Attempts to Settle the Past during the April Popular Struggle

(Vol.42. No.3 Autumn, 2002 pp.88~111)
Jung Byung-joon
The April Popular Struggle of 1960, known to Koreans simply as "April 19," was a popular democratic struggle against Syngman Rhee's 12-year dictatorship, which also initiated the first social reform movement in South Korea after the Korean War. This first phase culminated in the fall of Rhee's Liberal Party government on 26 April 1960. Alienated from the public, the regime declared martial law. For slightly over a year from the April 19 uprising until the May 16 military coup, many attempts were made to remove the political, economic and social legacies of Rhee's regime. The Huh Chong caretaker government (April to August, 1960) was mandated to purge the legacies of the Syngman Rhee government: accumulation of illicit fortunes, military involvement in election rigging, and police corruption. The Chang Myon government (August 1960 May 1961) inherited the issues the caretaker administration had failed to resolve, principally the six political scandals perpetrated under Rhee's regime and the settlement of his illicit fortune. In April 1961, the government promulgated the Special Law Concerning the Disposal of Illicit Fortune Accumulators and Punishment of Election Riggers. Following the outbreak of the Korean War, the South Korean government carried out great numbers of executions of political prisoners and rehabilitated leftists. The American military government and the Syngman Rhee regime were responsible for massacring many innocent civilians before and during the Korean war The South Korean police and military claimed that communist guerrilla had slaughtered these civilians. The South Korean government ignored the victim family's appeals and the military regime taking power in the May 16 coup suppressed them. Most reformist political forces at that time advocated democratic socialism, acknowledging the existing political establishment.
Keywords: April 19 Uprising, Accumulators of illicit fortune, Korean War, Syngman Rhee, settle the past, The April 19 uprising, Syngman R
Types: Articles
Subject: History , Sociology
About the author(s) Jung Byung-joon (Jeong, Byeong-jun) is an instructor of the Mokpo National University. He received his Ph.D. from Seoul National University with a dissertation entitled "Yi Seung-man-ui dongnip noseon-gwa jeongbu surip undong" (Syngman Rhee's Independence Lines and Government-Establishing Movement) in 2001. His publications include Mongyang Yeo Un-hyeong pyeongjeon (The Life of Yeo Un-hyeong: A Critical Biography) (1995), Hanguk hyeondaesa gangui (Lectures on the Contemporary History of Korea) (comp., 1998), and other articles concerning Syngman Rhee. His research interest concerns the modern political history of Korea and historical figures. (E-mail: bjjung@mokpo.ac.kr)
Attempts to Settle the Past during the April Popular Struggle

Attempts to Settle the Past during the April Popular Struggle


Jung Byung-joon




Explosion: The April 19 Uprising and the Legacies of the Syngman Rhee Government


The April 19 Uprising of 1960, known to Koreans simply as "April 19," was a popular democratic struggle against Syngman Rhee's 12-year dictatorship that initiated the first social reform movement in South Korea after the Korean War. It is the only instance in the modern history of South Korea in which popular resistance toppled a regime. Though it had a tangible victory in overthrowing the Syngman Rhee government, the April 19 Uprising failed to realize its demands for democracy and national reunification due to the absence of leadership and a guiding ideology.[1]

The April 19 Uprising progressed in three stages, beginning with a high school student demonstration in Daegu on 28 February 1960. This first phase culminated in the fall of Rhee's Liberal Party government on 26 April 1960. Public outcry over Rhee's scheme to prolong his rule climaxed over the general election for Rhee's fourth term as president held on 15 March 1960. The authorities extensively rigged the election to ensure Rhee and his heir apparent Lee Gi-bung (Yi Gi-bung) would be elected president and vice president. On 19 April thousands of students and citizens peacefully marched on the presidential mansion in protest, demanding Rhee's resignation. Alienated from the public, the regime declared martial law. The police fired on the demonstrators, killing 184 and leaving some 6,000 wounded. Sacrifices of human lives were made for the development of democracy.

Although the United States had been aware of the rigging of the March 15 election, it did not denounce the Syngman Rhee regime until after the declaration of martial law. Deprived of support from the citizens and the United States, Rhee attempted to ride out the crisis by dismissing all of the cabinet members, demanding the resignation of the vice-president-elect, Lee Gi-bung, and stepping down from the Liberal Party chairmanship himself. The situation took a decisive turn when 300 college professors, who had kept silent during the demonstration of high school and university students, and ordinary citizens, and the ensuing violence, took to the streets. Rhee an-nounced his retirement from politics on 26 April, putting an end to the 12-year dictatorship of his Liberal Party. He secretly left Seoul for Hawaii on 29 May in self-imposed exile, and Lee Gi-bung and his entire family committed suicide.

The second phase is the transition period between the collapse of Rhee's government and the inauguration of the Second Republic under the Democratic Party, which had previously been the opposition. The day after Rhee's flight, Huh Chong (Heo Jeong), then minister of foreign affairs, took over a caretaker government as acting president. Although the caretaker government was tasked with establishing a new social order, it was not able to fulfill this mandate.

Toppling the Syngman Rhee regime, April 19 leaders had emerged too spontaneously and were lacking in the organizational capability necessary to assume power. With this power vacuum, no radical changes to power and institutions could take place, and only the old bureaucracy underwent internal reshuffling, leaving the old system, ideology, and power elites intact.

Conservatives called for the National Assembly to amend the Constitution in favor of a cabinet system and then to establish a new government by holding a general election. As a result, a constitutional amendment was effected on 15 June, which was to curb presidential powers and reinforce those of the prime minister as the head of administration. In the general elections that took place on 29 July 1960 under the amended constitution, the Democratic Party won and fringe parties, including reformist ones, were trounced.[2] Although it subsequently emerged as a powerful ruling party, the Democratic Party failed to form a stable government with leadership because of an intense internal split between the old and new factions.[3] After many twists and turns, the Second Republic was inaugurated with Yun Po-sun (Yun Bo-seon) from old (conservative) faction elected president and Chang Myon (Jang Myeon) from new (progressive) faction nominated prime minister.

The third stage begins with the establishment of the Democratic Party administration and ends with the May 16 coup in 1961. The period saw energized grass-roots unions of farmers, teachers, and youth movements and the drive for reunification. Demands for the liquidation of old systems and a fresh start surged up in the political and social sectors. Starting as an anti-dictatorship and pro-democracy drive, the April 19 Uprising moved forward to grapple with restoring basic civil rights, which had been trampled under anticommunism, and resolving the territorial division, the central issue engulfing the Korean peninsula. The country's democratic constitutional order, however, was disrupted by the May 16 coup.

The 12-year rule of the Syngman Rhee government left behind absolute supremacy of state power in all social sectors and dictatorship backed by police power.[4] For slightly over a year from the April 19 Uprising until the May 16 military coup, many attempts were made to remove the political, economic and social legacies of the Rhee's regime. At the center of these efforts was the attempted cleansing of the political legacy of Rhee's dictatorship, embodied in election rigging, and the economic legacy of illicit fortune accumulation. This was carried out in three phases: first, through ordinary trials conducted by the Huh Chong caretaker administration and during the early half of the Democratic regime; second, through special trials carried out by the Chang Myon government; third, through revolutionary trials held by the military regime following the May 16 coup.

Such moves to settle the past, initially motivated by a need to address election riggings, led to calls to redress grievances involving massacres committed before and during the Korean War, which the political establishment could not. The first social appeal and push to redress these grievance after the Korean War was made possible by the ousting of Syngman Rhee. The April 19 Uprising granted socially marginalized bereaved families of the massacred an arena for political action and a sense of confidence. In essence, it was the first challenge to anticommunism, the ideological basis of the Syngman Rhee government, in the name of the universal values of human rights, the dignity of life, and rule by law.

The April 19 Uprising initially launched to denounce election rigging and call for democratization, eventually evolved into a movement tackling the major issues facing the Korean peninsula: territorial division, reunification, and the United States forces stationed in South Korea. From the latter half of 1960s, students and advocates of reform raised the reunification issue on one hand, and the role of American forces in South Korea on the other.



Huh Chong Caretaker Government: Revolution through Non-revolutionary Means


The Huh Chong caretaker government (April to August 1960) was mandated to purge the legacies of the Syngman Rhee government: accumulation of illicit fortunes, involvement of some military officials in election rigging, and police enforcement of it. But Huh Chong himself had been a member of Syngman Rhee's cabinet and had arranged for Rhee's exile in Hawaii. As Huh's sole source of power was the government structure of the Rhee regime, including the bureaucracy and the police, he was placed in the contradictory position of needing to destroy the very political structure that formed his power base. Accordingly, despite public demands that special measures be legislated to punish those who accumulated illicit fortunes and masterminded the election rigging, Huh attempted to deal with them under the existing laws. In a step to punish those behind the election rigging, the caretaker administration detained several senior government officials including Rhee's minister of home affairs, Choe In-gyu, and several pro-government lawmakers. In the end, however, no verdicts were reached and the Chang Myon government inherited the unresolved trials.

The caretaker government also faced demands for the elimination of the corruption networks and their source that had flourished under the Syngman Rhee regime. Public opinion at the time called for punishment of the jaebeol (business conglomerates) as the biggest collaborators and beneficiaries of the corrupt Syngman Rhee regime, billed as "economic revolution" that ought to be carried out in parallel with "political revolution" mandated by the April 19 Uprising.[5] Having taken over the bureaucratic structures of the Rhee regime intact, however, the caretaker government remained lukewarm toward this matter, presenting no strict guidelines for investigation and punishment. The Punishment of Tax Evaders Act set forth the principle of punishing only those who made fortunes through illicit, not irregular, means without impeding smooth capital accumulation.[6] The caretaker administration merely let several illicit fortune accumulators voluntarily confess their wrongdoing and return their fortunes.

Huh Chong feared that reorganizing military leadership and expelling some key generals would turn the military hostile. So he chose not to deal with military involvement in election rigging, judging that making an issue of it would provoke the military and disrupt the military principle of maintaining political neutrality. But a group of young officers waged a military purification drive, which paradoxically provided the basis for the moral superiority and empowerment of the group that would lead the May 16 coup.[7]

Despite strong popular demand that police officials implicated in the election rigging be punished, the caretaker government did not take proper steps because of fears that punishment would undermine the security of the administration. More serious was the fact that the police retained their pro-Japanese officers. According to 1960 statistics, those who had served as police officers under Japanese colonial rule accounted for about 15 percent of the 4,000 police lieutenants nationwide, about 30 percent of the 500 police captains, about 40 percent of the 160 senior superintendents, and about 70 percent of the 20 police commissioners and superintendents general. Of some 33,000 police officers, about 20 percent of plainclothes and 10 percent of uniformed officers had served in the colonial Japanese police.[8] The pro-Japanese nature of the police, a remnant of Japanese colonialism that should have been eradicated in the wake of the nation's liberation in 1945, remained intact under Syngman Rhee. Pro-Japanese police officers who thwarted the activities of the Special Committee for the Investigation of Collaborationist Activities against the Nation from 1948 to 1949 against those who aided and abetted Japanese colonialists, suppressed democracy to maintain the security of the Syngman Rhee administration.

The caretaker government, although given only a four-month mandate from April to August 1960, was criticized for not taking a clear stance and thus wasting time until the inauguration of a new government. The Huh Chong administration was evidently an extension of the Syngman Rhee government, ill-qualified to manage a period of great political and social upheaval. Under the slogan "Enforce revolutionary tasks through non-revolutionary means," this incompetence and inaction, the result of the caretaker administration's reluctance to disrupt any sector of society adversely affected the Chang Myon government, which came into power at a point when no justice had been achieved even for evidently grave crimes.



Chang Myon Regime: Faltering Revolutionary Trials


The Chang Myon government (August 1960-May 1961) inherited the issues the caretaker administration had failed to resolve, principally six political scandals perpetrated under Rhee's regime and the settlement of illicit fortune. Billing the trials of offenders as "revolutionary trials," mandated by the April 19 Uprising, the public demanded that they be held by means of legislating retroactive laws. This was, however, initially rejected. The trials progressed extremely slowly, giving rise to concerns that the perpetrators of election rigging would go free. It was nearly impossible to rectify the wrongs committed by the Syngnam Rhee government under the laws that had enforced them.

On 8 October, the Seoul District Court's Criminal Department No. 1 handed down verdicts in the first trials of 48 defendants. The criminal panel gave death sentences to three of the 13 defendants for whom the prosecution had demanded the death penalty, and acquitted or dismissed the charges against the eight others. The then minister of home affairs, the key official behind the order for the police to open fire on the demonstrators, was only given a nine-month prison sentence, and the chief presidential bodyguard a three-year sentence, while the national police chief was found not guilty. However, the Seoul metropolitan police director was sentenced to death and the Seoul police security head was given life imprisonment. Despite the fact that as many as 6,500 people were either shot to death or wounded in the uprising, the dictator fled the country on a self-imposed exile, and his henchmen were given light sentences. Citizens who had hoped for an improved society on the basis of their sacrifices saw their expectations turn into disappointment, which, in turn, grew into indignation.


Legislation of Special Laws  


Protests erupted nationwide. The press criticized the trials as "nonsense trials with dubious fairness." Demonstrators who had been wounded in the April 19 Uprising, many of them on crutches, took over the National Assembly Hall, an incident that reminds us that the leading force of the April 19 Uprising was not the Chang Myon government, but rather national indignation. This prompted the public to call for more severe punishment of the accused under special retroactive laws.

The National Assembly overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that paved the way for retroactive laws. The revised provisions stipulated that retroactive laws may be legislated for the purpose of restricting the civil rights of those guilty of election rigging and antidemocratic acts, and punishing those who had accumulated illicit fortunes. They also provided for the establishment of a special court and prosecution to proceed with the trials. Under the amended constitution, late in 1960 the National Assembly legislated the Act on  the Establishment of a Special Court and a Special Prosecutors Office, the Act on the Restriction of Civil Rights of Anti-Democratic Acts Perpetrators, and the Act on the Punishment of People Involved in Election Rigging. In April 1961, the government promulgated the Special Act on the Disposal of Illicit Fortune Accumulators. The result of public pressure and indignation, the legislation of these special laws did not come about until eight months after the April 19 Uprising. In other words, the existing political establishment was not ready to accommodate the sweeping changes demanded by the public. The clearer the gap between public demands and the responses possible within the existing legal system, the deeper the conflicts became; and thus there was a time lag between public demands, and politicians' recognition of the issues and the subsequent enactment of the laws.


Punishment of Election Riggers


The Special Prosecutors Office, created on 17 January 1961, squandered half of its two-month period of prescription making preparations. The office was criticized for dealing with only minor figures and failing to catch the big fish. Several reasons were cited for this.[9] First, the Chang Myon regime was passive and bowed to pressure applied by the United States government. The office had to suspend its investigation of military involvement in the election rigging in the face of opposition mounted by the Chang Myon government and General Carter B. Magruder, the commander of the 8th U.S. Army in South Korea. Second, the police were defiant and uncooperative. The police, the lowest-echelon perpetrators of election rigging, held a negative attitude toward the special prosecution and court. Their lack of cooperation made it difficult to collect evidence and track down suspects. Third, there was internal discord in the Special Prosecutors Office between the public prosecutors and the attorneys. Lawyers actively expanded investigations but lacked the experience to actually conduct them, while prosecutors were preoccupied with sustaining public actions already prosecuted. Fourth, the two months period alloted by the special law was too short. Having already spent one month in preparations and recruitment of special prosecutors, the office had only one month left to act substantively.  

The Special Court, consisting of five panels of judges and a consolidated panel, equivalent to an appeals court, launched its activities on 25 January 1961, taking over all pending cases at district courts across the nation. For three months until mid-May, the Special Court dealt with 103 cases involving 263 defendants. Until the special trials were forcibly discontinued by the May 16 coup, however, the Special Court was unable to hand down verdicts in the first trials of the most critical cases.


Restriction of Civil Rights


Meanwhile, the Act on the Restriction of Civil Rights of Anti-Democratic Acts Perpetrators stipulated the restriction of such offenders' civil rights, such as the right to vote and to be elected or appointed to public office. Civil rights restrictions on a total of 1,282 persons were enforced at the end of April 1961, including senior officials of the Rhee's regime and 16 lawmakers. The civil rights restriction measures taken by the Chang Myon government, however, were soon invalidated by the May 16 coup. Pak Chung-hee, leader of the coup, enacted the Act on the Purification of Political Activities, temporarily suspending political activities by established politicians. The law targeted none other than the leaders of the Chang Myon regime.


Punishment of Accumulators of Illicit Fortune


The most troublesome of the Chang Myon administration's tasks was dealing with the illicit fortune accumulation. The public was strongly hostile to the jaebeol that had flourished under the aegis of the Syngman Rhee dictatorship because these companies had grown not by creating value through manufacturing, but by transferring value of foreign assistance through privileges in the distribution of supplies and preferences in bank loans.[10] The Syngman Rhee regime received financial contributions from the jaebeol in return for the privileges it bestowed. The rigged March 15 election was a typical instance of this collusion between government and business. To control the outcome of an election, Liberal Party leaders collected an enormous sum of political funds; providers of the funds were condemned as holders of illicit fortunes following the April 19 Uprising.

The public outcry was so strong that on 10 May 1960 right after Rhee's downfall, demonstrators gathered in Pagoda Park in downtown Seoul carrying placards reading, "Return Illicit Fortunes to the National Treasury." The Chang Myon administration proclaimed a series of drastic reform measures to eradicate practices of economic corruption perpetrated under the Rhee regime and ensure the effective distribution of aid resource, and a realistic currency exchange rate.[11] But the regime was interested not so much in the punishment of perpetrators of illegal economic action as in the possibility of economic decline, stressing economics to the extent of declaring "Economy-First Policy" as one of its central policies. Convinced that its success hinged on economic development, the Chang Myon government launched national reconstruction projects in the spring of 1961, while drafting a five-year economic development plan (1962-1966), the first of its kind in Korea.[12] As a consequence, congressional approval of special law to punish illicit fortune accumulators was delayed. The regime requested suspension of investigations on the grounds that summoning business leaders implicated in illicit funds for questioning would cause a business decline and deterioration of the national economy. On the other hand, the Chang Myon regime itself could not be absolved of suspected collection of political funds from those businessmen who had funneled funds to the new administration.[13]

The United States also applied pressure against the punishing of alleged illicit fortune makers in South Korea. Though aware of the misuse of American military and economic aid for illicit wealth accumulation, the U.S. government held the view that these businessmen were needed for the growth of capitalism in South Korea. In an official letter to Chang Myon, the U.S. State Department warned that returning illicitly made fortunes to the public coffer could be construed as an act similar to the confiscation of private property in Cuba by the Castro regime.[14]

Jaebeol and capitalists also mounted an organized resistance. In the face of strong protests by the nation's five business organizations, including the Korea Businessmen's Association (the predecessor of the present Federation of Korean Industries), the number of businessmen targeted for punishment plummeted from 57,000 to 600. The final list was confined to businessmen who, in connection with the March 15 election, had voluntarily donated to the Liberal Party 30 million won or more, and public servants and party officials who had accumulated wealth illicitly. But in the end no one was punished: the deadline for voluntary reporting by those subject to punishment under the special law coincided with the outbreak of the May 16 coup.

During its nine months in power, the Chang Myon government, due to its reluctance and inability to effect change, failed to hand down a single verdict on election rigging or accumulation of illicit fortunes.



Indignation: Bereaved Families of the Massacred Before and During Korean War


In contrast to the political establishment's faltering disposition of crimes evidently committed under the Rhee regime, the private sector made a big issue out of a number of massacres that took place before and during the Korean War. These incidents had long been un-touched, perhaps because the April 19 Uprising brought up collective memories of past atrocities, which had been repressed under the ideology of anticommunism. On 11 May 1960, residents of Geochang-gun county, Gyeongsangnam-do province, beat Bak Yeong-bo to death and burned his body. Bak was the head of Sinwon-myeon town of Gochang-gun county when troops from the 8th Regiment, 11th Division of the Republic of Korea Army massacred 719 people from the town. Bak had falsely accused many local residents as communist sympathizers and incurred the enmity of their families. The incident led to the exposure of several massacres of innocent people perpetrated before and during the Korean War. Numerous deaths caused by false accusations, long buried under the cloak of anticommunism and war, came to public attention. It was an outcry over basic human rights, not ideology.

Most incidents of genocide or political massacres in South Korea's history took place between 1949 and 1952. From its inauguration to the outbreak of the Korean War, the Syngman Rhee government confronted riots, uprisings and strong domestic challenges to its rule as well as Communist offensives from outside. In that process, the regime preemptively executed large numbers of people it considered a political danger to prevent possible security problems and for other political reasons without following legal procedures. Genocide refers to an unilateral and deliberate execution of a group of unarmed civilians by state power and power agencies related to it for political reasons without conducting proper legal proceedings or trials.[15]

Those massacres committed before and during the Korean War took place mostly in the process of "scorched earth" operations. Scorched earth operations were employed by Japanese troops against the "righteous armies" or local guerrillas prior to Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910, scorching small mountainous villages, the bases of righteous armies, and transporting the villagers to villages under their control. The collective village operations Japanese forces employed in Manchuria in the 1930s and the strategic village tactics United States forces adopted in the Vietnamese War originated from this tactic.[16]

To subdue guerrilla units operating in Manchuria in the 1930s, Japanese forces massacred a large number of farmers in efforts to stop them from cooperating with guerrillas. Their so-called "kill-all, burn-all, and loot-all" campaigns were linked with relocating large populations into protected villages, and either executing or "converting" captured guerrillas.[17] Among key Korean military leaders prior to and during the Korean War were those who had served with Jiandao special operations units that had been responsible for subduing guerrillas in Manchuria in the 1930s. The key strategy of the special operations forces too was thwarting guerrillas from winterizing by burning all their bases, irrespective of the survival of villagers.[18] Such tragic history was reflected in the large-scale genocide before and during the Korean War.  

Typical massacres in the process of scorched earth operations were carried out on Jeju island from October 1948 to early 1949, which stemmed from the Jeju Insurgency of April 3 and the "Keeping the Position with Cleansing the Fields" (gyeonbyeok cheongya) conducted by army troops in the Geochang massacre of innocent citizens in 1951, both tragedies in South Korea's modern history. On 3 April 1948, a riot erupted on Jeju island in protest of the establishment of a separate government in the South. Leftist forces on Jeju island subsequently launched guerrilla attacks against the U.S. military government and the South Korean police, and the U.S. military government responded by asking the South Korean forces to employ scorched earth tactics, even though the estimated number of guerrillas operating on Jeju island was no more than 3,000. American data put the death toll on the island at the end of 1949 at between 15,000 and 20,000, and the South Korean government recorded it as 27,719. The Jeju provincial governor told an U.S. intelligence agency that over 60,000 people were killed and 40,000 migrated to Japan. Of 400 villages across the island, only 170 remained intact.[19] The American military government and the Syngman Rhee regime were responsible for massacring ten times as many innocent civilians as guerrillas.

It was a criminal act to massacre innocent civilians without giving them legal protection and due process. The victims were stigmatized as suspected leftists, and their families subsequently suffered from serious disadvantages through guilt by association for a long time. Furthermore, when the Korean War broke out, Jeju island was subjected to still more violence because of the so-called "preventive massacres" targeting rehabilitated leftists.

In Yeosu, a port city on the southern coast of the Korean peninsula, troops of the 14th Regiment of the ROK Army, who were being mobilized to suppress the riots on Jeju island, revolted in October 1948, six months after the April 3 uprising On the island. This incident, known as the "Yeo-Sun (Yeosu-Suncheon) Rebellion" or the "Yeo-Sun Military Revolt", erupted spontaneously. The number of participants jumped from 6 to 40 and then to 2,000 in a matter of hours. The revolt, touched off in Yeosu, soon spread to nearby Suncheon and across Jeollanam-do province as the rebelling troops raided public institutions, such as administrative offices and police stations. The death toll reached at least 2,000. Like many other incidents that took place at the time, the Yeo-Sun military revolt was not so much a movement as a riot. It confirmed that the police alone were loyal to the government, and civic freedoms were stymied in the wake of the Yeo-Sun riot due to widespread perceptions that communist threats remained, as an American journalist observed.[20]

While the victims of the Jeju and Yeo-Sun riots were suspected of having been leftists or Communist sympathizers, innocent citizens were executed. In December 1949, South Korean troops killed over 100 people, male and female, young and old, in Seokdal village in Gyeongsangbuk-do province. The South Korean police and military claimed that communist guerrillas had slaughtered them. Following the April 19 Uprising, bereaved families demanded that the truth of the massacres be revealed, the honor of the victims be restored, and those responsible be punished. The South Korean government ignored their appeals and the military regime taking power in the May 16 coup suppressed them. But a recently declassified document of the U.S. Korean Military Advisory Group reveals that troops of the 7th Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, 3rd Division of the ROK Army killed 86 villagers, including 23 children, for no apparent reason.[21]

Following the outbreak of the Korean War, the South Korean government carried out great numbers of executions of political prisoners and rehabilitated leftists. According to American military documents, 1,800 political prisoners were executed in Daejeon in three days during the first week of July 1950,[22] and between 200 and 300 political prisoners were executed on the outskirts of Daegu on 10 August as alleged "North Korean prisoners of war."[23] No legal procedures were taken prior to their executions. Besides the political and ideological prisoners executed during the early stages of the Korean War, no small number of innocent citizens was bombed or shelled to death by American forces. There were many incidents including the massacre of civilians at the Nogeun-ri bridge in Yeongdong-gun county, Chungcheongbuk-do. The South Korean Ministry of National Defence accepted a total of 42 such cases declared from October 1999 to January 2000, 40 involving American forces and two South Korean forces. Of them, four cases were of massacre by shelling from U.S. forces and warships, claiming over 100 lives.[24] Illegal executions of civilians by South Korean forces were so frequent that Army Chief of Staff General Jeong Il-gwon issued a directive on 27 April 1951 to his subordinate units, urging them to exercise restraint in their discretionary executions.[25]

Despite such massacres committed during the war, few of the officials implicated in them were punished. The victims were often identified as leftists or collaborators with North Korean Communists. Syngman Rhee claimed that the Geochang incident was the outcome of a proper military trial of collaborators, and his government even threatened to execute lawmakers who visited the scene to investigate.[26] Though the incident developed into a serious political issue to the extent of dispatching a congressional investigation team, few officials involved were punished or brought to account. Two junior army officers were given life sentences and Kim Jong-won, the commander of the civil affairs division of martial law, a three-year term in prison. All three were freed after serving only one year.

Influenced by the continued activities of bereaved family associations, the National Assembly formed the Special Investigation Committee on the Truth of Innocent Citizens Massacred, and conducted investigations at the scenes from 31 May to 10 June. Three investigation teams, each composed of three members, toured Gyeongsang-do and Jeollanam-do provinces. It was impossible for nine investigators to discover in only 11 days the truth behind the massacres that took place across the nation. To make the task more difficult, among the investigators were people who were linked, directly and indirectly, with officials implicated in the massacres. The investigators stayed at each location for merely a day or two. Nevertheless, the number of innocent citizens to have been slaughtered reached 8,522.[27] This figure only covered those declared voluntarily and did not include similar incidents that took place in the rest of the country Seoul, Gyeonggi, Chungcheong, and Gangwon.  


Table 1. Statistics Compiled by Special Investigation Committee

on the Truth of Innocent Citizens Massacred of the 4th National Assembly













Death Toll


















A three-member investigation team stayed on Jeju Island for only six hours, during which 1,800 deaths were reported[28] a figure less than 10 percent of the total death toll confirmed later.[29] Commenting on this outcome of the investigation, a Jeju-based journalist wrote, "Despite the low public expectations for the congressional investigation, the outcome proves to be even less than a squeak of a mouse in the mountains."[30]

The families of the victims and survivors, anticipating the implementation of democratic principles following the April 19 Uprising, began to organize themselves to appeal to the government for justice.[31] Late in May 1960, they organized the Bereaved Family Association of the Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, which was most systematic and effective in raising the massacre issue. A similar organization soon appeared in Gyeongsangnam-do province. On 20 October, city and country representatives in Gyeongsang-do provinces formed the National Bereaved Family Association of the Massacred in Seoul. Such organizations were most active in the two Gyeongsang provinces, because they were not occupied by North Korean forces during the Korean War, and hence the victims were relatively free from the ideological accusation of being "leftists." Bereaved families demanded that the family registry records of the slaughtered be rectified to read "innocent citizens" instead of "communist collaborators," that those responsible for the massacres be punished, that bereaved families be protected by the state and compensated for their loss, that the victims' remains be exhumed, and that memorials be built in their honor.

The Huh Chong and Chang Myon administrations, however, did not respond to these demands. The bereaved families demanded justice under the rule of law, but it was beyond the capability either of the administration to legally deal with the issue because numerous officials responsible for the massacre under the Syngman Rhee regime remained in office. The abortive activities of bereaved families of the massacred following the April 19 Uprising reflected a gap existing between the genuine objectives of the uprising and the realities of the country then.[32]



Destination: North and South Korea Reunification


While demands for settling the past came from inside and outside the political establishment, other demands that had long been suppressed erupted in various social sectors. Grass-roots movements of laborers and farmers achieved rapid growth in the wake of the 29 July 1960 general elections. Unionization made rapid progress with the emergence of a teachers' union and democratic trade unions and youth and student organizations launched reunification movements. Cooperative bodies like the Council for Self-Reliance of National Reunification of Korea were formed to consolidate reformist political forces and movements. Most reformist political forces at that time advocated democratic socialism, acknowledging the existing political establishment.[33] Though branded by the military regime as leftist or radical political forces deviating from the bounds of liberal democracy, reformists were in fact a collection of the "fringe" political forces excluded from the one-sided rightist political arena, rather than a group sharing a common ideological perspective.[34]

That student and reformist political forces mounted a forceful reunification movement in the wake of the July 29 general elections was natural in that the central issues of the Korean peninsula fundamentally stemmed from the division of the country. The April 19 Uprising that started as an anti-dictatorship and democratization drive attempted to grapple with the reunification issue which was seen as the national priority. The reunification debate and movements in the private sector at the time were more powerful than in any other movements in the contemporary history of South Korea. It was the first instance of the reunification movement gaining popular support since South Korean nationalists, led by Kim Koo (Kim Gu)  and Kim Kyu-sik (Kim Gyu-sik), had advocated the peaceful reunification of the nation in 1948. Following the Rhee administration's execution of Cho Pong-am (Jo Bong-am), then the strongest opposition leader, on charges of advocating peaceful reunification only three years earlier, this represented remarkable progress. The forceful reunification policy by advancing to the North, once advocated during the initial phase of the Korean War, ran out of steam completely. The students' slogan, "Southerners go north, and northerners come south so that we may meet at Panmunjeom," had broad public appeal.

Although this approach to reunification was maligned as romantic and unrealistic, given the world situation in the early 1960s influenced by the coexistence of the East and West, the emergence of nationalism in the Third World, and North Korea's peaceful reunification offensive the time was ripe for making an issue of Korea's reunification.



Frustration: May 16 Coup


The moves to purge the legacies of the Syngman Rhee government and efforts to grapple with national division were crushed by the May 16 military coup (1961) led by Park Chung-hee. The Democratic Party administration, despite being the beneficiary of the April 19 Uprising, brought about its own downfall because it failed to embrace the students and urban citizens who had given it the leadership.[35] Some maintain that Korean society in 1961 was not yet ready for a democratic political system. It should be noted, however, that democracy did not fail it was overthrown by military power.

Supported by the Liberal Party and the United States, the Korean military officers who centered around Park Chung-hee formed the most organized group in the country. Soldiers with an eye on political power had attempted a coup before in vain during the 1952 political turmoil in Busan, home to the evacuated Seoul government, with the tacit approval of U.S. forces. The military also attempted a series of abortive coups in late 1950, in April 1960 and in April 1961.[36] The May 16 coup, participated in by a mere 3,500 troops, succeeded thanks to the flight of the top officials of the Democratic Party regime and ambivalent attitudes on the part of President Yun Po-sun and the U.S. government. The United States, which had been aware of the probability of a coup, recognized the military regime after verifying its anticommunist line.[37]

May 16 coup marked the beginning of a 20-year military dictatorship. Adopting a "development-oriented dictatorship" as a means of guaranteeing its survival and retaining American support, the military regime once again suppressed democracy, human rights and the reunification issue debate, the unfulfilled tasks of the April popular struggle in the name of economic development.

Having established the revolutionary court and revolutionary prosecution billed as military revolution, the military regime suspended all the special trials that were being held under the Chang Myon administration. It also suppressed and distorted those issues raised and debated by private organizations since the April 19 Uprising. The military revolutionary trials, completed by April 1962, were characterized by two phenomena.

The military regime was very lenient to those who had accumulated illicit fortunes, while it was very stern toward illicit election offenders, to whom harsh penalties were meted out. Initially it was stern toward illicit fortune makers, but, realizing economic development was a means of legitimation, the regime subsequently adopted a growth strategy centered on big capitalists.[38] As a result, businessmen, even those identified with illicit fortunes, were allowed to construct plants deemed necessary for national reconstruction on the condition that they donate a specified portion of their stocks to the government, and to attract foreign loans needed for plant construction, with repayment guaranteed by the government. Hence they were able to cement their position in the Korean economy paradoxically owing to their status of being illicit fortune buiders. This marked the beginning of the 1960s economic development strategy centered on the jaebeols or business conglomerates.[39]

 On the other hand, those involved in the bereaved family associations and political reform and reunification movements that were staged actively following the April 19 Uprising were dealt harsh punishments under charges of having engaged in "special acts of sedition." The military regime destroyed the graves of the massacred and the gravestones their relatives had erected with public donations. Activists in the bereaved family associations were detained as communist sympathizers, with some targeted with trumped-up espionage charges. Also arrested were some journalists who had covered incidents of genocide. The Minjok Ilbo (National Daily), a progressive newspaper, was shut down and its president Jo Yong-su was executed along with the ringleaders of the rigged March 15 election and the officials responsible for the police firing on April 19 demonstrators. The military regime, advocating anticommunism as its paramount national policy, denounced citizens who lodged complaints of state-perpetrated crimes as pro-North Korean elements or leftists. The activities of the bereaved family associations came to an end, and the victims went back to being labeled as "reds." Reformist political activities and all debates over reunification were also banned. The idea of reunification by force put forth under the Syngman Rhee regime, however, could no longer be advocated following the reunification debate made in the wake of the April 19 Uprising.

What the Korean people wanted during the April popular struggle was to prove the truth of past atrocities and bring the criminals involved to justice. All the facts were so evident that what was needed was to acknowledge the truth for what it was and follow the judicial prescription for it, rather than proving and verifying the truth anew. As pointed out by Human Rights Watch, the status at the time contained both truth and justice phases.[40] What then remained was to restore the honor of the victims and compensate their families, and provide the public with renewed justice and reconciliation. Remembering past wrongs and rectifying them was the proper way to restore the truth. The task of settling the past during the April popular struggle, however, failed to even clearly define the political and economic crimes committed in the past and duly punish those responsible.

The prolonged dictatorship and anticommunist ideology left not only political and economic damage but also social and cultural effects. The psychological pain and suffering the people sustained were not alleviated. This indicates that although the April 19 uprising toppled a dictatorship and opened a space of political freedom for the first time in the history of South Korean democracy, the democratic forces steering the country were too weak to expose the truth and to punish those responsible, let alone restore the honor of the victims and compensate their families. But public conviction in their struggles against dictatorship and for democratic procedures, their successful challenge of politics based on violence and repression, and the emergence of the student movement as the vanguard of the democratization and reunification movements helped nurture the development of democracy in the nation. The student movement, in particular, played a pioneering role in developing democracy in Korea, guaranteeing the right to a livelihood for workers and farmers, and struggling against dictators to secure the sovereign rights of Korea as a nation.


Jung Byung-joon (Jeong, Byeong-jun) is an instructor of the Mokpo National University. He received his Ph.D. from Seoul National University with a dissertation entitled "Yi Seung-man-ui dongnip noseon-gwa jeongbu surip undong" (Syngman Rhee's Independence Lines and Government-Establishing Movement) in 2001. His publications include Mongyang Yeo Un-hyeong pyeongjeon (The Life of Yeo Un-hyeong: A Critical Biography) (1995), Hanguk hyeondaesa gangui (Lectures on the Contemporary History of Korea) (comp., 1998), and other articles concerning Syngman Rhee. His research interest concerns the modern political history of Korea and historical figures. (E-mail: bjjung@mokpo.ac.kr.)



1. Ahn Byung-ook (An Byeong-uk), "4 wol minjung hangjaeng" (The April 19 Uprising), in vol. 3 of Hanguk yeoksa immun (Introduction to Korean History), ed. Organization of Korean Historians (Seoul: Pul Bit Publishing Co., 1996), pp. 695-696; Hong Seuk-ryule (Hong Seok-ryul) and Jeong Chang-hyeon, "4 wol minjung hangjaeng yeon-gu-ui jaengjeom-gwa gwaje" (Issues and Tasks of Studies of April Popular Struggle), in 4·19-wa  nambuk gwan-gye (April 19 and North-South Korea Relations), ed. April 19 Uprising Study Team, Organization of Korean Historians (Seoul: Minyon, 2000), p. 13.

2. National Election Commission (NEC), Daehan min-guk jeongdangsa (History of Korea's Political Parties) (Seoul: NEC, 1964), pp. 607-608.

3. Yi Gap-yun, "Je 2 gonghwaguk-ui seon-geo jeongchi: 7·29 chongseon-eul jungsim-euro" (Election Politics of the Second Republic: Centered on July 29 General Elections), in Je 2 gonghwaguk-gwa hanguk minjujuui (The Second Republic and Korean Democracy) (Seoul: Nanam Publishing House, 1996).

4. Han Sung-joo (Han Seung-ju), Je 2 gonghwaguk-gwa hanguk-ui minjujuui (The Second Republic and Democracy in Korea) (Seoul: Chongno Book Center Co., Ltd., 1983), p. 11.

5. Dong-a Ilbo, 9 June 1960; Kong Je-uk, "Bujeong chukjaeja cheori-wa jaebeol" (Disposition of Illicit Fortune Makers and Jaebols), in 1960 nyeondae-ui jeongchi sahoe byeondong (Political and Social Changes in the 1960s) (Seoul: Paeksan Publishing Co., 1999), pp. 206-209.

6. Bae Gwang-bok, "Dokjeom jabon-gwa uihoe minjujuui bujeong chukjae cheori gwajeong (1960-1961)-ui bunseok" (Monopolistic Capital and Parliamentary Democracy An Analysis of the Process of Disposing Illicit Fortunes (1960-1961)) (M.A. thesis, Korea University, 1987); Kyung Hyang Shinmun, 20 July 1960.

7. Im Dae-sik, "Banminbeop-gwa 4·19, 5·16 ihu teukbyeolbeop wae jwajeol doe-eonna" (Why the Special Act on the Punishment of the Activities against the Nation and of the Special Laws Enacted after the April 19 Uprising and the May 16 Coup Were Not Enforced), Yeoksa bipyeong (Critical Review of History) 32 (1996): p. 41.

8. Dong-a Ilbo, 7 May 1960.

9. Im Dae-sik, op. cit., pp. 46-47.

10. Kim Seong-du, "Hanguk-ui dokjeom jaebeol hyeongseong-ui teugiseong" (The Formation of Monopolistic Jaebeols in Korea), Sasanggye (Sept. 1968): p. 110.

11. National Assembly Stenographic Records, 30 September 1960.

12. Bak Jin-hui, "Minjudang jeonggwon-ui gyeongje jeiljuui-wa gyeongje gaebal 5 gaenyeon gyehoek" (The Democratic Regime's Economy-First Policy and Five-Year Economic Development Plan) Guksagwan nonchong (Collection of Thesis on Views of National History) 84 (1999): pp. 270-285.

13. Chosun Ilbo, 27 July and 6 September 1960; Korean Revolutionary Trial History Compilation Committee (KRTHCC), Hanguk hyeongmyeong jaepansa (The History of Korean Revolutionary Trials), vol. 1 (KRTHCC, 1962), pp. 289-291.

14. Dong-a Ilbo, 13 August 1960.

15. Kim Dong-chun, Jeonjaeng-gwa sahoe: uri-ege hanguk jeonjaeng-eun mueot ieotna? (War and Society: What Was the Korean War to Us?) (Seoul: Dolbegae, 2000), p. 205.

16. Fuziwara Akira, Ilbon gunsasa (History of Japanese Military Affairs), trans. Eom Su-hyeon (Seoul: Current Japanese Language Co., 1994), pp. 54, 138.

17. Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, vol. II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 286.

18. Baek Seon-yeop, Gun-gwa na (The Military and I) (Seoul: Daeryukyeon Press, 1989), p. 226; Nam Chang-ryong, Manju jeguk joseonin (Ethnic Koreans in Imperial Manchuria) (Seoul: Sinserim, 2000), p. 179.

19. "The Background of the Present War in Korea," Far Eastern Economic Review (30 August 1950): pp. 233-237; RG 349, FEC G-2 Theater Intelligence, Box 466, (23 May 1950) G-2 Report on Jeju; Bruce Cumings, op. cit., p. 258.

20. Richard Allen, Korea's Syngman Rhee (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1960), p. 108.

21. "Army Attach, Seoul Embassy to Army," no. ARMA 10, 11 January 1950, MacArthur Archives; National Archives, Record Group 338, Entry 11007, Box 69, KMAG, Brig. General W. L. Roberts (Personnel Correspondence), 379.64 file (Guerrilla Warfare).

22. I.D. No. 715579. Subject: Execution of Political Prisoners in Korea, 23 September  1950, RG 319, entry 85, Army-Intelligence Document File.

23. John J. Muccio to Lt. Gen. Walton L. Walker, Commander, 8th Army, 25 August 1950, "Documents on Korean War 1950-51," 15 October 1959. SEO-812-1-A, RG 84, Korea-Seoul Embassy, Top Secret Records 1950-56, box l.

24. Hankyoreh, 7 February 2002.

25. ID No. 715579, Subject: ROk Military Conduct toward Civilians, 3 May 1951. RG 319, Entry 85, Army-Intelligence File.

26. Special Investigation Committee on Geochang Incident, "Geochang sageon josa bogoseo" (Investigation Report on Geochang Incident), submitted on 8 May 1951.

27. Special Investigation Committee on the Truth of Massacred Innocent Civilians, 4th National Assembly, "Yangmin haksal sageon jinsang josa bogoseo" (Investigation Report on the Truth of Massacred Innocent Civilians) (6-24) (1960).

28. Jeju April 3 Uprising Research Institute, 2001, 1960 nyeon gukhoe yangmin haksal sageon jinsang josa teukbyeol wiwonhoe (1960 National Assembly Massacre Investigation Special Committee: National Assembly Investigation Report on Massacre), vol. I and II; Jeju Sinbo,  1 and 7 June 1960.

29. The number of deaths declared in one year since the National Assembly passed the Special Act Regarding Revelation of Truth and Restoration of Honor of the 4·3 Jeju Incident in December 1999 was 14,028, and the numbers declared to the Jeju Provincial Council by the end of 1999 was 14,841. Jeju Provincial Council' April 3 Special Committee, Jeju-do 4·3 pihae josa bogoseo (Investigation Report on Jeju Island's April 3 Incident), 2nd ed. (2000), p. 28.

30. Jeju Sinbo, 22 June 1960.

31. Busan Ilbo, 17 May 1960; Hankook Ilbo, 17 May 1960.

32. Han Sang-gu, "Pihaksalja yugajok munje" (The Issue of Bereaved Families of the Massacred), in vol. 2 of Hanguk sahoe byeonhyeok undong-gwa 4 wol hyeong-myeong (Korean Society Reform Movement and April Revolution) (Seoul: Hangilsa Publishing Co., Ltd., 1990), p. 175.

33. Jeong Tae-yeong, Hanguk sahoe minjujuui jeongdangsa (History of Korea's Social Democratic Parties) (Seoul: Semyong sogwan, 1995).

34. Hong Seuk-ryule and Jeong Chang-hyeon, op. cit., p. 26.

35. Gregory Henderson, Soyongdori-ui hanguk jeongchi (Korea, the Politics of the Vortex), trans. Bak Haeng-ung and Yi Jong-sam (Seoul: Hanul Publishing Co., 2000), p. 269.

36. Hong Seuk-ryul, "5·16 kuteta-ui wonin-gwa hanmi gwan-gye" (Causes of May 16 Military Coup and South Korea-U.S. Relations), Yeoksa hakbo (Journal of History Society) 168 (2000).

37. NIE, 42.1-2-60, "Prospects for the Republic of Korea," 22 November 1960. Foreign Relations of United States, 1958-1960, vol. XVIII, pp. 697-698; "Memorandum from Director of CIA Dulles to President Kennedy," 16 May 1961; Foreign Relations of United States 1961-1963, vol. XXII, pp. 456-457.

38. Yi Yong-won, Je 2 gonghwaguk-gwa Jang Myeon (The Second Republic and Chang Myon) (Seoul: Bum Woo Sa, 1999), pp. 201-202.

39. Kong Je-uk, op. cit., pp. 253-255.

40. Priscilla B. Hayner, "Fifteenth Truth Commissions 1974 to 1994: A Comparative Study," Human Rights Quarterly 16. 4 (1994): p. 605.









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