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  • Korea's Grievous War by Su-kyoung Hwang
  • Charles J. Hanley (bio)
Su-kyoung Hwang, Korea's Grievous War (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), ISBN 978-0-8122-4845-6, 250 pages.

One of the best-selling Korean War histories of recent years devotes an entire six-page chapter to a discussion of Douglas MacArthur's mother.1 However, that 719-page book, by a celebrated American popular historian, spares not a single word to inform the reader that massive numbers of innocent Korean civilians—perhaps two million or more—were killed in that war, many at the hands of the US forces under the same General MacArthur.

"The subject of civilian casualties occupies a marginal place in the American memory of the Korean War,"2 Su-kyoung Hwang, with mild understatement, concludes in her Korea's Grievous War. Hwang's book is a powerful, deeply researched, passionately delivered antidote to this blindness that, with a few honorable exceptions, has afflicted the historiography of the "forgotten war" for more than a half-century.

Hwang, a historian of modern Korea who teaches at the University of Sydney, notes that only in the past decade or so, as the South Korean police state faded farther into the past, have mainstream scholars and journalists begun to gather the declassified archival evidence and oral testimony that would shed light on this hidden history of mass political executions by the southern regime and widespread indiscriminate killings of noncombatants during the 1950 to 1953 conflict.3

South Korea's official Truth and Reconciliation Commission did pivotal investigative work, including excavation of mass graves, from 2005 to 2010. Hwang draws on its findings, as well as those of other Korean academic and journalistic investigators. But it is her own years of research—from the tranquil confines of US government archives to long, tearful hours of interviews with survivors—that impart a special power to this book.

It was not always easy. Although she eventually received valuable assistance from US archivists, she reports that some sought to discourage her when they learned what materials she was seeking, including the records of the US Army's scandalously flawed 2001 investigation of the No Gun Ri massacre of 1950, when the US military killed 250 to 300 South Korean refugees, mostly women and children.4

"[T]he reactions of some staff reminded me of the formidable ethos created by American nationalism surrounding the nation's historical involvement in foreign wars," she writes. "Some viewed [End Page 746] the civilian casualties at No Gun Ri and elsewhere as an affront to American identity and honor."5

Even the oral history work in South Korea could prove difficult, as some survivors simply did not want to reawaken traumatic memories. Despite this, she persevered, and not only retrieved vital documents, but also accumulated devastating accounts, from fifty-seven individuals interviewed beginning in 2007,6 of what happened to ordinary Korean families, of mass murder, cruelty, and brutality, accounts that can be painful to read.

Hwang, who holds a University of Chicago doctorate, is naturally aware of the historians' debate over "the demand for objectivity that prioritizes written records over the spoken word." However, "the notion of human rights has depended on 'imaginative identification' with a victim and their emotions," she writes, and "for this reason, personal narratives of survivors and bereaved families are given an important place alongside documentary research."7 In addition, official South Korean records of such atrocities are sparse.

The six-chapter work, which focuses on the war's dark underside, not its military history, begins with "Terror in Cheju Island," a chapter describing the 1948 to 1949 counterinsurgency on that island off Korea's southern coast. It was a paroxysm of killing that left between 30,000 to 80,000 islanders dead, most of them noncombatants, according to estimates cited by Hwang.8 The bloodshed was rooted in a conflict between a left-leaning People's Committee that had run the autonomous-minded island since Korea's north-south division at World War II's end, and a rightist governor, abusive paramilitaries, and national police imposed on the islanders from Seoul. Insurgent attacks on police provoked a...


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