“O! Splendid Shadow, Black Wings”: Mechanism, Misrecognition, and Aerial Warfare in 1950s South Korean Literature

I Jonathan Kief, PhD Candidate
Columbia University

This paper explores a series of literary texts from 1950s South Korea dealing with the bombing and strafing of civilians and friendly ROK forces by US/UN airplanes during the Korean War. It begins by tracing the emergence of such stories in the complex cultural sphere of the wartime era, showing how writers used these tropes of friendly fire and civilian bombing in order to both reject and restructure the “two worlds” binary of the Cold War order. In such visions, the violence perpetrated by US/UN planes produced dual crossings: on the one hand, it demonstrated how the threat from the US-led “free world” paralleled that of its Soviet-led antagonists; and at the same time, it demonstrated how these parallel forces targeted Koreans from both sides of the 38th parallel in ways shared in common. The representation of US/UN warplane violence, this paper thus argues, allowed writers in wartime South Korea to refract Cold War visions of universality in alternative strategic directions as well as to engage in dialogue with a set of contemporary critical debates focused on the problem of what was then called “mechanism” (mek’anijŭm): the parallel forms of technocratic organization and governance said to be found in Soviet-style communism and American-style industrial capitalism. Finally, emphasizing the nuanced and non-binary ways in which Korean writers and intellectuals navigated the terrain of Cold War politics, this paper concludes with a discussion of the continued use and relevance of the civilian bombing and friendly fire trope in postwar 1950s texts, showing how it was repurposed in service of a critique of the domestic “self.”

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