Figure 1. John Rich, A Korean Boy on the remains of a Russian built North Korean Yak fighter plane, c. 1950. Kodachrome. Figure 1. John Rich, A Korean Boy on the remains of a Russian built North Korean Yak fighter plane, c. 1950. Kodachrome.

For the past several years, stories of newly discovered Korean War photographs have surfaced annually between April and June. The yearly announcements seem as anticipatory of June 25th, the day the Korean War began, a date commemorated by official ceremonies in South Korea. These photographic “discoveries” peaked in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of the Korean War in June 2010, proliferating through channels including printed books, exhibitions, and online galleries.

In April 2010, a prominent Korean internet news portal revealed a compilation of allegedly never-before-seen color photographs of the Korean War, taken by the American war correspondent John Rich between 1950 and 1953.[1] Although Rich’s photographs are among several touted online as “newly discovered” photographs, the incredible detail and vibrant color of Rich’s photographs stand out from the black and white pictures dominating most Korean War photography.[2] The digitized Kodachrome photographs appeared as crisp, slide-like images online, as if they had been taken using the latest digital camera technology.[3] An exhibition of Rich’s photographs opened in 2010 at the Blue House, the official residence and office of the Korean President, before traveling throughout the country. The accompanying book, Korean War in Color: A Correspondent’s Retrospective on a Forgotten War, was published in 2010 with full-spread photographs on high-quality matte paper.

The regularly recurring “discovery” of new Korean War photographs suggests that the images are meant to bring to mind memories of the war in advance of June 25th. This certainly holds true for Korean War in Color, given its timely publication and support from the Korean government, which, at a minimum, provided a venue for the exhibition. But what kind of memories of the Korean War do such productions invoke? Whose memories are conjured up through Rich’s photographs, and whose memories are at stake? Indeed, why is the Korean War incessantly referred to as the “forgotten war,” even as every picture and comment included in the book is about the memory of that war? The book’s text consists mostly of short captions and passages from Rich’s testimony. These inquiries are not and cannot be answered, or even considered, in that space. That context itself, however, raises questions about the conflicted memory of the Korean War, and in turn how Korean War photographs are often exploited for a political agenda.

Indeed, before the images are even presented, the specter of geopolitical issues infiltrates the book. Although the photographs themselves are sparsely captioned, a considerable amount of text opens the book, courtesy of four forewords written by high-ranking military and government officials of South Korea and the United States: Paik Sun-yup, the first four-star general in South Korea who served in the Korean War; Lee Hong-koo, a former Prime Minister and the Co-Chairman of the 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee; Kathleen Stephens, then the United States Ambassador to South Korea; and Walter L. Sharp, U.S. General, United States Commander, and United States Forces Korea Commander until 2011. These forewords create the context for the ways in which the book can be read and understood by imposing an idea of how the war itself should be approached. General Paik in particular uses the opportunity to thank the United States troops, treating the book as a commemoration of the war through the lens of an American war correspondent: “...we the people of the Republic of Korea humbly express our recognition and respect to those troops and their families. This nation owes them a great debt. Now the Republic of Korea must repay that debt to them.” (vi) General Paik’s forward expresses his understanding of Korea-U.S. relations as that of a debtor and creditor. This stance has been the central issue for the country’s democratization movement vis-à-vis the U.S.-backed military regime (1963-1992) and remains a sensitive topic in the post-military junta era. In approaching the publication of Rich’s work as a repayment of sorts, General Paik encourages a pro-U.S. and pro-military position by reiterating the debtor-creditor relations between the two countries. Lee, Ambassador Stephens, and General Sharp all likewise commemorate the sacrifices made by the U.S and UN soldiers in Korea in their respective statements, thus further establishing an authoritative context for the viewing of photographs taken by an American journalist.

Rich, a Peabody Award-winning journalist and war veteran, was the only war correspondent using color film in Korea during the War (x-xi). Born in 1917, Rich enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and later joined the U.S. Marine Corps, making four combat landings during World War II, including at Iwo Jima (222). He was sent to Tokyo while working for the International News Service after the war. Within the first week of the Korean War in 1950, Rich went to Korea, and by the end of the year he was working for NBC News. Rich covered the Korean War for the next three years, “a longer period than any other American news correspondent,” traveling back and forth between the Korean peninsula and his home in Tokyo (222), Rich went on to become NBC’s Senior Asian Correspondent, based in Tokyo, and was eventually appointed a Vice President for the RCA Corporation, which owned NBC News.

Korean War in Color is organized into eight thematic chapters, the first six containing Rich’s photographs and each arranged in chronological order. Each photograph, mostly full-spread is accompanied by a caption providing background and followed by a description of the scene. The book also includes Rich’s interview with Elizabeth Shim, a Korean Studies scholar. The captions of the photographs appear to have been written by Andrew Salmon and Robert Koehler, incorporating Rich’s testimonies. Although it also served as an exhibition catalogue, the book does not include any historical assessments of Rich’s work. Most of the stories are, hence, designed to be told by the photographs themselves. The selection and organization of photographs in each chapter must compose a narrative and thus a particular view of the Korean War—and, as with all books, of the author.

The book indeed begins with a chapter titled “Memories and Faces”: the first photograph, which is also the cover of the book, shows a South Korean boy posing on a crashed North Korean fighter plane. Waving his right hand at the camera, the boy, with a shaven head and dirt-covered clothes, smiles widely for the camera. The caption for the full-spread photograph relates how the Korean War began. The chapter then presents photographs covering U.S., Korean, and British troops; Australian warships; African American soldiers; and Korean children, particularly war orphans. There are also photographs of war correspondents and a North Korean soldier at a peace talk, in an effort to portray the diverse groups involved in the war.

However, the short captions accompanying each photograph provide little room to explore what these “Memories” mean in regard to the “Faces” of the war. Most peculiar is the types of photographs used. As with Korea, 20 Years in Pictures (1968) and Shiryŏngwa Yŏnggwangui Minjoksa (1975), books published during the 1960s and 1970s on the Korean War, Korean War in Color eschews the subject matter comprising the majority of extant Korean War photographs—documentation of combat, casualties on both sides (particularly fallen allies), and the mass executions of civilians who “collaborated” with the enemy. Such photographs necessarily include casualties from North Korea and its allies, images that were and largely still are taboo in the anti-communist environment of South Korea, lest they conjure up “undesirable” collective sympathy towards the North Koreans and Chinese. Likewise, the photographs of orphans also support a particular narrative, in which South Korea is personified as the innocent victim of war.

“A Country in Ruins,” the next chapter, depicts architectural damage resulting from the war, focusing largely on the urban landscape of South Korea. The chapter “In the Line of Fire” portrays troops, generally U.S. forces. The latter chapter also includes photographs of relevant political and military figures: U.S. Vice President Alben Barkely (96-97); Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of Korea (98-99); General MacArthur escorting Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson in Tokyo (102-103); and General Mark Clark, who signed the cease-fire agreement with North Korea in 1953 (105). Again, the focus on images of the U.S. and the absence of photographs of North Korea and its allies is notable; this chapter contains the sole photograph in the book of casualties—two Chinese soldiers killed in a village skirmish (73)—and images of North Korean prisoners of war.

The chapter “Weapons of War” exhibits images of battleships, landing ships, and aircraft carriers in action, creating a stark contrast to the much smaller Russian-built fighter plane, crashed and burnt, featured in the cover photograph. Korean civilians are the subject of “Resilient People,” capturing the people during the war—people at a market, high school girls mobilized to cheer for Syngman Rhee’s second-term inauguration in 1952, a fashionably dressed bourgeois couple, old men in traditional attire, and “house boys”—orphan boys who were taken into military camps for temporary residence. The varying demographics of the photographic subjects reflect the careful selections made by the organizer of the book, representing a nation devastated by the casualties of the war but soon to recover thanks to its citizens’ resiliency. Rich’s photography collection ends with a chapter on the peace talks initiated in Gaeseong in July 1951. This chapter includes rare photographs of North Korean and Chinese delegates and reporters, with whom Rich became acquainted during the talks.

The photography chapters are followed by “About John Rich” and “In His Own Words: An Interview with John Rich,” respectively an introduction to the photographer and a discussion with Elizabeth Shim of how Rich came to document the Korean War for its duration. In the interview, Shim focuses on Rich’s experience of the war, asking, for instance, about Rich’s “general impressions of the Koreans, the South Koreans.” Such questions are a self-conscious staple of foreign interactions; regardless of people or era, the answers typically reflect the very distance between the asker and the subject of the question. This remains the case for Rich, who states that he did not know much about Koreans, but came to realize that they are great people, “a good ally (229).” Such superficiality extends to questions of Rich’s own memories of the war, which are barely touched upon.

The results of the interview are more enlightening when photography itself is the subject. Rich emphasizes the importance of the color in the photographs, which “really jumps out at you (232).” Indeed, the well-preserved quality of the photographs brings the scenes as close as one’s iPhone photographs. However, he also indicates that the color, and the novelty of seeing color photographs of the Korean War, will make people “realize how horrible wars are and what sacrifices soldiers make to fight these wars... Brutal (232).” Yet this “brutality” can hardly be seen, or felt, within the photographs published in the book. The exclusion of photographs of casualties, whether combat or civilian, creates a very specific category of memory of the Korean War, one that has been regimented since the 1960s under the South Korean military junta. This is in line with the current ban on images of dead U.S. troops in the American media; as learned during the Vietnam War, photographs of dead soldiers tend to rally anti-war sentiments beyond the interests of geopolitical agendas.

By presenting photographs of powerful machines of war, innocent faces of civilians, and smiling young soldiers, Rich’s book continues to represent the Korean War as the “forgotten war.” Masking the atrocity and immediacy of war indeed contributes to its forgotten-ness, as the images allowed for consumption are carefully curated to avoid problematizing the conflict. As a result, while the book contributes significantly to the archive of Korean War photography, it offers little in the study of memories of the Korean War beyond the persistent propagandistic control and manipulation of those memories.

Jung Joon Lee received her Ph.D. from the CUNY Graduate Center and lectures on the history of photography and contemporary art at the City University of New York. She is also a visiting curator at the Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery at Fairfield University. Lee’s recent research examines the relationship between photography, memory, and the U.S. military presence in East Asia.


    1. Anonymous, “Choechogonggae, ‘keolleoro boneun Hangukjeonjaeng'—Gukgundeul,” Yonhap News, April 7, 2010, http://photo.media.daum.net/photogallery/culture/0804_culturenews/view.html?photoid=3102&newsid=20100427162310721&p=yonhap.return to text

    2. The Korean War photography books published in 2010 include GyeongGi Cultural Foundation, ed., 1950 0625 Hangukjeonjaeng Sajinjib (Gyeonggi-Do: GyeongGi Cultural Foundation, 2010); Byung Kwan Choi, Korea’s DMZ: In Search for Peace and Life (Seoul: Gaeul Munhwa, 2010); Sujin Shin, ed., On the Line: Exhibition Commemorating the 60th Anniversay of the Korean War (Seoul: Ean Books, 2010); Ministry of Unification, ed., Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Korean War: Photo Exhibition on Peace and National Unification (Gwacheon: Ministry of Unification, 2010).return to text

    3. Kodachrome, a type of color film, was introduced by the Eastman Kodak company in 1935. Due to a sharp decrease in demand, it was discontinued in 2009. return to text