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BOOK REVIEW | 'Action Likely in the Pacific' Giving a Valuable Korean Account of the Imperial Era by John Koster

An informative and balanced account of the Korean experience of the imperial era, told uncommonly from the Korean perspective through the life of Kilsoo Haan.

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"Action Likely in the Pacific" (2023, Amberley Publishing) by John Koster.

Kilsoo Haan, the primary subject of Action Likely in the Pacific (2023) by John Koster, was a Korean national born in Jangdan, Gyeonggi Province, in 1900. His family relocated to Hawaii in 1905 as plantation laborers. Moving to the American mainland in adulthood, he lobbied American officialdom in the interests of Korean independence. 

Haan represented the Sino-Korean People's League, an organization largely of his own creation. He was also spokesperson for the Korean Volunteer Army in China — Korean patriots who sought to enhance the cause of Korean independence through service in Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang army. 

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

Kilsoo Haan correctly predicted an early December attack on Pearl Harbor. He used his contacts within the United States Congress to communicate it to Defense and State Department officials. His most concrete form of evidence was an overheard conversation in which a Japanese national was desperately trying to sell four automobiles owned by the Japanese consulate in Hawaii at fire-sale prices. Another was information supplied by Korean agents on the construction of mini-submarines at Japanese shipyards. These submarines could only have been for the purpose of attacking shipping at anchor. They were ultimately employed during the Pearl Harbor raid. 

Haan is also on record for having accurately predicted the Soviet-Japanese non-aggression Pact of April 13, 1941. He also predicted Operation Ichigo, a Japanese drive through the length of China in 1944, and the progress of Soviet nuclear testing in the postwar period. 

"Some of your facts and predictions have indeed been borne out by the passages of time and I assure you that the information that you have given us has always been highly appreciated," advised Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to Haan.

This praise from Knox was paired with dire admonishments. Haan was informed that if his correct prediction of a Pearl Harbor attack were released to the press, he would be "put away for the duration." On December 8, the day after the attack, the FBI cautioned him to remain in Washington DC "until further notice."

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Japanese bombers used armor-piercing projectiles to sink the USS Arizona and other ships in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. (©Sankei)

More Circumstantial Evidence of US Foreknowledge

The evidence of Kilsoo Haan concerning the Pearl Harbor raid is circumstantial. However, it would seem quite significant to those unaware of the volume of other revelations. In reality, the full inventory of circumstantial evidence pointing to US foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack is overwhelming. At least twenty compelling items exist. Any five of them would call into question the chronicle of surprise attack. The revelations within Action Likely in the Pacific merely add to the already substantial pile. 

Perhaps the most compelling item concerns the transit of the Japanese carrier fleet across the North Pacific. A narrative has been created of the Japanese fleet having observed strict radio silence. It is a myth. Messages were sent. Whether the US was able to read them is a matter of contention, but it was undoubtedly able to locate the position of the signals. It knew that a maritime fleet was out in the North Pacific. The US had formerly declared the North Pacific a "Vacant Sea." Therefore, the shipping could not have been from a friendly nation as they would have communicated their intention. That left the navies of the Axis powers, among which it could only have been Japan. 

"We were prepared to divert traffic when we believed that war was imminent," Rear Admiral Richmond K Turner, head of the War Plans Division of the United States Navy, explained of the Vacant Sea declaration. They sent shipping south "so that the track of the Japanese task force would be clear." There is surely more within this exposition alone than the combined contributions of Kilsoo Haan. 

Frontpage News 

Kilsoo Haan is also far from alone in having predicted the Pearl Harbor attack with accuracy. One need look no further than the headline of The Honolulu Advertiser on November 30, 1941. It read: "Japan may strike over the weekend."

Richard K Turner, circa 1945-1947. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Imperial Era Timeline From a Korean Perspective

The strength of the book is its timeline. Koster entwines the story of Haan around that of the Korean peninsula during the imperial era. The narrative is balanced. Koster is equally scathing of Japanese and American imperial conduct. He also refuses to portray late 19th-century Korea as anything other than the bastion of misgovernance it undeniably was. There is no sense that Koster is sugarcoating the actions of any of these principal actors. 

The relationship between Korea and the United States is fundamental to an appreciation of Korea within this period. In the late 19th century, Japan decided to put its faith in Great Britain as its central ally and role model. Korea opted for the United States of America. It concluded a treaty with the US in 1882, acquiring assurance that the United States would protect Korea from foreign domination. 

As a showdown between China, Japan, and Russia over control of Korea progressed, however, the US decided to back Japan. It agreed to quietly nullify its treaty with Korea in return for Japanese acquiescence to US control over Hawaii and the Philippines. Japan and the US then signed the Taft-Katsura agreement in 1905, which summarized their respective positions toward each other's claims. The US would have a free hand in the Philippines and Hawaii, and Japan on the Korean Peninsula. 

Philippine-American War

Western commentators routinely refer to the Japanese reign within Korea as "brutal," despite the pacification process within the Philippines being far more severe. Estimates of death tolls within the Philippines often range from 200,000 to 300,000, with a total toll of around 1,000,000 when including disease. This is out of a total population of around 7 million. Koster opts for 200,000 from battle and two million in total. 

This two million figure is the one time within the book when Koster employs the red-flag-raising "as many as" conditioner. The legitimacy of the 2,000,000 figure, however, comprising close to 30% of the total population, is made more believable by a quote from an American military officer. "It's peaceful on Luzon now," the officer is said to have proclaimed. "The people are all dead."

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An American Diplomat With Undue Influence

A further historical figure highlighted within the book, who has been largely lost to history, is Durham White Stevens. He was an American diplomat who came to be an employee of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Stevens's level of influence in matters concerning the Korean peninsula was such that in 1908, The New York Times described him as holding "a post of such importance that he became known as the American dictator of the Hermit Kingdom."

Stevens was assassinated by a Korean in San Francisco in that same year. His "crime" was for making public comments such as the following: "Japan is doing in Korea and for the Koreans what the United States is doing in the Philippines for the Filipinos, modifying its methods only to suit the somewhat different conditions with which it has to deal."

Durham White Stevens in 1903. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

A Balanced Account of Nanjing

A notable highlight of the book occurs when the timeline reaches December 1937, and the Japanese victory at Nanjing. In Inventing Japan (2004) Ian Buruma, a professor at Bard College in New York State, contends that "almost everything" written on the subject of the Nanjing massacre "has a political bias." Koster comes as close as any to proving him wrong. 

"The Chinese troops who threw away their uniforms were wantonly but lawfully executed" Koster concludes, "though the executions were cruel and stupid, since the captured Chinese could have been used as laborers or even released without much fear of retribution." 

When it comes to the number of citizens who were killed due to soldier violence, Koster similarly maintains a sense of rationality and adherence to the abundance of primary evidence. Despite the likelihood of rapes being underreported, Koster states that John Rabe, the leader of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, "had signed off" on the "figure of 360 rapes and 49 murders of obvious civilians," which the committee had compiled. 

In the Nanjing of 1927, about "5,000 Chinese women and girls related to trade union members were forced into brothels" as a punishment to their families, following the collapse of the Nationalist/Communist relationship, Koster then reminds. This was ten years before the Japanese breached the city's walls.

The abuse of Chinese women within Nanjing attributable to the Nationalists "would thereby have exceeded" that by the Japanese, he concludes. He might also have noted that in 1950, prior to any memorial being constructed regarding Japanese atrocities in Nanjing, the Communists raised a statue for what they claim to have been around 100,000 Communists, students, and opponents of Chiang Kai-shek, who were massacred there by the Nationalists.

Be Careful What You Wish For

When the timeline reaches Pearl Harbor, Koster concludes that the Rosevelt administration officials "wanted some sort of war but didn't expect anything like" the one that "they got." And that accordingly, "the 'day of infamy' speech was an outrageous presumption that the US Congress and the American public were stupid." There is considerable support for this view within the public record. Perhaps the most compelling is from General George C Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army. He stated that "of course, no one anticipated that the overt act would be the crippling of the Pacific fleet.

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A Peninsula of Continued Misfortune

With the defeat of Japan, Korea was put under trusteeship. A suitable leader (leaders) would need to be found by the trustees to head the postwar Korean nation (nations). Kilsoo Haan was the type of Westernized Korean that Americans would feel comfortable with. His lack of residency on the peninsula, however, could only count against him in the eyes of Koreans. Their preference was for Ku Kim, who had spent time there in prison during the period of Korea's annexation, and in the self-proclaimed Korean Provisional Government (KPG) in exile. Ultimately, the presidency fell to Syngman Rhee, the founding president of the KPG. He had relocated to the US in 1925 after having been impeached. 

In 1949, Ku Kim was assassinated. In 1950, the Korean War began. Kilsoo Haan, distraught, gradually withdrew from public life. He naturalized as a US citizen in 1956 and he died in 1976.

Ku Kim in 1949. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Wanted: Greater Contribution From Korean Historians

The back cover preamble of Action Likely in the Pacific promises "a story of espionage that could have changed the course of history and saved thousands of American and British lives — and millions of Asian lives." In reality, Koster seems to feel there is little Kilsoo Haan could have revealed to the US government that would have changed much of anything about December 7, 1941. The US wanted to be attacked. It wanted war. 

The revelatory value of the book, therefore, has less to do with Pearl Harbor than the little-known story of the Koreans most publicly advocating for their nation's independence during the imperial era. It has to be asked, however, why it took a white American male to write this book. Where are the South Korean writers who can write about the imperial years with such balance? 

A sad reality over the past 150 years is the difficulty finding Korean historians brave enough to write the truth and stir national pride. There have been relentless attacks on Korean academics who attempted to do so. While the challenges may make the task for Korean historians an uncomfortable one, it is a task that all would benefit from being carried out.

Fortunately, recent indications suggest that more and more South Koreans are rising to this challenge. Action Likely in the Pacific, therefore, an informative and readable account of the experience of Korea during the era of imperialism, may prove to be a valuable forerunner of further accounts to come. 

About the Book:

Title: Action Likely in the Pacific
Author: John Koster
Publisher: Amberley Publishing
Publication date: February 2023
ISBN: 9781398112476
To buy the book: The book is available for sale in paperback, hardback, and e-book formats from online booksellers including Amazon.

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Reviewed by Paul de Vries
Find other reviews and articles by the author on Asia Pacific history on JAPAN Forward.

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