A Tortured Relic

The Lasting Legacy of the Korean War and Portrayals of ‘North Korea’ in the u.s. Media, 1953–1962

in Journal of American-East Asian Relations
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Drawing on national and local news stories, newly declassified documents, u.s. prisoner of war (pow) memoirs, and popular films, this article argues that the legacy of the Korean War in the United States from 1953 to 1962 dramatically shaped how Americans imagined the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (dprk). It specifically examines how media portrayals of North Korean atrocities, the alleged misconduct of u.s. captives, and the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the dprk affected public perceptions of “North Korea” as a subjective construct. The painful legacy of the Korean War, particularly the experience of u.s.pows, encouraged Americans to think of North Korea as an inherently violent foe and as part of a broader “Oriental Communist” enemy in the Cold War. When the experiences of u.s. soldiers contradicted these narratives, media sources often made distinctions between “North Koreans,” a repugnant racial and ideological “other,” and “north Koreans,” potential u.s. friends and allies.



David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (New York: Hyperion, 2007), 3.


Jager, Brothers at War, pp. 94–97; Latham, Cold Days in Hell, pp. 39–41; Cumings, North Korea, pp. 32–34.


In the spring of 1951, u.s. Army Private Robert L. Sharpe also discussed his experiences in speeches around his home state of North Carolina. At one such event, he described the "Korean Communists" as "great liars, cheats, deceivers, and murderers." "By Veteran Of Korean War: Red Treachery Described in Lions Club Talk," The Robesonian [Lumberton, nc], 23 March 1951, p. 1.


Philip Deane, I Was a Captive in Korea (New York: W.W. Norton, 1953), 104–20. The New York Times featured Philip Deane’s memoir as one of its "Books of the Times" on the day of the Korean War armistice. See Orville Prescott, "Books of the Times," The New York Times, 27 July 1953, p. 17.


Deane, I Was a Captive in Korea, pp. 112–13.


Rod Serling, Patterns: Four Television Plays with Author’s Personal Commentaries (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 127.


Marguerite Higgins, War in Korea (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1951), 161.


Raymond B. Lech, Broken Soldiers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 205–208, 3.


Ibid., pp. 27, 46.


Ibid., pp. 45, 48.


Ibid., pp. 163–64.


Ibid., p. 164. Millar’s description here is directly reminiscent of the common western caricature in World War ii that mocked the Japanese as monkeys. On this point, see John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Random House, 1986), 80–90.


Ibid., pp. 171, 194.


Dean and Worden, General Dean’s Story, pp. 193, 293, 163.


Ibid., pp, 165, 292.


Ibid., p. 292.


Table 12–13, Biderman, March to Calumny, pp. 192–93.


Kinkead, In Every War But One, p. 18. Albert D. Biderman, and the military historian S.L.A. Marshall, discredited these claims in the early 1960s. Biderman used painstaking sociological research to demonstrate that u.s.pows in Korea had behaved no worse than u.s. captives in any prior conflict. When American prisoners died, it had nothing to do with deficiencies of "national spirit" as much as starvation and disease. Biderman, March to Calumny, pp. 194–96; S.L.A. Marshall, "P.O.W.’s in North Korea: The Way They Were and Why," The New York Times, 2 February 1959, p. br7.


Carruthers, Cold War Captives, p. 216. Susan Carruthers discusses these anxieties and how Americans responded to them in popular culture in Cold War Captives, pp. 207–213.


 Quoted in Young, Name, Rank, and Serial Number, p. 3 from William A. Ulman, "The gi’s Who Fell for the Reds," The Saturday Evening Post, 6 March 1954, p. 64.


Richard Condon, The Manchurian Candidate (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959), 38.


Jacobson and Gonzalez, What Have They Built You To Do?, p. 116.


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