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Militarized Migration, Kinship, and Diaspora

Image: Artwork by Yong Soon Min, Defining Moments, 1992


Framings of the Korean War that mobilize metaphors of masculine kinship and “bonds forged in blood” (for example, as a fratricidal war, brothers at war, the brotherhood of war) routinely leave unaddressed the centrality of sexual and gendered violence to the war and the manifestations of this violence in the present. The war, during the battle phase but also long after, has produced categories of “war trash”—camptown prostitutes, GI brides, mixed-race children, adoptees, the disabled—that trouble heteropatriarchal Korean ethnonationalism. We ask: what if sexual violence and its gendered consequences are centered, instead of being dismissed or treated as epiphenomena in the study of imperialist war? How has the unending Korean War reconfigured the terms of kinship beyond “blood family”? Moreover, how has the war’s violence shattered and rescripted normative notions of belonging? Through a focus on separated families, the adoptee diaspora, the camptown as a backdoor to the U.S. South, and militarized chain migration, this “manifestation” explores the lived realities of ongoing imperialist war on intimate social levels.



Separated families

Military brides

Mixed race

Intergenerational legacies

DMZ in the diaspora

Memory and belonging


  1. How is Korean migration to the United States–and elsewhere around the globe–a manifestation of the unresolved Korean War?

  2. How has the Korean War, as an imperial war of intervention, transformed heteronormative kinship structures? Furthermore, how has the U.S. state consolidated heteronormative kinship by exploiting military brides, adoptees, etc.?

  3. How has the Korean War changed the racial demographics of American families and what has been the consequence for specific communities, such as Korean Americans or Black Americans?

  4. How are memories of the war passed implicitly and explicitly across generations?

  5. How does the realm of culture–of arts practice, of storytelling, of performance–intervene in an official documentary archive that is fundamentally shaped by imperial war violence?

  6. What other sources and archives of memory might we galvanize to refuse nationalist memory politics and offer radically different conditions to studying the Korean War?

  7. How does our understanding of Korea-U.S. history change if we center camptowns in our approach to that geopolitical relationship? How does paying attention to the migration of Korean military brides challenge our understanding of U.S. immigration policies and history?

  8. How are Korea-U.S. relations, especially seen through the experiences of Korean military brides, founded upon a longer history of Japanese colonization, U.S. military warfare, and U.S. racial logics?

  9. What notion of kinship underlies reunification politics? Should conceptions of reunification take into account the militarized transformation of kinship in the Korean diaspora? How?

Study Materials

[Article] Hosu Kim and Grace Cho, “Kinship of Violence,” Journal of Korean Adoption Studies 1:3 (2012): 9-27

Abstract: This essay explores the origins of transnational adoption in U.S. military intervention, particularly the Korean War and its aftermath. By focusing on the hidden figures in Korean adoption studies – the sex worker and her biracial child, this paper recasts military camptown in South Korea as the birth place of social death, a necessary condition that renders biracial children stateless and their Korean mother unit mothers for adoption. South Korea’s nationalist ideology of ‘one people, one nation,’ joined with the U.S.’s geopolitical interests in the Asian region created the initial push and pull factors for Korean children to be placed in transnational adoption. Portraying biracial children whose life prospects were foreclosed in Korea, the South Korean government systematically instituted transnational adoption as the only viable option for biracial children. However, this biopolitical practice was extended to all children at the margins, thus fueling transnational adoption for the next fifty years.

[Article] Yuri Doolan, “Transpacific Camptowns: Korean Women, U.S. Army Bases, and Military Prostitution in America,” Journal of American Ethnic History 38:4 (2019): 33-54 

Abstract: Military prostitution has been a staple of U.S.–Korea relations since the 1940s, contained in the so-called camptown communities surrounding US military bases in South Korea. But during the 1970s, as the U.S. military steadily reduced its troop presence in Asia, camptowns were thrown into a chaotic state. Facing tremendous social disorder and economic upheaval, establishments that depended upon GI patronage began sending their madams and sex workers to domestic military sites through brokered marriages with US servicemen. These women arrived in the US South, a region housing the vast majority of America’s military. Consequently, southern bases like Fort Bragg in Fayetteville (NC), Fort Campbell in Clarksville (TN), and Fort Hood in Killeen (TX) saw the proliferation of military prostitution, which took form in illicit massage businesses catering to the sexual needs of local troop populations. By the 1980s, the Korean American sex trade would spread from these southern military towns to elsewhere in the United States. Highlighting the transpacific circuits among camptowns in South Korea and military bases in the United States since 1945, this article develops a portrait of the US South as a transnational militarized terrain, the camptown as a transpacific phenomenon, and Korean immigrant community formation as deeply intertwined with the happenings of U.S. militarism abroad. In doing so, it explains how the proliferation of illicit massage businesses witnessed by southern military communities in the 1970s was a transnational outgrowth of military prostitution encouraged by the US military in South Korea.

[Interview] Christine Hong, “Women Fighters,Breaking the Chains magazine, interview by Michelle Xie, December 2021.

This interview addresses the role of women in the Korean War as both a war of imperial intervention and a revolutionary people’s war, experienced in total from the perspective of the Korean people.

[Op-Ed] Ji-Yeon Yuh, “It’s Time to Remember the Civilian Survivors of the Unresolved Korean War,” Chicago Tribune, 25 July 2022, and Marie Myung-ok Kim, “The Violence of Forgetting,” Boston Globe, 27 July 2022. 

On the sixty-ninth anniversary of an armistice agreement that, contrary to the terms of the agreement itself, has not yet been turned into a peace agreement, a historian and a writer remind fellow Americans of the necessity to end the Korean War and to remember the civilian cost of warfare, highlighting what Koreans–including those in the diaspora–experienced.

This archive of oral histories taps into the Korean War’s hidden legacy in the United States: namely, the memories and experiences of Korean American survivors, their descendants, and other members of the war-formed Korean diaspora. First-generation Korean American survivors of that war are now in their eighties and nineties. Their memories are vital to both the historical record and community reflection. By honoring and giving voice to the memories of Korean Americans whose lives were shaped by the war, this archive seeks to foster peace and reconciliation in our communities and in Korea.

This virtual exhibit weaves together art, spoken word, film, and oral histories to explore the social and cultural consequences of the Korean War and its subsequent history of military occupation and migration. As a live, traveling exhibit, Still Present Pasts opened in numerous cities in the U.S., including Boston, Minneapolis, Honolulu and Los Angeles, as well as in Seoul. As a space of Korean American memory, it invites Koreans to consider the landscape of a militarized diaspora and Americans to grapple with the human cost of waging permanent war.

This photographic series is part of the Still Present Pasts exhibit, as well as part of the Writing Self, Writing Nation essay collection. As her biography states, Min was “[b]orn in a village near Seoul the year the Korean War ended with armistice without peace” and her works reflect on the continued division of Korea. Especially significant for the Reverberations module is Number 1 of 6 from Defining Moments, which juxtaposes 1953 as the “end” of the Korean War and Min’s year of birth, the LA Uprisings/Sa-i-gu and April 29 as Min’s birth date, and other militarized manifestations of the war in an embodied chronology as “metaphoric wounds” on the artist’s body.

[Online Roundtable Event/Memoir] Tastes Like War: a conversation with Grace Cho, Yuri Doolan, Mia Charlene White: Tastes Like War, a conversation with author Grace M. Cho - YouTube 

Three writers and scholars explore the entanglements of colonialism, racism, shame, and mental health as mixed race Korean American children of Korean military brides. With Grace Cho’s memoir, Tastes Like War, as a point of departure, these powerful intellectuals dissect the legacies of the Korean War for families, communities, and understandings of belonging.

[Memoir excerpt] Grace Cho,“ Taste Like War,” Asia-Pacific Journal 20:15 (2022).

This piece is an excerpt from Grace Cho’s Tastes Like War (Feminist Press, 2021):  Grace M. Cho grew up as the daughter of a white American merchant marine and the Korean bar hostess he met abroad. When Grace was fifteen, her mother experienced the onset of schizophrenia, a condition that first developed in their xenophobic small town and would evolve for the rest of her life.  Part memoir, part sociological investigation, Tastes Like War is a hybrid text about a daughter’s search through intimate and global history for the roots of her mother’s schizophrenia. In this excerpt, Cho retraces her early revelations about how the violence of U.S. militarization, occupation, and enduring warfare on the Korean peninsula had directly and intimately impacted her mother and her family.

[Memoir] Jane Jeong Trenka, Fugitive Visions: An Adoptee’s Return to Korea (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009)

In Trenka’s second memoir, which recounts her “return” as a Korean adoptee to her native land–a divided and militarily occupied Korea–she describes the “barbed-wire gash running through the body of her [birth mother’s]-our nation, running through her-our family, her-our country now filled with another foreign military.” Militarized division scales down to the most intimate levels, suggesting the depths to which imperial violence penetrates and intervenes: “I am incapable of living in my mother tongue/Division by language/Barrier/Barbed wire fence/They look for footprints in the morning/A mind violently occupied/The language of my enmity.”

[Memoir] Jane Jeong Trenka, The Language of Blood (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2003)

In this lyrical memoir, Trenka recounts her brutal awakening from compliant adoptee to fierce self-advocate in the wake of harrowing encounters with a stalker who planned her murder. Determined to define herself and live her life on her own terms, Trenka sets out on a search for the truth about her adoption and her birth family. Despite confrontations with her adoptive family, struggles with adoption agencies, and active resistance from multiple corners, Trenka finds some answers and persists in building both herself and her new life.

[Graphic novel] Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, The Waiting (Drawn and Quarterly, 2021) 

This graphic novel by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim has been translated from Korean by Janet Hong. While fictional, it was inspired by the author’s mother, who had been separated from her sister during the Korean War, and based on testimonies of other Korean elders’ family separations. The graphic genre invites readers to consider: Where and when do Korean War memories live? Is it a “past tense” war? This excerpt dramatizes the main fictional separation in The Waiting.

[Novel] Heinz Insu Fenkl, Memories of My Ghost Brother (New York: Dutton, 1996)

In this semi-autobiographical novel, Fenkl reflects back on the South Korean camptown, circa the U.S. war in Vietnam, as a site less of R-and-R than of an unremitting struggle to survive for its Korean and mixed-race inhabitants. Figuring the camptown as a backdoor to the United States, this narrative also demonstrates how gendered sexual labor and kinship ties are the price of the ticket.

[Documentary film] Kaisen, Jane Jin, and Guston Sondin-Kung. The Woman, the Orphan, and the Tiger (2010)

The Woman, the Orphan, and the Tiger explores ways in which trauma is passed from previous generations to the present. Following a group of international adoptees and other women of the Korean diaspora in their 20s and 30s, the film traces a genealogy by relating the stories of three generations of women: the former “comfort women” who were subjected to military sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the Pacific War, women who have worked as military prostitutes in South Korea from the 1950s onward, and transnational adopted women from the battle phase of the Korean War to the present. Composed of oral testimonies, poetry, public statements and interview fragments, the filmic narrative unfolds in a non-chronologic and layered manner. By reinterpreting and juxtaposing historical archive footage with recorded documentary material and staged performative actions, multiple spaces and times are conjoined to contour how a nexus of militarism, patriarchy, racism and nationalism served to suppress and marginalize certain parts of the population and how this part of world history continues to reverberate in the present moment.

[Documentary film] Liem, Deann Borshay, and Ramsay Liem. Memory of Forgotten War (2013)

Memory of Forgotten War conveys the human costs of military conflict through deeply personal accounts of the Korean War (1950-53) by four Korean-American survivors. Their stories take audiences through the trajectory of the war, from extensive bombing campaigns, to day-to-day struggle for survival and separation from family members across the DMZ. Decades later, each person reunites with relatives in North Korea, conveying beyond words the meaning of family loss. These stories belie the notion that war ends when the guns are silenced and foreshadow the future of countless others displaced by ongoing military conflict today.

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