South Koreans visit their own killing fields
Published: November 21, 2007
SEOUL: Shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Kim Man Sik, a military police sergeant, received an urgent radio message from the South Korean Army’s Counter-Intelligence Corps: Go to local police stations, take custody of scores of Communist suspects held there and execute them.
Kim complied. And what he did and saw in those days are etched permanently in his mind.
“They were all tied together with military communications wire. So when we opened fire, they all pulled at each other to try to escape,” said Kim, now 81. “The wire cut into their wrists. Blood was splattered all over their white clothes.”
That Kim’s story has emerged after half a century is due to South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body conceived in the same genre as the South African body set up in the 1990s to shed light on atrocities and injustices committed during the apartheid era. Unlike the South African agency, Korea’s commission has no power to prosecute crimes or grant immunity.
The Korean commission has begun excavating long-abandoned sites of mass summary executions. Its investigators have discovered remains of hundreds of people – including women and children – who were killed without trial more than 50 years ago. They expect to find many, many more in what the victim’s families call Korea’s killing fields.
South Korean troops are believed to have executed tens of thousands of unarmed civilians and prisoners as they retreated before the North Korean invaders during the war. The victims were often accused of being Communist sympathizers and potential collaborators.
But allegations of mass murder had never been given a full review in the official history of South Korea until the commission began its work last year with a mandate from Parliament.
Investigators have since identified 1,222 probable instances of mass killings during the Korean War, after canvassing witnesses and excavating remains. The cases include 215 incidents in which survivors say U.S. warplanes and ground troops killed unarmed refugees.
But years after the arrival of democracy, and despite the two successive liberal governments of President Roh Moo Hyun and his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, who have made reconciliation with the Communist North a hallmark of their policy, digging into South Korea’s tumultuous recent history remains a sensitive and often painful task. Although the country is modernized and prosperous, old animosities and ideological struggles still echo.
In July, investigators began digging at 4 of 160 mass burial sites – places that were off-limits during the country’s four decades of authoritarian rule after the war ended in 1953.
They have so far unearthed the remains of 400 people, along with bullets, empty cartridges and handcuffs.
Skeletons were found stacked on each other, with bullet holes in the skulls and hands still tied by rusting steel wire.
The remains confirmed witness accounts that the police often made victims crouch at the edge of a trench, their hands tied behind their backs, before shooting them in the heads and pushing them in, according to Park Sun Joo, an anthropology professor who leads the excavation team.
“The fact that these bones have remained abandoned so long and so close to where we live means that our society is still at its barbarian stage,” said Kim Dong Choon, a standing commissioner at the investigative agency.
In a cobalt mine near Daegu, in the south of the country, investigators have so far collected the remains of 240 people. That is only a fraction of the estimated 3,500 prison inmates and Communist suspects believed to have been whisked from homes and prison cells, then executed and thrown into the mine shaft between July and September 1950.
“I still remember those poor people being dragged up the hill and waiting their turn before the firing squad,” said Park Jong Gil, 67, who witnessed similar executions near Cheongwon, central South Korea, in July 1950.
“After the shooting, they waded through the bodies and killed off those still alive, shooting at their heads.”
At Cheongwon, 110 bodies have been found so far.
“I think they killed up to 7,000 people there,” Park said. “Every day for seven or eight days, I saw four trucks in the morning and three trucks in the afternoon coming loaded with people.”
Chung Nam Sook, 80, said that in December 1950, soldiers of South Korea’s 11th Army Division stormed his village in Hampyong, in the southwest of the country, to hunt Communist guerrillas. North Korean collaborators had already fled, but the soldiers rounded up the remaining villagers in a field.
“They told us to light our cigarettes. Then they began shooting their rifles and machine guns,” Chung said. “After a while, an officer called out, ‘Any of you who are still alive can stand up and go home now.’ Those who did were shot again.”
Despite seven bullet wounds, Chung survived by pretending to be dead under the heap of bodies. In July, the truth commission called the killings at Hampyong a “crime against humanity” and told the government to apologize and build a monument for the victims.
Both sides in the war were accused of killing large numbers of unarmed civilians and of using terror to force people into compliance as villages across the country fell and were retaken.
For instance, South Korean police officers disguised as a North Korean unit entered villages at Naju, near Hampyong, in July 1950, and when people welcomed them with Communist flags, killed 97, the commission said.
As their town changed hands between the rival armies, villagers who had lost family members were quick to settle scores. More than 50 years later, families still hold grudges.
Although atrocities against civilians were committed by both sides, those who suffered attacks from rightist forces aligned with the United States were forced into silence during the subsequent decades of military rule. Many were subject to police surveillance, viewed as potential threats in the harsh Cold War environment.
In the staunchly anti-communist South, children of leftist parents found themselves stigmatized in schools and the workplace.
Victims felt freer to speak out under the liberal Roh government. Nonetheless, when Parliament created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the bill was watered down to ensure that the agency had no power to prosecute. Its mandate is to uncover the truth for the record, recommend corrections to textbooks and other records and aid reconciliation through compensation or memorial services for the victims.
Unlike Kim, the former military police sergeant, few veterans have volunteered to testify before the commission. Meanwhile, old villagers fear that if they testify, it may rekindle old animosities between neighbors or backfire on them should the conservatives retake power in the presidential election next month.
For Ja Yong Soo, whose father was among 218 people executed by the police and marines on the southern island of Jeju in July and August 1950, justice is long overdue.
After being repeatedly ignored by previous governments, Ja and other victims’ relatives were rewarded on Monday when the commission finally ruled the killings unlawful, although those perpetrators of the crime still alive can probably never be brought to account.
“Many of those human butchers and their children are now rich and powerful,” said Ja, 65, referring to those who killed his father.
“What am I going to say when I die and meet my father in the heaven and he asks, ‘My son, what have you done to restore my honor?’ ”
An emotional Ja confronted Kim during the ex-soldier’s recent testimony at the truth commission.
“If you are repentant, why don’t you give up your military medals?” he said.
Kim admitted that he was in charge of executing 170 people at Hoengseong and Wonju around June 28, 1950.
He said some of those killed, the “Class A” group of active Communists, were “enemies” who attacked police stations. “But those categorized as Class B and C were innocent peasants who were lured by the Communist promise to give them free land,” Kim said.
“Till today, I feel guilty for killing them. I bow my head in contrition.”