- Project Eagle: The American Christians of North Korea in World War II by Robert S. Kim
Robert S. Kim’s Project Eagle provides several stories that do not quite work as an integrated account of Korean and American partnerships in resisting Japan’s occupation of Korea (1905–45). If the book has a single focus, it is about the relationship of two missionary families, the Weemses and the McCunes, to the leaders [End Page 207] of the China-based Korean Provisional Government (KPG). These two families based their religious and educational missions in Pyongyang and Kaesong, both now in North Korea. No such “North” and “South” geographic distinctions existed in Korea until 1945. Kim also ignores other major Protestant missionary families, the Lintons and the Bells, who had important roles in Korea above the Han River.
Project Eagle of the book’s title was the effort of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to use the Korean Provisional Government as a partner in organizing a pro-Allied intelligence and guerrilla warfare force inside Manchuria and Korea. The effort was about ten years too late. Communist Koreans in China had already captured the mantle of heroic revolutionary liberation fighters, led by Kim Tu-bong and Kim Mu-chong. An expatriate faction in the Soviet Union, including Kim Il-Sung, also claimed to be legitimate leaders of a new Korea after World War II. The KPG’s Korean Restoration Army, a grand title for a few hundred recruits, could not match the numbers, experience, and discipline of the Koreans in the Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army. The communists even used the KPG to extract resources from the United States and the KPG’s patrons, the Chinese Quomindang party, army, and government.
The first half of Project Eagle describes the experiences of the McCunes and the Weemses as pre-1941 missionaries in Korea and their efforts to save Christian Koreans from Japanese oppression. Kim is late into this bit of Korean history, since there are already authoritative books of this subject by Donald Clark, Shannon McCune, Benjamin B. Weems, Horace G. Underwood, Donald Macdonald, and Kenneth M. Wells. Kim accepts the general conclusion that American missionaries knew Korea well, shared that knowledge with the US government, and did not control the Korean Christian churches. After Pearl Harbor, many “mish kids” entered the American war effort against Japan.
Although Weems and McCune family members tried to use the OSS as a way to advance their vision of a new Korea, they had little influence either on American policy or on the role of the KPG in fighting Japan. The two principal KPG leaders, Kim Ku and Yi Pom-sok, were not Christian leaders and championed the tonghak (“Eastern learning”) movement and varieties of European secular authoritarianism. Kim—along with, apparently, the McCunes and the Weemses—pays little attention to Cho Man-sik, the veritable saint of Pyongyang in resisting Japanese oppression. The OSS, given to eccentric personnel decisions, chose an “old China hand,” Clyde Sargent, an expatriate professor, as the key partner to Kim Ku and Yi in organizing OSS partisans. As a US Army major, Sargent became a disciple of Yi, a self-proclaimed freedom fighter of sporadic Quomindang military service. Also an army major, Clarence Weems Jr. predicted that the KPG would not advance Western political values but was the best available partner. Other knowledgeable Americans doubted the KPG’s potential as the nucleus of postwar Korean government. [End Page 208]
Kim follows the tardy, impotent Project Eagle in its one aborted mission, to direct the rescue of allied POWs in Korea as a cover for inserting agents to organize an anticommunist resistance movement in Korea. Neither the Chinese Nationalists nor the Soviets nor the Japanese would cooperate, and Yi and Sargent had to settle for a photo opportunity. Kim does not understand that Maj. Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan and the OSS had lost their...