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Conference report: Korean War study day at Asia House

Ambassador Choo Kyu-ho
Ambassador Choo Kyu-ho opens the proceedings at Asia House

The 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 has given rise to a number of commemorative events this year. In November it was the turn of BAKS to present their own event at Asia House – an all-day seminar entitled Reflections on War and Peace: Sixty Years after the Korean War.

The Korean War was one of many facets. Perhaps one can group the narratives into two broad categories: the international perspective and the domestic perspective. On the international scene, it was the first armed conflict of the Cold War, in which the US were making a stand against communist expansionism, the Russians were opportunistically happy for their North Korean dependents to try to take over the whole peninsula provided the Russians themselves didn’t have to get their hands dirty, while the Chinese regarded it as a war against US aggression: – indeed China’s future leader Xi Jinping recently reminded us of the alarming Chinese view of history1. Under another facet of the international view, it was the first war in which one side fought under the UN banner – and under some accounts the war was a limited scope “police action” to enforce the edicts of the otherwise toothless UN Security Council.

Lim Ok-sang - Kim Family after the Korean War
Dead, missing or simply not spoken about? Lim Ok-sang – The Kim Family after the Korean War

The Korea-centric narrative is that it was a civil war in which Kim Il Sung aimed to reunify the peninsula by force (something Syngman Rhee was equally eager to do), in which he was almost successful. Most painfully, it was a war in which two sides fought not only for victory over the opposition armies but also for control over the civilian population.

The different aspects of the war were examined from many different viewpoints during the day – art, film, the memories of those who fought in it, and the wounds inflicted on the memory of the populace.

What are we fighting for?

The “International War” viewpoint was recounted by the two British war veterans present. All the troops asked themselves as they sat in the transport ships for the weeks it took to get to a country they had never heard of: what are we fighting for? The reservists from WWII were not happy at being recalled to service, while National Servicemen faced the prospect of action with a mixture of apprehension and maybe a little excitement at their first trip overseas.

James Grayson between war veterans Michael Hickey and John Bowler
James Grayson between war veterans Michael Hickey and John Bowler

The answers were many: first and foremost, it was a highly principled decision to support the fledgling United Nations. Despite an economy ruined by WWII, the British government considered it a moral duty to answer the call of the United Nations. Korea was a “distant obligation”2, but an obligation nonetheless.

But apart from answering the international call of duty, there was the honour of the regiment to be protected and enhanced. Plus, as one sergeant major pointed out to the troops: “If you don’t fight, the Chinese will kill you.”

As was to happen so often in the future, the British troops were ill-equipped. The boots made years beforehand to kit out British troops for fighting in Finland were a constant source of complaints. But once they arrived in Korea the Brits found that they could buy most things from the better-equipped Americans with a much in-demand currency: alcohol. The US troops were dry, but the British rations included whisky.

Lee Soo-eok: On Refuge (1954)
On Refuge (1954): Lee Soo-eok\’s cubist take on a familiar scene during the Korean War

By the time many of the British troops got to Korea, the dramatic sweeps south, north and back to the 38th parallel again had ground to a halt, and the war had become reminiscent of the First World War, with two huge armies snarling at each other across no man’s land. The North Korean army had evaporated, and the Chinese were everywhere in their hundreds of thousands. The Russians, whose tanks had given the Northerners the upper hand in the initial onslaught, had never been visible in person, but a lot of the artillery “fire” orders in this phase of the war were given in Russian, showing that Stalin was not completely uninvolved.

In the Q&A which accompanied the talks, the fighting qualities of the Chinese were discussed, as they had been at Andrew Salmon’s talk on the subject of the Imjin battle. But while Sam Mercer had expressed a willingness to meet with his Chinese opponents, there were mixed feelings between the two veterans speaking at Asia House: one said he would never want to meet his Chinese foes, having witnessed them shooting wounded prisoners.

Mark Morris
Mark Morris talks about some of the South Korean films about the war

The Civil and Civilian War

If the British veterans’ view of the war is that it was fought by the Commonwealth and Americans against the Chinese, airbrushing out the local South Korean forces, understandably the reverse is true of some of the Korean accounts of the war. In particular, in Korean film it is difficult to think of one which doesn’t focus on the Korean combatants to the complete exclusion of UN forces (think particularly of Taegukgi, which focuses on the impact of the war on one Korean family). Mark Morris even mentioned a film (Lee Man-hee’s The Marines who never Returned) which had ROK forces conducting their own Incheon-style landing in Northern occupied territory.

Lee Man-hee: The Marines who Never Returned
In Lee Man-hee\’s The Marines who Never Returned a small force of Korean soldiers battle against overwhelming odds

But more importantly, the (South) Korean films discussed by Morris presented the days immediately before the start of the war as a time of innocence and peace. When the news came that Northern tanks had crossed the 38th parallel, films such as Im Kwon-taek’s Testimony showed Seoullites going about their business, playing baseball, going to church. The start of the war brought a rude awakening. The mass civilian migrations which followed separated families while suspected sympathisers of the other side met with brutal treatment and often execution when they fell into the hands of the soldiers. In addition, the mass migrations often blocked main transport arteries, disrupting the military, while refugee convoys could also contain armed infiltrators from the other side.

Choe Sang-hun
Choe Sang-hun talks about the controversial No Gun Ri incident

In the confusing opening stages of the war, one particularly controversial incident was the killing of civilians by the US military at No Gun Ri – an incident which did not get openly discussed until 1999. The story was broken internationally by Choe Sang-hun and Charles Hanley for Associated Press and won them the Pullitzer Prize. The incident, which has been brought to life this year in the film A Little Pond – is still raises passions, and the Associated Press version of events is challenged by, for example, the military blogger GI Korea and the current version of the No Gun Ri Wikipedia article. Choe confirmed at his Asia House talk that there was no evidence that the refugees contained armed infiltrators, while there is evidence that the US army at this early, confusing stage in the war (July 1950) did not have a consistent policy in relation to refugees (direct them South-eastwards to safety, turn them back as a potential threat, move them out of the way as an obstacle to urgent military transportation), and one under one account there were instructions that “all refugees were fair game”.

Remco Breucker
Remco Breucker seeks Korean attitudes to the war in their films about Vietnam

Only 20 years after the Korean War, Korean soldiers relived their childhood from another viewpoint: fighting alongside Americans in another anti-communist war in a divided country: Vietnam. Korean films and novels of the Vietnam War – Ahn Jung-hyo’s White Badge (made into a film by Jeong Ji-yeong) and movies such as Faraway River, R-Point (Kong Su-chang, 2004), and Sunny (Lee Jun-ik, 2008). The Vietnamese children who hung around the Korean military bases hoping for food, 20 years ago, were the Korean kids scrounging at US bases. Remco Breucker analysed some of the connections made in film between the two wars.

Kwon Heonik
Kwon Heonik talks about the enforced silence about some of the events in the war

The Korean War is said to have cost around 3 million dead – most of them Korean civilians: which means that the Korean population was decimated as a result of war. Many deaths were summary executions of enemy sympathisers. While the North committed many atrocities, and have been the subject of much discussion, similar atrocities committed by the South have been more problematic to talk about, and could land you in trouble. Silence had to be kept. But nevertheless stories such as the mass execution of communist sympathisers in Daejeon jail have come to light – Kwon Haenik told the story of the former prison superintendent having spent much of his life finding independent evidence to back up his own experience of being forced to finish off prisoners who survived the first round of bullets.

Statue of Brothers
Yun Seong-jin\’s Statue of Brothers (1994) outside the National War Memorial offers hopes or reconciliation. Does it remind you of a scene from Taegugki?

The traumas affecting the civilian population at the time are well displayed in the literature of the time – for example the epic Taebaek Mountains by Cho Chong-nae tells of how the civilian population had to live with loyalist forces during the day and communist partisans at night; seeming to sympathise with the other side could end you up being killed – as for example the uncle in Park Wan-suh’s Who ate all the shinga?, who was executed as a communist sympathiser because his shop in Seoul was commandeered as a mess for North Korean soldiers.

Kim Young-na
Kim Young-na on the Korean War in art

The war separated families, and some family members vanished or could never be talked about. Lim Ok-sang’s “The Kim Family after the Korean War” (above) is probably the most poignant piece of art about the impact of the war. But it was not until the 1980s that such emotions could be expressed, as part of the wider minjung movement. Some of the other artwork of the minjung movement was much more political (anti-capitalist and pro-northern) in nature. Kim Young-na examined the output of war artists (who in the main shied away from depicting bloody battle of Korean against Korean – see for example Lee Soo-eok’s painting of refugees on the move, above) and subsequent abstract artists, through the minjung artists to contemporary artists such as Atta Kim, Jeon Joon-ho and Lee Yong-baek all of which seek to address aspects of Korea’s division and the fallout from the war.

Jeon Joon-ho - Statue of Brothers (still from digital video)
Jeon Joon-ho\’s video take on the Statue of Brothers (2008-9) has the soldiers dancing an eternal waltz and never embracing

As is usually the case with events of this nature, there wasn’t nearly enough time, and the talks could easily have filled the best part of two days. Choe Sang-hun in particular seemed to be pacing himself for a two-hour stint when only something like 20 minutes were allotted. I’m guessing that a combination of funding constraints and maybe a fear that an audience won’t be able to stand two days leads the organisers to try to fit these events into one. I heard that BAKS will try to publish the papers in due course, which will be well worth waiting for.

The BAKS Symposium: ‘Reflections on War and Peace: Sixty Years after the Korean War’ was held at Asia House on 20 November 2010.


  • Jeon Joon-ho’s Statue of Brothers – an extract from his video work at the LA County Museum of Art
  • A short version of Professor Kim Young-na’s talk is available at Koreafocus
  1. According to Xi (Chosun Ilbo source), the war was imposed on China by “imperialist invaders” and was “a great victory in the pursuit of world peace and human progress.” []
  2. []

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