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Conscripted at “Freedom’s Frontier”: Korean Augmentees, Racialized Masculinity, and U.S. Military Empire

Speaker

Sung Eun Kim (Postdoctoral Fellow, George Washington University’s Institute for Korean Studies)

In 2022, the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, was reopened with a new “Wall of Remembrance.” Emblazoned on the panels commemorating the war dead were over 7,000 Korean names. Hailed as a civil rights “victory” by then-President Barack Obama nearly a decade earlier, the Korean War, as enshrined in the Wall of Remembrance, now includes Korean Augmentation Troops to the U.S. Army, or KATUSAs, among America’s multiracial fallen sons.

Who were these vaunted figures and what was their role at “freedom’s frontier”? As a term referring to an elite cadre of South Korean soldiers conscripted into the U.S. Army from the Korean War to the present, “KATUSA” is part of a military-imperial vocabulary in South Korea that has assigned value and status to the men who have served in this capacity. Yet what goes unseen in the celebration of KATUSAs in South Korea—and now, in U.S. official commemoration around the Korean War—is the centrality of their racialization and emasculation to the role they played under the U.S. military empire.

By tracing KATUSA origins to a seldom-told tale of abduction off the streets of Korea and forcible removal to Occupied Japan where they were paraded naked as racialized emasculated bodies before throngs of Japanese women, this presentation reconsiders the significance of “freedom’s frontier,” an epithet most commonly associated with the demilitarized zone (DMZ), by analyzing the ambivalent sovereignty of the KATUSA.

Not just a geographic metaphor, but an embodied one that encodes racial and sexual subordination, “freedom’s frontier,” I argue, must be understood as a homosocial zone of military-imperial proximity in which KATUSAs emerged in the early Cold War period as colonial abductee and glorified houseboy.

About the speaker:

Sung Eun Kim is Postdoctoral Fellow at the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies (GWIKS). He is an interdisciplinary historian of modern Korea whose research focuses on U.S.–ROK relations, the intersections of transnational Korean militarism and U.S. imperialism in the Asia-Pacific region, and the racial and sexual politics of colonial soldiering.

He earned his Ph.D. in modern Korean history from UCLA, his M.A. in East Asian Regional Studies from Columbia University, and his B.A. in Asian Studies and Political Science from Vassar College.