A Conversation with Joo Ok Kim: On the Korean War and the Global Gothic of U.S. Empire

Joo Ok Kim In the Fall 2016 issue of south: a scholarly journal, Joo Ok Kim published a piece entitled, “Declining Misery: Rural Florida’s Hmong and Korean Farmers.” She is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Latino/a Studies at the University of Kansas. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Asian American Studies and Verge: Studies in Global Asians. Her book project, Warring Genealogies: Race, Kinship, and the Korean War, examines the racial legacies of the Korean War through Chicano cultural production and U.S. archives of white supremacy.

Below is an excerpt from Kim’s interview with south editor, Sharon P. Holland about her piece and its relationship to her research project. You can see the full interview on the journal’s website, https://southjournal.org.


Sharon P. Holland: Speak to that deep gothic in the piece. Because it’s definitely there; when I got to the photos of the scarecrow figures, there’s this one line “the walking dead,” right? And that gothic narrative is so so embedded in southern fiction and southern narrative. And in what ways do you hope, not just the piece that you placed with south, but its part in your larger project, in what ways do you hope it kind of pushes that narrative?

Joo Ok Kim: The gothic . . . thinking about the southern writers, and thinkers who have theorized this. I am thinking of Toni Morrison, Saidiya Hartman, to a certain extent Avery Gordon, Dennis Childs, and perhaps scholars such as Grace Cho, the idea of haunting, the true terror and the true gothic of the south has everything to do with settler colonialism, racial slavery and its aftermaths, the on-going hauntings of U.S. empire overseas.

In terms of my larger project . . .  it’s about the Korean War and the subterranean histories of the Korean War, but I had not thought of [until now] my own larger project as a narrative of the gothic, does that make sense?

SPH: Yes, yes.

JK: I had thought about hauntings, but I wasn’t thinking about the [southern] gothic, particularly. And so this is very exciting. All of a sudden there’s an aperture to think about the Korean War as taking part in the global gothic formation of U.S. empire.

SPH: It’s often thought of as the shadow U.S. imperialist war of the 20th century. One seldom hears about subjects, not only . . . I believe that my father served in that war.

JK: Wow.

SPH: But I’m not necessarily sure if he actually served in the Korean War, or if he was . . . because the rumors are that he was stationed in Mexico during the Korean War. So, my first question is what was he doing in Mexico during the Korean War, right?

JK: [laughs]

SPH: That’s also another question, but it gets to the actual positionality of that war among others in the 20th century, you know, speaks to the type of haunting – and I don’t even want to call it a metaphor, right? I think there’s a deliberateness about its placement as the ghost among other “real conflicts.”

JK: Yes, absolutely. The so-called absent presence of that War. The haunting not even as metaphor, but . . . has that war been ghosted? And if so what does it in fact mean for scholars who are working – and there are several scholars working on the Korean War right now in transliterary production, transcultural production. What does it mean to then resurrect that kind of war in our contemporary moment, too?

SPH: That’s okay, that’s okay. That’s what the interview is for, I mean, I think that’s what we try to do at south: some of the questions that we ask cannot be answered, but they must be asked nevertheless.

JK: Yes. Yes. But, if I can comment on the Korean War shadow in your father’s own history? And what was he doing in Mexico? I think the response to that would be: not being in Korea!

SPH: I always [knew] he was in the Navy, and he served in the Navy during that war, but he was in Mexico. . . was he working with some other body involved with that global conflict. I have always wondered. . .

What he brought back, interesting enough, for my work in Food Studies was a recipe. He brought back the best tamale pie I’ve ever had. A kind of anglicized version, I’m sure, something that he created from his time. . .I asked him [when I was seventeen], “where does that come from?” And he said, “when I was in the Korean War.” And I was like, “how does that make sense?”


south: a Scholarly Journal

Read the full interview with Joo Ok Kim on the south website. Those with institutional access can read the full article at Project MUSE. If you are attending the American Studies Association meeting stop by UNC Press booth #406 to browse issues of south.

To subscribe to the journal, visit the UNC Press website.