Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 26, August 2011
Grace M. Cho

Haunting the Korean Diaspora:
Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War

Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008
ISBN 978-0-8166-5275-4 (pbk); xiii + 245 pp.

reviewed by Jill Miller

  1. This ground breaking, beautifully written book explores the painful and unexplored story of the Korean women whose pasts as prostitutes for American bases in Korea continue to haunt their families in the present. The book documents the dark side of the occupation of South Korea by American combat forces that started in the aftermath of World War II, followed by the Korean War from 1950–1954 and then decades of peace keeping that are yet to end.
  2. During this period more than one million Korean women serviced the sexual needs of American soldier stationed in Korea. Over 100,000 moved subsequently as spouses of GIs to the United States where they and their children make up half of the Korean-American migrant population. The real story of how they came to be in the United States remains in the shadows like the Korean War itself. Just as the war has never ended, because a victory or truce has never been declared, the lives of a diaspora of women and their families resonate with hidden shame and secrecy.
  3. The author, Grace Cho, is the daughter of one of these women. In 1973, she went with her GI father and Korean mother to live in an American town where her family contained the only Koreans. Her mother instructed her children to ignore questions about whether she was a war bride and whether her marriage was a genuine one and she maintained a stoic silence about her past even to her offspring. Cho describes herself as a political activist who feels estranged both in the United States and Korea as a result of traumas.
  4. The hidden history of women sex workers from East Asia has been closely linked to invasions, war and occupation but the women themselves have remained silent. It took great courage for the predecessors to the camp followers for the US military, the Korean comfort women for the Japanese army, to speak out in the early 1990s about their experiences. Cho has also had to be brave in the face of the opposition of members of her family to her public revelations about socially unacceptable secrets. She only managed to make disclosures because of support from her mother to whose memory she dedicates the book.
  5. Cho's ambition to appeal to a general readership as well as an academic one for this book version of her doctoral dissertation in sociology succeeds partly due to her flouting of some established sociological conventions. Her transposition of fact and fantasy through contrasting historical narrative with images of ghosts and haunting drawn from Asian folk lore represents an attempt to create a new way of seeing and of writing. Cho has also created performance pieces from the work.
  6. The main text that outlines events behind the phenomenon of the sex workers and the war is interspersed with voices and stories of individual women, commencing with that of the author, and others which are fictional but based on research reading. At times it is hard to tell whether a real woman is speaking or an imagined one who is an amalgam of the voices of many women. The surreal quality of the voices contrasts sharply with the factual prosaic accounts of historical happenings that shape the background.
  7. The first chapter deals with how Korean families with women who have been sex workers for the US military experience a sense of transgenerational haunting as a result of a legacy of unspoken family secrets that do not fade away over time, however much the keepers of the original hurt may seek to hide them. The second chapter knits together stories from survivors of the Korean War quite at variance with the standard Western texts that depict the Americans as liberators. During the conflict many Koreans saw the GIs as monsters who indiscriminately killed innocent civilians. Some Koreans were unable to tell who was friend or foe, as was the case in the Vietnam War and beyond. In the abnormal conditions generated by the Korean War, women turned to prostitution at the US bases as a form of survival, to help both themselves and others to survive. For their selfless efforts they were reviled by their fellow countrymen.
  8. The third chapter provides a history of prostitution in camptowns adjacent to US bases where women involved were seen either as serving national security or as symbols of oppression by the United States—a demarcation like that of the Korean peninsula as a whole. The fourth chapter follows the migration of women to the United States where Koreans have gained the dubious honour of being deemed approximately white—and thus more American than other Asians—but with no recognition of the harm inflicted on many of them by US involvement in Korea. In the final chapter, Cho questions the psychic costs of assimilation and tragic consequences for Korean military brides who followed their American husbands home, noting the high incidence of mental illness among such women.
  9. Cho had two intentions in writing the book. One was to challenge accepted stories of family and assimilation for the Korean diaspora that embody a fantasy of an American dream that is a fantasy and that ignore hidden pain. The other was to explore a new way of charting trauma. It is important that hidden stories like these are revealed if we are to more fully understand how the vagaries of history have marked the lives of women.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 15 August 2011 1349