Category Archives: Korea

Origins of WWII Korean POWs in Hawai‘i

From Korean Prisoners-of-War in Hawaii During World War II and the Case of US Navy Abduction of Three Korean Fishermen, by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Univ. of Hawaii, in Asia-Pacific Focus: Japan Focus, vol. 7, iss. 49, no. 2 (30 November 2009):

Approximately 2,700 Korean POWs were captured and brought to the Island of Oahu, where they were incarcerated until the end of the war and their repatriation to Korea in December 1945…. Plucked mostly from various Pacific islands toward the end of the war, these Korean POWs were detained in a camp in Honouliuli on the Island of Oahu. This camp, located in Honouliuli Gulch, west of Waipahu, was opened in March 1943 as the Honouliuli Internment Camp to detain Japanese and Japanese-American internees as well as POWs from Japan, Italy, and elsewhere. It was later renamed as Alien Internment Camp and still later as POW Compound Number 6….

The first arrivals of Korean POWs to the Honouliuli camp must have come in late 1943 or early 1944 as the following report suggests: “As a result of the Gilbert Island operation and the capture of Korean noncombatant prisoners of war, it has been found necessary to construct an additional enclosure to separate the Japanese from the Koreans.”…

Among the 798 men on the Japanese side on Makin Atoll, there was one labor unit consisting of 276 men “who had no combat training and were not assigned weapons or a battle station,” according to one report. It is believed that most, if not all of them, were Korean. If this is true, out of 276 Korean noncombatants, only 104, less than half, survived as prisoners while 172 died in the fighting.

The Gilbert Islands Operation then turned against Tarawa Atoll, where more than 4,700 defenders, including 1,200 Korean laborers, were stationed.8 After four days of fierce combat, the atoll was brought under American control. The total Japanese and Korean casualties were reported to be 4,713. The only survivors were one Japanese officer, 16 enlisted men, and 129 Koreans who were taken as POWs. This means that out of 1,200 Korean noncombatant laborers on Tarawa, only 129 survived as POWs and nearly 1,000 died in battle….

In addition to these Korean POWs from the Gilbert Islands, some 300 to 400 Korean laborers were brought to the Honouliuli camp after the American military operation on Saipan in 1944. In a telephone interview I conducted with Mr. Young Taik Chun, a second generation Korean-American, on October 27, 1990, he stated that in July or August of 1944 the United States military authorities asked him to interpret for Korean POWs at the Honoulilui camp, who had just been brought from Saipan. When he arrived at the camp, there were 300 to 400 Koreans, all of them noncombatant laborers, who had recently been transported from Saipan….

It is likely that Korean laborers from various other Pacific islands, such as Guam, Tinian, Palau, and Peleliu were also brought to the Honouliuli camp as POWs, having experienced similar ordeals….

A United States military report, dated July 28, 1945, states that 2,592 Koreans were detained in Hawaii…. This number increased to 2,700 by December 1945 when a complete list of the Korean POWs of the Honouliuli camp was made just before they were repatriated to Korea.

There were also three Korean college student draftees (Ko. hakbyŏng, Jp. gakuhei) who deserted and surrendered to the British in Burma (a fascinating story), and three fisherman abducted in April 1945 by an American submarine, Tirante, in the strait between Japan and Korea.

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Projected World War II Casualties after Sept. 1945

From Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, by George Feifer (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), pp. 571-574:

American anticipation of the bloodbath [awaiting them when they invaded the main islands of Japan] was evident in the forty-two divisions they allotted to the invasion. Seven had fought on Okinawa.

The planners calculated the landing alone would cost a hundred thousand American lives. The full securing of the home islands was expected to cost ten times that number, or four times the combined losses of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. General MacArthur, whose estimates of casualties in previous battles had been uncannily accurate, made a careful study of the mainland operation at President Truman’s request and predicted one million men would be killed or wounded in the invasions of Kyushu and Honshu alone…. Final victory might easily cost more American casualties than in the entire war until then, in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

The predictability of the [Okinawa] veterans’ renewed love of the bomb when they saw what it saved them from at mainland landing sites is no reason to dismiss arguments for its use. Of course it killed many people, but the equation, if there is one, must include the people it saved, to the extent that saving now seems likely and the number can be estimated. Although the American fighting men who cheered Little Boy and Fat Man did not care as much about others’ survival as their own, consideration of the larger issue must include possible Japanese losses.

The ratio of Japanese combat deaths to American was well over 10 to 1 on Okinawa. It might have been marginally different during fighting in the enemy’s heartland rather than on isolated islands, where Japanese garrisons were often cut off from reinforcements. Civilian deaths assuredly would have been much higher, if only because the mainland had many more civilians with a commitment to die for Emperor and country. The best estimates of probably total Japanese deaths in a mainland campaign are around twenty million; if civilian suicides and suicidal resistance had generated hysteria – a likely prospect in light of the experience on Guam [sic; Saipan?] and Okinawa – the toll would have been higher. The country would have been leveled and burned to cinders. Postwar life, including economic recovery, would have been retarded if Russia, a full Allied partner during the ground combat from 1945 to 1947 or 1948, would have insisted on dividing Japan like Korea and Germany.

Any estimate of lives saved by the atomic bombs must include hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians in China, Manchuria and other territories still fought for and occupied, often viciously, by Japan. There would have been tens of thousands of British casualties among the 200,000 set to invade the Malay Peninsula – to retake Singapore – on September 9, a month after Nagasaki. Six divisions, the same number as at Normandy, had been assigned to that operation. It was expected to take seven months of savage infantry fighting, over half the time required to defeat Hitler’s armies in Europe.

The total number must also include European and Eurasian prisoners of the Japanese, chiefly from English, Dutch, and other colonial military and civilian forces. Okinawa was the most important prelude to the climax because its terrain most closely resembled the mainland’s, but non-Japanese elsewhere in Asia would have suffered even more during the new Tennozan. After the fall of Okinawa, Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi issued an order directing his prison camp officers to kill all their captives the moment the enemy invaded his southeast Asia theater. That would have been when those 200,000 British landed to retake Singapore, less than three weeks after the Japanese surrender. There was a real chance that Terauchi’s order would have been carried out, in which case up to 400,000 people would have been massacred. Even more were doomed to die soon after of “natural” causes. The Japanese treatment of their prisoners grew more brutal as the military situation worsened and their hatred swelled. Laurens van der Post, who had been a prisoner for more than forty months, was convinced that the majority of the half-million captives in the hellish camps could not possibly have survived the year 1946. Dying every day in droves throughout the summer of 1945, nearly all would have perished of disease and starvation in the months that followed.

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Nationalist, not Moralist, Conflict in Asia

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 322-333, 585-592:

There is nothing romantic about this new front line. Whereas World War II was a moral struggle against fascism, the Cold War a moral struggle against communism, the post-Cold War a moral struggle against genocide in the Balkans, Africa, and the Levant, as well as a moral struggle against terrorism and in support of democracy, the South China Sea shows us a twenty-first-century world void of moral struggles, with all of their attendant fascination for humanists and intellectuals. Beyond the communist tyranny of North Korea, a Cold War relic, the whole of East Asia simply offers little for humanists. For there is no philosophical enemy to confront. The fact is that East Asia is all about trade and business. Even China, its suffering dissidents notwithstanding, simply does not measure up as an object of moral fury.

The Chinese regime demonstrates a low-calorie version of authoritarianism, with a capitalist economy and little governing ideology to speak of. Moreover, China is likely to become more open rather than closed as a society in future years. China’s leaders are competent engineers and regional governors, dedicated to an improving and balanced economy, who abide by mandatory retirement ages. These are not the decadent, calcified leaders of the Arab world who have been overthrown. Rather than fascism or militarism, China, along with every state in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence, the rise even, of old-fashioned nationalism: an idea, no doubt, but not one that since the mid-nineteenth century has been attractive to liberal humanists.

Truly, in international affairs, behind all questions of morality lie questions of power. Humanitarian intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s was possible only because the Serbian regime was not a great power armed with nuclear weapons, unlike the Russian regime, which at the same time was committing atrocities of a similar scale in Chechnya where the West did nothing; nor did the West do much against the ethnic cleansing in the Caucasus because there, too, was a Russian sphere of influence. In the Western Pacific in the coming decades, morality may mean giving up some of our most cherished ideals for the sake of stability. How else are we to make at least some room for a quasi-authoritarian China as its military expands? (And barring a social-economic collapse internally, China’s military will keep on expanding.) For it is the balance of power itself, even more than the democratic values of the West, that is often the best preserver of freedom. That also will be a lesson of the South China Sea in the twenty-first century—one more that humanists do not want to hear.

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Filed under China, democracy, economics, energy, Japan, Korea, military, nationalism, philosophy, Russia, Southeast Asia

Geostrategic South China Sea

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 222-253:

The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans—the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce. Here is the heart of Eurasia’s navigable rimland, punctuated by the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar straits. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide. The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal. Roughly two thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea. Whereas in the Persian Gulf only energy is transported, in the South China Sea you have energy, finished goods, and unfinished goods.

In addition to centrality of location, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels, and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If Chinese calculations are correct that the South China Sea will ultimately yield 130 billion barrels of oil (and there is some serious doubt about these estimates), then the South China Sea contains more oil than any area of the globe except Saudi Arabia. Some Chinese observers have called the South China Sea “the second Persian Gulf.” If there really is so much oil in the South China Sea, then China will have partially alleviated its “Malacca dilemma”—its reliance on the narrow and vulnerable Strait of Malacca for so much of its energy needs coming from the Middle East. And the China National Offshore Oil Corporation has invested $20 billion in the belief that such amounts of oil really do exist in the South China Sea. China is desperate for new energy. Chinese oil reserves account for only 1.1 percent of the world total, while it consumes over 10 percent of world oil production and over 20 percent of all the energy consumed on the planet.

It is not only location and energy reserves that promise to give the South China Sea critical geostrategic importance, it is the territorial disputes surrounding these waters, home to more than two hundred small islands, rocks, and coral reefs, only about three dozen of which are permanently above water. Yet these specks of land, buffeted by typhoons, are valuable mainly because of the oil and natural gas that might lie nearby in the intricate, folded layers of rock beneath the sea. Brunei claims a southern reef of the Spratly Islands. Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratlys. The Philippines claims eight islands in the Spratlys and significant portions of the South China Sea. Vietnam, Taiwan, and China each claims much of the South China Sea, as well as all of the Spratly and Paracel island groups. In the middle of 2010 there was quite a stir when China was said to have called the South China Sea a “core interest.” It turns out that Chinese officials never quite said that: no matter. Chinese maps have been consistent. Beijing claims to own what it calls its “historic line”: that is, the heart of the entire South China Sea in a grand loop—the “cow’s tongue” as the loop is called—surrounding these island groups from China’s Hainan Island south 1,200 miles to near Singapore and Malaysia. The result is that all of these littoral states are more or less arrayed against China, and dependent upon the United States for diplomatic and military backing. For example, Vietnam and Malaysia are seeking to divide all of the seabed and subsoil resources of the southern part of the South China Sea between mainland Southeast Asia and the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo: this has elicited a furious diplomatic response from China. These conflicting claims are likely to become more acute as energy consumption in developing Asian countries is expected to double by 2030, with China accounting for half of that growth.

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North Korea’s Economic Collapse

From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 1810-1832:

KIM IL-SUNG’S DEATH had, in fact, not changed much in the country. Kim Jong-il had gradually been assuming power over the decade preceding his father’s death. The economy’s inevitable collapse had been set in motion years before under the weight of its own inefficiencies. But North Korea’s Great Leader picked a convenient time to die, one that would prevent his legacy from being tarnished by the catastrophic events of the coming years. Had he lived a moment longer, North Koreans today would not be able to look back with nostalgia at the relative plenty they had enjoyed during his lifetime. His passing coincided with the last gasps of his Communist dream.

By 1995, North Korea’s economy was as stone-cold dead as the Great Leader’s body. Per capita income was plummeting, from $2,460 in 1991 to $719 in 1995. North Korea’s merchandise exports dropped from $2 billion to about $800 million. The collapse of the economy had an organic quality to it, as though a living being were slowly shutting down and dying.

In Chongjin, the hulking factories along the waterfront looked like a wall of rust, their smokestacks lined up like the bars of a prison. The smokestacks were the most reliable indicators. On most days, only a few spat out smoke from their furnaces. You could count the distinct puffs of smoke—one, two, at most three—and see that the heartbeat of the city was fading. The main gates of the factories were now coiled shut with chains and padlocks—that is, if the locks hadn’t been spirited away by the thieves who had already dismantled and removed the machinery.

Just north of the industrial district the waves lapped quietly against the empty piers of the port. The Japanese and Soviet freighters that used to make regular calls to pick up steel plates from the mills were gone. Now there was only North Korea’s fleet of rusting fishing vessels. Perched on a cliff above the port, giant letters proclaimed KIM JONG-IL, SUN OF THE 21ST CENTURY, but even they appeared to be crumbling into the landscape. The red lettering on the propaganda signs along the road hadn’t been repainted for years and had faded to a dull pink.

One of the most polluted cities in North Korea, Chongjin now took on a new beauty, stark and quiet. In autumn and winter, the dry seasons in northeast Asia, the sky was crisp and blue. The sharp odor of sulfur from the steelworks had lifted, allowing people once more to smell the sea. In summer, hollyhocks crept up the sides of concrete walls. Even the garbage was gone. Not that North Korea ever had much litter—there was never enough of anything to go to waste—but with economic life at a standstill, the detritus of civilization was disappearing. There were no plastic bags or candy wrappers wafting in the breeze, no soda cans floating in the harbor. If somebody stamped out a cigarette on the pavement, somebody else would pick it up to extract a few flecks of tobacco to roll again with newspaper.

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Kitachosenjin in North Korea

From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 534-548:

In fact, Japanese Koreans, who were known as kitachosenjin, after the Japanese term for North Korea, Kita Chosen, lived in a world apart. They had distinctive accents and tended to marry one another. Although they were far from rich by Japanese standards, they were wealthy compared with ordinary North Koreans. They had arrived in the new country with leather shoes and nice woolen sweaters, while North Koreans wore canvas on their feet and shiny polyester. Their relatives regularly sent them Japanese yen, which could be used in special hard-currency shops to buy appliances. Some had even brought over automobiles, although soon enough they would break down for lack of spare parts and have to be donated to the North Korean government. Years after they arrived, Japanese Koreans received regular visits from their relatives who would travel over on the Mangyongbong-92 ferry with money and gifts. The ferry was operated by the pro-regime Chosen Soren and its visits to North Korea were encouraged as a way of bringing currency into the country. The regime skimmed off a portion of the money sent by relatives. Yet for all their wealth, the Japanese Koreans occupied a lowly position in the North Korean hierarchy. No matter that they were avowed Communists who gave up comfortable lives in Japan, they were lumped in with the hostile class. The regime couldn’t trust anyone with money who wasn’t a member of the Workers’ Party. They were among the few North Koreans permitted to have contact with the outside, and that in itself made them unreliable; the strength of the regime came from its ability to isolate its own citizens completely.

The new immigrants from Japan quickly shed their idealism. Some of the early immigrants who arrived in North Korea wrote letters home warning others not to come, but those letters were intercepted and destroyed. Many of the Japanese Koreans, including some prominent in Chosen Soren, ended up being purged in the early 1970s, the leaders executed, their families sent to the gulag.

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Women and Markets in North Korea

From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2445-2482:

For the first time, the markets stocked household goods so cheap even North Koreans could buy them. The results of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the 1970s and 1980s were seeping into North Korea. From China came writing paper, pens and pencils, fragrant shampoos, hairbrushes, nail clippers, razor blades, batteries, cigarette lighters, umbrellas, toy cars, socks. It had been so long since North Korea could manufacture anything that the ordinary had become extraordinary.

The clothing was also a revelation, an invasion of alien colors from another world. Pink, yellow, tangerine, and turquoise—colors as luscious as the tropical fruits now on the market, in fabrics much softer and shinier than anything made in North Korea. Occasionally you’d see some better-quality clothes at the market with the labels ripped out. The vendors would whisper that these came from areh dongae, “the village below,” a euphemism for South Korea. People would pay more for clothing from the enemy state.

Every time Mrs. Song went to the market it seemed bigger and bigger. It was no longer just the old ladies squatting over tarpaulins in the dirt; there were hundreds of people laying out merchandise on wooden crates or carts. Vendors brought in tables and display cases and umbrellas to protect their wares from the sun.

The biggest market in Chongjin sprang up in an industrial wasteland near the Sunam River, which cut inland from the port through the center of the city. Behind the pitiful wreckage of the Chemical Textile factory, the Sunam Market would eventually become the largest market in North Korea. It was organized much like markets elsewhere in Asia—several aisles devoted to food, others to hardware, pots and pans, cosmetics, shoes, and clothing. It wasn’t until 2002 that Kim Jong-il belatedly legalized the markets. The Chongjin authorities, however, had recognized their de facto reality years earlier and begun to regulate them. The market authorities charged the vendors 70 won a day rent—about the price of a kilo of rice. The vendors who couldn’t afford the rent set up outside the gates, and so the market expanded further, spilling onto the sloping banks of the river. Mrs. Song’s cookie business never rose to the level where she would get her own booth. She didn’t want to pay the rent. But she did become part of a community of vendors who worked around the edges of a market in Songpyeon, a district west of the port where she moved once she made a little money.

The markets were magnets for all sorts of other businesses. Outside Sunam, along a whitewashed wall crawling with hollyhocks, was a line of crude wooden carts. Their owners usually slept on top, waiting for customers who needed merchandise transported. Chongjin had no taxis, not even the rickshaws or pedicabs of China (the North Korean government thought them demeaning), but people had decided to fill a void by setting themselves up as porters. Hairdressers and barbers trained by the government’s Convenience Bureau, the agency that was supposed to provide all services, set up mobile haircutting services. All they needed was a pair of scissors and a mirror. They worked near the food market, often getting into quarrels with the other vendors, who didn’t want hair wafting into their food. The hairdressers clipped quickly, one eye making sure a razor didn’t nick an ear, the other looking out for the police, who would confiscate their equipment if they were caught engaging in private business. Still, it was lucrative. Women with stomachs growling from hunger would shell out their last won for a perm.

By a market at the train tracks, people set up makeshift restaurants with planks of wood laid across bricks for tables, overturned buckets for chairs. The customers ate quickly, their spoons scraping small metal bowls of steaming soup or noodles. The cooks sweated over cylindrical metal stoves no bigger than paint cans, cranking old-fashioned bellows to fan the fires. It was not unusual to see a woman squatting over the fire with a baby strapped onto her back.

The vast majority of the vendors were women. Koreans accorded a low status to markets, so traditionally they were frequented only by women. This remained the case in the 1990s even as the markets expanded. Men had to stay with their work units, around which all life in North Korea revolved, but women were sufficiently expendable that they could wriggle out of their day jobs. Joo Sung-ha, a North Korean defector from Chongjin who became a journalist in Seoul, told me he believed that Kim Jong-il had tacitly agreed to let women work privately to relieve the pressure on families. “If the ajummas [married women] hadn’t been allowed to work, there would have been a revolution,” he said. The result was that the face of the new economy was increasingly female. The men were stuck in the unpaying state jobs; women were making the money. “Men aren’t worth as much as the dog that guards the house,” some of the ajummas would whisper among themselves. Women’s superior earnings couldn’t trump thousands of years of patriarchal culture, but they did confer a certain independence.

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