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n 2017, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick released their highly anticipated ten-part Vietnam War documentary on PBS. Bringing together scholars, veterans, government officials, and civilians to represent a broad range of political and geographical perspectives, the series was subsequently discussed on numerous editorial pages, Sunday morning political talk shows, and social media. Echoing Viet Thanh Nguyen’s (2016) argument that all wars are fought twice—once on the battlefield and again (and again) on the terrain of memory—some argued that the series was an important step towards bringing much-needed closure to a complicated historical episode, while others saw it as an elision of the hard truths about empire and American foreign affairs. It was, at least for audiences in the United States, an important cultural moment.
Employing a similarly diverse suite of storytellers and cinematic tropes, the April 2019 release of John Maggio’s PBS documentary Korea: The Never-ending War, differed significantly in its popular reception. This film produced comparatively few discussions about national (or transnational) catharsis and saw limited media engagement. As its title suggests, the conflict in Korea hasn’t officially ended. Yet given the response to the film’s release, Americans are clearly still struggling to remember what has, in both the US and East Asia, long been called “the forgotten war.”
What makes this forgetting so startling is the scale of the war’s enduring feedback loops across the vast circuitry of transpacific life. Cold War violence in Korea, for instance, bore a cost of three-to-four million lives (most of them civilian), led to prolonged political turmoil on the peninsula, primed the engines for the consolidation of the US national security state, justified the fourfold expansion of the US military budget, set the stage for the seemingly-permanent militarization of the region around the 38th parallel, ushered in the late-twentieth century global expansion of the US’s military footprint, and helped forge the transnational geographies of anti-imperial and anti-racist resistance movements.
Given the Korean War’s centrality to these ongoing intersections of militarism and global liberalism, it’s frustrating that one could easily walk away from the film still describing the Korean conflict using the well-trod history class bromide: Korea was the first hot war of the Cold War, a bipolar battle conjured by dyspeptic world leaders and waged almost exclusively between free-world forces of the United Nations and communist aggressors across the arbitrary border of the 38th parallel.
Despite containing incisive commentary from a range of people across the Pacific, including several critical and conventional historians of the peninsula, with its focus on the border division and the charisma and cunning of diplomats, generals, and world leaders, The Never-ending War does little to unpack this familiar and static geographical imaginary. That is, both the film and indeed much of the established literature on the Korean conflict seem to be searching for borders to map, lines to draw, and discrete temporal and political differentiations to make on the peninsula.
Thankfully, historian Monica Kim’s recent book, The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War: The Untold History (2019) tests these prevailing geographic simplifications, encouraging readers to make vital connections between the interrogation rooms of the POW camps and the dynamic transpacific infrastructures that manifest in what Simeon Man (2018) recently called the decolonizing Pacific.
Using a variety of sources including interviews, memoirs of former prisoners, and close readings of an extensive range of US and Korean archival materials, Kim does a remarkable job breaking open these small, isolated spaces embedded within wartime carceral compounds, revealing their centrality to enormous shifts in the making of American military power in the wake of the Second World War. In doing so, she does not succumb to the territorial trap that plagues many histories of foreign relations so much as she exposes its simplicity (Agnew, 1994).
As Wesley Attewell notes in his review of Man’s book in this forum, this type of transpacific scholarship challenges such territorially and temporally fixed analyses of imperial violence and focuses instead on the infrastructural circuitry that makes, un-makes, and upends empire through a “broader forcefield of imperial relations, sedimentations, and circulations.” By connecting large-scale geohistorical formations—like states, oceans, indigenous communities—with the bodies, affects, and populations that make, maintain, or challenge them—cleaners and entertainers (Attewell) or the uneven political potential of grief and mourning (Mitchell-Eaton)—these “forcefields” offer distinct spatial entry-points from more traditional land-based geographies of empire. That is, infrastructures like the transnational detention spaces and practices that occurred across the Cold War Korean peninsula, establish an analytical lens that highlights, to paraphrase Lisa Lowe (2015), the intimacies of continentally scaled geographies.
Though clearly a work of history, then, The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War is also an asset for critical and political geographers, who will gain not only a more robust understanding of the geographies of the transpacific Cold War, but also an often-unsettling accounting of the pairing of what Takashi Fujitani (2013) calls the violence of “racialized exclusion” with liberal discourses of “universalizing inclusion.” Additionally, for carceral geographers, who sometimes overlook the transnational contours of detainment infrastructures, the book makes it clear that wartime detention spaces are also “geographical solutions to social and economic crises,” enacting forms of state border-making domestically and abroad in distinct-but-intersecting ways (Gilmore, 2002, p. 16).
A key intervention of the book is that it situates the space and spatial practices of the interrogation room not simply as manifestations of a binary Cold War geopolitics, or even the Schmittian (1996) friend/enemy distinction, but as spaces constituting and constituted by longer transpacific histories. These histories intertwine in the interrogation rooms, linking together the afterlives of Japanese colonialism; the foibles of the US military occupation and government; the flows of labor that brought together the prisoners and interrogators; the infrastructure of humanitarian law; the diplomatic framing of state il/legitimacy; and the archives of state power. Mapping out these complexities is especially necessary, given the anemic Cold War geopolitics reinforced in conventional accounts of mid-century Korea—like The Never-ending War—that erase the myriad paradoxes of decolonization and subsume them within the imagined spatial clarity of the 38th Parallel.
In the introduction, Kim maps out a major shift in the U.S. government’s understanding of the geography of war. Coming out of the days of the Second World War, and erasing some of the most important historical context about the U.S. military government’s role in extending the violence of Japanese colonialism (Nisa, 2019), American policy-makers initially argued that violations of territorial borders, like the North Korean advance across the 38th parallel in June 1950, compelled their entrance into war. By the end of the conflict, however, this reasoning had shifted from protecting geographical terrain to understanding and sculpting the interior lives of the human subject—most notably the POWs detained in the camps across the peninsula. Complicating the distinctions between the Cold War strategic imaginaries of rollback and containment, in the interrogation rooms the individual prisoner became a key terrain of the war itself. The challenge that interrogators faced was not about extracting information in order to win communist-held territory, but rather, “how do we configure a person for state-building in the wake of colonialism?” (p. 11) It is a question that, seventy years later and nearly a generation into another US-led global police action, the US state still struggles to address.
Kim’s analysis draws our attention to the enduring tensions between these two framings—between empire’s territorial focus and the deterritorialization of control that typifies late twentieth century US militarism. These ongoing frictions can also be seen by pairing Daniel Immerwahr’s (2019) new book How to Hide an Empire, which focuses on the early twentieth century territories of US imperialism with Stuart Schrader’s (2019) incisive rejoinder, in which he claims, rightly, that contemporary empire “transcends but also hierarchizes territory.” Kim’s text manages to place the wartime interrogation room at the center of this historical geographic fulcrum. Although interrogation rooms are coercive and opaque places (Kim, 2019, p. 8), the book traces the ways that they became, over the course of the war, spaces through which prisoners are ostensibly empowered to exercise free will and thus the transparency and superiority of liberalism. Challenging and productive contradictions like this animate the pages of the book.
In Part I of the book Kim lays out the central role of Japanese colonialism and the subsequent US military occupation—what she calls “decolonization through military occupation”—in setting the stage for the complexities of the police action that would accelerate in 1950. As Kim shows, interrogation frequently undermined the government’s quest for the capital “T” truth of captives’ identities, because “the ordinary Korean under US occupation was learning how to navigate different potential readings of his or her personhood by different groups” (p. 35). Far from revealing an inert friend or enemy subject, then, these interrogations showed that people across the peninsula were choreographing their relative intelligibility against the occupation’s various ways of seeing. At times, as Emily Mitchell-Eaton notes in her review of Jinah Kim’s book Postcolonial Grief in this forum, this illegibility of colonized populations is a declaration of sovereignty against the imperial common sense. Whatever shapes these appraisals took in the interrogation rooms—communist, anti-communist, communist affiliation unknown—each came with its own violent consequences for the Korean civilian.
Next is a chapter on the prisoner of war, a wartime status that Kim positions as the subject through which US actors would seek to grasp “what kind of war the Korean War was.” (p. 81) Here, readers are introduced to the tensions between the framing of the POW as an emblematic liberal subject endowed with universal human capacity to exercise free will (in their choice to repatriate or not after the war) and the racialized Asian prisoner who—according to U.S. military personnel—lacked the capacity to self-govern or to truthfully or accurately respond to interrogator prompts.
When Kim shifts to the subject of the interrogator, the reader is given a thick description of the transpacific geographies that actually made the interrogation rooms and tied them to a truly global infrastructure. Interrogator Sam Miyamoto, for instance, was a Japanese American who had been detained in an internment camp as a teen by the US during the Second World War, was subsequently sent by the US to Japan in a prisoner exchange for American POWs, only to return later (after years on the margins of Japanese society) to California to attend college. Subsequently drafted into the American military, Miyamoto would be a key asset for the US state that had recently detained him as an enemy while using the language of the Japanese state that never embraced him to interrogate Korean prisoners in the language of their former colonizers. As Kim notes, Miyamoto “was not firmly a citizen of a state, but rather a subject of two empires, on whom the conflict over political recognition would play out.” (p. 135).
Part II of the book is organized geographically—with a chapter that explores the complicated struggle for autonomy and self-determination in the UN-managed prison camp on Koje Island, followed by chapters detailing interrogation and detention first below, then at, and then above the mythic 38th Parallel.
In exploring events below the 38th parallel, Kim sketches the intersecting infrastructures of violence that underpinned activities by the US military government, right-wing youth groups, Syngman Rhee’s South Korean government, and the interrogations performed by the US Counterintelligence Corps. When discussing the repatriation interrogations that took place on the 38th parallel in the following chapter, Kim refers to the “intimate cartographies” of the POWS “as they navigated global geopolitics.” (p. 263). In one remarkable passage, Kim tells the story of one member of the Indian custodial force in Korea to oversee the repatriation interrogations near the border, who recognized two Korean prisoners that had been his guards (as Japanese colonial soldiers) when he was detained in the Second World War.
When Kim’s analysis moves above the 38th parallel, readers are again challenged to deconstruct the binary logics of Cold War geography, this time detailing the racializations at the heart of U.S. empire at home and abroad. Focusing on African American detainees (as well as POWs from Puerto Rico and the Philippines), the chapter highlights how the politics of domestic military desegregation and the histories of empire collided in the North Korean interrogation rooms. Many North Korean captors saw the racial violence enacted by white POWs (who, for instance, organized KKK branches inside their POW camps) as reflections of the very same racism that many of them had experienced when visiting the US earlier in the 20th century, and discussed this freely with their captives. Through transcripts and descriptions of interrogations with African American and other US prisoners from across the transpacific empire, Kim identifies a “North Korean vision of Third World internationalism” that “began to take shape between interrogator and the interrogated.”
After the Armistice, as the Red Scare discourse of communist brainwashing engrossed the American public, the question of liberal choice and free-will addressed by Kim earlier with regards to Korean and Chinese POWs rebounds through the carceral infrastructure in surprising ways. Interrogators debriefing the recently-released African American POWs as they made their way home on ships crossing the Pacific, for instance, were faced with a provocative challenge: “How did one decolonize an American?” (p. 307)
It is through these artfully-rendered narratives that readers can truly understand the ways in which the POW, the interrogator, and the interrogation room fit into a more complex, transpacific carceral story. The interrogations performed in Korea did seek to give clarity to the 38th parallel, to determine who belonged on which side of the arbitrary line and to which detention compound they should be sent, if any. But in reading the analyses of the spaces and systems in this book, one senses that such a project was a futile fever dream of an imperial power that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) reconciled with what Derek Gregory, in another context, identifies as the “spatial stories and their contrapuntal filiations” that conjoin “multiple geographies” and condense “multiple histories.” (2004, p. 20) Or, as Kim argues, the “US military interrogation room had its own history, one embedded in a longer temporality of multiple imperial projects across the Pacific” (p. 125).
While The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War is certainly an outstanding work of historical scholarship, it is also a text that is explicitly geographical. Kim builds an understanding of political historical space-making and convincingly links together the intimate scale of the prisoner body with the transpacific scale of Cold War decolonization and the paradoxes of humanitarian violence. In doing so, she demonstrates that the “usual Cold War binary formation of anti-Communism versus Communism is gravely insufficient, and that the questions of colonialism, sovereignty, and recognition over the twentieth century are more at the core of the Korean War on the ground.” (p. 356)
Yet, despite the fact that readers will gain a much more nuanced and complex understanding of state space-making, of geopolitics and violent geographies, and of the dynamic boundaries of carceral space, the book contains citations of few—if any—anglophone geographers. I offer this not as an indictment of the author, but rather to draw much-needed attention to the fact that, with very few exceptions, there’s no geographic scholarship for her to draw on. Anglophone geography, and in particular political geography, has forgotten the Cold War Korean peninsula.
Why, given all of the ways that we still live with the legacies of violence near the 38th parallel, do political and historical geographers focus so exclusively on other mid-century case studies like Vietnam or the transatlantic Cold War, replicating the omissions embedded in films like The Never-ending War? As Kim’s text makes evident, the borders drawn on the peninsula may frame our conversations about its geographic history, but they often obscure more impactful infrastructural connections that continue to have dynamic and often devastating afterlives. In The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War, Kim is making a world, mapping a world, out from a small room, and likewise mapping a small room through the tangled circuitry of the world.
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