The Surrendered

The Surrendered (2008) by Chang-Rae Lee


James Dawes at Macalester College, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

The six novels Chang-rae Lee has written over the course of his bold and inventive literary career span the gamut of literary styles and genres. On one end of the spectrum we have the restrained realism of early novels like A Gesture Life (1999), a story about covering up, holding back, and keeping things secret: Doc Hata is an aging veteran of the Japanese Imperial Army whose life slowly and relentlessly unravels because of the guilt he carries for complicity in war crimes. On the other end of the spectrum we have reality-bending novels like On Such a Full Sea (2014), a sci-fi/fantasy dystopian adventure novel that reads like a high-literature sequel in the “Mad Max” franchise, detailing the struggles of the underclass trying to survive in a distant-future China on the verge of ecological collapse.

The Surrendered sits squarely in the middle of the spectrum. The New Yorker describes its style as “cinematic realism,” a yoking together of high visual drama with the restraint of realistic control. The novel opens, one reviewer notes emblematically, “with a truck exploding, a mob of refugees ransacking a farmhouse, limbless children expiring in pools of blood. These horrors are all too believable.” While the novel hints at the fantasy of On Such a Full Sea with the way Hector embodies the invulnerability of his Greek myth predecessor, it retains its primary investment in the deep psychological interiority that defines A Gesture Life. What matters in The Surrendered, ultimately, is not plot-driving catastrophe but rather the unendurable psychological aftermaths that must nonetheless be endured each and every mundane day.

The Surrendered opens as a fictional reworking and commemoration of family trauma. To fulfill an assignment in a modern Korean history course at college, Lee decided to interview his father about his experiences as a war refugee. Over the course of their conversation, Lee’s father revealed for the first time that he lost his little brother while fleeing the war. When the eight-year-old boy fell from the top of a boxcar overcrowded with refugees, one of his legs got caught underneath the train wheels and was amputated at the knee. This real-life memory inspires the emotional starting point of The Surrendered and becomes the defining moment of the protagonist June’s life. June and her brother flee the war after their father is executed and their mother is killed while trying to stop June from being raped. But when June’s brother loses his foot in a train accident, she is forced to abandon him to a lonely death. Shortly after, she is rescued and taken to an orphanage by the co-protagonist, Hector, a US veteran suffering from PTSD. The plot that follows spans decades and continents, tracking the intimately alienated stages of their relationship and ending with an emotionally wrenching reunion as June dies of cancer.

The novel received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011, an award dedicated to promoting peace through the written word. The Surrendered resonated deeply with readers concerned with humanitarianism and human rights. It delivered forceful moral commentary on the brutal consequences of war. It demonstrated a reverential symbolic commitment to the seminal text of international humanitarian law, Henri Dunant’s Un Souvénir de Solferino, which called into being both the Geneva Conventions and the International Committee of the Red Cross. But more important, it spoke to the collective cultural trauma that defined the years of its writing and publication.

The Dayton Literary Peace Prize neatly coincided with the 2011 ceremony in Baghdad that officially brought the American-led invasion of Iraq to an end. The Surrendered cannot be fully understood outside of this historical context. The “end” of the war in Iraq only reinforced for the US public the lessons that there are no winners in war, that there is no closure for trauma at that catastrophic level, and that the US view of itself as international rescuer could now only be experienced as a combination of hypocrisy, self-delusion, and futility. The US’s declaration that it was all over was as much a surrender as anything else.

The questions about humanitarian intervention that the war left for the US define the moral architecture of The Surrendered. Hector and Sylvie embody some of the key pathologies of white Western interventionism: the desire to enhance the self through the trauma of others, the need to see oneself (and one’s nation) as a savior-figure rescuing needful people abroad, and the refusal to see one’s complicity in the horrors one addresses. But the novel also embodies the palpable sincerity, at the individual level, that infuses humanitarian intervention: the desire for connection, the pull of empathy, and the hope of responding to the terrible needs generated by government brutality. While The Surrendered is a novel of forceful moral critique, it is not a book of easy judgments.


The Battle of Solferino

Bridging three major historical conflicts, Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered explores the destructive, as well as the transformative powers of the act of witnessing historical wars. Acknowledging the birth of formalised humanitarian aid, the novel depicts a moment in the unification of Italy, during the Risorgimento. In the Second Italian War of Independence, an infamous battle on the 24th of June 1859 resulted in great loss of life and the creation of a globally recognised humanitarian organisation. Although not present during the Battle of Solferino, witnessing the terrible aftermath led Swiss businessman, Jean-Henry Dunant to write the humanitarian record, A Memory of Solferino and initiated the founding of the International Committee for the Red Cross in 1863, an act that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. Whilst records of military casualties are abundant, documenting an estimated excess of over 6000 deaths and over 35,000 wounded or missing. Dunant’s influential account of the Battle of Solferino would go on to inspire humanitarian aid projects globally, influencing workers in the field like Lee´s character Sophie Tanner.

In Dunant’s words, “In this age, which is often called selfish and cold, what an attraction it would be for noble and compassionate hearts and for chivalrous spirits, to confront the same dangers as the warrior, of their own free will, in a spirit of peace, for a purpose of comfort, from a motive of self-sacrifice!” (Dunant 118). Other than helping the casualties and survivors of warfare, the International Red Cross also aids in events of environmental disasters and carries out educational programs to benefit many. The Red Cross Red Crescent magazine is one of many accessible online resources provided by the organisation that continues to record and document the various humanitarian efforts across the globe.


Japanese Invasion of Manchuria

A century later, prior to the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937 to 1945, Japan was continuing its imperial expansion towards Northeast and Southeast Asia. Coinciding with the growing tensions that would eventually culminate into World War II, in 1931, Japan invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria, through military strategies that amounted to violent altercations and reports of war crimes. The invasion and occupation of Manchuria stemmed from Japan’s growing industries and the scarcity of raw materials, readily available in parts of China, including Manchuria. Furthermore, Manchuria was a region of interest due to its position: bordered by Russia, China and North Korea.

By 1932, Japan assumed complete occupation of Manchuria and declared it a puppet state under the new name of Manchukuo. Over time, the Japanese occupation would become increasingly unstable due to the unification of China in the 1920s, under the leadership of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, as well as conflicts with the Soviet Union to the North. It was finally an invasion from the Soviet Union with their 1 million soldiers, that caused Japan to surrender to China and the Soviet Union, finalising the dissolution of Manchukuo in 1945. During the Japanese occupation, an event focalised through The Surrendered’s Sylvie Tanner, denial of war crimes and refusal of humanitarian aid highlighted the terrible treatment of the region’s diverse populace and only reinforced tensions with neighbour states, particularly Korea.

The North and South Divide – The Korean War

Following the years of complicated relations with its neighbours, including repeated invasions and its people being sent into forced labour, Korea had its own internal struggles to address. Between June 1950 and July 1953, in the wake of the Soviet-Japanese War that freed China’s Manchukuo, disagreements between the northern Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea in the south led to what is seen as the first military conflict of the Cold War. North Korea’s advancement into South Korea became the catalyst to incite the war. Immediate alliances were formed between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with China and the Soviet Union, under the guise of preserving communism, whilst the United States came to the aid of the Republic of Korea with help from the United Nations.

During this period, an excess of 5 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives. The role of America during this part of Korean history goes beyond one of supporting resistance and extends into its long history of missionary influence in the region, similar to what happened in Manchukuo. Several Red Cross services were provided across the country, including medical aid as well as hospitality. Some of the valiant efforts carried out, particularly by the American Red Cross, include the exchange of 89,000 prisoners of war with the aid of the United Nations. One of the “Forgotten Wars”, the Korean war is yet another unresolved conflict. As of today, the Korean peninsula is still divided between the north and the south and the tensions between the two distinct nations and other global powers are yet to be quelled. However, by operating outside the political, as seen in The Surrendered, it is often the humanitarian organisations such as the International Red Cross, that have the ability to offer a message of hope and humanitarian relief to the survivors of conflicts.

Human Rights

Korean War Adoptees and Displacement

Massacre in Korea (1951) by Pablo Picasso

The novel’ explicit and ruthless beginning details how one of the main character’s family members are brutally killed one by one, and her subsequent years spent at an orphanage led by U.S missionaries. For the children there, being deemed eligible for adoption was the main priority. This story starts in the 1950s, during and after the Korean War. At the time, roughly two million infants and children had been orphaned or somehow separated from their families: rounded up from the streets, found abandoned in doorways, police stations, and churches to be distributed to orphanages. The needs of these orphans were foregrounded in humanitarian videos like this one from Save the Children. The steady stream of homeless children continued unabated through the post-war decade, the decades of political and social instability, and even through massive development and international expansion into a global economic force. Many children were not chosen for or were not deemed eligible for adoption, and they “aged out” to face the challenges of living in Korea without a family. Others died of hunger and ill health in the orphanages or on the streets. However, some 180,000 were adopted, primarily to wealthy Western countries.

While there is no accurate information about the number of Korean War orphans in Europe, some experts estimate it could be nearly 6,000. Some orphans were discovered and protected by North Korean soldiers and initially sent to North Korea. From there, they were loaded onto a train heading to China, then transferred to another train for their destination in Eastern Europe, spending their childhoods at orphanages in Eastern European countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, for years of education and training. They learned local languages and other coursework, as well as North Korean history. All children sent to Eastern Europe during and after the Korean War were repatriated to North Korea by 1959 and participated in the post-war reconstruction of the country, but little is known about their lives after they were sent back to North Korea. An 2019 article by Kang Hyun-kyung titled “Untold stories about Korean War orphans in Europe”, delves into this case and provides many interviews of these orphans and how their lives continued after the war.

Then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, center, the late grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un, speaks to a Korean boy at an orphanage in Swider, 100 kilometers north of Warsaw, Poland, in this July, 1956 file photo. Kim paid a visit to the secluded Polish city on the sidelines of his state visit to Eastern Europe. The orphanage once housed 600 Korean War orphans until 1959 since the first batch of 200 Korean children arrived there Nov. 23, 1951. / Photo from Lee Hae-sung. Source

Since the end of the Korean War, an estimated 200,000 children from South Korea have been adopted into white families in North America, Europe, and Australia. Of these 200,000, an estimate of around 6000 were adopted in the United States between 1955 and 1966, of whom about 46% were white and Korean mixed, 41% were fully Korean, and the rest were African-American and Korean mixed. While these transnational adoptions were initiated as an emergency measure to find homes for mixed-race children born in the aftermath of the war, the practice grew exponentially from the 1960s through the 1980s. In 1955, an American couple, Harry and Bertha Holt, were so moved by the circumstances of orphans from the Korean War that they adopted eight children from South Korea and brough them home to live with them in Oregon. This received national press coverage, sparking interest in adopting Korean children among Americans nationwide. As a result, Harry and Bertha Holt created what has become the largest agency in the U.S. specialising in Korean children – the Christian organization Holt International. While South Korea has grown and developed in many ways since the Korean War, the stigma of unwed motherhood remains firmly entrenched in South Korean culture, creating a continued need for domestic and international adoption from Korea.

The Holt family around 1955 or 1956. He went on to adopt thousands of other children as a “proxy agent” for desiring American couples. Credit: International Social Service, United States of America Branch, Inc./Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota. Credit: International Social Service, United States of America Branch, Inc./Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota

Due to the immense numbers of displaced children to different corners of the world throughout the decades, presenting accurate accounts of these stories continues to be a challenge. One who has endeavored to take on this project is filmmaker Glenn Morey (AKA Kim Kang), who was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1960. He was abandoned days after birth, taken to Seoul City Hall, then to a Holt orphanage, and adopted at the age of six months to the US. In 2018, Glenn and his wife Julie Morey, launched Side by Side: Out of a South Korean Orphanage and Into the World, which initially takes the form of an online video installation. Over the course of 3 years, 7 countries, 6 languages, and 16 cities, Side by Side acquired the first-person narratives of 100 orphans and “social orphans” born in South Korea since the 1950s—a diverse representation of millions of infants and children who were somehow separated from their families of origin, institutionalized in orphanages. Glenn Morey has cited Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s views on “the danger of a single story,” compellingly articulated in her 2009 TED Talk, as inspiration for the narrative of Side by Side, stating that:

There is no single human story that allows us to understand what happened to the millions of infants and children separated from their South Korean families of origin, over the last more than 60 years. It does, in fact, require many stories—contrasting the lives of the adopted and the aged-out, the nurtured and the abused, the blessed and the broken, the loved and the lost, and the almost unimaginable diversity of stories that lie in between.

From a Seoul orphanage to a Denver suburb, and from Kim Kang to Glenn Morey


Further Resources

  1. Where Are You Going, Thomas? The Journey of a Korean War Orphan is a documentary by Jackie (Jaikyoung) Choi. It chronicles the story of Thomas Park Clement, an abandoned bi-racial Korean War orphan, who was adopted by a white American family in 1958. As a child, no one had explained to him that he was about to embark on a journey to another country with a different language and different culture. He decided that he was not going to speak Korean anymore, and tried to forget everything about Korea, including his birth mom. He overcame many obstacles to become a successful entrepreneur and a humanitarian. Currently, he is helping other adoptees who have a lot of self-doubt, feelings of being rejected or abandoned. He says, “You can look at it from one position or another position. And I look at it, and yes you were abandoned, but you were also chosen. So this is weird, but adoptees are the chosen ones.”
  2. A 2019 piece written by Shawyn Lee gives a much-needed perspective on some of the more negative aspects of transnational adoption. Lee, who was adopted from South Korea by a white, Christian couple in the United States in 1978, scrutinizes how the US has used children to advance dominant racial, religious and political ideals at the expense of the oppressed and the poor for a long time: “In 2010, when I traveled back to South Korea for the first time since my adoption, I realized that the “motherland” I know in the United States — the one that “rescued” me 40 years ago — has actually stripped me of my own heritage”. She also discusses the heart wrenching family separation policy at the border that made headlines in 2018, just one example that has put children at risk for ending up in foster care or adoption, rather than reunification with their families.

Here is what I know: I am culturally American. I am racially Asian. I identify as a Korean adoptee. And while my ethnicity is Korean, I grapple with how Korean I actually feel. I came to the US when I was just over six months old, and a couple years later I was naturalized as an American citizen. I have no physical memory of this, only a faded and tattered photograph of me waving the American flag outside my house on the day of my naturalization ceremony.