Andrew Salmon: A Cartoonist at War ... “Gobau’s” Korea, 1950

Roundup: Talking About History

[Seoul-based reporter Andrew Salmon is the author of To The Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951 (Aurum, London, 2009). He is currently working on a prequel, Year of the Tiger: The Commonwealth Versus Communism, Korea, 1950. ]

Next year, 2010, marks the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of what is aptly called “The Forgotten War.” While Kim Il-sung’s invasion of the Republic of Korea in the early hours of June 25th, 1950, ignited the first hot war of the cold war – and the first and only war in which the two superpowers would clash on the battlefield – it is a war that is almost dead to the public mind and popular culture of the western world.

It was a savage war in a devastated land; a war that was civil, ideological and even racial in nature, a war that sucked in fighting men from as far afield as Columbia and China, Ethiopia and Russia. It was a war in which entire US units were annihilated, an intense war which generated casualties far in excess of those incurred in today’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet despite its many dramatic elements – and despite the fact that it has never really ended - Korea never achieved the same status in the western mind as did the wars that bookmarked it: World War II and Vietnam.

There are many reasons for this. World War II was the war of tank divisions and bomber fleets, of Churchill’s cigar and Hitler’s salute – and of a relatively clear morality. Vietnam was the war of the helicopter and the guerilla, of anti-war protest and colour TV coverage – and of very opaque, or at least fiercely contested, morality. Korea, on the other hand, lacked branded images or tactical innovations. The war’s ethical rights and wrongs are still debated – nowhere more so than in South Korea, where the shift in the ideological compass during the recent decade of liberal/leftist-nationalist (take your pick) rule sparked renewed interest in old – often suppressed - controversies.

With its 60th anniversary imminent, it is fair to say that the Korean War has generated little of the quality literature or film that defined perceptions of World War II or Vietnam. Moreover, those films and photographs that have made their way into books and museums are largely of and by Western – predominantly American – soldiers. Across the bamboo curtain, many Chinese photographs are clearly posed propaganda shots.

But what of those caught in the middle? There is even less visual imagery available that depicts the lives of the civilians swept up in the cataclysm.

Kim Sung-hwan, 78, is Korea’s most famous living cartoonist. For years, his work graced this country’s two major newspapers; he was twice interrogated under the authoritarian regimes and 200 of his strips were expunged. He has been lauded by fellow cartoonists including Malaysia’s “Lat” and Britain’s Frank Finch; films have been made of his output; and PhD dissertations on his work reside at Harvard and Kyoto universities. Today retired, with his collection displayed at South Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art, this cheerful and sprightly little man can rest on his laurels.

Things were not always so comfortable. Kim’s pen name “Gobau” (“Strong Rock”) came to him in the summer of 1950, when, as an 18-year-old, he was hiding out from North Korean troops. A high-school student and part-time magazine illustrator when North Korea invaded, he recorded the dramatic events of those days in unique style: with that blend of delicate Oriental watercolours and the sensitive pen cartoons that would later become his trademark. After Seoul’s September 28th 1950 liberation, he was employed as a war artist by the Ministry of Defence, but it is his early sketches that capture what it was like to be a civilian on the peninsula in the midst of total war. The collection reproduced below is one of the few extant galleries of Korean artwork that depicts the Korean tragedy; it has had, according to the artist, little or no exposure beyond South Korean and Japan.

This is “Gobau” at war.

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