeling great pains, the Yankees threw flaming torches to kill them. They also threw explosives at the mothers. The American soldiers drowned over 2,000 innocent people by dropping them from Soktang bridge. They also drowned more than 1,000 women in Sowon reservoir. Upwards of 1,200 patriotic-minded people detained in an ice warehouse were bitten to death by military dogs. The head of master Yun Hae Won of Jungsan Primary School was sawed up alive. The eyeballs and breasts of chairwoman Pak Yong Gyo of the women’s union of the Sinchon Tobacco Factory were gouged out. The enemies disembowled a pregnant woman to hold up a 9 month-old embryo on the end of a bayonet, laughing aloud. The yankees massacred 35,383 innocent Koreans, or a quarter of the population of Sinchon in 52 days of their occupation of the place. Exhibited in the Sinchon Museum are 6,465 items of evidences and some 450 pictures showing the man-hunting of the U.S. imperialist brutes. A survey group of the International Association of Lawyers published a joint communique in 1952 bitterly denouncing the U.S. imperialists’ massacre in Sinchon as an unprecedented-in-scope murder. The Korean people will remember the massacre for all ages and requite blood with blood.

Other sources that mostly reprise the North Korean version of the events at Sinchon are not terribly abundant, but do exist:

Korean Central News Agency, “Remains of Patriots Discovered,” Pyongyang, June 23, 2007.

Korean Central News Agency, “Remains of patriots discovered in Sinchon,” November 23, 2001.

Korean Central News Agency, “Meetings Held to Vow Revenge,” Pyongyang, June 25, 2004.

The U.S. Imperialists Started the Korean War (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1977), pp. 230-233.

M.R. Gupta. Glimpses of Land of Morning Calm. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1990, p.117.

George Katsiaficas, “North Korea Holds a Peace Conference,” Korean Quarterly, Fall 2003 vol. 7 no.1.

Another prism through which events in 1950 in Sinchon can be read is provincial: How had Pyongyang nailed down its own control over South Hwanghae province in the five years prior? Documents in Record Group 242 could doubtless yield more information, but two or three published documents, rarely referenced in this regard, could be useful.  On March 15, 1947, Kim Il Sung had focused on problems around Sinchon, where some leading local party members were acting beyond the bounds of central authority. Speaking of “Ryongmun Sub-county, Sinchon County of Hwanghae Province,” Kim describes an instance in which a peasant had reported a Union leader’s failing moral actions and was punished for reporting the crime. Kim says such an act — effectively subverting the right to inform on misbehaving superiors — should be considered an “anti-Party and anti-popular crime” (Kim Il Sung Works, vol. 3, 144). Kim Il-sung had also denounced anti-regime violence in Hwanghae on Feb. 21, 1948 and August 26, 1949. These sources can be referenced in the relevant volumes of the Kim Il-sung Works. 

Bruce Cumings notes that he has not found much in the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland, to verify or deny the North Korean version of events in Sinchon. By contrast, NARA has extensive holdings on the broader topic of war crimes in Korea and about massacres carried out by retreating Korean People’s Army forces in northern cities like Hamhung. (See National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 153, Records of the Judge Advocate General, Box 891 forward.) The U.S. investigated a total of 1848 allegations of North Korean War crimes and these take up about 900 boxes in the National Archives. I have scans of a number of these documents and photographs, and anticipate posting some on this website in the future.

As reference material, the following works are useful, but the Chinnery unfortunately is lacking in footnotes.

Tucker, Spencer, ed. Encyclopedia of the Korean War: A Political, Social, and Military History, the following entries: Wesolick, Duane L. “Atrocities,” Vol. 1, pp. 56-58; see also Esposito, Matthew D. “War Crimes Trials,” Vol. II, pp.733-734.

Phillip D. Chinnery, Korean Atrocity! Forgotten War Crimes, 1950-1953 (Naval Institute Press, 2001).

Ra Jong-yil, “Governing North Korea: Some Afterthoughts on the Autumn of 1950,” Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 40, No. 5 (July 2005) 521-546, especially page 543.

Response from Bruce Cumings (5 March 2008):

In response to J.J. Suh’s inquiry, and with thanks to Adam Cathcart’s informative posting, here is an excerpt about Sinch’on from my 1993 book. I also spoke with Hwang Sok-yong, who told me (before Sonnim came out) that the major part of the Sinch’on massacres were carried out by Korean Christians who had fled the Sinch’on area for the South. In my opinion, If any Americans were present they were probably KMAG personnel, who witnessed many South Korean atrocities against civilians; the Koreans I spoke with were adamant that Americans had carried out the massacres, but it is also true that Koreans do not like to admit that Koreans could do such things, unless they are following American or (in the colonial period) Japanese orders.

Excerpt from Bruce Cumings, War and Television (Verso, 1993; electronic copy, not copyedited):

My research has never uncovered anything about Sinchŏn in the  National Archives. An awful atrocity occurred one day in Sinchŏn, however, because we were later able to compare our visit against newsreel footage taken when the bodies were discovered and that could not have been faked. (Max painstakingly counted and measured the bricks [with calipers, etc.] in the charnelhouse wall to verify the footage.) We could verify nothing, however, about its authorship.

Journalist Eli Schmetzer of the Chicago Tribune would disagree. He also visited Sinchŏn, misspelling it as Chichon, and titled his account “North Korean Museum Stokes Loathing of U.S.” He quoted an unnamed East European: “Chichon stinks. It smells of fraud.”

Schmetzer went on to say that “each year 300,000 North Koreans are brainwashed at Chichon.” All this is part of the “twisted version of history that North Korea has dished up,” warning people that unless they’re loyal to Kim Il Sung, “the bogeyman GIs will come back to rape, torture and burn everyone alive.”

I have this to say to Mr Schmetzer: it happened.

Atrocities, Insults, and “Jeep Girls”: Depictions of the U.S. Military in China, 1945-1949

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American Foreign Policy / Chinese communist party / Chinese nationalism / Cultural Politics / My Publications / Propaganda / U.S.-China Relations / US occupation of Japan / World War II
US Soldier w Chinese Prostitute 1940s via Pinterest

Controversy continues to surround various military occupations in East Asia in the 20th century. Specifically, the connection between military occupation and sex work carried out by women the occupied countries remains highly fraught. While the Japanese occupations of Korea and China have sparked the most fervent and intractable of the debates, a great deal of scholarship has been produced about East Asian societies which provided American soldiers with sex. The scholarly silence surrounding these power imbalances at the time has long since been broken, with Katherine H.S. Moon’s book Sex Among Allies (looking at prostitution around US bases in South Korea) and more recent work having been done on the US occupation of Japan by Sarah Kovner (in her stunning book of 2012, entitled Occupying power : sex workers and servicemen in postwar Japan).

Lost, however, amid this writing has been a fuller examination of the behaviour and societal reception of American soldiers in Chinese cities from 1945-1949.  About 50,000 US soldiers were posted to cities like Tianjin, Beijing, Qingdao and Shanghai in order to accept the Japanese surrender, and there they remained until shortly before the decamping of the Nationalist Party and the Republic of China machinery of state to Taiwan.

An article which I published in 2008 on this subject has at last been digitized and indexed, and I am pleased to share the text in full.

Entitled ‘Atrocities, Insults, and Jeep Girls, Depictions of the U.S. Military in China, 1945-1949‘ the article analyzes depictions of the U.S. military in Chinese comic art in a period of political transition. The images of U.S. troops in Chinese cartoons demonstrate the way in which a few “isolated incidents” of misconduct by U.S. troops can reverberate powerfully through the societies they policed. The mass public medium of political cartoons functioned as a vehicle in which U.S. troops were demonized in a bid to shock the viewer. U.S. troops were the target of a flood of criticism in cartoons and news reports that resulted in a broad current of anti-American feeling. In the end, they were perceived as a harmful extension of years of foreign influence in China, and, even after they returned to the United States in 1949, Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communists, and propagandists in the People’s Republic of China relied heavily on images of “the atrocities of American troops” to stir up anti-American sentiments during the Korean War.