This conversation took place via Skype and email between Grace M. Cho, in New York, and Hosu Kim, in Seoul. They have collaborated on several projects about the Korean War and its aftermath, focusing on the intersections between state-sanctioned prostitution in South Korea for the US military and the practice of transnational adoption. They took this opportunity to reflect upon recent events between the US and North Korea, the ghosts of the Korean War, and the need for peace on the Korean peninsula.
Hosu: Back in March, when I first heard of a possible summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, my heart ran fast with hope but also trepidation. Then there was the April 27th summit between the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, and Kim. As everyone who followed this news must have felt, it was happening so fast. I couldn’t get my head around all the details.
Things started to get complicated in May when a meeting between top officials of the two Koreas was canceled, and North Korea and the US began exchanging hostile words again around the process of denuclearization — one-way denuclearization. North Korea came to the table to exchange denuclearization in return for guaranteed peace from the US. Observing the unfolding of these historic events that could lead to the official end of the Korean War, I felt shocked, yet could not afford to remain in disbelief either.
Grace: It’s hard to believe, given that we were on the brink of a second Korean War last fall. It was only ten months ago that Trump began his “fire and fury” rhetoric during the escalating tensions. He tweeted that North Korea would be “met with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen,” and I became so angry, not just at the provocation, but about the fact that most Americans, and Trump himself, have no idea how horrific the Korean War was for civilians. A prime example of that is “Operation Insomnia” in which the US bombed Pyongyang continuously for 90 days and 90 nights, with the intention of “exhausting the population.” At the end, almost all of the city was destroyed.
From 1950-1953, 3 million civilians were killed on the Korean peninsula, mostly in the north. The massive death toll was largely caused by the United States’ indiscriminate use of weapons of mass destruction, to the extent that some historians have described the Korean War as “genocidal.” 20-30% of the North Korean people were slaughtered. If Trump was threatening to outdo the “fire and fury” that the US rained down on Korea in the 1950s, then he was threatening no less than genocide.
You mentioned “one-way denuclearization,” and I want to frame that in terms of nuclear orientalism, which is the assumption that only Western countries can be trusted with nuclear weapons. While the world would be safer if North Korea denuclearized, it’s questionable whether the world would be safer if only North Korea denuclearized while the US continued to build its weapons. When we consider the fact that the US is the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons, or the millions of civilians killed in American wars, then unilateral denuclearization is made visible as racist and orientalist.
The standoff between Trump and Kim is the latest manifestation of a decades-long unresolved conflict between the US and North Korea, the two signatories of the 1953 armistice agreement, and that conflict is rooted in the annihilation of North Korea during the war. But of course, most Americans are unable to see that North Korea has some legitimate claims when they say that the US is an aggressor. Rarely are the regular “military exercises” carried out by the US and South Korea at the border portrayed as aggression because of the linguistic trick of calling them “military exercises” instead of simulated invasions of North Korea, which they, in fact, are. North Korea’s leaders are also depicted by the news media as madmen, and once you slap the “crazy” label on someone, they’re no longer allowed a legitimate perspective. Their point of view is always already dismissed.
The recent media circus around the Trump-Kim dynamic has focused on the exchange of threats and insults, and the back-and-forth about whether the summit is on or off, which obscures the hopes and fears of the Korean people who have their very lives at stake when it comes to questions of war and peace.
What’s your sense of the mood there in South Korea?
Hosu: Many Koreans who may seem indifferent and displayed no desire for unification embraced the prospect of peace. Take my mother, for example. She was born in 1943 under Japanese colonialism, grew up during the Korean War and its follow-up years of devastation and deprivation. On the day of the summit between Kim and Moon, she and I talked briefly. She was watching the departure of Moon from his presidential residence toward Panmunjom. Her voice was shaky and hopeful, if not tearful, for the meeting. I never considered my mother politically left-leaning or progressive. Nor was she pro-North. Rather, she occasionally said a few things about the North as unreliable and threatening. That’s it. By and large, she remained indifferent, as if she took divided Korea as a condition for her life and did not remember the Korean War.
We talked again after the successful meeting and the Panmunjom declaration. In response to the prospective opening of the train connection to North Korea’s famous sightseeing place and more cultural exchange, she is a full of excitement. “Now, we don’t have to go abroad for a sightseeing, instead we can go see North Korea!”
Grace: It’s interesting to consider all the things that our parents can’t or won’t talk about. Their silence isn’t about indifference, but rather, about what’s too painful to remember or hope for. I think every family has at least one ghost from the war or division that they dare not speak of.
It reminds me of Sylvia Nam’s story in the New York Times podcast about the search for her missing grandfather, and unexpectedly finding many relatives in North Korea. I wondered about whether or not I could have cousins there, too. No one knows what happened to my mother’s brother, who disappeared during the war. I always assumed he was killed, but then my aunt in South Korea theorized that he had survived and ended up in the North.
If nearly a million civilians were registered as “missing” at the end of the war, then that leaves open the possibility that every Korean in the diaspora, and every Korean in South Korea, has a relative in the north. Yet these are things that we are not allowed to talk about, or even think, under regimes of anti-communism. For you, growing up in South Korea, you were taught to believe that North Koreans were sub-human. For me, growing up in the US, the first question people often asked when they met me was “where are you from?” The second question was “North or South?”
Hosu: Separated families that the war created go beyond the physical separation at the border. The unfinished nature of the war creates a condition in which the family is always on the brink of separation. Historically, numerous working class families in South Korea have undergone short- and long-term separations because of the garrison state’s perpetual failure to provide a social welfare system.
Consider the women in our research. Many of the women who worked in the government-installed camptowns, serving the sexual and recreational needs of US soldiers, never found their way back to their families because of their status as “fallen women.”
In the absence of social welfare, hundreds of thousands of working class women put their children in orphanages, sometimes as a temporary measure, and surrendered them to adoption as a means of survival. This was the pathway to international adoption — first conceived as a war-time relief program, then developed into a much larger scale as Korea’s war prolonged. Two hundred thousand Korean children were separated from their birth families. Due to the associated stigma of women’s sex work and child abandonment, the causes of family separation have remained secret, and the ruptures in the family may never be claimable.
Grace: You are so right. It took many years into my adult life to understand that my mother could never go back to Korea because she bore the stigma of the camptown and was essentially exiled to the US It wasn’t just the brother she lost during the war, but also the sister that she knew she could never see again after we moved to the US. The loss of her family and country was ungrievable because she was never able to acknowledge it.
Maybe we can link this idea back to the current situation on the Korean peninsula. When the conditions for recognizing loss aren’t there, from the outside, there’s an appearance of indifference, as you say.
Hosu: Yes, that is one of the things I noticed during the escalation of nuclear war threats.
News agencies such as Reuters and the New York Times seemed to portray the South Korean public, especially youth, as indifferent.
Often such indifference was interpreted as the signs of South Korea’s sluggish economy in which many youth worry about joblessness and the loss of pensions, which is often tied to rates of depression and suicide. Or, at best, the response to the prospect of war was described as a “collective shrug,” according to Choe Sang-Hun of the New York Times. As he explained it, the shrug might reflect a fear of disrupting the status quo. If the status quo has been a precarious peace for the past 65 years, not disrupting it could deter another senseless, genocidal war on the Korean peninsula.
I think what appears to be indifference is actually a more complex structure of feeling that drives Korean people born to and living with unresolved conflict their entire lives. As Han Kang mentioned in her New York Times op-ed, it is a response that folds the shudder deep inside to manage the horror of total destruction and death that is possible at any given time. It’s a collective disavowal of what they cannot afford to acknowledge and live through once again. Underneath Korean people’s indifference lies the contortion of terror and yearning for peace.
Grace: There are ways in which it comes out though. You had told me about how there was a huge demand for Pyongyang naengmyeon during the inter-Korea summit. Can you say more about that?
Hosu: On the day of the summit, restaurants in South Korea served naengmyeon, a cold noodle soup, most famous in the north. There were long lines of people who wanted to eat Pyongyang-style naengmyeon, which was also on the dinner menu of the summit. The long lines made headline news the next day. CNN described it as “noodle diplomacy.”
Grace: This seems to be an unequivocal act of communion, like a symbolic reunification of the two Koreas. To me, it’s a clear expression of South Koreans’ yearning for peace.
Hosu: That desire for peace was echoed in President Moon’s diplomatic gesture of offering Trump credit for the successful meeting between the North and South. In response to the former first lady, Lee Hui-ho, suggesting that Moon should receive a Nobel Peace Prize, Moon said, “we just need to bring peace here,” while the Prize could go to Trump. The message was reiterated by the Minister of Foreign Affair, Kang Kyung Hwa. South Koreans weren’t concerned about the prospect that Trump could get the credit because everyone seemed to agree upon the underlying message that what’s most important is to build permanent peace. A Nobel Peace Prize is trivial compared to peace itself, yet the message was warped as it crossed from Korean to English. Trump bragged of his accomplishment, while his critics woefully pointed out that Moon was blindly kowtowing to US imperialism.
Observing the stark difference between responses across the Pacific, I wondered whether the peace-building process should be the subject of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. So many people have dedicated their lives to a unified and peaceful Korea even before the 38th parallel division became permanent. Peace activists, along with student leaders, religious leaders, trade unionists, cultural workers, academics, and progressive LGBTQ+ groups in Korea and the Korean diaspora have fought tirelessly for calling to end the War with a peace treaty. For instance, a NYC-based community organization, Nodutdol, has run a variety of education and exposure programs about North and South Korea for the general public. At the peak of war-tensions between North Korea and the US, various organizations and peace activists organized online teach-ins, talks and symposia in different venues, from university campuses to local churches. Another group, Women Cross the DMZ, has organized a peace-walk along the DMZ every year to envision and embody the peace.
Grace: Yes, if peace is achieved in Korea, it’s not because of our political leaders. It’s because of the people who have been working towards it for the entire history of a divided Korea. Of course, popular movements are deeply woven into South Korea’s history and culture. It was amazing to witness the mass protests leading up to Park Geun-hye’s ouster, and even more amazing to hear your reports from the ground. It was a moment of great inspiration for activists and progressive thinkers in the US and I’m hoping that we’ll soon be able to say the same thing about this moment. As the US is moving towards closing borders, maybe Korea can remind us how to open them again.
Grace M. Cho is the author of Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame Secrecy and the Forgotten War (University of Minnesota Press, 2008) and Hosu Kim is the author of Birthmothers and Transnational Adoption Practice in South Korea: Virtual Mothering (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016). Their co-authored work has appeared in the Journal of Korean Adoption Studies, Qualitative Inquiry, and stillpresentpasts.org. They teach in the department of Sociology-Anthropology at the College of Staten Island – City University of New York.