After the Korean War: An Intimate History

  • Published

After the Korean War: An Intimate History by Heonik Kwon. Cambridge University Press, 2020, 231 pp. 

When a war officially ends, that does not mean an immediate end to the conflict’s impacts. Depending on the scale of the fighting, the conditions of the end of hostilities, and the situation for the surviving populations of the conflict, the consequences can continue long after the last shots are fired. Even for conflicts that reach an official end with treaties and proclamations of peace, scars will remain on a population, impacting everything from family relations to its government’s relations with other nations.

For a conflict such as the Korean War, the impacts from such a devastating war are still felt almost 70 years after the Peace Accords at Panmunjom. As Heonik Kwon documents in After the Korean War: An Intimate History, the scale and ferocity of the fighting from 1950–1953 so devastated the two nations, that the after-effects still dominate much of Korean society, both in North and South Korea. Kwon looks at the aftershocks from the 1950-53 conflict through multiple perspectives, including the dynamic of how the fighting impacted individual families, the direct survivors to those families separated by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to decades of hostilities between the governments in Seoul and Pyongyang, and the subsequent international impacts.

In the various chapters, Kwon takes a diverse approach to examining the aftermath of the war on the Korean people. He offers an anthropological take on the population, using that to help explain the mindset and rituals of how the people coped with the war’s effects. From there, Kwon looks at the concepts of community, from a Korean and from international perspectives. There is use of various German concepts and examples to add to the Korean experience and Kwon’s previous analysis of postwar Vietnam. The time scale of Kwon’s analysis ranges from the immediate aftermath of World War II to the constantly shifting diplomatic actions during the Trump administration.  

What makes a work like this especially relevant for readers goes beyond just the events on the Korean peninsula. Wars of any scale or level will have traumatic impacts on populations during and after the main fighting is over. In various cases, warring parties might engage in a ceasefire or some type of truce, only to resume hostilities a short time later. Also, as the world continues to advance its understanding of posttraumatic stress syndrome, we as a population will continue to see the impacts of that fighting and what it does to a people emerging from conflict, at a micro/individual level and at a macro society-level. The use of German concepts and example is relevant, especially given the levels of devastation faced by the German peoples after both World Wars in the twentieth century.

The inclusion of an anthropological perspective is useful as different populations and their value systems. While some might raise an eyebrow about the discussion associated with anthropology, especially after the various counterterrorism wars of the first two decades of the millennium, Kwon is not looking at anthropology from a “colonial” view, as a “superior” peoples studying “inferiors.” He is discussing this to provide the reader a key to understanding the value system and how a population can express and deal with grief, loss, and postconflict healing.

The impact of the warfare is amplified by the fact that hostilities between North and South Korea technically never ended. The truce at Panmunjom was between the United Nations Command, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, and the North Korea People’s Army. Thus, the specter of renewed conflict continues to haunt the Korean peninsula. With the respective populations of North and South Korea still trying to overcome the after-effects of an especially bloody and destructive war, the constant state of heightened tensions does little to resolve the stresses the populations feel. The title might seem a bit of a misnomer, but even with all the various skirmishes and personnel still killed on both sides, neither party has resumed hostilities to the degree of 1950–53.

If there is a drawback to this work, it is that the writing is extensively academic. While that offers an analytic framework for the discussion points in the chapters of the book, it can make for dry reading. For those looking for an academic perspective on how populations, such as those in North and South Korea, deal with the various postwar issues, this work is a great resource. Still, this work is not for casual reading as much of the theoretical framework and discussions detract from the personal accounts that would be of most interest to such readers.

For those who are involved in war planning, a work like this is useful to help understand considerations and factors that would go into a postconflict situation, especially for those parties directly involved in a conflict. Also, for those assigned in roles in a postconflict or reconstruction situation, this type of work can offer some useful lessons for considerations in dealing with a population. The impacts of warfare go well beyond the battlefield and works like Kwon’s go a long way toward improving that understanding.

Lieutenant Colonel Scott Martin, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."