The Face of the Enemy during the Korean War

25/07/2011

On the occassion of the publication of my very first academic article (yes, some blatant self-promotion on my part here), I would like to focus this week on the way South Korean writers depicted the enemy during the Korean War.
It goes without saying that nationalism and the moral highground on who represented the Korean nation formed one of the important battlefields during the civil war, especially for writers.

As war broke out on the 25th of June 1950, most writers already had a clear idea of what their role in war should be like. They saw wars in the modern period as ‘total wars’, meaning wars between nations, thereby blurring the distinction between soldier and civilian. Propaganda was regarded as being on an equal footing as the actual fighting, and the writer had a unique role to play in this. As was aptly put by children literature author Ch’oe Sangdŏk (1901-1971):

The pen which we carry to fight should, like grenades, field artillery, flame throwers and the atomic bomb, […] become a new weapon.
By taking up our pens we can withstand the enemy and span the divide between the front and the rear by increasing the morale of front-line soldiers and increasing the fighting spirit of the civilians at the rear.

Bopyeong

Cover of the first edition of the war poem collection Together with the Foot Soldiers by Yu Ch’ihwan (1951) showing the writer as a soldier with a pen as its weapon

The North Korean Enemy
Literature written during the Korean War therefore needed to have the specific function of keeping morale high of both soldiers and civilians. Evoking hatred towards the enemy is a very common method to create such an effect on readers, and many writers used this strategy in their stories. That their definition of “total war between nations” had to be amended in their stories when it was put to practice in a civil war situation, can be seen in their method of depicting the North Korean enemy.

In many stories a distinction is made between the North Korean politician or army officer and the common North Korean citizen. Kim Song’s Living Forever (영원히 사는 것, 1952) and Ch’oe Sangdŏk’s The Cow that Crossed the 38th Parallel (소가 넘은 38선, 1952) are only two examples where this can be seen. In the stories the writers make clear that the North Korean politicians and army officers have given up all rights to be part of the Korean nation by adhering to their “mistaken” (communist) ideology. Meanwhile the common North Korean citizen is a victim of this group in power and are treated as slaves.

In Kim Song’s novel, for example, this distinction is made clear by the character of Chu Mongil, who is an officer in the North Korean army. Among his evil deeds he rapes the hero’s fiancée and tries hard to establish a fifth column within South Korean territory. When the hero (named Hyŏngch’il) meets a captured North Korean soldier, however, he realizes what hardship the common North Korean people must endure.

It looks like the enemy’s military police tied his feet, so
that he couldn’t retreat at all, and was forced to fight
to the death. But in the face of our marines’ relentless
attack, the enemy’s defensive lines broke down completely
and their military police shot him, so that he
couldn’t flee.
“I wanted to run away and surrender, but because of the
military police’s supervision I ended up like this,” said
the boy, who dropped down on the ground and started
to cry loudly. Even though he was an enemy, from a
human perspective Hyŏngch’il felt pity for him.

The North Korean officers and politicians appearing in Kim Song’s story are generally depicted as cruel, murderous and inhuman, and are frequently associated with creatures that have negative connotations, such as devils, wolves and vermin. For the reader it is immediately clear which character in the story is evil, and who is good. That evilness is even biologically inscribed into a person’s appearance helps a lot in this regard. Chu Mongil, therefore, is described as having the “face of a savage, while his voice is like the howl of a bloodsucking vampire from hell”. throughout the novel, North Koreans are systematically shown in a bad light and denied any human characteristics. What I find interesting is that even in contemporary South Korean movies one can easily find these “evil” features in the way North Korean army officers are depicted, for example in Into the Fire (포화속으로, 2009) and the very recent The Front Line (고지전, 2011).

Into the Fire

The scarred face of Ch´a Seungwon in Into the Fire (who in reality is regarded as very handsome)

However, even in the course of one novel it is not easy to keep the distinction of an easily recognizable enemy intact. As “shadows” come to the house to take Hyŏngch’il’s fiancée’s father away, they are easily recognizable as common North Korean soldiers. This, in combination with the general trend during the Korean War in other South Korean stories to depict all North Koreans as evil, make it difficult for the reader to maintain a sympathethic stance towards the common North Korean citizen/soldier.

Front Line

Another example of evilness being easily recognizable in The Front Line

Some instances in which the wartime (propaganda) stories unintentionally read like humor stories can be found in Yu Chuhyŏn’s Woman’s Song (여인의 노래, 1952) and Pak Yŏnhŭi’s Weapons and Humanity (무기와 인간, 1953) and the way they depict the Chinese enemy soldiers. In both stories the Chinese are depicted as evil by their physical shortcomings, and their animalistic acts. As true animals their normal behaviour is to kill and rape women. What makes their stories funny, is the fact that the Chinese soldier’s sexual lust wins out over their survival skills, when in both stories the Chinese soldiers die when they are trying to rape a (needless to say,  Korean) woman, while bombs are flying around and a major assault is launched on their hillside.
After the Korean War, the animalistic sexual lust of the enemy seems to have remained a popular theme in anti-communist literature as can be seen by the cover of a comic book entitled Kim Il Sung’s Secret Bedroom (김일성의 침실).

Kim Il Sung

Cover of the anti-communist comic book Kim Il Sung's Secret Bedroom showing a lustful Kim Il Sung



The tragic deaths of Chŏn Bongnae and Chŏng Unsam

16/07/2011

It goes without saying that the Korean War period was a severe and tragic time for Koreans, and writers and poets were not spared. For two young poets the wartime hardships they experienced proved to be too much, and both decided to commit suicide.

Chŏn Bongnae (born March 3, 1923 – died February 16, 1951)  was an up and coming poet who made his debut in 1950 through the Literary Arts (文藝) magazine. During the liberation period he had moved to the south together with his brother and spent most of his time in several cafe’s enjoying Bach’s music or reading the poetry of Paul Valéry.
When war broke out he and his brother were unable to flee Seoul and spent three months in hiding during the occupation by the North Korean army. After Seoul was recaptured his brother was drafted into the army, while Chŏn Bongnae moved to Pusan.
Without food and a home, he soon saw no other way but to take his own life even though he had a desire to keep on living as he attested in his suicide note. After drinking poison while seated in cafe Star, he wrote the following last words:

 I just drank phenobarbital. That was 30 seconds ago. Nothing happens.
2 minutes, 3 minutes have passed. Still nothing.
10 minutes have passed. My eyelids are feeling heavy.
I did not want to leave this world and this brilliant century. But in order to live correctly and honestly
I will go to my death with a smile.
Bach’s music is flowing around.

To the people I miss,

February 16th.

Haedong Kongnon
Cover of the 1949 magazine Haedong Kongnon (Korean Debates) containing Chŏng Unsam’s poem ‘In a Moonlit Night’

 Chŏng Unsam (born 1925 – died January 8, 1953) had published his first few romantic poems in Whiteclothed People (白民) magazine in 1949 and also was a promising new poet on the literary scene. During the war he had fled to Pusan, where he obtained a job as a teacher at Sukmyŏng Girls High School.
The day he commited suicide did not seem any different from his other regular visits to Cafe Mildawŏn. However next to his pent up frustrations due to the war, he had just experienced a painful heartbreak. This led him to his decision. In his suicide note he wrote:

After a long time it has really become clear to me.
Now, in the rolling waves of the sea, I can see the face of my lover sending me a smile.
Now I see before me that almost all of my beloved friends have gathered.
I don’t want to lengthen my life any longer in this time and place where they have taken care of me.
Be well. People I miss.

January 8, 1953   Chŏng Unsam

The deaths of these two promising young poets created a big shock among writers, and some of them wrote about this in their works. For example Kim Song inserted a reference to Chŏn Bongnae’s suicide in his novel Living Forever (영원히 사는 것, 1952), when the main female protagonist of the story contemplates suicide and writes in her diary that she was thinking of committing suicide by drinking phenobarbital while listening to Bach’s music.
Kim Dongni wrote about the hardships that the writers had to endure in his famous 1955 novel The Period in Mildawŏn (밀다원 시대), and gives a glimpse of the reasons why these young poets came to their decision to end their lives so soon.