Note: AS met “Gobau” after the writing of To the Last Round. After a series of interviews, AS has included the artist’s reminiscenses in Scorched Earth, Black Snow.
A Terrible Beauty: “Gobau” at War, 1950
Kim Song-hwan, 78, is Korea’s most famous living cartoonist. For years, his work graced the pages of Korea’s two most popular newspapers. Under the country’s authoritarian governments, he was twice interrogated and 200 of his strips expunged.
He has been lauded by fellow cartoonists worldwide, including Malaysia’s Lat and Britain’s Frank Finch: movies have been made of his work, and PhD disserations on his output reside at Harvard and Kyoto Universities. Today retired, with his full collection residing at Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art, this cheerul and sprightly little man can rest on his laurels.
Things were not always so comfortable.
His pen name “Gobau” (“Strong Rock”) came to him in the summer of 1950 when he was hiding out from North Korea troops amid the chaos of the Korean War. A high-school student and part-time illustrator for magazines (“We had cameras in those days, but printing was not so good: Photos came out black on the page!”) he was living outside Seoul when Kim Il-sung struck south. He recorded the events of those days with that blend of delicate, Oriental watercolour and sensitive pen work that would later become his trademark. After Seoul’s 1950 liberation, he was hired as a war artist by Korea’s Ministry of Defense, but it is his early works that capture what it was like to be a Korean civilian caught up amid total war.
The below - a gallery of Gobau’s work, with quotes by the artist and commentry by AS - is presented here in the hope that his work will reach an English language audience.
All images are courtesy Gobau.
The Holocaust Begins: The war is a day old. In the hills above Gobau’s hometown north of Seoul, two men watch distant artillery bursts. “We heard on the radio that the North Koreans had invaded, but were told that the South Korean Army had pushed them back,” said Gobau. “Because of that, many people did not flee.”
On the Roads: Refugees, aware that the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) is bearing down on Seoul, flee. Many are carrying their possessions in bundles on their head. Tragedy would strike when the Han River bridges were blown while refugees were crossing. Even so, the summer exodus would not be as terrible as the winter retreat six months later.
The Fighting Draws Closer: Not everyone fled. Near East Gate, curious onlookers (including Gobau, in foreground) watch as the NKPA approachs, while nervous Republic of Korea (ROK) troops take up firing positions overlooking the gate and its nearby market.
All Hail, Kim’s Men! It is June 28th. The war is less than three days old, but Seoul has fallen. The NKPA, mounted on Russian T34s, march triumphantly through the streets. “Some workers welcomed them – they thought it would be a different world – but not as many as I thought,” said Gobau. “There were NKPA going by in jeeps saying ‘Give them a big hand!’ but it was only some workers and children who did.” Sophisticated Seoulites would soon be chuckling to hear of the thirsty NKPA troops who mistook the Chosun Hotel’s toilets for drinking fountains.
The Men from the North: Gobau got a much closer look at the NKPA than any Western correspondent. Here he sketches the conquerors and their equipment. Note the Soviet Shpagin PPSH “burp guns” (so named for he brrrpp noise they make) and the tanks and scout cars – the ROK Army had no response to this mobile and armoured foe. Note the staring eyes of two of the subjects: The ’1000 yard star’ is a common symptom of battle shock.
Tactical Bullock Cart: While photos and newsreels focussed on the NKPA’s formidable T34s, behind the armoured spearhead, the echelons relied on more tradtional transport – such as this well-camouflaged bullock cart. These methods were not alien to the “Great Leader” himself: Kim Il-sung had learned his warcraft in the Red Army, which, during World War II, had made effective use of horse-drawn Panje carts in the rough terrain of the Eastern Front.
The Naked and the Dead: Abandoned by his retreating comrades, a ROK soldier lies in a pool of blood. “Although there were two hospitals nearby, all the doctors had fled,” said Gobau. The man had been screaming and crying so much, local civilians had stripped him to find his wounds, then attempted to bandage him. The attempts were in vain: by the time Gobau sketched him, he was dead.
Desolation: Bodies and mourners in the rice fields. The war is still in its early stages but the “collateral damage” is already mounting. Much greater destruction is soon to come.
Crimson Harvest: The fighting has passed. A stretcher is cleansed of blood.
The Pale Man: NKPA root out potential enemies in Gobau’s neighbourhood. Gobau (looking on from around the corner) remembered how very pale the South Korean looked as he was surrounded by the North Korean squad; he has no idea what the man’s eventual fate was.
The Americans Join the Fight: The Americans have landed in the south, but their early attempts to stem the advancing NKPA meet with no more success than those of their ROK allies. The US Army is no longer the formidable fighting force it was at the end of World War II; the men sent to Korea are ill-trained, under-motivated and softened by occupation duties in Japan. However, the US Air Force is to be reckoned with: Within a week of its deployment, it has hacked the North Korean air force from the sky. With desperate combat underway down south, NKPA administration in Seoul begins to break down; food runs short. Gobau decides to travel north to his aunt in Gaesong. On the way he sketches this scene: NKPA troops take cover and open fire on USAF aircraft dominating the skies. “They had little chance of hitting anything, but they fired anyway,” he said.
Low Level: The result of USAF intervention is soon apparent. Not only did the skies belong to the Americans, the NKPA was denied daylight use of the roads. In the summer of 1950, strafed vehicles became a common sight along the dirt tracks of the peninsula.
Attack Run: Dressed as peasants, North Korean soldiers collecting the rice harvest scatter as a US F80 Shooting Star screams in on a strafing run. The NKPA ruse of disguising themselves as civilians – a ruse that would later also be used by the Chinese – would create major problems for UN Command units who could not distinguish friend from enemy, and would have terrible repurcussions for civilians caught in the crossfire of an increasingly brutal war.
Shooting Stars over Kaesong: Framed by the traditional roofs of Kaesong, Korea’s ancient capital, US F80 Shooting Stars dive into the attack. “The bombing attacks were not that serious,” said Gobau. “They were aiming mainly at the rail station.” With the NKPA breaking its teeth on the stiffening defences of the “Pusan Perimeter,” the USAF effectively interdicted supplies and reinforcements heading for the battlefront.
Hideout: By late August, the fighting along the Naktong River is reaching its climax. The NKPA is being heavily attrited as it tries desperately to break through to Pusan and finish the war. To replace its horrendous casualties, the NKPA resorts to forcible recruiting of southern civilians. Gobau spent weeks in hiding in his attic; when he did go out, he carried a stick, to fool NKPA press gangs into thinking that he was unfit for duty. It was during those long, lonely hours spent reading and sketching that the young artist’s pen-name, “Gobau” (“Strong/Stubborn Rock”) came to him.
Counterattack: It is September. MacArthur has landed at Inchon, and his finest troops – the US 1st Marine Division - are fighting for the capital against North Korean diehards. Huge swathes of the city are devastated.
A Terrible Beauty: USAF rockets make a spectacular display against the lurid sunset as the battle for Seoul rages.
Darkness, be my Friend: Not every NKPA soldier was a fanatic. While Kim Il-sung’s stormtroopers in the early months of the war had proven – like the Imperial Japanese Army before them – to be both valiant and brutal fighters, by September thir combat effectiveness had been degraded. Pummelled from the air, and caught in a vise between the Inchon landing and the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, many units melted away. Here North Korean soldiers – apparently unarmed – move out under cover of darkness.
Firepower vs Manpower: US Marines with tank support clear an NKPA roadblock at Daehangno intersection, central Seoul. Gobau did not witness the actual combat, but deduced what had happened by the position and the condition of the NKPA corpses scattered over the street the following day.
Aftermath: Seoul has been cleared of enemy, but the city has not yet been cleaned up. What looks like garbage in the foreground is actually human detritus: An NKPA soldier had been blown apart with explosives, then squashed flat by tank treads.
The Migooks are Here! Seoul has been liberated; Gobau sketched these portraits of GIs in the aftermath of the fighting. “When I first saw American soldiers, I thought they were all really old, in their 40s or 50s,” Gobau recalled. “I later found out there were only in their 20s – it was just that they were so heavily bearded!” Another reason for Kim’s confusion may have been the men’s facial expressions: Troops suffering from battle stress commonly appear older than their actual age.
The Defeated: In front of Myong Dong Cathedral, North Korean prisoners in their underwear are marched off to an uncertain fate. The NKPA had behaved brutally in the areas under its occupation – its victims included captured GIs, who were found bound and neckshot - but the atrocities were not all on one side. Both during the retreat down the peninsula, and on the fight back up it, ROK paramilitaries had shown little mercy for captured communists or traitors - or suspected communists or traitors.
Settling Scores: Not all the dead were victims of the war - or even of political violence. In the lawless aftermath of the battle, this man, lying in the Midopa Department Store was killed, Gobau believes, by the notorious Jongno gangsters. By now, the young water colourist had been hired as a war artist; he got some very odd looks as he wandered the streets sketching dead bodies.
Children of the Ruins: “This car had no engine, and no wheels, but there were these two children living in it,” recalled Gobau. In the days before NGOs such as the Red Cross got fully active in the South, orphaned or abandoned children had to rely on the kindness of strangers – including UN troops, many of whom temporarily adopted homeless children – or their own wits to survive. But with the NKPA smashed and UN forces charging North to finish the war, surely, things would soon return to something approaching normality?
The Bleakest Midwinter: Catastrophe has struck. Out of the freezing north, China attacked. Defeated and demoralized, UN forces have given up North Korea in hopes that the victorious communists will halt at the 38th parallel. The hopes were in vain: Peng Te-huai stormed south on New Year’s Day. Gobau was embedded with these ROK troops on Yeoiudo Airfield as they await evacuation down the Han River on tank landing craft, and thence to the sea, and the south. “The troops had transport,” Gobau recalled. “But the civilians…” With the UN Command employing scorched earth tactics, and vengeful NKPA joining the Chinese thrust south, as many as a million civilians – many of them old people, women and children - joined a trek south through a pitiless winter. On the day Gobau sketched this scene, the UN rearguard – Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, Royal Ulster Rifles and 8th Hussars – were engaged in a desperate battle outside Koyang: “Happy Valley.” In that single day and night of combat, the battlegroup lost more men killed or missing than the British Army lost in eight years in Afghanistan. Yet by the standards of the Korean War, this was considered a small action. And the carnage still had two and a half years to run.