Project Eagle Cover

Project Eagle

The American Christians of North Korea in World War II

Robert S. Kim

Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2017, 360 pages

Book Review published on: March 29, 2019

In Project Eagle: The American Christians of North Korea in World War II, Robert Kim brilliantly tells the little-known story of the history of American missionaries in Korea from 1884 to 1942. He blends this period seamlessly with the actions of the U.S. government and military during World War II, post-World War I, the Korean struggle for independence, and the actions leading to the Korean War from 1942 to 1948. The book begins by describing influential American missionaries that introduced Christianity and brought modern education, Western medical practices, and political ideals to a struggling nation under Japanese rule. Later, Kim transitions from the missionary focus to Project Eagle during World War II, which was a joint operation under the newly formed Office of Strategic Services and the Korean Restoration Army. It was the real starting point of relationship between the United States and Korea.

Missionaries established an especially strong presence in Pyongyang late in the nineteenth century, and by 1910, it is estimated that over two hundred thousand Koreans had converted to Christianity. Pyongyang soon became the center of Presbyterianism in Korea and throughout Asia, giving it the nickname “Jerusalem of the East.” Kim explains that missionaries were the first source of formal education for Koreans, not just the upper class but common people, including women. The first of these schools was established in Seoul in 1886 and included the first medical university teaching Western medicine.

The missionaries’ impact on government leadership was significant as well. Young Koreans educated in Christian schools became a new social class who sought to defend their Korean identity in the face of Japanese oppression. They would later represent most of the leadership of the Korean independence movement. The first president of the Republic of Korea, Syngman Rhee, was educated at an American Methodist school. Kim Hyong-jik, a Korean activist, was educated in Christian schools and married the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Their son, Kim Song-ju, would later change his name to Kim Il-sung and become the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, installing his family as the totalitarian rulers of North Korea.

Project Eagle emerged gradually in late 1944 to early 1945 as an organization for the collection and analysis of strategic information for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and for conducting special operations focused on Japanese forces in Korea. Two former missionaries to Korea, Clarence Weems Sr. and George McCune, joined the Office of Strategic Services headed by William Donovan. A direct connection to the American Protestant Church of Korea was further made when Horace Horton Underwood joined the team as Donovan’s intelligence officer. His father, Horace Grant Underwood, was a thirty-year missionary and professor at the Yonsei University in Seoul.

Russia declared war on Japan on 9 August 1945 and immediately invaded Manchuria with 1.5 million troops and 5,500 tanks, quickly sweeping through the Japanese forces. The Russians crossed into Korea and reached Pyongyang on 24 August 1945. They occupied northern Korea to the 38th parallel as agreed upon by the United States, which would be the post-Korean War boundary between the two occupation zones. Kim explained that the boundary line was haphazardly decided on by two colonels in the Pentagon who simply looked at a National Geographic map of Korea and drew a line.

Representatives from the United States, Soviet Union, China, and Great Britain met in Moscow on December 1945 to decide Korea’s future. They proposed a trusteeship and created the Joint Soviet-American Commission, which sought to establish a provisional Korean democratic government. It called for a five-year trusteeship program and then elections. The situation in the U.S. sector quickly deteriorated as they struggled with a lack of knowledge, planning, and rational policies from Washington. By May 1947, the United States had given up on Russian’s participation in the trusteeship to free elections and turned the matter over to the General Assembly of the United Nations. On 14 November 1947, the United Nations approved a resolution supporting a U.S. proposal that included free elections in both northern and southern Korea by 31 March 1948. However, Russia rejected the resolution and installed their puppet government under the control of Kim Il-sung in the north. Elections were held in the south on 10 May 1948, and Syngman Rhee was elected president of the Republic of Korea. The division of Korea into two states was officially formalized on 9 Sept 1948. The withdrawal of U.S. troops was completed on 30 June 1949, setting the conditions for the Korean War the following year.

I recommend Project Eagle: The American Christians of North Korea in World War II for anyone interested in the historical influence of the United States and, in particular, its mid-twentieth century missionaries in the nation of Korea. Scholars and soldiers may also find an additional interest in the book due to its direct correlation between the actions and decisions during the U.S. occupation and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Robert B. Haines, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas