Yongusil 22: Record Group 242

By | December 18, 2013 | No Comments

As an accompaniment to Sino-NK’s Roundtable Review on Dr. Suzy Kim’s book “Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution 1945–1950”, itself an analysis of the once impenetrable, opaque, and unobtainable narratives of the revolutionary everyday for citizens and residents of the northern half of the Korean peninsula, the Research Room thought it necessary to focus on the current repository for those narratives, within which Dr. Kim undertook the research that made up that fine work. In this Yongusil, Benjamin Young, graduate of State University of New York, Brockport takes us just inside the beltway to the US National Archives to explore potentialities and challenges presented by Record Group 242 (or the Captured Documents Archive), the immense cache of material obtained by US forces during the heady days of counterattack in 1950 and from which Dr Kim has extracted her fascinating work. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Yongusil 22: Record Group 242

Record Group 242 (RG 242) located at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland is a preeminent source of historical knowledge on the construction of the North Korean state and the origins of the Korean War. Modern Korean historians such as Charles K. Armstrong, Wada Haruki, Dae-Sook Suh, Bruce Cumings, and Suzy Kim have used the captured North Korean documents extensively in their research. However, there remains a large amount of material yet to be explored as RG 242 contains some 1.6 million pages. In addition to exploring the details of the archive, this Yongusil will discuss the challenges presented by this material to the researcher and analyst. Furthermore, its ultimate goal is, with RG 242 as exemplar, a conception of the archive beyond that of a simple repository for and of historical information. Rather, an archive should be perceived as temporal, historical, constructed space itself. In analyzing, engaging, and comprehending an archive’s unique history and narrative, scholars can better utilize its contents to support and extend their research.

The North Korean documents were recovered by American forces counter-attacking in September 1950 when North Korean forces began retreating from territory gained during the initial push of the Korean War towards Busan. During this retreat, it seems that North Korean forces sought to destroy any documents held by them, but due to the rapidity of American and South Korean advances, not all the documents were destroyed. These documents came from about 700 different locations on the Korean peninsula and were then transported to the General American Headquarters of the Far East command, located in Tokyo, where U.S officials translated and analyzed any material they felt useful or relevant for their own intelligence purposes. Twenty six years later on February 16, 1977, William Lewis of the National Archives was given permission to declassify most of these documents and make them available to the public. Photocopies of many of the captured North Korean documents can also be found in South Korea in the series, Collection of historical materials for North Korean research, which is published by the government sponsored- National History Compilation Committee.[1]  In the 1980s, South Korean political scientists were the first to use the North Korean captured documents, which has resulted in a number of dissertations on the beginnings of the Korean War and Kim Il Sung’s state.[2]

For most world historians, RG 242 is better known as the repository for captured German documents from World War II. In fact, the 1.6 million captured North Korean documents pale in comparison to the amount of German records in the collection. Within the captured North Korean materials, there are also some documents in Chinese, Russian, and Japanese. With Cold War geopolitics in mind, it seems natural to see Chinese and Russian language materials in RG 242. There are about 10,000 pages of Russian documents and 3,000 pages of Chinese material. Many of the Russian documents in the collection are devoted to the revolutionary thoughts of Lenin and Stalin, the history of the Russian Revolution, commune development, and public education.

So why did North Korea maintain and hold Japanese language and sourced material following its liberation? Archivist Thomas Hosuk Kang of the Library of Congress believes that while North Korea did destroy millions of Japanese documents prior to the Korean War, they had spared the valuable statistical surveys of Korea in the Japanese language made by Japanese scholars and there are approximately 300,000 Japanese materials in the archive.[3]

Korean studies scholar Konrad Lawson gives an informative breakdown of the captured North Korean documents on his blog saying, “There are trial records, police records, financial records, salary receipts, student lecture notes and idle doodles, propaganda books, election posters, literature, folders full of photos, political cartoons, thousands of pages of newspapers and journals, lots of speech compilations and meeting minutes. It is, in a word, overwhelming.”[4] The wide variety of RG 242 materials pertaining to the local level has resulted in a number of studies that emphasize a “bottom-to-top” approach and a popular, grassroots revolution that developed in nascent North Korea.

Thomas Hosuk Kang further breaks down RG 242 in these categories:

Politics: government documents, ministry records, court trial cases and records, police reports, political party membership lists, local organization lists, constitutional records

Foreign Affairs: Russian-Korean organizations and activities, analysis of the international situation, anti-South Korean plots, anti-American activities

Economy: land reform records, manpower statistics, production records, ration problems

Education: lists of students and teachers, party organizations in schools, school textbooks, lecture notebooks, training of teachers, personal histories of professors

Construction: materials concerning the construction of roads, railroads, and bridges

Military: recruitment and registration records, lists pertaining to the social status of soldiers, the military training of the people, and the use of ammunition and arms.

The Korean War: Kim Il Sung’s speeches, victory news and propaganda, handling of surrendered South Koreans

Foreigners in North Korea: lists of Japanese & Chinese residents[5]

The captured North Korean documents provide many opportunities for scholars, especially social, cultural, military, and gender historians, as it is one of the few sources on North Korea that gives the scholar insight into the daily lives of the common people. A key challenge presented by these materials is the poor condition and readability of many of these documents. During the revolution, North Korean officials promoted a literacy campaign throughout the country. Subsequently, many of the handwritten documents in RG 242 are barely legible as many individuals were new to penmanship and writing. The material is also fragmentary and a significant amount of pages have either been stolen or displaced, which suggests an eventual need for their digitization. Ultimately, it is important that scholars and researchers seeking engagement with it, understand that RG 24 is not an “ordinary”, conventional archival space but instead a unique literal capturing of a period of contest, conflict, formation and social change presenting both opportunities and challenges.

[1] Charles K. Armstrong, North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2003), 249.

[2] Armstrong, North Korean Revolution, footnote 7, 249. See: Hak Soon Paik, “North Korean State Formation, 1945-1950,” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1993); and Ryu Kilchae, “North Korean State Formation and the Role of the People’s Committees, 1945-1947,” (PhD diss., Korea University, 1995).

[3] Thomas Hosuck Kang “North Korean Captured Records at the Washington National Records Center, Suitland, Maryland,” in The Association for Asian Studies, Committee Asia Libraries Bulletin (Feb 1979), 30-37.

[4] Konrad M. Lawson, “National Archives: Captured North Korean Documents,” Frog in a Well.

[5] Kang “North Korean Captured Records at the Washington National Records Center, Suitland, Maryland,” 34.

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