#AsiaNow Speaks with Heonik Kwon

Cover of After the Korean War: An Intimate History, by Heonik Kwon

Heonik Kwon is Professor, Senior Research Fellow of Social Anthropology, Trinity College, University of Cambridge, UK, and a member of the Mega-Asia research group at Seoul National University Asia Center. Kwon is author of After the Korean War: An Intimate History, published by Cambridge University Press in 2020 and winner of the 2022 James B. Palais Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

The Korean War was formative of the early Cold War. It is a unique episode of modern history, in that the legacies of this war continue to shape political relations in East Asia, two generations after the heavy guns fell silent. For example, there is a renewed interest today in the 1950-1953 war—this time, as a pivotal episode of American-Chinese relations. Following my earlier work on the Vietnam War, I present in this book one of the first studies of the Korean War’s enduring legacies seen through the realm of intimate human experience. The destruction of the Korean War was a profoundly social and relational experience for many Koreans. Hence, the book reclaims kinship as a vital category in historical and political enquiry and probes the grey zone between the civil and the social (and between the modern and the traditional) in the lived reality of Korea’s civil war and Asia’s postcolonial Cold War more broadly.

What inspired you to research this topic?

I began the book project in 2010, the year that marked the sixtieth anniversary of the 1950 war. I wanted to have the historical experience of the war-generation Koreans recorded and narrated, before it was too late to do so.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

For many of my interlocutors, it was often too painful to recall their wartime lives. The book benefited from existing biographical and fictional renderings of the Korean War experience, as well as from the work by South Korea’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission in 2006-2010.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

One evening at Mr. Lee’s house in Daegu. Mr. Lee and his sister lost their mother to the preemptive state violence of July 1950 (against the civilians whom the state believed were potential collaborators with the advancing communist forces). Their father was a leading organizer of the early civic activity in 1960-1961 that aimed to account for the victims of the Korean War state violence, for which he was arrested and condemned to death. He was found not-guilty, posthumously, in a recent court action. That evening, Mr. Lee and his sister were holding an ancestral death-day rite on behalf of their parents. Mr. Lee spoke of the news about the court decision while facing the table of food offerings. Then, the handles of the spoons that his sister had inserted to the two bowls of rice (offerings to their parents) started slowly inclining towards each other. The movement stopped when the tips of the two spoons touched one another. That was an utterly moving scene.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

I was influenced by the historian Jay Winter’s seminal work on World War One memories, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (1998). In art, by Pablo Picasso’s 1952 mural La guerre et la paix. I will be interested to know what readers will make of After the Korean War if it is read in tandem with Bruce Cumings’s The Korean War: A History (2010), Su-kyoung Hwang’s Korea’s Grievous War (2016), Nan Kim’s Memory, Reconciliation, and Reunions in South Korea (2016), and Monica Kim’s The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War (2019).

Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?

I was in Paris earlier this year following an invitation from the Musée du quai Branly, one of France’s prominent cultural institutions. Two new exhibitions were in preparation during my stay. One was about the work of Dinh Q. Lê, a hugely creative contemporary Vietnamese-American artist, on his Vietnam war memories. The other was about the wampum and how these shell-made indigenous artifacts of North America’s northeast coast became a key symbol and instrument of diplomatic ties between the continent’s First Nation peoples and the French power in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The Vietnam exhibition dealt with an event of great significance in the twentieth century’s international history, whereas the wampum collection spoke powerfully of how different international systems coexisted in the early modern world. I was fascinated by these two exhibitions, and the fact that they opened on the same day shortly after I delivered my forth and final lecture at the museum’s research department. I take the last as an auspicious sign for my next book, which will be about the history of conversation between Anthropology and International Relations.

Meanwhile, I have completed a new book on Korea’s Cold War experience—this time, seen from a religious cultural sphere. Prepared in collaboration with Jun Hwan Park, a young colleague and an expert on northern Korean shamanism tradition, this book, Spirit Power: Politics and Religion in Korea’s American Century, is to appear in July 2022.