Yongusil 31: Kraus, Cumings, Kim, and Cathcart on North Korean Captured Documents

By | April 21, 2014 | No Comments

The research room here at Sino-NK is naturally concerned with the lost, difficult to access, under-utilised hinterlands of academic possibility provided by some of the more esoteric archives and knowledge repositories of this world. Yongusil 22 by Benjamin Young recounted the existence of Record Group 242 of the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at College Park, Maryland and gave extensive tips for the interested researcher keen to go delving into its ample materiel.  At the time we published Young’s piece (he is now on his way to George Washington University), our impetus was the emergence of Suzy Kim’s fine book Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution 1945-1950. If only for the appearance of Wada Haruki’s magnificent piece of scholarship, The Korean War: An International History in the English language (courtesy of Rowman and Littlefield), it is apparent that interest in the RG 242 was on the increase. As evidenced by the new activity documented here, this academic focus seems primed to progress even further.

This year‘s Association of Asian Studies Conference in Philadelphia included a panel entitled “Utilizing the Captured Documents: New Perspectives on Society, Institutions, and Foreign Relations in Revolutionary and Wartime North Korea, 1945-1953.” Until this point, most scholarship derived from usage of the RG242 group has tended to focus on what the document collection can reveal about the Korean War itself, examining it for orphaned and abandoned documents addressing military build-up, strategy and capacity. Suzy Kim’s book demonstrated the possibility of its use to contextualise the social and political context of the nation in the north of the peninsula as it went to war and during the process of its post-Liberation construction. Common academic parlance has declared for instance that the nascent North Korean state was very much a product of the Soviet Union’s priorities and support. The AAS panel suggests a potentially different vector for institutional and social development.

Charles Kraus (of George Washington University and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars’ North Korean International Documentation Project) in his paper “From the Schoolyard to the Battlefield: Chinese-North Korean Relations through the Eyes of the Overseas Chinese in Korea, 1945-1953” examines the impact of Chinese citizens in the early North Korea. In particular, Kraus addresses their potential counter-balancing of Nationalist Chinese conceptions of the nature of its diasporic population coupled with that population’s unwilling politicisation during the later periods of the Chinese Civil War. Equally intriguingly Kraus’ examination of the documents reveals nationalist tensions at this moment of anti-Japanese fervour feeding back upon these populations who were supposed to have become ideological brothers over the past decades of struggle. Also revealed in Kraus’ work are tensions within North Korea’s young institutions which had been tasked with both building a cohesive, post-colonial socialist nation and at the same time weighing and balancing the internationalist predilections of their primary supporters.

Beyond Kraus’s fascinating exploration of the positionality and place of the foreigner at the moment of revolution, Youngjun Kim, a Graduate Student within the University of Kansas’ History Department (and a Major in the Army of the Republic of Korea), utilizes the RG242 collection to weave an extraordinary counter-story to the conventional foundational myth of the North Korean military. Kim’s paper “The Origins of the North Korean People’s Army, 1945-1950: Kim Il Sung’s Vision for the NKPA,” reconceptualises the culture of the North Korean military distinct from simple hegemonic narratives of its birth at the hands of Soviet technicians and strategists. Kim envisages the KPA as part and party of/to a dynamic and dialectical process of institutional acculturation between the military strategies of the Soviet Union and the revolutionary aspirations of revolutionary China. Competing visions of a Peoples’ Army would influence Kim Il Sung’s direction and ultimate decision making and the final version, that would fight and toil during the Korean War would be a combination inspired by both.

Both of these revealing academic analyses, and that from Adam Cathcart (whose “Enemies and Allies in North Korean Art and Archives, 1948-1952” examines cartoons and visual images within RG242), demonstrate the possibility of moving above, behind and below conventional historical narratives within collections such as the Captured Documents in the U.S. National Archives.  All three of these authors and other such as Suzy Kim serve as exemplars to the fact that beyond the largely stable scholarly narrative of North Korea’s birth, foundation and tribulation there are still other stories to be told, other lines of historical flight other dialectics at play and that we as readers, writers and researchers need only to look and to listen.

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  1. I see Cumings in the headline but can’t find any references in the text.

  2. Thank you very much for your interest and close reading of this text and our site. As the author of the post, I apologise for failing to mention within the text that Professor Cumings was a participant in this panel in the guise of a discussant and so did not present a paper (though the links provided for click through reading do make this clear). While Professor Cumings’ comments were interesting, especially those addressing his own and others experience of utilising the Captured Documents collection, for the brevity required by the form of the Yongusil detailed recounting of them was not possible. I may well correct this omission, as judging my your comment, doing so might improve the readers’ experience.

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