Korea’s Grievous War

Sander Hölsgens

In Korea’s Grievous War, Su-kyoung Hwang sets out to explore the capacity to grieve those who were killed in outbreaks of anti-communist violence during the Korean War and Cold War era. It is an attempt to “understand the rationale and legacy of anti-communist violence by treating it as a distinct phenomenon that deserves attention in its own right” (p.2).

Those directly and indirectly affected by these violent acts, directed at civilians as a result of the Cold War’s ‘politics of distrust’, have thus far been largely ignored or overlooked. For, as Hwang argues, socio-political forms of anti-communism were at the heart of South Korean society until the late 1990s, when democratisation processes disentangled the country’s dictatorial political formation.
Moreover, Hwang states, the notion of grief—including its affective and emotional capacity—is oftentimes bypassed within the realm of historical research. Korea’s Grievous War, then, opens up a space to discuss the grievances and afflictions of those affected by anti-communist violence, “whose sufferings have gone unrecognized for decades” (p.22). It is an important and evocative contribution to historical research on the felt and everyday implications of the Korean War, not only via meticulous archival work, but also via an attentive and self-reflexive account of the dozens of oral interviews Hwang has conducted since 2007.

Documenting violence during the Korean War

The fourth chapter, titled Observing Political Violence in Korea, underscores Hwang’s rigorous intermingling of archival research and personal accounts. Here, Su-kyoung Hwang takes a series of photographs, documenting the Taejŏn massacre, as her point of departure. The still images, released during the 1990s by the U.S. National Archives, show mass shootings, “a typical method of execution that South Korean forces deployed against potential communist collaborators during the Korean War” (p.118). The atrocity has been discussed elsewhere, but, as Hwang notes, the role of third-party observers had not been thoroughly researched prior to Korea’s Grievous War. In this chapter, then, she seeks to examine how the Taejŏn massacre, which took place in July 1950, is observed and documented.
Hwang refers to, inter alia, an account of a British soldier, known as William Hilder, who wrote about the Hongje-ri Incident. For whereas the massacre, which took place in December 1950, is well-researched, Hang contributes to the discussion by rethinking the presence of British troops. Importantly, these British eyewitness accounts and testimonies “not only described the visceral ‘mass murder’, but also exposed the presence of some eighty observers at the scene” (p.132). Here, two graphic and agonising paragraphs by William Hilder are cited, indicating how these British soldiers were disgusted by and unsuccessfully tried to stop the massacre. In so doing, Hwang argues that this form of so-called wartime execution took place in front of the public eye. For not only are atrocities like the Taejŏn massacre and the Hongje-ri Incident documented in writings and via photographs, it also crucial to acknowledge and rethink “the existence of third-party overseers who failed to stop the killings” (p.135).

The interview as historical method

The sixth chapter, called The Bereaved Families, is emblematic of Hwang’s careful and attentive approach to discuss emotional memories and histories. Here, she discusses the families of massacre victims, and how “their relationship to the death, who died for political reasons, adversely affected their lives” (p.159). For family members were deprived of educational opportunities, had to undergo police harassment, had great difficulties obtaining passports or visas, “and lived as social outcasts—through no fault of their own” (ibid).
A moving portrait of Ms. Ch’oe seems to me to be the strength of this chapter, as it not only emphasises the unbearable injustices many Korean families had to endure and live with, but also how the interview as research method can contribute to and corroborate historical research. Ms. Ch’oe lost her father and uncle as a result of death sentences. As her mother suddenly disappeared and never returned, “Ms. Ch’oe became the head of her household at age fourteen” (p.164). In and of itself, Ms. Ch’oe’s family history is distressing and moving, yet Su-kyoung Hwang’s account of it is remarkable in its own sense. Hwang allows room for grief, for Ms. Ch’oe to err. Hwang presents how and in what capacity the interview took place, and how she positions herself within it.
This notable approach, I would argue, does not give ‘the voiceless a voice’—for the people Hwang works with are not voiceless. Rather, she allows those unheard and unrecognised to announce themselves, for themselves. “Our collective memory of the Korean War era is fading fast”, writes Su-kyoung Hwang (p.189) in her conclusion. Precisely by offering a carefully constructed, emphatic study of the affective implications of violence during the Korean War, Korea’s Grievous War contributes in an important manner to our remembrance and understanding of these atrocities.

Sander Hölsgens is a filmmaker and a PhD candidate at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. He is also a contributing editor of Cultural Anthropology (Cultanth.org). His most recent research is an anthropological inquiry into the sensory experience of public space in Seoul, South Korea. His latest film, Whose Kimchi, screened at the British Museum, London.