Meet Professor Grace Chae

GI YOON KIM (edited by CL)
“People jump to assumptions, because it’s easy— I hope to show a bigger picture”

Grace Chae is a Korea Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellow at Wellesley College. She received her Ph.D. in History at the University of Chicago, specializing in Korean War POWs. Right now she teaches Modern Korean History: From the 1800s to the Present and Prisoners of War: International Norms and Practice at Wellesley College. 

My fellow intern Christine Lee and I wanted to interview Professor Chae because we were curious about why she decided to study the Korean War, and specifically POWs. It is one thing to be interested about one’s heritage, but another thing to investigate a very under-researched topic from the Korean War and write a Ph.D. thesis on it. We also wanted to ask her for her insight on the current state of the Korean peninsula and, as a Korean American and a researcher of Korean history, how she feels about the issue of reunification.

1. Q. What is your cultural background, and how did you became interested in the POWs of the Korean War?
A. I am a second generation Korean American, and my parents immigrated during the 1970s. Growing up, I had problems understanding my parents— when they talked about the Japanese colonial period and their experience, I had no reference point to help me connect with them. In college, I was first a premed but decided to major in history instead. I studied the commodification of body in war. After graduation I worked at a law firm for two years, trying the field out, but then decided to return to studying history. I got into the POW issue because I was interested in the construction of self-identity. How Americans perceived Koreans after the Korean War and why the American military regarded Asians as without individuality and stuck in tradition aroused my interest.

2. Q. How were the POWs treated during the Korean War?
The Korean War was a civil war in essence. Not all POWs in the South were North Korean soldiers. Not only were there South Korean refugees who were swept up into the military, but also the participants of “leftist” movements that sprang up after the liberation from Japan. While they wanted more equality, such as land redistribution, not all of them were “communists”. How do you tell who is a communist and who is not? There were even children acting as messengers. It was a very murky issue.

Meanwhile, the US army underestimated the messiness of civil war. When the US army gave the choice to the POWs to be voluntarily repatriated, the prisoners had to make a decision on where they wanted to be sent. However, there were infiltrators from both sides and unseen coercion– many prisoners were forced into choosing a country they didn’t want to go to. Also, the prisoners’ loyalties were tested and questioned. The US army asked questions such as ‘to what extent would you resist repatriation’, and if the answer was anything less than ‘I would physically harm myself’, it was considered that the person could be repatriated.
3. Q. How do you feel about the possible reunification of the two Koreas?
A. I think reunification should be done peacefully, having the dual state operate while slowly opening up the borders. The Ministry of Unification’s job would be to build that bond of trust. Overall, I am hopeful for reunification. 

4. Q. Do you see yourself as having a role in the process?
A. As a historian, I am responsible for showing the truth and helping people get past prejudice. The easiest way to shut down dialogue is to name call and refer to Kim Jong Il as simply evil. People jump to assumptions because it’s easy, but I hope to show the bigger picture. I believe my activism is through providing valid information about what has really happened.

Prof. Chae is currently revising her dissertation about the US reeducation of Korean and Chinese POWs during the Korean War to publish it as a book. She will continue her research in Wellesley College until the summer of 2011 and hopes to become a tenured professor in the future.

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