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Monday, June 13, 2005

Anti-americanism and Taebaek Sanmaek

Anti-americanism isn't quite among the topics of this place, but as I'm making notes every now and then of Jo Jung-rae's Taebaek Sanmaek which I've been reading for the last few months (doesn't go that quick with us foreigners), I'll write up something about the appearance of the Americans at the seventh volume of the novel, when UN forces have made the Incheon landing, and DPRK forces are retreating in a hurry.

First, the impact of this novel on how Americans and the participation of the USA (ok, UN) in the Korean war has been perceived must have been huge. Bruce Cumings' work on the Korean War has often been mentioned as an influence on many Koreans' reconsideration of the role of the US after the liberation in 1945, but this novel has been read by millions.

Let's see how the first Americans step on the stage.
First a few words of one of the main characters, Kim Pôm-u, the son of a rich yangban landowner; he had been strongly influenced by leftism, but was more of a Kim Ku style nationalist. At the onset of the Korean War he had remained in Seoul, and was eventually put into propaganda work by the communists.

At the time of the WW2 he had been taken to the "student corps" in the Japanese army, and deserted in Southeast Asia to the Allies' side, where he had been trained by OSS (Office of Strategic Services?) for operations inside Korea [wonder if anything like that actually happened], so he spoke English fluently. When the Japanese capitulated, he became a POW as the Americans regarded him now as a Japanese national. That had made him bitter towards the USA, which he regarded as nothing short of an evil imperialist. For much of the novel, Kim Pôm-u has been telling how Koreans should expect nothing good from the Americans. Now in volume 7, when the war had started and he had chosen not to take refuge and was not unwillingly serving the Communist forces , he was thinking that the US participation in the war was hindering the realization of the true will of the Korean people. (Damn Yankees come and mess up a war which was going all good!)

And now to the first appearance of the US soldiers. Kim Pôm-u had been on assignment, but found the office in Jeonju deserted as he returned, so he decided to go down to his home place in southern Jeolla. As he's trodding the road, he sees how two US soldiers practice shooting on two women's water jars at a well, and later try to rape the women, which Kim goes and stops from happening. The sergeant (or something) of the soldiers hurries to the site and arrests Kim. The sergeant has "blue eyes" (made very clear) and thick bodily hair, which makes Kim Pôm-u to think of him as a furry arctic animal. He and his superior are of course arrogant and haughty towards Kim and Korea.

Not much love to be expected for the Miguk-nom for the rest of the novel.

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Comments to note "Anti-americanism and Taebaek Sanmaek" (Comments to posts older than 14 days are moderated)

<Anonymous Thundertentronckh> said on 13.6.05 : 

First off, kudos for trudging through this difficult book. It would be great to one day have an English translation project.

Secondly, my main question. As a scholar, you obviously put much thought into the careful choice of words you use to describe the subjects of your study. As such, I'm wondering if you could comment on the term "anti-Americanism," as it seems to me to be perhaps an overstatement, reifying criticism or contempt of the U.S. into something solid - a veritable "ism." Why is it we have no other similar vocabulary for "anti-Japanism" or (not that this would be the case in Korea, but perhaps in America) "anti-Gaulism"? This discrepancy in our natural vocabulary is rather striking, as the two aforementioned words sound rather silly, whereas "anti-Americanism" rolls of the tongue quite easily, reinforcing our notion that it alone is real (not that I'm saying you believe such a thing - i'm making a general comment), whereas the other words would be but silly neologism of pointy headed intellectuals.

I ask because the singular and naturalized use of this term in some ways seems to discredit any attitude that doesn't seek to rationalize, mitigate or defuse negative portrayals/attitudes about the United States. Thus, this stereotyped generalization you depict here can be lumped under the construct "anti-Americanism" and is automatically framed as being suspect, like it is part of a (as Koreans might say) "complex," and thus inherently wrong and unhealthy.

This is an issue that I've thought about a bit in the past, so your title really brought that thinking back to the fore. I'm interested to see what you have to say.

<Anonymous Antti> said on 14.6.05 : 

Thanks for using your time for such an thorough comment! You have a very good point in paying attention to my header choice, which at the second thought is sloppy. Labeling the possible influence of the novel on attitudes towards USA as 'anti-americanism' does reduce the scope and validity of those opinions. I think in the post I put it in more nuanced terms - not "anti-Americanism" but critical reconsideration of the US role in the post-liberation Korea.

(Even if I'd like to, this time I won't hide behind the excuse of not writing in my native language. But seems that even in Finnish, the non-colloquial anti- somehow can be coupled with the term 'American', while in other cases similar phenomena tend to be expressed with a colloquial ending.)

And translating Taebaek Sanmaek - I already did a small piece to Finnish of the speech by the Communist leader Yôm Sang-jin, but that was in standard language. But to make it through the dialect and convey it to a foreign language...

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