American Perceptions of Colonial Korea

A review of Representing the Invisible: The American Perceptions of Colonial Korea (1910-1945), by Jimin Kim.

Jimin Kim’s dissertation, Representing the Invisible: The American Perceptions of Colonial Korea (1910-1945), explores the historical formation of discourses on Korea shaped by Americans—at both official and unofficial levels—during the colonial period (1909-1945). Drawing on a wide range of documents, journals, and images, Kim thoroughly depicts the dynamic interactions of Korean nationalists with American politicians and missionaries under the agenda of “self-determination” initiated by Woodrow Wilson. Kim argues that these interactions set the direction of the U.S. government’s decision-making about post-colonial Korea (p. 357). Kim’s account of changing American views on Korea leads us to a new understanding of Korean national movements and the influence of America: namely, that Korean nationalists persistently pursued complete independence from Japan with the aid of American humanism and “good offices,” while America eventually situated Korea as a strategic bulwark against both Japan and, later, communism.

Chapter 1 stages the “initial encounters” between Americans and Koreans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Japan’s English-language publications (journals and magazines) played a key role in introducing Korea to the world, depicting Koreans as lazy, dirty, uncivilized, and unfit to rule themselves. Japan, therefore, had to undertake the burden of civilizing Koreans (p. 33). Kim highlights how these images of Koreans impacted American views of Korea (p. 46). The American missionaries who witnessed an “uncivilized” Korea in contrast to “modernized” Japan provided supporting opinions that the U.S. should assist Japan in the colonization of Korea. As Kim points out, other American accounts—such as that of Homer Hulbert, who served as a Christian missionary in Korea—presented Koreans as “teachable and loyal” people, and saw the rapid spread of Christianity in Korea as evidence of their “noble characteristic[s]” and potential to be civilized (pp. 70-71). Even though Koreans involved in the Enlightenment Movement argued for the necessity of reforms such as tackling corruption, improving sanitation, and introducing modern education (p. 79), Japan’s official propaganda campaigns in support of its imperialist project both confirmed and further shaped American views of Korea. Kim argues that after Japanese colonization, America’s interest in Korea shifted “from a mere curiosity about [an] unknown land to an ambivalent perception of a troublesome but pitiable country” (p. 86).

Chapter 2 describes the significant impact of the March First Movement on the American perception of Korea, introducing a country struggling against Japanese military rule (1910-1919). The Movement enabled the American public to reconsider Korea as a politically active and problematic country. The idea of “self-determination” fed a rising Korean nationalist spirit both inside and outside of the Korean peninsula. In response, Japanese military oppression grew; for example, Japan targeted the New People’s Society (Sinminhoe) as a terrorist group, torturing suspects to elicit confessions and even accusing American missionaries of involvement. These events provoked much debate among American opinion-makers as to whether the Japanese were persecuting the missionaries and how endangered Americans in Korea were (p. 94). The harsh Japanese actions generated American sympathy toward the oppressed Koreans. Although Kim notes that some American missionaries agreed with the Japanese colonization of Korea “because it would be better both for Korea and for the World (p. 98),” she highlights Americans’ awareness of the plight of Koreans under Japanese military rule as well as their increasing suspicion of Japanese expansionist moves, expressed in the slogan “No Neutrality for Brutality” (p. 145).

Chapter 3 addresses the raised political voices of Korean nationalists during the post-World War I period from 1918 to 1921.The Korean nationalist movement established a united Korean Provisional Government (KPG) in Shanghai in 1919. Syngman Rhee, who stayed in the U.S., received support from nationalist groups as a central figure who embraced Korean traditional values as well as western values (as a Princeton graduate). Korean leaders, including Rhee, argued that the annexation process was unjust and void, illegal and unethical. Groups in the U.S. made emotional appeals to humanitarianism and evoked American compassion for Korea by emphasizing the dominance of Christianity in Korea, and portrayed their movement as a peaceful pursuit of national independence from violent Japanese oppression. Kim stresses that the nationalists promoted the role of Christianity in the national movement. They promoted the idea that Christianity spread by American missionaries created the modern education system, fostered the rise of women’s status, and provided moral justification for Korean independence (pp. 188-190). In addition, they believed that America, as a country of Christianity and democracy, was obliged to exercise “good offices” out of a sense of justice and a special relationship with Korea (p. 219). Even with the active political engagement of Korean nationalists, however, America never fully supported the nationalist movement because it would have placed America in conflict with Japan in the interwar period. Kim points out that interwar politics resulted in a decline of international attention to the “Korean problem.”

In Chapter 4, Kim describes changes in Japanese rule over Korea and the increasing confrontation between the U.S. and Japan from 1924 to 1936. During this period Japanese imperialism expanded to China and Japanese immigration to the U.S. increased, creating “yellow peril” paranoia (p. 225). Japanese assimilation policies were also implemented; they transformed Koreans into subjects of the Japanese empire and exacerbated the exploitation of Korean land and labor for the sake of “modernization.” In the face of aggravated inequality and mistreatment of Koreans, the Korean nationalist movement divided into three groups: the irreconcilables, who advocated complete independence, and included many socialists; the reformists, who argued that it was Korean weakness that had resulted in the loss of independence; and the pro-Japanese, who believed that union with Japan was in the long run the best avenue for attaining independence (pp. 272-3). Here, Kim pays attention to American concerns about the communist influence on Korean emigrants in China and Russia (p. 280). Americans came to view Japanese colonialism as a failure because it did not bring about Korean self-government, but merely left Koreans with a disadvantageous political status (p. 284).

Kim uses Chapter 5 to help readers understand the impact of the Pacific War in demonstrating “Japan’s immorality” and changing American officials’ position toward the “Korean problem.” Kim highlights “the strategic usefulness of the Korean people,” a discursive method that Korean nationalists employed to persuade America to cooperate with the Koreans (p. 291). Kilsoo Hann, a second-generation Korean American who emerged as a rival to Rhee, insisted that Koreans could play a critical role in the fight against Japan through armed resistance, military training, espionage, and propaganda work (p. 293). In 1942 Koreans were exempted from official status as Japanese nationals and “enemy aliens” in America, which constituted the first U.S. government recognition of Koreans as separate and independent from the Japanese (p. 303). At the same time, Korean nationalists had become factionalized, weak, and overly dependent upon the U.S., which led the Roosevelt Administration to deny requests for recognition of the Korean Provisional Government (KPG). Other unexpected factors cropped up at the end of the Second World War, including growing American fears about Soviet expansion as Cold War sentiments took hold and Korean leftists gained popularity. There was the possibility of joint trusteeship in Korea by the United States and the Soviet Union, which was discussed at the Moscow Conference. And yet William Langdon—a consulate officer in Korea in the mid-1930s and political adviser to the US military government in Korea—ended up opposing trusteeship in favor of plans to establish a Korean government, in order to thwart the growing Soviet influence on the Korean peninsula. American establishment of a separate government in South Korea in 1948 contributed to the Cold War politics on the Korean peninsula, Kim argues.

Kim’s dissertation, Representing the Invisible, provides a critical understanding of understudied American perceptions of Korea that were structured mostly during the colonial period, perceptions that continued to impact American policies toward Korea and East Asia during the post-colonial period and the Cold War era. Kim also introduces a detailed discussion of the formation of the concepts of “modernity” and “civility,” which were mainly drawn from the discourses of American Christianity and democracy in contrast to the Japanese model. From the competing representations of the invisible—the colonized Koreans, we can learn that the political circumstances of Cold War Korea and East Asia were constructed by cooperation and ruptures among various agents and conflicting political powers in the wake of colonialism and two World Wars. This study shows the changing geopolitical significance of Korea and the critical influences from the colonial and Cold War eras that have made Korea what it is today.

June Hee Kwon
Department of Cultural Anthropology
Duke University

Primary Sources

Travel Stories

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2011. 372 pp. Primary Advisor: Charles Armstrong.

Image: “Will Civilization Listen to Her Plea?” Korea Review III, no. 6 (August 1921), p. 3.

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