Recent Histories of (Local) Violence in the Korean War

Today I received a stunning new text: Su-kyoung Hwang’s monograph Korea’s Grievous War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). A link to the publisher’s description of the book is here.

Dr. Hwang received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, teaches at the University of Sydney, and has put together a very impressive work. She appears to go well beyond the issues laid out in Kim Dong-choon’s book from 2000/2009, and possibly even Kim Dong-choon’s new c0-authored book  (In the 2009 version of The Unending Korean War, Kim Dong-choon recognizes that he has probably made mistakes which will need correcting in his future work — a wise approach, since he seems to have made an absolute mess out of the citations in his 2000 article in the Journal of Genocide Studies, something which I’ll post at length about later) Dr. Hwang’s work looks very worthwhile, professional, and clearly conceived.

As tends to happen when a new text arrives, a single footnote in Hwang’s book expressed an incomplete idea and, therefore, caught my eye. I was quickly down a kind of rabbit hole, and this post (bread crumbs, really) was the only way out. On page 122 of her text, Hwang cites Pak Chan-sung’s 2010 book, The Korean War Goes to the Village, as “the best scholarly work available on the subject [of fratricidal violence],” but then moved on immediately to The Guest. 

I have seen Pak’s book referenced a handful of places previously. Pak’s book is not available in translation, although it appears to be sparking all kinds of debate in South Korean historical circles. There are of course other efforts which are worth consulting.

Kim Dong-choon’s new c0-authored work on the Korean War (published 2014).

Of course it is not necessary to author an entire book on the subject to contribute to the documentation of local-level violence in the Korean War, as Choe Sang-hun’s moving 2008 dispatch from South Cholla province indicates.

At any rate, in searching for Pak’s book online, I ran across a number of new texts published in Pyongyang since 2010 — in other words, more or less “in the Kim Jong-un era.” It is of course doubtful that these text present absolutely new evidence, but one has to wonder to what extent the new era (or the continuation of Kim family rule) has resulted in any modifications whatsoever to the North Korean historical approach. As I and others have written elsewhere, North Korean researchers have supposedly unearthed new remains from the Korean War since 2015, some of which might merit reassessment.

In any event, here are the citations. All texts are available at the University of Toronto Library; all translations of the texts, including the inclusion of hanja or Chinese characters, are my own.

고 상진 [Ko Sang-jin, editor], 조선 전쟁 시기 감행 한 미제 의 만행 / Chosŏn chŏnjaeng sigi kamhaeng han Mije ŭi manhaeng [Outrageous Atrocities of US Imperialism in the Korean War/  朝鲜战争时美国帝国主义的暴行风险 (P’yŏngyang: Sahoe Kwahak Ch’ulp’ansa [Social Science Publishing House], 2013) 273 pp.

김 화명 [Kim Hwa-myŏng, editor], 미국 의 세균전 만행 을 고발 한다 / Miguk ŭi segyunjŏn manhaeng ŭl kobal handa [The Cruelty of United States Bacteriological War/美国细菌战战争的残酷] (P’yŏngyang: P’yŏngyang Ch’ulp’ansa, 2015), 31 pp.

필자 원 영수, 윤 금철, 김 영범 [Wŏn Yŏng-su, Yun Kŭm-ch’ŏl, Kim Yŏng-bŏm, eds.], 침략 과 범죄 의 력사 / Ch’imnyak kwa pŏmjoe ŭi yŏksa [Guilty History of Invasion / 侵略和罪行的历史] (P’yŏngyang : P’yŏngyang Ch’ulp’ansa, 2010), 406 pp.

Finally, the US National Archives is finally putting more materials relating to Korean War atrocities online, although there is no substitute for a trip and a week or two in College Park, Maryland to dig around for yourself amid the propaganda and the ephemera. While the materials in the archives and oral history collections in London (for instance at the Imperial War Museum) are less abundant, they could still keep a person busy for weeks. But Washington is still the place. Where else can you dig up a sound reel of Syngman Rhee praising American napalm raids over North Korea?

Image: An orphan called ‘Number One’ adopted by the troops of the US motor pool in Inchon, 1950. Courtesy NARA.



  1. Just a small correction: According to the North Korea Information Center library, the book by Ko Sang-jin was published already in 1989, but in 2013 republished in the 조선사회과학학술집 series. As the P’yŏngyang Ch’ulp’ansa is not really publishing any academic work, I am less enthusiastic about these publications. Nonetheless I agree something has been going on. I came across a short article by Choi Won Chul in the Pyongyang Times, I think in a June 2013 issue, which mentioned a new project to go through captured documents of the Korean War. Although only a year later Uriminzokkiri started a series using those documents on 22 August 2014. So there seems to be some scholarly work going on in the North.

    1. Thank you, Martin! I’ve got a request in to colleagues at Toronto to have a look at the materials, this is very helpful advice you’ve given. If you would be interested in a scan or a jpg of some of the relevant pages, perhaps we could convene with Steven Denney over e-mail.

  2. Sure, that would be great. I looked up the Pyongyang Times article again. It was from June 29, 2013. But I might have overinterpreted my memory there a little bit. Nonetheless, it included those two sentences: “The above mentioned materials are only the tip of the iceberg. A future in-depth search will produce more details which will help you to understand who wanted, initiated and benifited from the war.” Considering the Uriminzokkiri series a year later that might have been a hint at the archival work going on.
    In August 30, 2014, the same newspaper even announced that the “DPRK State Bureau of Archives has recently made public 87 pieces of data disclosing US military atrocities in south Korea.” Also quite interesting the Pyongyang Times reported that news instead of KCNA.
    Although I might be alone with that opinion, it does not seem like a coincidence to me that those documents were released around the same time like North Korea’s human rights report.

    1. Good stuff. I think the Sinchon Museum materials (including the final room of the exhibition) which were redone also in 2014 was certainly reinterpreted at least for public consumption as a refutation of the Commission of Inquiry stuff.

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