Review: The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War by Monica Kim

By | May 05, 2022 | No Comments

Monica Kim, The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. 452 pp. $35.00/£28.00.

Monica Kim has written an exceptionally vast and detailed transnational history of the Korean War, as seen through the prism of interrogation rooms. The core of the text is built out from the evidentiary core of Kim’s analysis of three hundred investigation files from Koje Island and the the US/UN compound on on that island for North Korean and Chinese prisoners, as well as US counterintelligence interrogation files of over one thousand Americans who returned from captivity in North Korea or China. As Kim writes, her ‘story of the war is … interested in the military man as bureaucrat, the interrogator as bureaucrat, and interrogation as a template of bureaucracy’ (20).

Had those files alone been the main target of the text, a more traditional way for readers to categorize this study might have been to put it in the category of psychological warfare or information operations during the Korean War. It might have been the subject of scholarly interest on the subjects of ‘brainwashing,’ the Bacteriological Warfare propaganda campaign from the communist side of 1952-1953, the use of confessions and POW propaganda on frontline soldiers on the opposing side, leaflet drops within the history of Cold War battles for ‘hearts and minds’, or the use of nuclear threats along with saturation-bombing realities on the UN side. Because the more kinetic phase of the Korean War came to an end in April and May 1951, historians need to look for unifying themes to understand the conflict after it stabilised, but had not yet concluded. In this sense, Kim’s book can fit in well with several texts which cover the latter period of the conflict with an emphasis on the psychological and propaganda terrain, and those such as Sheila Miyoshi Jager’s Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea which take the Armistice of July 1953 less as a conclusion than a point of departure. 

However, Kim’s book is more ambitious than such categorization implies. It digs in to the hard edges of the history of US counterintelligence work on the Korean Peninsula, with particular emphasis on cooperation between American spies and right-wing paramilitary anti-communist groups in early South Korea. In this sense, it is a good companion to older books by Bruce Cumings and Kim Dong-choon. Although his work is rarely referenced, Kim’s book stands as a hefty and worthy challenger to work by Allen R. Millett, particularly with reference to the career and influence of James Hausman (for whom ‘governance through force was the point, not an accident’, writes Kim). South Korea’s military governor John R. Hodge, unsurprisingly, comes in for criticism. Monica Kim operates on a basis of understanding American power in Korea that is far more akin to Cumings than Millett, but her theoretical interests and concerns are different from either of these senior scholars. At times this can be illuminating — a direct quote from Hausman makes the military advisor sound almost like Michel Foucault (232).

The very wide network of informants which the United States cultivated in South Korea from 1945-1948 was reconstituted after the war broke out, indicating why the author has taken such pains to depict the background in the first place.   

American troops of the 1st Cavalry disembark at Pohang, 18 July 1950. Photo (as above) by Carl Mydans, via Life Magazine. 

The book’s lengthy linkages of Japanese-Americans to the Korean War of late redeem the reader’s effort, and place the volume in well with more recent work on Japan-Korean War interactions by Tessa Morris Suzuki and Wada Haruki, among others. This book extends further into transpacific history by exploring the role played by Japanese-American interrogators in Korea. “Approximately four thousand Japanese Americans were in the Korean War serving in some linguistic capacity in the US military,” she writes (124). While Kim uses the files from these interrogations to align the reader into the intimate world of the prisoner and his (although not all of them were men) interrogator, there are other reasons to use this book to think further about Japanese Americans in the Korean War through this book.

In my own work on Korean War crimes in Hwanghae province, I came across Robert Isami Muramoto, a fighting member of the Seventh Infantry who had been born in Hawaii in 1917, gone to Kobe to meet his bride a few short years before the US-Japan war broke out, returned to Hawai’i, and likely joined the US Army while in captivity. He was part of the UN invasion of North Korea and was ultimately wounded and evacuated from a major battle near the Chosin Reservoir in November 1950. Using similar life arcs, Monica Kim’s book makes a contribution to the broader narrative of Japanese-Americans not just in World War II, but the Korean War.

Further echoes of the Pacific War in the Korean War are seen in the language of a briefing for interrogators by Samuel C. Bartlett Jr., who had been present at the victory at Iwo Jima and whose briefing on how to interrogate “Orientals” had been copied with his notes intact as well as rendered into a training pamphlet, as discovered, illustrated and discussed ably by Kim (153-158). In the autumn of 1950, as Chinese POWs began to be taken, Japanese-American interrogators had to look for multilingual locals in order to have some vestige of contact with the Chinese language (167). The Chinese experiences of captivity are a huge point of interest between Taiwan and the mainland today, as David Cheng Chang’s new book, The Hijacked War, will surely indicate. 

POW compounds on Koje island, 1951. Via Japan Focus.

In a text of such ambition, of such length, and such theoretical zeal, it seems parsimonious to complain about omissions. Yet the experiences of Chinese prisoners of war are peripheral to this book, and the usages to which rival Chinese governments were putting the POWs are not really covered. It was curious that Pingchao Zhu’s book-length discussion of the POW issue within the armistice negotiations was not cited. Perhaps Zhu’s attempt to fuse together the camps with the negotiating table was deemed to be too China-oriented, or too conventional in its approach to diplomatic history.

Curiously, Kim’s deep dive on the Koje POW camp avoids perspectives from individuals who, in today’s environment, we might charitably call ‘embedded’ journalists. Alan Winnington and Wilfred Burchett were working within communist press agencies, and their coverage of the Koje camp violence was extensive. It is as if the pamphlet Koje Unscreened were never produced (neither Winnington nor Burchett are mentioned in the text) and, in contrast to the craven efforts of the South Korean army to leverage Anti-Communist Youth League units inside the Koje compound (214), there were no efforts made at all by the communist side to leverage the unrest in the camps for propaganda material within the socialist bloc and provide further pressure on US/UN negotiators. Perhaps it was the case that the North Koreans, so full of agency and decolonial fervour in other matters, actually had little control over their own psychological warfare efforts against the UN and the constellation of states around it, and thus the topic is best avoided?   

As with Suzy Kim’s equally outstanding – but markedly briefer – text drawing from Record Group 242, this book does etch some memorable portraits of individual North Koreans. Yet there is a generally monolithic interpretation of their North Korean actions which prevails, one which seems usually to remind the reader that North Koreans were engaged in a continuous project of decolonization against American power. An example of this tendency as well as the postmodern pattern of rereading bodily gestures is: “Spitting for the Korean Communist POW was not simply an act of refusing the authority of the US military; it was also a refusal of the United States’ own insistence that the project of decolonization was complete on the Korean peninsula with the regime it had installed in the south” (128). 

The discussion of India’s role in repatriating POWs after the conflict’s end pointed toward a more truly international history of Korean War; more such writing remains to be done, and lines of thought and interaction extended. (Leonardo Barbosa, for example, has completed a masters’ thesis in Hong Kong on Korean POWs who chose to repatriate to Brazil.) Dr. Kim’s book is loaded with good empirical research, ideas worth debating, and a omnivorous scope of analysis reminiscent of Hajimu Masuda or Lisa Yoneyama’s work which suggests that scholars are smashing at the ramparts of more traditional Cold War history in search of new configurations and alignments.

An earlier version of this review was published in the European Journal of Korean Studies in October 2019; it has been reproduced with the permission of the journal and updated.

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