- The Party’s OverSex, Gender, and Orientalism in the Koreagate Scandal of the 1970s
“Korean Agent or Merely a Hostess?” read a 1977 New York Times headline about Suzi Park Thomson, the Korea-born congressional aide ensnared in the “Koreagate” scandal of 1976–78.1 Involving charges of bribery “in a coordinated campaign conducted by a Korean lobby with shadowy links to [President Park Chung Hee’s] government,” Koreagate, described another paper, “had all the elements for drama”: a foreign ally using cash from tax-supported US rice sales to influence Congress; an “Oriental Gatsby” known for his “fancy Georgetown parties”; a “sexy aide” to the House speaker; and corrupt congressmen accepting gifts and favors.2 Thomson—the “sexy aide”—was implicated for purportedly using her “culinary talents . . . to ingratiate [herself] with American legislators.”3 As the Times continued, “There are those who believe that she is a sort of latter-day Mata Hari. Others see her more as a sort of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, skipping innocently through the corridors of power.”4
Now little more than a footnote in the history US-Korea relations, Koreagate has been overlooked for the ways in which racialized and sexualized anxieties about Asia and Asian people shaped this curious episode in the Cold War. Occurring in the shadows of US military entanglements in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, the scandal tapped into Americans’ fears about national resolve, foreign meddling, and the influence of treacherous “others” at a deeply uncertain time. During the 1970s people seemed overwhelmed by a “crisis of confidence” amidst government scandals, social upheavals, the end of continuous economic growth, and declining US power in the world.5 Americans’ unease extended to their perceptions of international allies, and the intense suspicion that the scandal generated about Koreans gave rise to racialized doubts about South Korea’s fitness for a diplomatic partnership with the United States as well as a gendered [End Page 1] and sexualized racism that found convenient targets in Thomson and Park and an outlet for panic about Koreans in the “corridors of power.”
This essay builds on intersectional scholarship about gender, sexuality, and orientalism during the Cold War as well as Asian American history in the post-1965 era. Robert Lee, Christina Klein, Naoko Shibusawa, and others have shown how in the cultural and discursive realms, US-Asia relations in the early Cold War years were steeped in metaphors of a heroic male America saving a willing and submissive Asia, driven home, for instance, in stories of Japanese war brides and Korean adoptees in the 1950s and 1960s.6 This narrative continued with some modifications into the late 1960s and 1970s, which included women anti-Vietnam War activists adding a maternalist spin on white American savior-ism in Asia.7 Intertwined with this benevolent imaginary was a more sexualized one that positioned Asia as submissive and available to virile American power, a relationship enacted through years of US military involvement in East and Southeast Asia and sex between GIs and native women. This baggage, which hypersexualized Asian women and de-sexualized Asian men, informed Koreagate, providing templates through which to understand Park and Thomson, but it also confounded when they defied expectations. This essay, thus, also examines how through media coverage of Koreagate, and in particular of Suzi Park Thomson and Tongsun Park, we can trace the shifting grounds of race, gender, and sexuality during the 1970s.
While diplomatic concerns ignited the firestorm over the “Korean Connection,” the controversy reverberated through Korean America. For Asian Americans, life in the 1970s—what we might call the start of the post-exclusion era—was a new frontier. Geopolitical, legal, and demographic change made possible new forms of minority participation and visibility, including Thomson and Park’s rise as Washington players. Elsewhere Asians achieved public and professional prominence without necessarily being singled out as exotic curiosities. The United States’ global leadership during World War II and the Cold War—when geopolitical alliances with Asian countries were critical—informed a domestic racial ideology that fractionally incorporated Asians into the multicultural mosaic. And once the US hitched its anti-Communist goals in Asia to South Korea, the...