I have often mentioned on twitter that there is a problem amongst some voices on the subject of Korea that tend to portray the country’s politics and history in somewhat simplistic terms. For many U.S observers, the story of North and South Korea is heavily condensed into prevailing Cold War narratives, presenting a rudimentary fairy tale of good vs. evil. That is the heroism the United States in support of “ordinary Koreans” against the tyranny of Communist aggression. The events of history itself have of course consolidated in favour of this interpretation. One cannot overlook the eventual outcomes that South Korea would eventually become a prosperous and free country, whilst North Korea clearly offers neither.
Despite that, such streamlining of Korean history tells us about very little about Korea as a whole. Are we to assume that the region is little more than a Cold War theater with its own people passive actors simply flowing with the parameters which the United States set at large? To put it bluntly, the popular comprehension of Korea is flawful, simply because it does not offer room for an understanding of the peninsula on its own terms and subjective positioning. Western narratives of Korean history tend to tell us little about the political preferences, choices and differences throughout the Korean people themselves. Everything is forcefully homogenized into a broad categories which fit overriding assumptions upon the things people said and done. This has meant that such ideological interpretations of history has in turn failed to provide coverage and nuance to complex political events and phenomena that don’t fit the overarching narratives.
I want to investigate the problem of mainstream U.S narratives regarding Korea from the point of their origin, that is to identify and pinpoint the prevailing ideas, logic and ontology which consolidated the American understanding of the Korean peninsula in the late 1940s and subsequently conditioned the path of their future development. Whilst this does not mean that understandings don’t change or develop over time, especially with greater historical hindsight, there are nevertheless prevailing themes which persist into present day analysis. Using a detailed search of American newspaper archives, as well as an investigation of early official rhetoric in the background, this piece will argue that United States discourses on Korea have persisted with the ontological flaw that projects the interests and specific ideological leanings of America as being in full and unquestionable harmony to what all Koreans want and think. In turn, all understandings of the country are squeezed into a dubious and unhelpful cold war framework. Limitations of this piece obviously include the fact that most of the aforementioned stories regarding Korea are consolidated within a single publication, and of course the scarce availability of non-official discourse and public opinion on that time.
In the 1940s, it is not an insult to highlight that Americans at large knew nothing about Korea. In a world without the mass communications of today, minus all of the cultural and economic soft power as to what South Korea would later accumulate, it is fair to say that Korea was not only an irrelevance to U.S mainstream life, but a complete enigma. Some contact between the countries had been made as early as the 19th century, but this of course was not a consolation. An examination of early newspaper coverage of the country finds that it was only brought to the attention of mainstream American audiences owing to the events of World War II, and subsequently, set out within those wider considerations. A key turning point in media coverage on this issue was of course the Cairo declaration of 1942, whereby the U.S, China and Britain pledged for a Korea free from Japanese colonialism. This introduced the discourse of “self-determination” into popular lexicon concerning the country (Evening Star, 1943).
It is of course, historically accurate and neutral to say that Koreans aspired for independence from Japan. What would prove notable in U.S coverage of this issue, however, was the tendency to assume that push for independence not as nationalist induced spectrum of voices and actors, but as a unanimous and homogeneous bid to create an American style liberal democracy. In doing so, press coverage repeatedly assumed the independent Korea would become a democratic, de-facto ally of the United States. For an example, a letter to the Evening Star in 1944 proclaims a future Korea as an “Ideal Ally” for Democratic nations and as a peaceful, “innocent” country (Evening Star, 1944). Whilst of course we must be mindful that these assumptions are also being drawn as a contrast to the perceived brutalities of Japanese Imperialism, they nevertheless rest on Wilsonian-esque assumptions that every country that receives its independence from Imperial rule is naturally set to be just like America. As one editorial put it: “Korea, One of the Bulwarks Against Red Rule in Asia” (Evening Star, 1948)
In making these assumptions, media coverage in this era places significant emphasis and subsequent holistic coverage upon future leader Syngman Rhee. Now, whilst Rhee was a legitimate voice for an independent Korea, leading a provisional government and striving to find support in Washington, he was incredibly misunderstood. In practice Rhee would in fact create an authoritarian regime in South Korea and brutally purge opposition outside of his circle. Yet, newspapers depict him in a George Washington light. In 1948 as the Republic of Korea was proclaimed, the Washington Evening Star described Rhee as “A stalwart citizen of Korea. He is the leader of the team that has created modern Korea. Even his enemies admit his patriotism, scholarship and tenacity of purpose” (Evening Star, 1948). In doing so, the entire Korean independence movement is reciprocated to his name alone and an adherence to the American ideal, ignoring the obvious diversity of ideologies, factions and visions contending for rival visions of “Korean independence”.
In parallel with the projection of the American ideal as the banal preference of Korea’s political fate, what would ultimately serve to lock these discourses in place was the growing environment of the Cold War and the subsequent struggle with the Soviet Union over influence upon the peninsula. Whilst of course there was some evidence to argue such owing to the activities of Moscow in Eastern Europe, it was nevertheless widely assumed that the Soviets were not simply offering a rival version of Korean independence in the form of what would become North Korea, but were in fact simply engaging in foreign aggression.
The biggest problem with this narrative however, was not so much the activities of the USSR itself, but the banal belief that Koreans would not legitimately opt for socialism as an option for their country. There are several articles that reflect this mindset. In 1947, an Evening Star Article accused of left wing independence advocates in South Korea as being “paid” to be Communists by the Soviet Union and that internal dissent in the country was purely the design of Moscow’s foreign policy- aiming to prevent Korean independence (Evening Star, 1947). A similar article in the Sunday Star in 1946 also blamed “Korean Communists” for “undermining Independence“- also exclusively attributed to the Soviet Union (Evening Star, 1946).
Looking across the range of articles, there is an obvious consensus that left-wing views in early South Korea could not be legitimate and thus in broader the framework of emerging the Cold War context, such were nothing more than a mere Communist conspiracy which was set about to undermine the interests of Korea itself (which of course here are being pre-determined by external actors. Thus, despite the instability and turmoil of the country’s society at that time, the only “legitimate” view being offered by the U.S media was that of the U.S view itself, misleadingly pinned on Syngman Rhee.
Obviously, we know logically that after this period the Korean War would follow. Although late in announcing, this is not being covered in this piece simply because most analysts are aware in either way how it coincides with the Cold War. Instead, in this piece we have vouched prior to that and in doing so, highlighted a number of American discourses concerning Korea which originated beforehand and would be carried forth in the decades to come. In particular, these concern:
- The assumption that America’s interest and view is Korea’s natural worldview
- The downplaying of Korea’s own perspective, issues and political nuances in favour of the former
- The misportrayal of pro-US Syngman Rhee in idealistic American terms which with the above, would go forth in shaping the broader narratives christened in the Korean War itself. His true intentions and perceptions are not even explored properly.
- The belief that all leftist activity and dissent in South Korea was not the organic product of a society in disarray, but is all a Communist Conspiracy which may only be interpreted as a moral evil and act of foreign aggression designed to undermine Korea’s true preferences. Any Korean view thus contrary to the above is thus “suspect”.
In this case, what do we conclude? Early American discourses of Korea were simplified, idealistic and negligent of the country’s political and social realities. What is more staggering is that in their own forms and variants, many of these modes of thought continue to repeat themselves in contemporary understandings of South Korea amongst some voices. Thus, the wider problem is that the United States had simply to know and understand Korea in the light of the Cold War world and the ideological struggle against Communism. Never forget that Korea is so much more than that. If we are to understand the country on a serious basis, the first and foremost step involves overcoming a set of simplifications which emerged in the 1940s.
References (in order of appearance)
- All media sources cited in this article and referenced below are available for fre on: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ An archive by the Library of Congress
- Evening Star, 1943, “Korea’s Story Sorrowful”- [volume], December 05, 1943, Page C-2, Image 38
- Evening Star, 1944, “Korea as an ideal ally for Democratic Nations”- November 18, 1944, Page A-8, Image 8
- Evening Star, 1948, “Korea, One of the Bulwarks Against Red Rule in Asia”- November 28, 1948, Page C-5, Image 56
- Evening Star, 1948, “Korea is Reborn a Democracy Today”- August 15, 1948, Page C-5, Image 42
- Evening Star, 1946, “Soviet Stymies Korean Independence”- October 13, 1946, Image 42
- Evening Star, 1947, “Korea Smoulders under US-Soviet Occupation”- February 02, 1947, Page C-5, Image 46