Author: Jack Abel, senior in the History major
Editor: Brittany Von Kamp, second year student in the M.A. in History
This is a public presentation written as part of HIST4001, Professional Practices in History and HIST4804, Seminar in Diplomatic and Military History .
The Korean War was the first major conflict in what became known as the Cold War following the conclusion of WWII. The basis of this conflict was the ideological struggle between the two major world powers, the United States which was a capitalist-based economy and the Soviet Union which was a communist-based economy. The war was not a struggle between the two countries head on but was fought with proxy nations who shared similar ideologies with the major powers.
The use of stereotypes towards an opposing force has been a tactic throughout most of human history. Stereotypes have been used to portray the opposite side in a conflict to the civilian people. A racial stereotype, in its basic definition, is when one group takes a characteristic of another group and over dramatize it to make the other side seem almost sub-human. This process is known as othering. Othering is when a person or a group of people view another group in a certain which aims to alienate them or separate them from the larger group.
During the Korean War, there was a special unit in the United States Army dedicated to this process of othering. This unit was called the Psychological Warfare Section of the US 8th Army. Their mission during the war was to produce images, leaflets, and posters directed at attacking and discrediting the enemy. The documents that this group produced were not exclusive to just attacking the North Korean people. They also sought to attack the Communist ideology. By doing this, the unit hoped to discredit the ideology to North Korea. After they were produced, they would be spread throughout the nation. They would also be dropped to the North Korean people to try to sway their opinion.
Figure 1 is one among many hundreds of posters that were created by this unit. In the picture, you can see one way that they wanted to portray the communists. They make Kim Il Sung seem less human like and more like some form of an animal.
Stereotypes can be many forms. While in the figure above the author chose to make Kim Il Sung seem animal-like, a different author can use an entirely different way of portraying an opposing side. A very common way authors can negatively portray their enemy is through the overcompensation of certain physical features of a race or group of people.
One of the most widely used racial stereotypes used by American servicemen in Korea was the term “gook”. It is believed that the term was started by US soldiers during the US – Philippine War from 1899-1902. The term originally referred to anyone who is not American. In a quote taken from a journal article titled “From Mee-gook to Gook” by Jodi Kim, she writes that “He theorizes that when American soldiers entered a Korean village during the Korean War, the villagers would shout “Mee-gook! Mee-gook” (225-26). The soldiers interpreted this as “Me gook,” as in “I am a gook.” The word “Mee-gook” however, means America/Americans in Korean.” The common soldier in the Korean War did not think that the people who lived in the villages they were liberating would be speaking a different language than English. As a result of America’s involvement in both Korea and Vietnam, the term as changed meaning to just people of Asian descent.
During wartime, warring powers would make posters to also garner national pride. Without public support, a country cannot hope to succeed in its military endeavors. The government wanted to drum up support and public opinion for this war. Nationalism also plays an important role during a conflict. Nationalism is loyalty to one’s nations above another power. As I stated previously, the United States in Korea also wanted to attack the Communist ideology. An example of this can be found in figure 4.
Governments can also use posters/propaganda to discredit the other side as a way of selling the war to the populace. In any conflict, a nation wants to appear as the good side in the conflict. They want to make their soldiers look like the good guys in a conflict. One way that governments achieve this is by printing posters/making propaganda that attacks the ideology of the opposing power in the conflict. One example of this type of attack can be seen in figure 4 below.
Race and imagery played a very integral part in the Korean War. One part was the way the United States wanted to portray the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, as a puppet of the Soviet Union. Another way was how they wanted to discredit the leadership of the North by portraying them as eating lavishly while the common people starved. Yet another way was the images and cartoons trying to display the cooperation between the leadership of the Americans. Finally, the racial stereotypes that came to light during the war from American soldiers that had devastating impacts on the way soldiers and common people would view the people of South East Asia for years to come.
Library of Congress, Cartoon Drawings, https://www.loc.gov/collections/cartoon-drawings/?dates=1950%2F1959&sb=date.
North Dakota State University, Digital Horizons, Korean War Propaganda Leaflets (NDSU), http://www.digitalhorizonsonline.org/digital/collection/ndsu-korea/search.
To Know More:
Casey, Steven, Selling the Korean War, (Oxford University Press, 2008) “Is ‘Othering’ a Real Word?” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/other-as-a-verb.
Kim, Jodi, “From Mee-Gook to Gook: The Cold War and Racialized Undocumented Capital in Chang-Rae Lee’s “Native Speaker”, MELUS, Vol 34, no. 1, (Spring 2009), 121, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20485361?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.