Framed By War: Korean Children and Women at the Crossroads of US Empire
By: Susie Woo
Susie Woo discusses her book, Framed By War: Korean Children and Women at the Crossroads of US Empire, with Judy Tzu-Chun Wu. Watch here on the SHCY Youtube Channel, or listen to the conversation as a podcast. Other episodes of the SHCY podcast are available at our podcast website, or you can subscribe on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.
Susie Woo is an Associate Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Judy Tzu-Chun Wu is Associate Dean of the School of Humanities and the Director of the Humanities Center at the University of California - Irvine.
This review was originally published in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 15, no. 3 (Fall 2022), pp. 450-452:
Framed By War: Korean Children and Women at the Crossroads of US Empire
New York: New York University Press, 2019
Americans enamored with Korean popular culture today need to remember that the United States had a very different relationship with South Korea in the 1950s and 1960s. Between 1950 and 1953, the US led a United Nations police action to repel communist North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. In this book, Woo recovers the previously unknown stories of the Korean War’s less visible victims. She shows how the respective agendas and Cold War anxieties of a diverse group of state and non-state actors in the US and South Korea drove the migration of thousands of Korean and Korean American orphan adoptees and military brides to the US during and after the war.
The book is divided into three pairs of chapters. Part One traces the efforts of the American military, US media, and government-sponsored aid campaigns to construct American servicemen as “surrogate fathers who fed, clothed, and sheltered orphaned children of war” (14). To mobilize ordinary Americans to donate money to save Korean children and orphans, they also “produced and circulated images of the Korean waif that figured average Americans as the presumed saviors of these children” (65) and “produced imagined family frames that figured Americans as caretakers of Korean children” (83). These familial frames were meant to recast the Korean War as a war to rescue Korean children and distract American domestic and international attention from the excesses of the US military presence in South Korea. In addition, South Korea sent choirs of Korean orphans, embodying South Korea’s resilience and vigor, to tour the United States. These different efforts and campaigns galvanized thousands of Americans to adopt Korean orphans, forcing the US government to promulgate new legislation or amendments that allowed for the migration of Korean war brides and international adoption—reversing previous policies that had limited immigration from Asia.
In Part Two, Woo discusses the impact of the entry of hundreds of American missionaries, doctors, nurses, philanthropists, and social workers into South Korea to assist the about 100,000 children left homeless by the war. In the US, many white women embraced this as their Cold War duty and “imperial right” to care for and adopt Korean children (99). Woo then unravels the transnational processes and connections that produced model Korean adoptees in the US, where these adoptees transformed from waifs to the “all-American” Asian model minorities. Racializing practices in the US shaped these seemingly benign processes, including US-sponsored adoption institutions and immigration agencies in Korea functioning as gatekeepers that screened out children deemed “unfit for American citizenry” (115). They excluded mixed-race orphans who did not adhere to “black-white racial lines,” and matched Korean Black children with African American families and Korean white children to white ones. Hence, the formation of Korean-American families, celebrated as symbols of US internationalism and multiracial democracy, actually upheld racial boundaries in both Korea and the US.
In Part Three, Woo discusses the erasure of groups from idealized Cold War family frames and transnational adoption narratives because they disrupted representations of US internationalism and benevolent humanitarianism. Chapter 5 discusses the sad fates of mixed-race children and their Korean mothers, who faced social and political marginalization by the South Korean state and society. Chapter 6 examines the US military’s futile efforts to stem marriages be- tween American GIs and Korean women and the subsequent erasure of Korean war brides by narratives that associated them with prostitution or emphasized that they were absent or unsuitable mothers.
Based on meticulous archival work in archives, libraries, museums, military academies, and wartime adoption agencies in South Korea and the US, this book is an absorbing and enriching read. Woo examined US and South Korean newspapers, films, and magazines to interrogate how Korean orphans, mixed-race children, and military brides were portrayed in both countries. It is a masterful study of the transnational cultural politics of childhood that offers many insights. For instance, she shows that representations of children can simultaneously make them “hypervisible” (157) as embodied symbols while erasing them and their mothers (by presenting them in deficient, reductive terms). Due to the scarcity of source materials produced by the Korean children and women themselves, the study is weighted towards the actions of white American and Korean adults. Yet Woo performs incisive reading of sources to unearth evidence of children and women’s agency. For instance, she examined unpublished footage omitted from Department of Defense-produced films to discover children’s “unscripted reactions,” where they refused to smile for the camera in passive resistance of their instrumentalization (43). Woo reminds us that ebullient images of humanitarian assistance often mask individual experiences of suffering and loss, as well as less-visible forms of violence and inequities that created the need for assistance in the first place. While Woo situates her book within American studies, it will also be interesting to scholars interested in Cold War studies, Asian studies, international humanitarian assistance, transnational adoption, race, gender, and childhood and youth. The book also connects to the emergent conversation within childhood and youth historiography on the roles of children and youth as pawns and symbols in the Cold War.
University of British Columbia
About Susie Woo
Susie Woo is an Associate Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton where she teaches courses on race and immigration. She received an MA in Asian American Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles and a PhD in American Studies from Yale University. Her book, Framed by War: Korean Children and Women at the Crossroads of US Empire (New York University Press, 2019), traces how Korean children and women became central to US involvement in the peninsula during and after the Korean War. She has written articles for the American Quarterly, American Studies Journal, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, and the edited volume, Pacific America: Histories of Transoceanic Crossings (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2017). Her next project examines bodies changed by war across the Cold War Pacific.
This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, which provides conversations about important contributions to the history of childhood and youth.