Mass-murder in South Korea

In 1950, South Korean military rounded up thousands of prisoners and sometimes under the watchful eye of American military observers, shot them and buried them in ditches.

Those mass graves, long spoken of as “fiction” or leftist propaganda or else blamed on the North Korean army by US and South Korean officials, are still being uncovered today as the Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission attempts to fulfill its brief.

The victims were supposed to be Communists working with the North Koreans, but according to a former prison guard/executioner who testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they were really garden variety criminals, peasants rounded up in random sweeps, even women and children.

The mass executions — intended to keep possible southern leftists from reinforcing the northerners — were carried out over mere weeks and were largely hidden from history for a half-century. They were “the most tragic and brutal chapter of the Korean War,” said historian Kim Dong-choon, a member of a 2-year-old government commission investigating the killings.

Hundreds of sets of remains have been uncovered so far, but researchers say they are only a tiny fraction of the deaths. The commission estimates at least 100,000 people were executed, in a South Korean population of 20 million. […]

The declassified record of U.S. documents shows an ambivalent American attitude toward the killings. American diplomats that summer urged restraint on southern officials — to no obvious effect — but a State Department cable that fall said overall commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur viewed the executions as a Korean “internal matter,” even though he controlled South Korea’s military.

Pictures of the massacres taken by a US Army major are among the documents recently declassified by the US government. I can’t find them on the National Archives website, but there are several included in the AP photo gallery.

8 thoughts on “Mass-murder in South Korea

  1. How we went from having the moral high-ground during WWII, to these atrocities a mere decade or so later … makes you wonder if we ever had the high-ground at all. I’d say we probably did (to a degree) but I think this shows how easy it is to step over the line into clearly unethical and immoral tactics (especially when you think no one is watching).

    1. I wonder about these things as well. The Nuremberg Trials happened, what?, 5, 6 years before these atrocities in Korea? How do you go from vigorously prosecuting mass-murders to enabling them in 5 years?

      Maybe there was something in the chimera of Communism that blurred the boundaries that had been clear when dealing with the reality of Nazism.

      1. I’d argue that the Allies only ever had the high ground in WWII because the low ground was so abysmally low. The multiple turning-backs of Jewish refugees, the firebombing of Dresden, the escalating brutality of the war in the Pacific are just a few of the issues historians gloss over when pronouncing WWII a just war.

  2. Hello.
    I am a publicist for a Utah-based book publisher, Gibbs Smith, and I have a history title launching in the next couple of months I’d love for you to possibly review.
    If you could kindly send me your contact information, including a shipping address, I’d love to send you a copy of “Havana Before Castro: When Cuba Was a Tropical Playground.”

    Thank you for your consideration!
    Jennifer King

    1. Hello Jennifer,

      I checked out the Gibbs Smith website and enjoyed browsing your titles. I’d be delighted to review “Havana Before Castro”.

      I shall email you my shipping information.

      Thank you,

  3. During the Korean War there were persistent rumors that the United States was engaged in germ warfare. Although these rumors were discounted here in the United States as Communist propaganda, this story of South Korean atrocity makes one wonder.

    1. I hadn’t heard this rumor. I’m afraid I’m not terribly knowledgeable on the Korean War.

      What sort of germ warfare, do you know? Were the rumors suggesting the US military caused civilian epidemics in the North?

      On a happier note, welcome to THB. 🙂

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