American Orientalism in Korea

in Journal of American-East Asian Relations
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People express and exercise power as much through words as through actions. Yet scholars never have examined systematically how officials and others in the United States actually talked and wrote about Korea, both north and south, during the momentous interwar period. This article unearths crude depictions of the Korean people common in American writings from the 1940s and 1950s, arguing that this rhetoric created and reinforced an unequal power relationship between the United States and Korea. These negative discourses about Koreans, as expressions of American Orientalism, had important implications for u.s.policy in Korea and for the post-war trajectory of developments on the entire Korean peninsula. They also have left a perceptible imprint on English-language scholarship engaging in assessments of Korea ever since.

American Orientalism in Korea

in Journal of American-East Asian Relations



Edward W. SaidOrientalism (New York: Pantheon Books1978) 3. For works following this tact in areas beyond the Korean peninsula see for example Seth Jacobs The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos (Ithaca ny: Cornell University Press 2012); Douglas Little American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 2002); Christina Klein Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination 1945–1961 (Berkeley: University of California Press 2003). For one exception in the case of Korea see Michael D. Shin “Major Trends of Korean Historiography in the usSungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies 3 no. 1 (2003): 151–75.


Jeremi Suri“The Cold War, Decolonization, and Global Social Awakenings: Historical Intersections,” Cold War History 6 no. 3 (August 2006): 353.


 See for instance Bernard Lewis“The Question of Orientalism,” The New York Review of Books 11 (June 24 1982): 49–56; Robert Irwin Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents (Woodstock ny: Overlook Press 2006). For longer overviews of Orientalism and its critics see among others Ziad Elmarsafy Anna Bernard and David Atwell (eds.) Debating Orientalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2013); Daniel Martin Varisco Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (Seattle: University of Washington Press 2007); Hsu-Ming Teo “Orientalism: An Overview” Australian Humanities Review 54 (2013): 1–20. Edward W. Said partially responded to some of his critics in “Orientialism Reconsidered” Postcolonial Criticism B.J. Moore-Gilbert Gareth Stanton and Willy Maley eds. (New York: Longman 1997) 126–44.


IrwinDangerous Knowledge p. 3.


Barbara BushImperialism and Postcolonialism (New York: Pearson Longman2006).


X [George F. Kennan]“The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs 25 (July 1947): 566–82.


Bruce Cumings“The Assumptions Did It,” in In Uncertain Times: American Foreign Policy after the Berlin Wall and 9/11Melvyn P. Leffler and Jeffrey W. Legro eds. (Ithaca ny: Cornell University Press 2011) 131–49. Cumings’ arguments do not warrant wholesale agreement. To be sure the Korean War was a civil conflict but the conflict also was deeply entwined with international politics. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s approval of Kim Il Sung’s war plan for example was a major turning point in the road leading to North Korea’s 25 June 1950 attack on South Korea. For an alternative perspective on the origins of the Korean War which challenges many of Cumings’ arguments see William Stueck “Revisionism and the Korean War” The Journal of Conflict Studies 22 no. 1 (Spring 2002) (accessed 30 November 2014).


BushImperialism and Postcolonialism p. 146.


Elder Olson“On Value Judgments in the Arts,” Critical Inquiry 1 no. 1 (September 1974): 71–90.


Wulf Kansteiner“Hayden White’s Critique of the Writing of History,” in Historiography: Critical Concepts in Historical StudiesRobert M. Burns ed. (New York: Routledge2006) 390–93.


Peter NovickThat Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1988).


Dane Kennedy“Imperial History and Post-Colonial Theory,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 24 no. 3 (September 1996): 357.


Suri“The Cold War Decolonization and Global Social Awakenings” 353.


Richard H. Minear“Orientalism and the Study of Japan,” The Journal of Asian Studies 39 no. 3 (May 1980): 507–17.


Ranajit Guha“The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” in Selected Subaltern StudiesRanajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak eds. (New York: Oxford University Press1988) 45–86.


Gregg A. BrazinskyNation Building in South Korea: Koreans Americans and the Making of a Democracy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press2007) 255.


Ibid. p. 120.


Ibid. p. 3.


Ibid. p. 5.


Ibid. p. 2.


Ibid. p. 109.


Ibid. p. 11.


BushImperialism and Postcolonialism p. 155.


Guha“The Prose of Counter-Insurgency” pp. 59–71.


Ibid. p. 256.


George M. McCune“Occupation Politics in Korea,” Far Eastern Survey 15 no. 3 (13 February 1946): 37.


McCune and GreyKorea Today pp. 5–6.


Ibid. p. 173.


Ibid. p. 222.


Ibid. p. 6.


Ibid. pp. 13–14.


Ibid. p. 28.


Ibid. p. 180.


Ibid. p. 258.


Guha“The Prose of Counter-Insurgency” pp. 48 77.


Dae-Sook Suh“A Preconceived Formula for Sovietization: The Communist Takeover of North Korea,” in The Anatomy of Communist TakeoversThomas T. Hammond ed. (New Haven ct: Yale University Press 1975) 475–89.


Andrei LankovFrom Stalin to Kim Il Sung: The Formation of North Korea 1945–1960 (London: Hurst & Company2002) ix.


Andrei LankovCrisis in North Korea: The Failure of De-Stalinization (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press2005) 7–9. See also Adam Cathcart and Charles Kraus “Internationalist Culture in North Korea 1945–1950” Review of Korean Studies 11 no. 3 (September 2008): 123–48.


LankovFrom Stalin to Kim Il Sung p. 10.


Ibid. p. 194.


Kennedy“Imperial History and Post-Colonial Theory” p. 353.


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