Journal of e-Media Studies, Special Issue: 6.1 (2022)

The Tentacular Reach of USIA/S in Postwar South Korea

by Sueyoung Park-Primiano

MacArthur Proclaims Order after the War
Deliberate and Full-on Propaganda
Influencing People in Provincial Areas
The New Propaganda Machine: The Office of Civil Information

The evolution and expansion of the information and propaganda activities of the US Information Agency (USIA) in South Korea from 1945 through the 1950s, with its complex nexus of civilian and military powers in the US and overseas, extended and accelerated the global dominance of the American film industry and American culture in an effort to combat and supplant Soviet communism. From 1945 to 1948, the US military mobilized all media to promote American ideas of democracy and emphasized motion pictures as the ideal carrier of messages in a country where illiteracy, a lack of radio receivers, and an inadequate power supply persisted into the 1950s. 

Succeeding the US Information Service (USIS) established in Korea by the American Military Government, USIA consolidated its overseas program (as USIS) with explicit approval from Congress and the Eisenhower administration in 1953. Despite the civilian takeover, USIS continued its collaboration with the US military and sought cooperation from the American film industry to produce, distribute, and exhibit commercial and noncommercial motion pictures to promote the American way of life and counter the military regime.

Cooperation was also offered by civil affairs programs conducted by the United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency (UNKRA) and the United Nations Civil Assistance Command in Korea (UNCACK) in the aftermath of the Korean War (1950–1953). But no group was as well organized as USIS in working with the Korean government or reaching out to the general public, including Americans at home who also disputed the agency’s unidirectional and total influence. 


MacArthur Proclaims Order After the War

After Emperor Hirohito’s surrender, which ended thirty-five years of Japanese rule on the Korean peninsula, seventy-seven US military officers took over in his stead.  Gen. Douglas MacArthur proclaimed that Korea would one day be free, but until then, Japanese officials were to be respected—as well as all American property and personnel.  

The Japanese were replaced by Americans, and forceful protests flared against the new occupiers. In response to these volatile developments, Special Emissary Edwin Pauley, personal representative to President Truman, suggested classifying independence-seekers as enemies of the democracy that the US was installing in Korea. To assuage the problem of rebellious behavior, Pauley strongly recommended that the US carry on a propaganda-and-education campaign within Korea in order to “sell democracy and the four freedoms.”1 Without such a campaign, Pauley was concerned that the Koreans would hear only of communism, which he maintained “the Soviets were preaching as the highest form of democracy.” Consequently, predating and anticipating the Smith–Mundt Act of 19482—which, for the first time, committed the US government in a time of peace to conduct international information and educational exchange activities on a global, long-term scale—President Truman complied with Pauley's evaluation and replied: 

We intend to carry on an informational and educational campaign to sell to the Koreans our form of democracy. [ . . . ] Our commitments for the establishment of an independent Korea require that we stay in Korea long enough to see the job through and that we have adequate personnel and sufficient funds to do a good job. I am, therefore, requesting the agencies concerned to see that means are found to ensure that General Hodge has the men and funds he needs to attain our objective.3


Deliberate and Full-on Propaganda 

Thus began a full-scale maneuver to eradicate leftist forces. The Department of Public Information (DPI) was established as the US American Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), the central mouthpiece to handle all information and propaganda operations by controlling every aspect of motion pictures and other media.4 Instead of “propaganda,” the preferred term was “information.” 

Prior to the arrival of the US military, the Korean motion picture industry was on its last legs, having been forced to nearly shut down its operations because of oppressive regulations that demanded it service the needs of the Japanese military. Under direct orders from the previous governor-general, it was composed entirely of Japanese staff, with a few Koreans as minor technicians. Upon the establishment of the American Military Government, the Korean Relations and Information Section (KRAI)5 was formed to justify American occupation and “to slowly and carefully correct” the general impression that Korea was to receive complete independence immediately.6 English replaced Japanese, and new people were appointed, including approximately twenty Korean personnel who were hired as translators and interpreters.7 However, the centralized information office was maintained at the same level as under Japan in wartime.

Not surprisingly, it was soon discovered that KRAI did not operate well enough to cope with the revolutionary situation in South Korea. Thus it was reestablished as the Information and Intelligence (IAI) Section and tasked with expanded intelligence functions including sampling and control of public opinion. More Koreans were hired to perform intelligence activities. IAI’s Motion Picture Sub-section was limited to the utilization of movie houses to disseminate information to Koreans and for the maintenance of constant liaisons with film producers. In October 1945, IAI made arrangements to procure US-made reorientation films from the War Department’s Civil Affairs Division for release in Korea.8 Aside from these activities, the Motion Picture Sub-section’s duties were not impressive until April 1946, after the reorganization of IAI into DPI in March.


Influencing People in Provincial Areas

Having discovered early on that the dissemination of information was difficult in the provincial areas, where access to radio sets was limited and few residents could read, DPI established the Mobile Education Section to deliver the program directly to the rural population by means of public address systems, motion pictures, dramatic sketches, posters, and leaflets. Until this time, the propaganda activities of the US occupation had been more or less centered in Seoul, with indirect communication with the wider population restricted to distribution of official leaflets and regular mobile public address broadcasts of news using city police boxes. On May 6, 1946, the first Mobile Education Unit—composed of sixteen members, including actors, speakers, and technicians—left Seoul by a special train to visit Chungchŏng-namdo (a western province in South Korea), where twenty-one shows, including the American motion pictures Fury in the Pacific (1945) and Freedom of Education, were presented in twenty days.9 The train was made up of six distinctively painted cars and fitted with a recording studio, portable stage equipment, public address system, and motion picture projectors. 

Upon completion of the newly established Mobile Education Unit’s second trip, the first item on DPI’s press release announced its successful two-week tour of Kyŏngsang-bukto (a province in the east of South Korea), during which a stage play, Bridge in the Mountains—a drama based on Korean history since 1905, with an all-Korean cast—and the American motion picture The Battle of Iwo Jima (or To the Shores of Iwo Jima; 1945) were the feature attractions.10 Obviously, the exhibition of this “spectacularly beautiful and terrible film, by far the best and fullest record of a combined operation,”11 along with Fury in the Pacific, was a strategic move to showcase American superiority over the Japanese and diminish heightened local disaffection by affirming that the US shared a common enemy with Korea. Shot in glorious Technicolor, To the Shores of Iwo Jima closes with the following excerpt from the recording of President Roosevelt’s speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Japan the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor: “With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.” Although these films were originally produced for an American audience, with Fury in the Pacific specifically produced for the War Finance Division to promote the purchase of war bonds as well as to enlist new recruits—the images of wounded American soldiers and the scorched bodies of Japanese soldiers are certain to have left a profound impression on the Korean audience. Following the success of these traveling shows, the Mobile Education Unit was subsequently dispatched on three-week tours every month with varying educational programs. 

DPI’s Motion Picture Section also expanded its activities greatly in the spring of 1946. All motion pictures, both domestic and imported, were to be reviewed prior to exhibition, and from April 6 through June 25, 1946, the Motion Picture Section licensed 328 motion pictures to be exhibited throughout South Korea.12 This figure includes educational films, which also underwent censorship, although no censorship fee was ever assessed. Moreover, there was no import duty assessed on educational films, and the law requiring permits for visual education aids for all film formats (16mm and 35mm) excluded those for the US Army.13 In April 1946, the Motion Picture Section also created an office in Seoul for the Central Motion Picture Exchange (CMPE, or Chungang Yŏnghwasa) to be the centralized distribution branch of American films.14 Included among the imported American films were newsreels depicting world events, for which the CMPE branch provided Korean commentary on the soundtrack.15 

The Motion Picture Section of DPI, in addition to producing short films and controlling all aspects of motion pictures, was now specifically responsible for editing and superimposing Korean soundtracks on American films. A total of nine documentary films on the American concept of democracy were adapted for exhibition in South Korea, with rewritten scripts and dubbing in Korean, including titles such as The Nation's Capital and New England Village.16 

That same month, the American Military Government finally repealed all Japanese acts and codes for the regulation of motion pictures. However, it maintained Japan’s repressive wartime policy of requiring production companies to submit a written application in both Korean and English, including translations of all titling and sound dialogue in English to be considered for the certificate of approval, and it also gave the Motion Picture Section the sole authority to issue a license after censorship, from alteration to complete elimination of the film.17 In this way, local films were censored during all phases of filmmaking, from preproduction to exhibition. Also, licenses were required for exhibitions to more than fifteen people, and unlawful films were subject to seizure. This formally authorized DPI to interrupt the use of motion pictures by leftist groups, such as the Chosŏn Yŏnghwa Tongmaeng (Chosŏn Film Union, or CFU), whose members were interested in distributing Soviet films and documenting the formation of people’s committees and an independent nation—to be discussed further in the third chapter. Subsequently, many of the film events organized or sponsored by CFU were prohibited, and there were frequent reports of violent skirmishes and obstruction, including the arrest of the supervising members of film events.18 CFU members and the film community protested against these ordinances and subsequent American Military Government actions to no avail. Instead, DPI further antagonized the Korean film community by raising the ticket price for domestic films to between ₩200 and ₩300, while the ticket price for Hollywood films was set at ₩120. This action provoked further protests from the local film community, which were ignored, and many CFU members and other leftist filmmakers ultimately fled to North Korea, where conditions were more favorable.19 The prohibition on leftist filmmakers from freely producing and distributing motion pictures stood in stark contrast to the increasing use of propaganda films by the Mobile Education Unit of DPI and conflicted with the very subject matter and message it sought to promote, including Need for Good Government, Democratic Justice, The Meaning of Democratic Freedom, Korea Must Be United, and Art of Self-Government.20 Without irony, these propaganda films were distributed and exhibited in every province, followed by special lectures delivered to the rural population.

Foreign and Korean films were watched for content detrimental to the American form of democracy, and American films were censored for content likely to offend Korean sensibilities.  In New York City, the army’s Civil Affairs Division (CAD), Motion Picture Section, was in charge of “the reorientation, reeducation, and democratization of the people of the occupied areas—Germany, Austria, Japan, and Korea—through the use of effective films.”21 For this purpose, the head of the Motion Picture Section, Lt. Col. William C. Rogers, sought recommendations from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for lists of commercial and noncommercial films suitable for reorientation.22 In Seoul the Motion Picture Section under the American Military Government was responsible for the licensing and protection of copyrights of owners and producers through its centralized control over the local film industry.23 As for the CAD-chosen films, it was CMPE’s responsibility to distribute them, along with Hollywood features, to all Korean motion picture theaters.

In cooperation with the local Motion Picture Section, the newly established Visual Education Section—also functioning under DPI and its Bureau of Public Contact—was made responsible for projecting short films and documentary slides to emphasize current, local problems and suggest ways of solving them. It also enlisted speakers to transmit the desired information and build a closer personal contact with the Korean public. 

Along with such expansion of activities and increased specialization of DPI, the department was “Koreanized” in terms of personnel, contacts with Korean editors and publishers, hiring of visible Koreans chiefs, moving American staff to the USAFIK Headquarters Annex building, and leaving Korean staff in the Capitol. In February 1947 the American Military Government was renamed the Namchosŏn kwado chŏngbu (South Korean Interim Government; SKIG), and the American military governor continued to rule South Korea. SKIG, having no real authority, ceased to exist once the Republic of Korea (ROK) was established in 1948.  

With ongoing political tensions, the first project of the reorganized DPI was to appease the bitterness Koreans felt toward the US occupation for the violent suppression of the popular uprising in the fall of 1946. Once again, the objective was to persuade Koreans to keep away from disorderly activities and observe the instruction of the American Military Government. Reflecting the urgency of the situation, in October 1946, all radio facilities were utilized to disseminate news to refute anti-occupation propaganda and assure the continuation of the normal conduct of American Military Government activities. At this time, radio was the only mass medium readily available for full use by the American occupation. Hence, the Radio Bureau arranged for US Army representatives to discuss all major issues related to the uprising and urged national cooperation against violence and disorder. 

To further redress the growing antagonism against the US and its occupation, the information program in Korea was accelerated after meetings between American personnel in Korea, New York City, and Washington, DC. What followed was an increase in personnel and funding for the expansion of the propaganda programs and a closer collaboration between the two departments in the inauguration of information centers in Korea, with greater participation from the Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs (OIC).24

In Washington Roberts requested that OIC periodically provide DPI with new materials it had developed in order to augment services and materials being supplied to the information centers in Korea by CAD. The demand for new materials included: 

1. News picture service; 2. Display picture service (“a series of 18 displays consisting of from 40 to 60 subjects dealing with ‘Americana’” to be furnished in 1947, as well as six exhibits); 3. Film strips, which in the future will be titled in Korean and both master and 10 copy prints furnished that deal with public health, education, agriculture, etc.25 

The demand received a quick endorsement, and all requested materials were to be supplied by the State Department, with additional financial support provided by the War Department. With motion pictures, in particular,

Arrangements are being completed for the titling of news reels in the Korean language in Japan, which will expedite their movement to Korea. No further section has been taken to change any established channels for the dissemination of documentaries or feature pictures in Korea pending clarification of the entire program in Japan and Korea pursuant to a complete report which is being prepared in the field for Mr. Pare Lorentz.26

Roberts’s visit secured additional qualified personnel from Washington. Among the newly mobilized public relations and information specialists—dominated by experienced journalists—was James L. Stewart, who was appointed the director of public information as well as the public relations advisor to Hodge in February 1947.27 Stewart was a war correspondent in China beginning in 1939 for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). He was appointed director of psychological warfare in the China Theater in 1944 for the Office of War Information (OWI) and the War Department, and from October 1945 to January 1946, he served as director of information for the State Department in northern China.28 Thereafter, Stewart became a central figure in American propaganda activities in Korea. On February 15, 1947, he took over the advisory position of DPI, which had been held by Col. Newman since September 1946. He also functioned as the public relations officer of USAFIK (succeeding Roberts), and he was the chief architect of the Office of Civil Information (OCI) that soon took over the very duty formerly charged to the DPI: a department that was now nearly completely staffed by Koreans.


The New Propaganda Machine: The Office of Civil Information

In May 1946, despite orders from the US War Department prohibiting the production of complete motion pictures in oversea theaters,29 Gen. Hodge approved the production of Korean Newsreel for the dual purpose of informing and educating his troops and photographically documenting US Army activities in Korea for the home front as required by the War Department. The newsreels were produced on a monthly basis on 35mm film format, and they were 850 to 950 feet in length, running approximately ten minutes. The signal officer of USAFIK was in charge, with production by the 123rd Signal Service Department and the processing handled in Tokyo. The newsreels were intended to be shown with commercial entertainment films.30 As for content, the scope of Korean Newsreel was promotional and included special military activities, information on Korean life and customs (particularly activity that showed what Koreans were doing to help Americans), points of scenic and historical activity in Korea, and sports and social activities. In this way, the US military’s role as ambassador included promoting Korea and Korean culture to American troops in Korea and American civilians at home. As the need for improving US Korea relations heightened, Korean Newsreel was succeeded by Progress of Korea on January 19, 1947, which became a “bi-weekly” (i.e., twice-monthly) series.31 

To put it bluntly, OCI was the United States government’s propaganda machine for Korea that did not hesitate in “stressing the excellences of the American system in contrast to other systems” while sticking “to the truth.”32 This denouement completely ignored DPI’s original objective noted earlier: “To give the benefit of American training and experience to Koreans, so that when the American forces withdraw they will possess at least basic understanding of the techniques and methods of democratic publicity procedures in the fields of motion pictures, radio, press relations, etc.” 

Working outside the jurisdiction of SKIG and the American Military Government, the new organization’s first responsibility was to create goodwill between Koreans and the American occupying forces; “second, to develop wide understanding and acceptance of American foreign policy and the American system of life; and third, to create a basic friendliness between the governments and peoples of [South Korea and the US] so that a heritage of goodwill will remain when American organized strength departs.”33



The American Military Government was dissolved with the establishment of the ROK, and US troops were withdrawn in October 1949 under the direction of Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, who succeeded Gen. Hodge as the commanding general of USAFIK. Chief civil affairs officers continued their function as advisors to the incoming Korean government officials. 

Among the civil affairs officers who continued their function was James Stewart, who headed OCI until June 1949 and continued his supervisory role through the Korean War after OCI was taken over by the State Department and transformed into USIS during the 1950s and even after USIA was established on August 1, 1953.  

Underwritten by the Smith–Mundt Act of 1948,34 the continuation of the intensive information-and-propaganda programs in South Korea was in response to the State Department’s concern that recognition of the ROK by the US and recognition of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) by the USSR would result in possible civil strife with the two rival governments competing for jurisdiction over the same territory, making it “essential” that

An adequately staffed, intensive information and cultural operation be conducted in Korea (a) to ensure the stability and promote the prestige of the Republic of Korea which has the support of the United States; and (b) to counter Soviet machinations against the Republic of Korea and US foreign policy. It is likewise essential that the programs inaugurated by the Army in Korea suffer no interruption by reason of Army withdrawal.35 


The “civil strife” was inescapable, and with the outbreak of the Korean War, Truman’s Cold War policy was confirmed and “spurred the approval of NSC 68, with its emphasis on the psychological dimension in international politics.”36 Indeed, the “Korean War dominated the Senate hearings on the Campaign of Truth and Marshall Plan of Ideas” to lend general support for “battlefield propaganda and an explanatory information around the world” in coordination with the military response.37 Thus, the US civil affairs teams, along with the Eighth US Army (EUSAK),38 returned to Korea “and took up many of the same duties they had exercised during the earlier occupation.”39 But this time, the government included the ROK, whose authority and legitimacy greatly depended upon its alliance with the US.40 The concentrated focus of the US and South Korean governments on Cold War priorities triggered a deep cooperation between them, especially during and after the Korean War, when US commitment in Korea grew from “containment” to defending “freedom’s frontier.”41 That the Rhee government shared a common Cold War ideology with the US is hardly surprising, but the ROK’s homegrown fervor against communism was unrivalled by American advances. In December 1948, the National Security Law (NSL) was promulgated to officially declare communism an act of high treason and formalize the removal or suppression of leftists and detractors of the new government. 

In January 1950, James Stewart, as head of the USIS and the public affairs officer of the US Embassy in South Korea, announced the “aim” of the USIS was “to create democratic-minded people in Korea friendly to the United States,” with emphasis on the people and less on officialdom, as an “American-Korean people’s enterprise.”42 To meet this objective, films such as Bringing World Culture to Korea (showing various activities of the USIS in Korea) and Industry of Korea (showing the positive impact of American economic, scientific, and technological aid on Korean industries) were distributed.43 Other known titles include Gift of Friendship (1952) and Ward of Affection (1953), which further celebrated the progress enjoyed by Koreans owing to American aid.44 As such, they continue the early American Military Government efforts that sought to improve US–Korea relations with representations of charitable work performed by the US military in commercial and noncommercial films. The obvious shift here, though, is the emphasis on US economic rather than military aid, as well as a focus on the work of private American citizens rather than members of the armed forces. These lofty goals, however, were soon to be usurped by the demands of the Korean War.

Aside from these mentions, no list, partial or complete, of USIS films locally produced and distributed in South Korea during this period could be found.45 Production numbers, however, are available for at least the brief period before the Korean War, and it is worth noting that USIS was the biggest producer of motion pictures in South Korea at the time and, ironically, also provided opportunities for Korean filmmakers to hone their skills, including Pak Nam-ok, Korea's first female director, and Kim Ki-yŏng, an auteur director who came into prominence in the 1960s. As owners of the most advanced and fully equipped production facility in South Korea, USIS had increased its output of 16mm films to nearly 330 by 1949, a great majority of which had been produced since January 1948. Its monthly output at this time was approximately fifteen titles, with twelve to fifteen duplicate prints of each film. Of this monthly output, six were newsreels (four on world news adapted for Korean audiences and two on Korean news developments), between four and five were so-called features (i.e., slightly longer than the newsreel and devoted to one subject, either Korean or American), and the rest were classed as documentaries.46 One year later, in January 1950, the production number was nearly halved to two newsreels and one documentary each month and two or three feature films a year.47 While no official record of censorship for any of these USIS films could be found, on February 3, 1954, a memorandum from Mr. Peterson of the Office of Policy and Plans to Mr. John S. Voorhees of the Office of Private Cooperation under USIA’s Media Service division noted, “As to both publications and motion pictures the only censorship possible is the same as those which may be imposed on any domestic work, i.e., advocating overthrow of the Government by force and violence, etc.”48 Indeed, the support of government, at home and in the field, was among the newly emphasized priorities identified by USIS in Korea.

These local productions were freely distributed and exhibited by USIS “at non-theatrical gatherings in the open, in schools, in government buildings, anywhere that a projection machine can be set up and people can sit or stand”49 to continue the diffuse distribution of motion pictures begun by the former occupying US military. By this time, the USIS owned seventy or so 16mm projectors operated by its mobile film units, which made weekly tours from the ten information centers.50 The more rural population of the country was reached in “four-wheel-drive and winch-equipped vehicles” that permitted travel over difficult terrain most of the year.51 For some in these remote regions, visits from the mobile film units were the only opportunity to experience motion pictures. With reports of nearly 1 million people attending these outdoor screenings each month just weeks before the war, the USIS clearly contributed to nurturing a wider film culture in South Korea beyond the city centers.52

From 1950 to 1958, William G. Ridgeway, who formerly worked in the US Armed Forces Radio Service in Seoul and the motion picture section of the army’s Information and Education Division, was largely responsible for the content and presentation of USIS-produced films in South Korea. With the outbreak of war, Ridgeway and the Motion Picture Branch of the USIS, a total of 350 people,53 evacuated Seoul to relocate in Pusan in December 1950, which also served as the location for the ROK government in wartime until the Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953. Without the proper facilities to carry out its function, the Motion Picture Branch relocated again to settle into a small information center located in Chinhae, a port city in the southeastern region.54 In Chinhae Ridgeway and his crew launched a weekly newsreel and began several Korean adaptations of American films. The distance from the USIS office in Pusan [Figure 1], and later Seoul, also meant greater autonomy and independence for the restored Motion Picture Branch, and soon it was churning out newsreels and documentaries of a higher quality and quantity at a more consistent rate. 

Under exigent circumstances of the war, USIS newsreels were “designed to support the efforts of the Korean government and the U.S. in fighting the war. It was clearly propaganda. We called the communists just about every vile name you could think of, and used all kinds of statistics and facts that would bolster morale. It was the Korean government’s policy to foster hatred of the communists.”55 The focus on the war was in response to the revised wartime aims and objectives of the USIS program in Korea, which included coordinating its operations with the “psychological warfare operations of the United Nations Command (in Tokyo) and its military forces in Korea” to give them tactical support.56

USIS objectives shifted again “after the cessation of hostilities” to return to former priorities, with an added emphasis on stabilizing the government. Hence, during reconstruction, the focus of USIS films shift from bolstering the war effort to engendering loyalty to the ROK and support for the US, and above all to instilling faith that the government would come to the aid of the Korean people:

The documentaries we made, or Q [sic] the American-produced films that we made adaptations of, would cover a wide range of things on government, education, agriculture methods, the United States—not necessarily always appropriate for Korea, but at the same time they would convey the idea that the government could help the farmer. We were trying to point out that the government is your friend—the Korean government is your friend—because, after all, there was a tremendous amount of bad press that existed before the war. And, of course, the communists left no stone unturned to paint the government in the worst light possible. The government had a pretty poor, well-deserved reputation from the beginning, making it easy for the communists.57


In this way, USIS became a public relations arm of the ROK since its reputation and public image were closely tethered to those of the US. This included privileging President Rhee, who suffered from general disapproval by the local population—including American military and civilian personnel. However, the relationship between USIS and the Rhee regime was not always favorable, nor were all USIS films approved by Korean censors.58 For example, a newsreel depicting a political rally by the opposing party was withheld from release by the Rhee government, which felt it contradicted the (false) newspaper and radio reports that only a few thousand people were in attendance at the rally rather than the more than five thousand participants shown in the film. Surprisingly, in a small but significant move toward democracy, the censure lasted only a week or so before the National Assembly vetoed the ban and approved the film for release, under heavy pressure from James Stewart. The disagreement is also significant since the post–Korean War newsreel disavows the reconstruction-era USIS policy to bolster the Korean government. Aside from such incidents, however, there were apparently “no real problems” for USIS films, which is in line with the slogan shared by USIS and the ROK after the truce: “We will work together as we fought together.”59

As USIS grew stable and its objectives shifted focus on reconstruction, the relationship between the US and the Rhee regime diminished. This is in part a response to Rhee’s increasing authority and intransigent opposition against any critical opprobrium. Recognizing that public democratic messages would antagonize the South Korean government, USIS’s new long-range goals were: 

(1) to preserve the hearty friendliness toward America which is characteristic of the Korean people, if not of their leaders, and (2) to cultivate all groups which might be in a position to influence succeeding ROK administrations.60

This meant persuading top-level ROK officials to become amenable to diverging agendas by targeting “press and radio personnel; second-level officials; education, business and professional leaders; students, ROK Army and ROK police; and the general agricultural populace”—namely, everybody. The last group—made up of mostly illiterate farmers, of course—was primarily informed by motion pictures and posters, whereas the elite received their messages of economic aid and “the theme of Free World unity in the face of Cold War” through publications and personal contacts as well as motion pictures.61 Back in Washington, USIA dedicated six months to establishing an Information Policy Coordinating Committee in Korea, which was composed of representatives of all US civil and military agencies involved in economic aid and civil assistance as well as public information work, which, for the first time, led a coherent and comprehensive publicity campaign in South Korea. Some of the new committee's actions included:

A. The choice of a slogan “Strength for Korea from America” to be stenciled on all economic and military aid goods.

B. Joint production of motion pictures and radio programs by USIA and the military command concerning U.S. aid in Korean reconstruction. (Motion pictures are considered the most effective medium of information in the ROK).62

C. Production of posters and instructional booklets by the Army Psychological Warfare Section for distribution through USIA to the ROK Army.


Among the successful joint productions was Liberty News, the USIS Korea field office's weekly one-reel news magazine that featured diverse topics including the Korean national police, public health issues, traffic safety, and US national elections, among others. Some of its content was supplied by Washington and assembled from various American and international footage. It was preferred, however, to produce all educational films locally, based on USIA assumptions that it was difficult to convey their themes to those who were unfamiliar with the props (e.g., consumer goods, such as the refrigerator) in American films, which hardly stopped Hollywood films from being distributed.63 According to official reports, motion pictures—particularly the newsreel that played theatrically and nontheatrically—were the most effective means of reaching large audiences, both civilian and military, in South Korea.64 And the weekly newsreel proved to be effective well into the 1960s, as judged by the demand for more prints by Korean exhibitors.65 But there were detractors as well, and the Rhee administration attempted to censor Liberty News on several occasions. In 1956 the Ministry of Education demanded the removal of shots of the opposing presidential candidate, Sin Ik-hŭi, who died suddenly in May during his campaign. In 1959 a Korean cinematographer working for USIS was chased down by police officers for filming protesters from Rhee’s opposing party.66 These are but a few of the examples of skirmishes between USIS and the ROK provoked by the newsreels alone.

In 1955 nearly eighty commercial theaters exhibited USIS films. By 1960 USIS films reached nearly three quarters of an estimated total of 420 theaters67 in the southern zone, including a handful of small, rural establishments equipped with 16mm film projectors.68 In recognition that motion pictures were the most effective medium in South Korea, the local output of films increased from fifteen to eighteen a month,69 using Korean actors and respected elders to lend credibility, especially when they were shown in remote regions to unsophisticated audiences. These audiences were reached by mobile units, train, or jeep as they were under the American Military Government. By the late 1950s, however, the ROK Army had its own mobile film unit that frequently patrolled the northern border, servicing projectors and exchanging propaganda films. In fact, the ROK Army was a heavy user of USIS films, and it had hundreds of its own trained projectionists and mechanics tending to the twenty-five or so projectors borrowed from USIS.70



As USIS in Korea cooperated with the ROK to deliver wartime propaganda as part of the US military response to the communist threat and invasion in South Korea, the Office of US Information and Educational Exchange (USIE) in Washington responded to Truman’s Campaign of Truth by preparing a more hard-hitting offensive against the Soviet bloc and communist propaganda for the home front and abroad. The first of USIE’s efforts was the production of a special newsreel titled United Nations Aids the Republic of Korea, seizing on Truman’s success in obtaining a UN resolution supporting action against North Korea to emphasize it as a coalition response.71 Nearly one thousand prints were made of the film in twenty-two languages, and it was shown to an estimated 30 million people around the world. In the capital, the Korean War “confirmed” Truman’s Cold War policy and “underlined” the need for Congress to act, leading to the approval of National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68), “with its emphasis on the psychological dimension in international politics.” The discussion can be summarized as follows:

The Korean War dominated the Senate hearings on the Campaign of Truth and Marshall Plan of Ideas in July. Marshall, with none of his old diffidence, called for a “dynamic procedure . . . in this conquest of the mind”; Eisenhower spoke of the decisive “value of morale” and called truth “our T-bomb,” whereas a rising star, Acheson's Special Consultant John Foster Dulles, went so far as to argue, “the question of whether we have a general war or not may hinge, very largely upon the relative effectiveness of the Communist propaganda and the Free World propaganda.”72


Issued on April 14, 1950, and approved by Truman on September 30, 1950, NSC-68 escalated Cold War activities, including increases in USIE and military budgets. From 1953 to 1963, for example, the budget for USIA (successor to the International Information Administration, or IIA) rose 86 percent, while the entire federal budget grew at the rate of 48 percent.73

In this way, the use of noncommercial motion pictures grew exponentially in the postwar reconstruction period, matched by the establishment of more than triple the number of motion picture theaters during the American military occupation. In truth, despite the shortcomings of the public information programs during the American occupation, the concentrated information campaign of USIA had a smoother run than its predecessors by exploiting early channels of communication and distribution. There is also greater evidence of cooperation between the ROK and the US during this period, just as there is ample evidence of contention and conflict between the two countries, particularly from the Rhee regime, whose authority was increasingly challenged by student demonstrators calling for democracy. They ultimately succeeded in crushing the authoritarian government after the April 19 (1960) Revolution. To wit, the US Army’s information-and-propaganda apparatus in the aftermath of World War II had a lasting impact on media control and distribution channels, continued by USIS and the ROK, that bolstered the statist authoritarian regime while paradoxically promoting ideals of democracy, modern technology, and benevolent governments. The broad dissemination of noncommercial films also enriched local film culture, while also forcing viewer positions and interpretations by Korean lecturers and filmmakers that ultimately challenge any straightforward argument of cultural imperialism.

Dr. Sueyoung Park-Primiano is Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies in the Department of English at Kennesaw State University. Her research has been published in New Review of Film and Television and Studies in the Humanities, and she is a contributing author to Cinema's Military Industrial Complex, American Militarism on the Small Screen, and Popular Culture in Asia. Her scholarly work focuses on the dialogic relationship between Hollywood and East Asian cinemas in the post-Second World War era.

The Tentacular Reach of USIA/S in Postwar South Korea © 2022 by Sueyoung Park-Primiano is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

The Journal of e-Media Studies is published by the Dartmouth Library.