Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg:
Problems in Historical Clarification
of the Korean War
Kim Dong Choon
In January 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton officially
recognized that American troops had committed a massacre
around the village of Nogeun-ri in the early stages
of the Korean War. His recognition was based on the
final report by the Bilateral Coordinating Group for
Investigating the Nogeun-ri Incident. However, by denying
that the soldiers were under orders to kill civilians
fleeing the advancing North Korean army, he insisted
that the U.S. was not responsible for the deaths of
innocent civilians at Nogeun-ri.
Enraged survivors and relatives of the victims who had
petitioned the U.S. and ROK governments for several
decades protested this decision, calling it a transparent
and intentional evasion of responsibility.
Although the AP report which first broke the story
to the foreign press and the testimonies of the victims
themselves had informed the world that U.S. troops killed
many civilians during the Korean War, this incident
constitutes only the tip of the iceberg. More than fifty
incidents committed by U.S. troops, such as the massacre
at Nogeun-ri have already been reported and similar
mass killings by ROK troops who were under U.S. command
have been revealed. The representative cases are the
Jeju Insurgency of April 3 (1948) and the Geochang Massacre
(1951). These two incidents are relatively well known
among Koreans because intellectuals from Jejudo had
long petitioned the government regarding the former
case and the latter was revealed just after it occurred.
Following repeated appeals by the victims of Geochang
over the last fifty years, the Special Act on Honor
Restoration of the Victims of the Geochang Incident
(Geochang Incident Act) was finally enacted in 1996.
Encouraged by this, intellectuals and victims of the
Jeju Insurgency of April 3 demanded the legislation
of a special law for uncovering the truth behind the
Jeju Insurgency. In 1999, the Special Act on Fact-Finding
and Honor Restoration of the Victims of the Jeju Incident
was passed in the Korean National Assembly.
Other massacres before and during the Korean War,
however, have not been made public or openly discussed.
The official naming and remembering of the Korean War,
which was labeled a "holy war" or "police
action" safeguarding the "free world"
against communist invasion, have not permitted discussion
of the alleged U.S. and South Korean war crimes. Since
much of what happened during the Korean War has been
hidden or unexamined, these official versions have remained
unchallenged until now. Unlike the Vietnam War, the
Korean War is the "forgotten war" not only
for Americans but even Koreans. However, many older
Koreans who experienced the war firsthand, especially
the eyewitnesses of the mass killings, know its true
face. The individual memories of ordinary Koreans differ
from, or even contradict, the official one. While official
memory functions to justify the present regime (Hirsh
1995, 25), an alternative memory may threaten the existing
political power or transform war "heroes"
into war criminals.
Over the last few years, family members of the victims
have tried to inform the public about the war massacres
and to petition the government to investigate them.
Under the harsh Cold War animosity, the extreme right-wing
government labeled those killed by U.S. and ROK troops
as "Reds." The family members left behind
have been treated as "second-class citizens"
in Korean society through guilt by association. Most
of those whose parents and relatives were killed in
the course of war by friendly forces however unfair
the deaths were have remained silent themselves and
buried the history of their family in order to survive
in Korean society. However, the demise of military regime
in 1987 opened up a space for war victims to tell their
tragic stories. In the 1990s, many victims' associations
began to appear, aiming to release pent-up grievances,
and uncover the truth, and recover the victim's dignity.
But their petitions have been repeatedly rejected
because of a lack of hard evidence, as we saw in the
case of Nogeun-ri. The U.S. and ROK governments have
systematically denied that such mass killings occurred.
As such, historical clarification remains distant.
There are no universal rules or steps in providing
historical clarification. Crucial issues involve uncovering
of the truth, the acknowledgement and compensation of
victims, public apologies of those responsible, reconciliation
between opposing factions, and prevention of repetition
of the past (Adam 2000, 89). Finally, historical clarification
may be more or less accomplished when past "crimes
against humanity" have been thoroughly investigated
and the conditions foregoing such war crimes could be
removed by prosecuting the criminals or obtaining an
apology from the offenders. As political massacres or
wartime killings are generally legitimized as actions
of self-defense, defining them as war crimes or genocide
may be very difficult. In approaching
historical clarification of the Korean War, however,
shared historical consciousness is much more important
than the mechanisms to prevent war crimes. Establishing
a complete picture of the war crimes and knowledge about
true history of the war constitutes the first step in
Prerequisite: Naming and Characterizing
the Korean War
Following the Korean state's official definitions
of the Korean War June 25 textbooks for primary and
middle school students have been written, national holiday
selected, museums subsidized, and the speeches of politicians
delivered celebrating and mourning the past. During
the last half century, South Koreans have grown so accustomed
to the official title and characterization of the Korean
War, it has been rarely disputed. Furthermore, no deviation
has been permitted in characterizing that war.
In South Korea, the outbreak of the Korean War is
known as "June 25" for the day that North
Korea under the sponsorship of the Soviet Union invaded
South Korea. Thus the official designation and memory
of the war immortalizes the date of North Korea's "sudden
invasion." However, as the government has monopolized
this memory, shaping the nature of the war over the
last half century of Cold War politics, other views
and memories of the war have been suppressed or ignored.
The origins, process and consequences of the war have
been explained by the simple axiom of a "communist
conspiracy," and newly released documents from
postcommunist Russia support this argument. All the
casualties and devastation of the war have been blamed
on this imperialist policy (Oliver 1950, 1-22). As in
other nations, this one-sided war memory was formed
in South Korea through a careful selection of information
or willful neglect of aspects that opposed the official
narratives. The end result was an overemphasis of the
North Korea's responsibility or the invasion. The major
reason why successive Korean governments have not responded
to the victims' demands or have actively investigated
civilian damages from the war is their political dependence
on the U.S. since the cease-fire in 1953.
The Korean War has been ignored or relatively forgotten
by Americans and remembered in a one-sided way by Koreans.
For Americans, the facts and meaning of the war were
never clearly defined (Kaufman 1999). For them, the
Korean War was chronologically located between World
War II and the Vietnamese War, and emotionally balanced
between a war of principle and a war of imperialism.
It was not supported as World War II was, nor did it
suffer the condemnation of the Vietnam War (Edwards
1986, 16). Officially the American government called
the Korean War a "police action." However,
by calling U.S. involvement a police action, not only
are the brutal aspects of the war easily lost but the
mass killings carried out by U.S. troops also easily
legitimized. The really "forgotten" aspect
of Korean War seems to be related to this point.
On the basis of newly released information and uncovered
stories, the Korean War should be viewed differently
and be eventually renamed, taking three points into
consideration. First, the Korean War originated from
an internal conflict on the Korean peninsula. 25 June
1950 was not a point when the war suddenly broke out;
rather it was a turning point when regional guerrilla
conflicts that had been going since 1948 became an all-out
war (Cumings 1990). calling it as "June 25"
conceals this crucial aspect because it presupposes
that belligerent North Korea abruptly invaded a peaceful
South Korea. It also ignores Syngman Rhee's several
attempts to attack North Korea, and the deaths or disappearances
of more than a hundred thousand civilians before 25
June 1950. South Korea's official view is to memorialize
June 25 to remind the world of the day when communists
attacked the "free world," in which both ROK
and U.S were situated as "blood" allies. To
the people who lived in the southern part of the Korean
peninsula at the time, the appearance of the North Korean
People's Army was a sign that full-scale war had broken
out. For the residents of Jejudo, 25 June 1950 was a
continuation of the April 3 Insurgency of 1948. Even
ordinary southerners are often confused as to whether
the combats they experienced between ROK troops and
guerrilla forces occurred before or after 25 June 1950.
Second, the Korean War from the perspective of Westerners
was not so much a confrontation between the communists
and the liberals as it was "a substitute for
World War III" (Stueck 1995). The conflict between
the two Koreas served in many ways to entrench the Cold
War while victimizing indigenous people, devastating
their territory, and failing to resolve the political
division (Stueck 1995). Even though both leaders of
the two Koreas succeeded in strengthening their power
base immediately after the war, the real losers were
not the U.S. or the Soviet Union. Considering that the
war eventually consolidated the national division and
the antagonism between the two Koreas, the Koreans themselves
lost the most. U.S. decision for immediate involvement
was not made to "safeguard" the Korean people,
but to maintain its stance against the communist world.
Contrary to the official line towed by Korea's ruling
class, Korea's urgent need for U.S. involvement was
to defend Japan and the East Asian capitalist frontline
more than save South Korea and Syngman Rhee.
Third, the tragedies of the war should not be exclusively
attributed to North Korea, but also to the seeming lack
of readiness, U.S. indifference as well as quick collapse
of ROK forces. Whether or not America intentionally
appeared uninterested in the crisis of the Rhee regime
remains uncertain, but the limited liberation of 15
August 1945 and the American installation of an extreme
right-wing government already portended a future of
bloody conflict. America's plan to inaugurate Rhee,
who was supported by former Japanese collaborators and
the supervision of ROK armed forces in the suppression
of the dissidents created a fierce conflict on the Korean
peninsula (Johnson 2001, 98). Because communists and
many patriots disapproved of Rhee, only police force
and army trained by the U.S. could sustain him. The
atrocities committed after the outbreak of Korean War
looked like a repetition or intensification of the Jeju
Insurgency of April 3.
Whatever brought the North Korean government to initiate
a full-scale war, it cannot evade the responsibility
created by the war itself. Thus, until now, war crimes
that occurred during the war have been attributed to
North Korea. But South Korea's self-righteous claim
of self-defense cannot legitimize the atrocities committed
by U.S. and ROK troops. The argument that the U.S. and
ROK troops committed numerous mass murders would cast
doubt on the existing dogma of "police action"
or a "just war." Though this viewpoint died
out in the outside world long ago, it is still alive
in South Korea. How a war is remembered and what it
is officially called always depend on political conditions.
Thus, renaming the war after thoroughly conducting historical
studies of it is a starting point of historical clarification.
Massacres before and during the
War creates conditions in which soldiers are willing
to kill even the innocent, especially when they feel
they are surrounded by the enemy in combat. Because
civil war creates a situation where enemy and friend
cannot easily be distinguished, mass killings by military
forces are inevitable. Any civil war results in countless
deaths not only of soldiers but also civilians who are
not even aware of what the war is about (Edward 1986,
2). Basic training in the military is designed to teach
recruits to act instinctively and to follow orders without
thinking in order to cope with the confusion of the
combat situation. The ROK army inherited the organizational
and cultural traditions of the Japanese imperial army
that taught their soldiers to obey orders absolutely
and not to treat the enemy as human beings.
It is estimated that more than two million unarmed
civilians were killed or disappeared during the war
(Halliday and Cumings 1988, 200). While modern war waged
with weapons of mass destruction generally brings massive
civilian casualties, this exceptionally high number
for the Korean War should first be explained by the
fact that it was a civil war resulting from serious
political conflict since 1945.
The Jeju Insurgency was both the beginning of war
and massacres to follow it. When left-wing activists
fled up Hallasan mountain in the center of the island,
the ROK army under the direction of U.S. Korean Military
Advisory Group (KMAG) burned villages and killed those
suspected of collaborating with the enemy. The estimated
number killed reached 30,000, about ten percent of the
island's population. Some 70 percent of the island's
230 villages were burned to the ground. Starting with
the Jejudo massacre, the police and right-wing organizations
indiscriminately arrested, tortured, and killed left-wing
activists. The "dirty war" between left-wing
guerrillas and the ROK government intensified. Ordinary
villagers who were thought to be helping the left-wing
guerrillas were treated as enemies. Similar rebellions
and massacres ensued in Yeosu when the 14th Regiment
refused to go on the counterinsurgency mission to Jejudo.
This unorganized rebellion of soldiers was suppressed
under the supervision of the KMAG, but it resulted in
another tragedy like the one in Jejudo. The revenge
of the police on those who were under even the slightest
suspicion of cooperation with the communist uprising
was relentless. Though the total number of civilian
casualties has not been verified, it is calculated to
be several times greater than the number of victims
of the Jeju Insurgency.
The initiation of total war on 25 June 1950 meant
the beginning of full-scale massacres. Deadly threats
that Rhee faced in the early period of the war pushed
him to resort to deadly means to eradicate it. The political
response to the North's attack was immediate, resulting
in the total removal of those who had ever opposed Rhee
government. He began to purge anyone of whom he was
suspicious by labeling them "internal enemies."
Although this purging of the left could be called a
"secondary war," in some sense it was much
more nightmarish for Koreans than the official war against
the left, defined as the enemy of the state. Rhee was
afraid that the former communists of the National Guidance
League (Bodo Yeonmaeng, hereafter NGL) would rebel.
The members of NGL, who had been involved in left-wing
activities or protests against Rhee's government and
were "rehabilitated" in 1949, were regarded
as potential traitors. The most
ruthless atrocities committed during the Korean War
would be these mass killings by Rhee government under
the guise of legal executions (Kim 2000).
To wipe out the suspected enemy, South Korea, which
was under U.S. command, wanted to dispose of all figures
affiliated with the left. To do this, the department
of internal affairs and the Korean Counter-Intelligence
Corps (CIC) ordered all police stations to detain members
of the NGL. According to a CIC report, "these prisoners
are considered enemies of South Korea and [should be]
disposed of accordingly before the arrival of North
Korean forces." Most of the members of NGL obeyed
orders to check in with the police, because the call
seemed like nothing more than a regular inspection.
Even if some of them had a sense of foreboding, they
told themselves that they had not committed any crime.
Although some who had been arrested under preventive
detention were ex-communists or anti-Rhee activists,
a large number of them were innocent peasants who did
not even know about communist ideas. However, Rhee indiscriminately
treated all of them as traitors under a war situation,
and executions were carried out in almost every county
of South Korea from early July to late August.
Those who had once been affiliated with the left,
and thus became prisoners were targeted. The most well
known case was the massacres in Daejeon. In early August
1950, the London Daily Worker printed an article
titled "United States Belsen in Korea," which
said that ROK police under the supervision of KMAG had
butchered seven thousand people in the village of Nangwol-dong
near Daejeon during the period from 2 to 6 July. According
to witnesses, the massacres continued for three days,
and American officers in two jeeps observed the killings
(Winnington 1950, 5). Recently, some eyewitnesses to
that massacre have stepped forward and testified to
the incident. A victim's son also found several photographs
of the massacre in recently declassified reports by
the U.S. army in the U.S. National Archives.
The victims were mostly political prisoners arrested
during the Jeju Insurgency and the Yeosu rebellions,
or figures affiliated with the left who had been arrested
just after North Korea's inva-sion.
These massacres are the most tragic and shocking in
regard to the number of victims killed during the Korean
War, although foreigners and even many South Koreans
know nothing about them. The facts surrounding the incident
have been concealed as the ROK government has never
recognized the incident and legitimized the killing
of the left in the name of national security.
Many atrocities committed by U.S. troops have also
recently been revealed. Western reporters during the
war have already accused American soldiers of shootings.
Many Koreans who experienced the war have memories that
the U.S. carried out indiscriminate aerial and naval
bombardment. North Korea has insisted U.S. troops killed
more than a million innocent civilians.
They reported that Americans shot many civilians and
burned the villages where the enemy was potentially
hiding. The AP recently gathered facts that American
soldiers killed 500 civilian refugees in Nogeun-ri.
Some of the survivors began to speak out about their
experiences. The new reports claim that U.S. napalm
bombing destroyed many villages and that fleeing refugees
were shot. These other faces of American "police
action" are calling for a thorough reexamination
of the Korean War. Recently, BBC even revealed that
the U.S. navy bombarded the coastal areas around Pohang,
although this was no new to Koreans.
This affirms that the Nogeun-ri Incident is all but
the tip of the iceberg of the many massacres committed
by U.S. forces.
On the other hand, the mass killings committed by
the ROK army to clear out the enemy were much more devastating.
The Geochang Incident of February 1951 is one of the
well-known massacres where ROK soldiers slaughtered
many civilians. The ROK's 11th Division which performed
the duties to search and root out remnant guerrillas
actives in the mountainous areas around Jirisan mountain
was responsible for the massacres. Several thousand
civilians including babies, women and the elderly were
killed during the operation called "holding position
with cleansing the fields" (gyeonbyeok cheongya).
It was called a three "cleanse all" operations kill
all, burn all, loot all which was once adopted by Japanese
imperial forces to fight against Chinese leftist rebels.
The Commander of 11th Division Choe Deok-sin had learned
this method of operation through once serving in the
Chinese Jiang Jieshi corps. His corps indiscriminately
killed several thousand peasants living in mountainous
areas because they had aided the guerrillas and refused
orders to evacuate. Even though some of the inhabitants
might have helped the guerrillas, they had no choice
but to cooperate to safeguard their family's subsistence.
Other slaughters that occurred in the villages of
Jeollanam-do and Jeollabuk-do provinces such as in Namwon,
Sunchang, Gochang, Imsil, and Hampyeong were committed
by the same division. These incidents still remain unconfirmed
and the ROK government has denied that the army and
police killed so many innocent civilians. It is calcultated
that the fall of 1950 to the spring of 1951 more than
10,000 civilians were killed by ROK soldiers under the
mission of cleansing the area of leftist guerrillas
(Kim 2000, 217-219). Victim's family members who were
left behind have been treated as communists who, under
the political atmosphere ruled by the extreme right,
could not gain full citizenship and were treated as
potential enemies within the society.
Then, can we call the mass murder that took place
during the Korean War "genocide"? The definition
of genocide has been disputed over a long period of
time. According to Lemkin, genocide can be defined as
"a coordinated plan of different actions aiming
at the destruction of essential foundation of the life
of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the
groups themselves." The United
Nations finally agreed that genocide consisted of killing,
serious assault, starvation, and measures aimed at children
committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in
part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.
The intent of the offenders and the existence of identifiable
groups are crucial to verify whether an incident is
to be considered genocide or not. But the concept of
"intent" is ambiguous (Hirsh 1995, 202). If a nation intends
to acquire or protect a territory and ends up killing
a large number of innocent people, this operation may
be called genocide. So it seems rather persuasive to
define genocide as "a form of one-sided mass killing
in which state or other authority intends to destroy
a group, as that group and membership in it are defined
by the perpetrators" following the Chalk and Jonassohn's
definition (Chalk and Jonassohn 1990, 23).
Even though U.S. and ROK troops did not originally
intend to kill civilians, the very object of the combat
and the American soldiers' racist perceptions of Koreans
already foretold the mass killings. Civilians that the
U.S. and ROK troops targeted were regarded as "lefitists"
had aided North Korea. And even the women, children,
and elderly were killed discriminately. The "cleansing
the field" operation during the Korean War in which many
innocent inhabitants of mountainous areas were killed
by Korean soldiers, evokes the image of "ethnic cleansing."
mass killings were legitimized on the ground of "purifying"
territory. The idea of "cleansing" and "purifying"
the Korean War foreboded the ideological massacres which
is similar to today's "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia and
Rwanda. American military leaders including MacArthur
were tinged with racism. American soldiers almost universally
pinned the crude word "gook" on Koreans, whether enemy
or ally, soldier or civilian (Henry et al 2001, 71-72).
The U.S. and ROK governments did not mention the
atrocities of the Korean War, tacitly assuming that
the situation of war itself had led to the mass murder
if it even had occurred at all. When the Nogeun-ri Incident
was revealed by AP and the Korean victims, the two governments
tried to regard it as an isolated incident. The main
conservative newspapers in Korea took the same position.
They tried to ignore other incidents of mass murder
if possible. However, we should remember that war does
not always result in mass killings of civilians. Those
who were killed by U.S. and ROK troops before and during
the Korean War can show us the hidden aspects of the
Problems and Current Stage of Historical Clarification
of the Korean War
The Case of Geochang, Jejudo island, and Nogeun-ri
A unique case of Korean War massacre directly reported
to the world is the Geochang Incident. The incident
was made known when Sin Jeong-mok, a member of the National
Assembly representing Geochang, came forward at the
risk of death and disclosed the massacre. When Syngman
Rhee stepped down by April Revolution of 1960 against
his dictatorship, the surviving families of Geochang
Incident assembled and disclosed the real facts of the
incident including the perpetrators. In such a democratic
atmosphere, other survivors and family members of Korean
War victims began to demand action to resolve their
pent-up grievances. They demanded that the perpetrators
be brought to justice and that the background of the
massacre be investigated. Surprised by their sudden
outcry, the National Assembly quickly organized a special
committee to probe the incident, later issuing a report
and raising the necessity for enacting a law to fully
investigate the truth and restore the honor of the victims.
But all these efforts came to an end with the military
coup on 16 May 1961. The investigation by the National
Assembly was halted and the leading figures of the movements
were arrested as communist-related agitators. After
this there were no voices arguing for a full clarification
of the massacres or a response to the sufferings of
the survivors. Any Korean who even mentioned the subject
openly was liable to be arrested by the Korean Central
Intelligence Agency (KCIA).
When the military government collapsed in 1987, long
suppressed voices began to be raised again. Most of
the survivors and witnesses had already passed away,
the remaining family members had forgotten the incidents,
and still feared that political rulers would oppress
petitioners on the subjects as supporters of North Korea.
Still, outbreak of the pent-up grievances could not
be deterred. Finally, the special act mentioned above
for restoring the honor of the Geochang Incident victims
was enacted in 1996 and another special act on fact-finding
and restoring the honor of victims of the Jeju Insurgency
was successively enacted despite the strong objections
of the extreme right and retired military leaders. The
former, as it was focused on the memorial project, may
be a far limited measure in terms of historical clarification
because the perpetrators and the truth of the incident
has not been verified. Moreover, the facts of the incident
have not passed down to the younger generations nor
shared with fellow citizens, and no mechanisms to deter
genocide have been established.
A national commission for clarifying the Jeju Insurgency
has been organized to investigate the truth concerning
the massacres. About 14,000 victims have reported that
their family members were killed in the suppression
of the rebellions. Eighty percent allegedly argued their
family members were butchered by the ROK army, police
and youth organizations sponsored or directed by the
U.S. army. However, it is uncertain how deeply the commission
can investigate the massacre. Directly and indirectly,
the commission has been deterred by anticommunists and
the retired police and military, who were assumed to
be responsible for state terrorism before and after
the Korean War.
Then how about the massacres committed by U.S. troops?
The AP's report on the Nogeun-ri Incident led to the
U.S. government's investigation into the mass killings
by U.S. forces during the Korean War. After a year's
investigation, the U.S. army released a report that
acknowledged for the first time that U.S. soldiers had
shot unarmed Korean civilians in July 1950. President
Clinton offered his regrets for the deaths of Korean
refugees. The report proved unsatisfactory to the
families of the victims and many other Koreans because
it denied the existence of written orders directing
American soldiers to fire on unarmed civilians and ascribed
the shooting only to the confusion of combat. Considering
the knowledge about killings by American soldiers in
the southern part of Korea, this conclusion seems unreasonable.
Recently, BBC released a document that showed orders
like "No refugees to cross the 38th parallel line, fire
on everyone trying to cross the line." This document
clearly shows how U.S. commanders repeatedly, and without
ambiguity, ordered forces to target and kill Korean
refugees caught on the battlefield. But U.S. authorities
have not commented on these newly released documents.
Nogeun-ri survivors are demanding that the U.S. government
admit its responsibility, but the prospect does not
look good. They still stick to the past argument that
"There is no evidence to support the claims nor is there
any evidence to show that the U.S. First Cavalry Division
was in the area where the incident allegedly occurred"
et al 2001, 262).
The ROK government has never been interested in investigating
the villagers' accounts of a massacre. It has played
only a subordinate role in this investigation and has
not been active in finding ways to compensate the victims.
Following U.S. official stance that the Nogeun-ri Incident
had occurred in a situation of combat and thus was ineligible
for compensation, the ROK government has been denying
that the U.S. commanders ordered the shooting. But the
South Korean government defended itself with the assertion
that it had done its best to accept the victims' claims
while none of the victims have recognized the government's
Movements for Enacting a Comprehensive Special Act
Victims' attempts in the past to inquire into the
truth and to reach genuine reconciliation have been
hampered because they have only focused on incidents
in their specific regions. The process of settling the
Geochang Incident may be a model in this sense. This
incident was exceptional in that it became known to
the outside world and low-ranking military officers
were tried immdiately afterwards.
Even though the trial was designed only to appease
the wrath of the victims and the commanders were all
released without punishment, it encouraged the victims
to take up the issue in 1960 and to fully resolve their
grievances. At that time they killed former village
leader Bak Yeong-bo who had allegedly assisted the soldiers
by categorizing his neighbors as traitors or "good people"
the mass killing. Thus they took revenge against the
alleged enemy but not until after the fall of the military
regime. But the victims' association of the Geochang
Incident has been reluctant to communicate and unite
with victims of other incidents and have kept their
distance from them. They call themselves "pure good people,"
they are unspoiled by communist or ideological teachings
in the Korean context. Such strategies eventually divide
and antagonize the victims against each other. In a
harsh anticommunist regime like Korea where the right-wing
perpetrators and their offspring have held power, attempts
to raise the issue of mass killings have been limited
by the impossibility of questioning the heroic role
assigned to all South Korean soldiers in the Korean
War, which has made them ideologically untouchable.
In this condition, the casualties or killings that occurred
in the midst of the war might be regarded only as a
accidents. When the victims of the Geochang Incident
looked for a way to settle their grievances, they found
that the incident could not be defined as a massacre,
but only as a "mistake" committed by low-rank commanders.
They finally regarded their incident as "isolated incident."
who have never heard that such tragedies occurred in
every corner of the Korean peninsula during the Korean
War tend to think that they are most wretched of all.
Ordinary victims could not conceive that the character
of massacres is highly political and can only be settled
by political means.
It has been suggested that individual incidents should
be treated as national issues because only the state
can inquire into the truth or compensate the victims.
This is intended to universalize and nationalize the
victims' grievances from the Korean War. Many have suggested
that only enacting a comprehensive special act would
integrate separate incidents and allow them to be resolved
together. This act would cover all the massacres from
the war and attempt to clarify all the mass murders
allegedly committed. Since the collapse of military
rule in 1987, several regional victims' associations
have begun to form wherever mass killing took place.
Although they petitioned the government and claimed
to have relieved the victims' pent-up suffering, most
of them could not find reliable documents proving that
troops had unlawfully killed their family members. Partly
because they had been oppressed, divided, and forced
into isolation under the long Cold War regime, they
still have not been able to unite as a single national
organization. The major causes of this disunity are
the fact that most of the victims have already died
and that the remaining family members have long been
silenced by the oppression and the symbolic violence
of anticommunist regimes.
From a legal point of view, a comprehensive special
act seems necessary to settle so many claims of the
victims or their relatives. While many alleged perpetrators
died or disappeared, the political conditions that produced
the mass killings still basically exist in Korea. It
is unreasonable to demand that each group of victims
address their region's incident separately, when the
backgrounds, causes, and the perpetrators of the mass
killings were quite similar. Many individual bills such
as the Geochang Special Act and the April 3 Special
Act would have to be written if the government were to
accept the demands of separate regional survivor groups.
Still, existing laws, such as those above, have serious
shortcomings as a route for full historical clarification they
lack the power to investigate the causes, verify the
perpetrators, and characterize the incident as genocide.
As in the case of Geochang, memorialization or compensation
without clarification of the truth will only enhance
the narrow mindedness of the victims because the laws
limit the range of the commission work to only a single
To overcome the limitations of separate trials for
each incident, the National Commission for Fact-Finding
and Honor Restoration of the Victims during Korean
War was set up in 2000. While individual regional associations
of victims have been reluctant to join this nationwide
organization, they feel this organization will help
in informing the public about wartime massacres. It
recently drafted the Comprehensive Special Act for
collectively settling Korean War massacres and proposed
it to the National Assembly. Forty-seven members of
the Assembly signed the petition for legislation, but
the bill has yet to be taken up in the subcommittee
of the National Assembly.
Objective and Subjective Limitations to Historical
We have already witnessed how the U.S. and ROK governments
have stubbornly denied their responsibility for mass
murders during the Korean War. If such incidents really
took place, they argue, they might not be associated
with the top-level command of the army. As with other
mass killings and state terrorism, neither government
acknowledged their culpability in war crimes. As we
saw in the settling process of Nogeun-ri Incident, the
question of who ordered the killings of the Korean civilians
was never answered.
The ROK army is as much under American military control
now as it was at the time of the Korean War. Because
of this, the task of clarifying mass murders committed
by U.S. and ROK troops continue to face major obstacles.
The ROK government's reluctance to address this issue
is clearly related to the special relationship ROK has
with U.S. the blood-tie alliance between the U.S. and
ROK is grounded in the historical fact that the U.S.
has assisted the Korean people. It has always been disputable
whether we can label wartime mass murder as genocide
or not. The Korean War is no exception. In particular,
the U.S. officially denied that its troops committed
genocide or massacres even though international society
has been critical of its involvement in such incidents
Given that the Korean War was an international war
and U.S. troops under the flag of the UN ordered all
operations, alleged war crimes should be investigated
and settled by an international tribunal. The prospect
for this, however, is not optimistic because all the
governments that took part in the war have no will or
intention to dig up old problems. Moreover, we do not
have a strong international law or tribunal to bring
the perpetrators to justice. The U.S. government has
chosen to remain silent and has refused to respond to
the transparent proof of its involvement in mass murders
in the early period of Korean War. The newly established
International Criminal Court (ICC) ratified by the 60
countries of the 1998 Rome Statue will be useful in
preventing possible future war crimes, but it is still
improbable that each state will follow it and prosecute
crimes against humanity.
Reliable documents or records of the mass murder
are always most instrumental in verifing the cause or
responsible subject for it, but such documents that
can testify to the very occurrence of mass murders committed
by friendly troops during Korean War are very hard to
access. The U.S. government still refuses to declassify
the documents that should have been included in the
section on Korea. Furthermore, the ROK government and
military may have destroyed any materials related to
their culpability. Because of this, even proving that
the atrocities took place is extremely difficult. Few
of the perpetrators are still alive and the punishment
of the guilty is no longer possible.
Because the crucial facts about the Korean War have
not yet been released and the nature of that war is
complex, it is still hard for civilian victims' claims
to be heard. The reality of a long national division
while remaining technically at war prevents all of those
involved from admitting the roles they played in mass
killings during the war. In South Korea, the military
and ruling class who have exploited the war to safeguard
their own interests over the last half century have
stubbornly denied and rejected that U.S. and ROK troops
committed such incidents. When they recognize the occurrence
of civilian deaths, they claim that these were the result
of military operations. The conservative media has systematically
ignored the facts that contradict the official history
of the Korean War. For example, the Chosun Ilbo at the
forefront of the Korea's extreme right who have behaved
as those who safeguard the anticommunist ideological
purity of South Korea has been sensitive toward politicians
and intellectuals whose viewpoints on the war deviate
even slightly from the authorized one. The ROK government
still does not approve any breach of the historical
characterization of the Korean War.
In Korea, the indoctrination of one-sided knowledge
about the Korean War reproduces apathy toward historical
clarification. The Nogeun-ri Incident became well known
to Koreans. However, Koreans still do not realize that
Nogeun-ri is only the tip of the iceberg. So accustomed
to official history, they are unable to see the other
side. Although there have been rumors that U.S. and
ROK troops also committed rape or killings against unarmed
civilians, people have not been able to relate the causes
and character of the Korean War to these atrocities.
Moreover, even accepting that the massacres really took
place, they have no idea how such massacres have influenced
contemporary Korean society, how ideological monopolization
after the war strongly benefited the military and the
extreme right, nor how wartime massacres are linked
to state terrorism such as the Gwangju People's Uprising
of 1980 or repeated violations of human rights since
the cease-fire. The enforced official interpretation
of the Korean War is the hardest hurdle to overcome
before beginning to clarify historical facts.
In some respects, neither the perpetrators nor the
victims want to raise the issue of historical clarification
of the war. For the traumatized survivors, even discussing
the issue may revive old nightmares. They have been
so seriously betrayed by their neighbors, communities,
and governments that the ability to communicate with
people has long been lost. At a basic level, family
members of the victims earnestly want to identify who
killed their sons, fathers, or husbands and why. But
their only option in order to live under the antagonistic
regimes was to forget the past and deny their "identity"
family of someone affiliated with the left. Most of
the survivors never talked about what had happened even
to their children as in the case of other recent massacres.
When living under the rule of the perpetrators, victims
are forced to adjust to society's rules forget and remain
silent. This silence of Korean bystanders and eyewitnesses
is also similar to other instances of massacre. Their
act of passive collusion and heavy consequences of revealing
the truth have long silenced the eyewitnesses of Korean
War atrocities. Open secrets and a friendly army terrorizing
the civilians have long been prevalent in Korean society.
This explains why an academic critique of the official
interpretation of the Korean War could only begin with
the generation born after the end of the war. But the
release of new facts and the testimonies of victims
can create only the basic conditions for historical
clarification. There has been a strong denial even of
mass murder and they have not been defined as massacres
or genocide. In conclusion, the lack of public acknowledgement
that war crimes took place during the Korean War is
the most serious obstacle to historical clarification.
The Way for Historical Clarification
As fifty years have already passed, punishing those
who committed war crimes is nearly impossible and, in
some sense, meaningless. But the responsible governments
such as the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea still
exist and some of the surviving victims are still alive
though in their seventies and eighties. Thus, inquiring
into the truth, restoring the victims' honor, government
officials' apologies to the victims, and compensation
can be a possible way of historical clarification. The
tasks of inquiring into the historical facts, collecting
oppressed memories that conflict with the official view,
and searching for relevant documents are foremost in
this task. The declassified documents in the U.S. and
Russia should be released and opened to public scrutiny,
even though the most important documents might already
have been destroyed or are missing. Considering that
some photographs or military documents about mass killings
from the Korean War may still exist, there is still
a possibility that they may turn up in the future. The
investigation should answer the questions of who ordered
the killings of South Korean civilians and whether the
Pentagon or ROK officials tried to cover up the killings
over the past fifty years.
The survivors are living documents of the Korean
War massacres. The first step toward a full historical
clarification would be to collect the dispersed, ignored,
and oppressed memories of the victims and eyewitnesses.
The victims' voices, which may challenge the official
memories and raise the necessity of recharacterizing
the war, should be freely heard. Though most of them
are still reluctant to tell their stories even to their
children further democratization and the development of peaceful relationships between
the two Koreas should also encourage them to disclose
these memories. Breaking out of their long silence would
contribute not only to the discovery of the truth and
the rewriting of history but, much more important for
historical clarification, heal the trauma of the victims.
As traumatization leads to disruptions of inter-personal
or intra-family communications, releasing their long
repressed memories help them to reconnect with the world.
The prevailing silence in America and Korea may not
just be a lack of memory but in some respects appalling
ignorance (Edwards 1986, 11). Thus reviving the memory
of the war and changing the attitude of ignorance had
to be carried out by academics and reporters. When we
recognize that the official characterization of the
Korean War produced this ignorance, newly released documents
and testimonies might raise the necessity of reexamining
the war. If such facts were revealed after a thorough
investigation, myths about the Korean War which long
legitimized the Cold War regime would come under attack.
But it is unlikely that the U.S., South, and North Korea
will ever fully admit to their criminal acts even if
undeniable facts were presented to them.
After the establishment of as complete a picture
as possible of the nature, causes, and the extent of
the killings, the way to clarify history should be discussed.
Although individual commanders of U.S. and ROK troops
may be held accountable, mass murder was overwhelmingly
conditioned by the military operations themselves and
the state's political stance at that time. Wartime genocide
as organized state murder, thus, can only be settled
by obliging responsible states to admit their crimes.
Thus mass killings during the war can be clarified through
the joint efforts of international society to compel
the U.S. and ROK to share responsibility. So far, the
point is whether the killing of civilians was intentional
or caused merely by the confusion of combat. However,
the recently released documents of military orders include
the command "Kill them all," indicating the former.
After the events in Rwanda and Bosnia, the necessity
of rehabilitating the Convention on the Prevention and
Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Convention on Genocide)
has been raised. The UN General Assembly declared genocide
an international crime and directed that a treaty aimed
at its prevention be signed. The Convention on Genocide
of 1948 declared that there is no defense of sovereign
immunity. It required states to adopt appropriate legislation
so that those who commit genocide will be punished in
their own courts, and obliged them to extradite genocide
suspects. But the ICC can only work with the consent
of the states where the crimes occurred. If states try
to protect the alleged criminals and refuse to admit
the international court into their territory, prosecution
will be almost impossible.
In order to effect true reconciliation, amnesty should
be granted to the alleged offenders who may have committed
crimes in the course of the Korean War.
Historical clarification of war crimes is necessary,
first of all, for preventing future recurrence of past
atrocities and bringing about justice through prosecuting
criminals. It can also create a situation where norms
of "social restraint" suppress the impulses toward revenge
and irrationality. At the social and psychological levels,
both offenders and victims are able to free themselves
from mental shackles when full historical clarification
is achieved. Refraining from killing civilians who are
the alleged enemy in combat situations would be a crucial
step toward civilization. The social restraints imposed
on those who are equipped with military force and economic
capacity is very important in protecting human rights
and keeping the moral soundness of a society. When a
society cannot control a ruler's inclination to violate
laws and norms, it will inevitably disintegrate. The
serious violations of human rights, such as the mass
killings in Gwangju in 1980, torture, and other violations
that occurred in contemporary Korean history, have originated
from the lack of historical clarification of the Korean
When we consider that even democratic countries have
buried their war crimes and that U.S. power still dominates
the world, it seems that reaching a full historical
clarification of the Korean War atrocities will be difficult.
However, because of new incidents of genocide in places
such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, a new sensitivity
toward massacres has gained momentum. It is time to
discuss how wartime massacres destroy humanity to say
nothing of justice and democracy. Moral and psychiatric
breakdown of individuals may remain one of the most
costly effects of war. Accordingly, the inability to
accept responsibility for war crimes in the Korean War
will deter the development of democracy and justice
on the Korean peninsula. We cannot create safeguards
to defend those rights when they are under threat. Especially
in Korea, where offenders not only escaped punishment
but also seized power and legitimized past crimes against
humanity in the name of national security, respect for
human rights is still far from widespread.
Genocide is not a "private" affair not for perpetrators
who are punished; not for its direct victims who
ask for special sympathy, favors or indulgence on account
of past sufferings; and not for witnesses who seek redemption
or certificates of innocence (Bauman 1989, 206). Nevertheless,
many surviving victims request compensation for their
suffering as if it were their entitlement. This may
be the reason why the rest of the nation and successive
generations tend to regard the issue as a problem to
be resolved between the perpetrators and the victims.
The present-day significance of genocide during the
Korean War is the lessons it contains for all of Korean
society and humanity. As memory and politics are interconnected,
recovering historical memory through historical clarification
will allow the oppressed voices on the Korean peninsula
to speak. The national division between North and South
Korea cannot be overcome without clarifying the Korean
War. As national reconciliation between the two Koreas
is crucial for peace in East Asia, efforts for the historical
clarification of the Korean War will contribute to ensuring
peace not only on the Korean peninsula but in East Asia
as a whole.
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Kim Dong Choon (Kim, Dong-chun) is Associate
Professor in the Division of Social Science
at SungKongHoe University. He received his
Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University.
His publications include Jeonjaeng-gwa sahoe
(War and Society) (2000) and Dongnipdoen
jiseong-eun jonjaehaneun-ga? (Do Independent
Intellectuals Exist?) (2001). (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
1. New York Times, 11 January
2. Only permanent peace can guarantee
a society free of violence, but removing
the possibility of genocide its instrument
and mechanisms can prevent atrocities in
the real world (Hirsh 1995, 194-195).
3. Not all members of NGL were
ex-communists or political dissidents. In
the beginning, it was organized by the rehabilitated
communists under the direction of Rhee's
government. However, the membership was
4. Recently, AP uncovered the
"top secret" U.S. army materials reporting
that Korean soldiers had killed about 500
civilians around Daegu on 10 July 1950.
The report was written by Frank Fierce of
First Cavalry Division then submitted to
Ambassador John H. Muccio by Lieutenant
General Walton H. Walker.
5. Lee Do Young found these photos
from National Archives and Record Administration
of USA. See
6. North Korea criticized the
Rhee government for killing 4,000 imprisoned
patriots, but the number and identities
of those killed in Nangwol-dong are still
unverified. In the eve of the war, it was
estimated that 30,000 alleged communists
and political offenders were imprisoned
under Rhee. Except for the prisoners in
the detention house located in Seoul, they
were killed without trial. When we estimate
that the members of NGL numbered more than
33,000 just before the war, the population
that was arrested by the police during the
early period of the war might total more
than 20,000. Most of them seemed to have
been killed, as in the case of Nangwol-dong
9. For a discussion of the dispute
over the concept of genocide, see Chalk
and Jonassohn (1990); Kuper (1981).
10. There is a minimalist definition
forged by condemnation at the Nuremberg
Trials of Crimes against Humanity after
World War II, and a maximalist conception
which includes death from state negligence,
imperial expansion, economic exploitation
and cultural destruction.
11. "Pantagon Begins No Gun Ri Inquiry,"
20 October 2000.
12. New York Times, 13 January 2001.
14. The full name of the law is the Special
Act in Fact-Finding and Honor Restorations
of the Victims Caused by the Incidents of
Civilian Casualties before and during the
15. The only successful cases in the
last century to impose the rule of international
law on transgressor nations was in postwar
Japan and Germany. Each required a lengthy
occupation by Allied troops and an extensive
process of victor-imposed institutional
reforms. The U.S. did not ratify the new
International Criminal Court. The House
Committee also voted to authorize the President
to use force to rescue any American held
by the new International Criminal Court
and to bar arms aid to nations that ratify
the court treaty. International Herald Tribune,
13 May 2002.
16. Of course, it is hard to measure
how ideological genocide benefits the perpetrators
(Chalk and Jonassohn 1986, 416). In Korea,
to be labeled a "Red" meant losing all opportunities
for good job or political status. Those
who gained "honor" in the war against the
communists could easily become a member
of the ruling class.
17. For the victims of Bosnian genocide
who immigrated to America have show a similar
response. See Weine et al (1997).
18. Just after the military coup of 1961,
Korean military elites ordered the regional
police to demolish all the remaining documents
that were related to the execution of "Reds."
John Kim "The Nogeun-ri Massacre: Tip of
20. "Revealing is healing."
But the acknowledgement
of the perpetrators and the forgiveness
of them is necessary for full healing as
we seen in the case of South Africa's Truth
and Reconciliation Commission.
21. The Convention on Genocide was approved
by the General Assembly of the United Nations
on 9 December 1948.