Interrogating minds in the Korean War

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In November 2014 the Hidden Persuaders project hosted Monica Kim, author of the forthcoming book Humanity Interrogated: The Wars over War in the Interrogation Room, 1942-1960 and assistant professor of history at New York University. In a seminar that was jointly organized with the Psychoanalysis Working Group of the Birkbeck Institute of Humanities, Dr. Kim spoke to us on ‘Writing a History of War from Inside the Interrogation Room’. Dr. Kim’s seminar explored the history of the ‘interrogation room’ as a designated space and set of protocols that constructed political subjects out of vulnerable prisoners of war (POWs) during the Korean War.

Much has been written about the experiences of American soldiers who were held in communist POW camps on the Korean peninsula – in large part because of wartime fears that attempts were underway to ‘brainwash’ these men to accept communist ideology. These fears were fed by reports that many American POWs had ‘collaborated’ with their captors and 21 American soldiers had chosen to live in Mao’s China rather than return to the US. Yet the experiences of Korean soldiers and their American interrogators within the United Nations’ POW camps has not received anything like the same scrutiny.

In discussing Dr. Kim’s research we learned that the intrigue over alleged communist brainwashing is matched by another, less familiar story about persuasion and control: Inside the carefully orchestrated interrogation rooms of the United Nations’ POW camps, the political identities of Korean and Chinese prisoners were surveyed and construed according to Western presumptions about the ‘oriental mind’. What emerges from this history is that the manipulation of personal identity and political subjectivity was far from the preserve of one side alone.

As Dr. Kim’s forthcoming book makes clear, many of the captive Korean soldiers were veterans of Japanese colonialism, alert to the politics of interrogation, and knowledgeable critics of Western racial prejudice. Many Korean soldiers cagily tried to resist the techniques of the interrogation room, sometimes explicitly challenging the assumption at the heart of the interrogation – that it is possible to reveal one’s true political desires during an extremely violent and confusing war. Consequently, while Western propaganda depicted the POW interrogation room as a consecrated space that allowed prisoners to describe their political beliefs, Dr. Kim argues that the UN’s interrogation rooms functioned more like battlegrounds, even templates, for the sort of governance that nation-states hoped to impose on Korean subjects.

In an interview following her seminar, Dr. Kim described for us her book project, and explained how she came to focus her investigation on the persons, practices and spaces of interrogation.

We also asked Dr. Kim about how fears of ‘brainwashing’ feature in her research, and what she has learned from her study of the archival documents regarding the US Army soldiers believed to have been brainwashed while detained in POW camps. In the video below, Dr. Kim notes that military officials may not have had a clear sense of what ‘brainwashing’ entailed, nevertheless they investigated returning POWs for symptoms of ‘indoctrination’ that might subvert American society.

More information on Dr. Monica Kim’s research can be found in her article: ‘Empire’s Babel: US Military Interrogation Rooms in the Korean War’ History of the Present 3 (Spring 2013): 1-28.

Photograph credit: Chinese and North Korean soldiers at the United Nations POW Camp at Pusan, 1951. Image courtesy of

Video credit: The interview with Monica Kim was conducted by Marcia Holmes, Daniel Pick, and Charlie Williams on 28 November 2014. It was filmed and edited by Marianna Ladas, with the assistance of the Derek Jarman Lab.