Occupation at the Local Level: Kim Dong-choon on Korean War Atrocities

By | August 23, 2016 | No Comments

Massacre in Korea (1951), by Pablo Picasso, is a depiction of state violence during the Korean War. | Image: Wikicommons

Pablo Picasso’s Massacre in Korea (1951) is a depiction of state violence during the Korean War. | Image: Wikicommons

In the Republic of Korea, history is never far from the present. It hides in the family tree of President Park Geun-hye, in amongst the pages of textbook debates over her father’s ties to Japanese imperialism and dictatorship. For the country’s opposition parties, contemporary power struggles center on differing approaches to national security that result in a continuous referendum on the long-dead Sunshine Policy.

For South Korea’s scholars, a research agenda that challenges the state’s dominant narrative of the 1950-1953 “June 25th War” can prove extremely controversial. For the critical left, pushing back against “the law of the state” and bringing to the fore past instances of persecution of ordinary Koreans by South Korea is a paramount concern. For some, such acts of persecution are enough to undermine, or at least call into question, the state’s foundational legitimacy.

Kim Dong-choon has not shied away from this task, or from any of the controversy that follows when history is interrogated in this manner. A professor of sociology at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul and former Standing Commissioner of the now-defunct South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission (진실 화해를 위한 과거사 정리 위원회), Kim has long sought to lay bare the excesses of state power in the uncertain political environment of the liberation and Korean War eras, criticizing what was then the nascent South Korean state.

As he was parsing some murky Korean War clues emanating from the plains of Hwanghae, Editor-in-Chief Adam Cathcart recently set upon Kim’s text, The Unending Korean War: A Social History.1)Kim’s monograph is not related directly to Christine Hong’s introduction to the November 2015 edition of the journal Positions: Asia Critique. The two do share a title, though, and the journal does include an interview with Kim Dong-choon. In this new long-form review essay, Cathcart provides a sweeping assessment of the 2009 monograph, one that deserves to reinvigorate debate in the English language over both Korean War history and the societal tensions that still come with it today. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Occupation at the Local Level: Kim Dong-choon on Korean War Atrocities

by Adam Cathcart

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 19.26.19As even a surface-level skimming of the historiography illustrates, the Korean War has seen dozens of books focusing on the international aspects of the conflict. The new Cold War histories written after 1990, and the emergence of Chinese- and Russian-language sources on the conflict, accelerated this trend. In contrast, since 1990, Kim Dong-choon has spent years consistently researching the role of civil war on the ground and how it impacted local communities. His work therefore operates at the intersection of Allied atrocities on civilians, ROK atrocities against North Korean civilians, and North Korean atrocities against South Koreans. His book, The Unending Korean War: A Social History, 2)Kim Dong-choon, The Unending Korean War: A Social History, translated by Sung-ok Kim (Larkspur, California: Tamal Vista Publications, 2009). is a summation of much of his work.

The Korean War was a unique Cold War conflict, because it was the one place that communist revolution was actively “rolled back” during armed conflict; containment turned into an all-out military offensive under General MacArthur’s aegis. What this means is that the US and UN forces occupied huge swathes of North Korean territory for a period of six- to eight-weeks prior to the decisive entry of Chinese troops into the fray on the side of Kim Il-sung. Left unexplored in many histories of the war is the comparative or parallel aspect of these events: In what ways was the Northern occupation of the South like or unlike the Southern occupation of the North?

Occupation | Kim’s third chapter, simply titled “Occupation,” is an attempt to strike just such a comparison. It is not a linear description of either occupation, and the author pinwheels between Southern and Northern administrations in such a way as to see the perpetrators, and the victims, as post-colonial Koreans foremost, and only secondarily Cold War proxies or ultra-nationalists thereafter. Such an approach stems from Kim’s desire to reshuffle the history of the conflict along the lines of his ordering statement that “the first priority should be to Koreanize the Korean War.” (p. 19)

One of the more revealing differences between the respective Korean occupations of their rival state was the role of liberationist rhetoric and propaganda. Clearly, North Korea was far better prepared in terms of ready-made propaganda for Southern audiences than vice-versa. North Korean agents had been entering ROK villages near the 38th parallel with carefully-crafted messages for months, and the underground South Korean Workers’ Party, not to mention the ready-made organizations into which peasants and urban-dwellers could be funneled, gave the North a logistical edge when it arrived. (pp. 95-96) Given the fact that the North Koreans had experienced the more advanced Soviet propaganda upon entry to northern Korea in 1945, and more importantly that the DPRK had started the war in the first place, this imbalance in the arts of local persuasion should not be considered too surprising.

The North Koreans carried out socialist-style elections for People’s Committees in their newly-occupied cities, towns, and villages in two waves, on July 25 and then on September 13, the latter just two days before the Incheon Landing scuttled the entire occupation of most of the Republic of Korea. Kim Dong-choon describes how 13,654 villages in the South elected People’s Committee members in large numbers: 3,878 at the county level, 22,314 at the town level, and 77,716 at the village level. In other words, the Northern invasion made communist officials of just over 100,000 Southerners — although presumably half of these individuals wore their titles for only a matter of days.3)They were predominantly young; the voting age in Northern areas was 20, whereas the Southern system it was 21. (p. 254(p. 97)

Along with this nominally democratic upsurge was a purge of what the North called “pro-American elements” in the newly-occupied areas. These included “National Assembly members, provincial governors, police station chiefs, hostile police officers, judges or prosecutors, and heads of anti-communist groups.” (p. 97) Christian children were often suppressed from schooling. In terms of how the persecuted groups were dealt with, as well as the overall ethos of the new local administration, Kim Dong-choon has a very insightful comment: The North Korean revolution in southern Korea “more closely resembled the Chinese revolutions… than those of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe.” (p. 101)

In either case, landlords would have been targeted, and they were. The communists in the North “expelled landlords who owned more than five chongbo, or twelve-and-a-half-acres,” argues Kim, citing an account by Kim Sang-ho. However, once communist rule arrived in the South, the threshold for struggle was significantly higher (and thus more moderate), coming in at 20 chongbo (pp. 104-106).

The South Korean scholar has little time for or interest in American apologia about the depth of egalitarian changes carried out by US administrators and aid in the pre-war period; there is nary a citation of Alan R. Millett and the advisor James Hausmann gets little attention. Of course, the topic of US-sponsored land reform in pre-war South Korea has only recently seen a revival of scholarly attention since Bruce Cumings covered it critically in volume one (1981) of his epic Origins of the Korean War. Kim’s preoccupation with what he sees as Syngman Rhee’s inexplicable calm in the early days of the war, and the lateness of ROK land reform, become here unnecessarily conflated; the scholar’s doubts about who started the Korean War occasionally get in the way.

Execution of accused communists northeast of Seoul, April 1950.

Execution of accused communists northeast of Seoul, April 1950. | Image: Wikicommons

Propaganda and Ideology | The South Korean invasion (led by the US) swept North in autumn 1950 largely absent the idealism we sometimes presume to have existed in our reductionist vision of rollback. UN fliers proclaimed benevolence toward surrendering communist troops and promised to try Kim Il-sung for war crimes, but apart from these ephemeral leaflets from the sky, there were few declarations of some fully-formed or -envisioned brave new world to come, broadcast or otherwise. The parties involved — the US, the South Korean government, the UN, and the trailing but always vocal British — were putting things together as they went.

There was therefore little coherence to how North Koreans experienced the advance of these somewhat motley groups into their communities. The fact that the war had been going for months already and the aerial pummeling had been sustained with such lethality, it would be difficult to see the nominal advance of ROK sovereignty into the North in highly optimistic terms, although some Christian communities were able to take it as thus.

Kim argues that Southern ideological framing of the invasion North was largely one of “recovery” from Soviet-controlled communism and “expansion of its 1948 constitution nationwide.” (p. 93) Given that most North Koreans had little information about the ROK Constitution and were not inclined to immediately hate any and all references to the Soviet Union, this tactic was not terribly successful in winning hearts and minds. Of course, Kim Dong-choon goes through multiple instances where there was no propaganda or “winning over” of Northern civilians, but rather rapid moves toward massacre.

Kim is open to the possibility of local differentiation between Soviet-style communism (i.e. antipathy toward it) in occupied South Korea and revision of specifically Kim Il-sung rule. This is an important point which looks forward to the rise of Park Chung-hee, who was backed by a reflexive anti-communism and operating amid a political circumstance in which many elites and common people were living with memories of life under communist rule. (p. 94)

The role of intellectuals in South Korea in anchoring this vision of evil communism is best described in discussion of Mo Yun-suk, a South Korean poet who wrote influentially during the war. Mo’s characterization of the KPA occupation of Seoul as hell on earth has prevailed as a pillar in the now-dominant narrative in the South (p. 9). Mo’s writing was indignant and Manichean:

‘Oppression, fraud, looting, surveillance, forced labor, unjustified conscription into the so-called Volunteer Army, and massacres. Where else can we find such atrocities and such darkness?… The North’s invasion of the South has forced South Koreans to learn nothing other than the Bolsheviks’ hideous brutality, violence, and deceitfulness. Communist is not located on the wide spectrum of political ideologies that we can evaluate but exists outside that spectrum as an all-time enemy of the human race.’ 4)Yu Chin-o, et. al., Konan ui 90-il [Ninety days of hardship] (Seoul: Sudo Munwhasa, 1950), 51-68.

What is obliterated by the absolutism of Mo’s angry prose, Kim Dong-choon argues throughout, is the killing of civilians and nominally left-wing groups in South Korea and throughout the peninsula by South Korean forces. The victims of this violence often had no choice but to collaborate with North Korean occupying forces and the nascent state-building apparatus. As Kim writes (p. 12) villagers or residents of Seoul had to “carry several flags” just to survive.

If the bloody extirpation of domestic opponents was part of South Korea’s war experience, North Korean historians have likewise not been particularly shy about admitting that a similar outcome arrived for the DPRK during the war. North Korean Academy of Sciences History Research Center materials describes how the Korean War was not only “a national liberation war [but also] a struggle of the entire people to eradicate reactionary forces at home.” (p. 253) 5)For the original source, see: Gwahakwon Yeoksa Yeonguso, Joseon tongsa [Comprehensive History of Korea], Seoul: Owol, 1988, vol. 2, p. 394. Note 8, p. 229. As the scholar Martin Petersen has shown, even comic books in North Korea today argue as much, urging youth to continue the fight against counter-revolutionaries who have remained underground since their embedding in DPRK society during the war.  The upheaval of the war was necessarily used as an opportunity to cement communist rule in the north, even as the war was going on, to kill or expel the disloyal, and reconstitute itself in the image of the leadership under an ethos of war communism.

Problems of evidence | The photo used for the cover of Kim’s book, as well as above in this essay, depicts execution of “confessed communists” ten miles northeast of Seoul in April 1950. It was not always in the heat and passion of war that communists were killed; and the ROK’s allies knew in some measure full well who they were diving in to save, and whose sovereignty they were dying to expand, in the autumn of 1950. I have seen variants of the same photograph in North Korean publications from late 1950, and modified versions in Rodong Sinmun, suggesting that copies of these very photos were captured by the KPA or North Korean intelligence agents in Seoul in the summer of that year and put to good use. While there is rarely discussion of overlap between Nanking Massacre debate and Korean War crimes, perhaps there ought to be: Every piece of evidence is subject to disputed status, and so much of the evidence, not just on the North Korean side, has been effectively corrupted by one or more of the sides involved in the conflict.

Kim Dong-choon is nothing if not an assembler of a mosaic of perspectives on the Korean War. While bearing a minor obsession with Syngman Rhee, he is ultimately far more interested in the voices of ordinary people from the Korean War itself. I found particularly impressive his active soliciting of family interviews by his Sungkonghoe University students, whose coursework in what sounds like a gloriously amorphous module — ‘Studies of Korean Society’– ended up as footnotes in this book. I am tempted to say that the papers entitled ‘The Korean War as My Family Experienced It’ (p. 37) represent undergraduate history research at its best, but to my knowledge none of the papers are available outside of Kim’s office, let alone in published form. Nevertheless it was an impressive effort to expand the ambit of what we know, and to demonstrate how different every family’s narrative was.

By the same token, Kim is a professional, and not mesmerized by his own data. As he notes:

Personal experiences are critically limited because they cannot be extrapolated beyond what a given individual has lived through. Novelist Yi Pom-son, who stayed in Seoul when it was seized by the KPA, once emphasized the limited perspective of wartime experiences: ‘Even if we were at the scene of the upheaval, each of us can clearly testify only to the facts that we carry in our minds. Everyone was in hiding somewhere and could hardly walk about freely on the streets.’ (p. 14) 6)Yi Pom-son, “Jeokiha 90-il” [Ninety days under enemy occupation,’ in Jeonhwangi-ui naemak [The inside story of the turning point] (Seoul: Chosun Ilbosa, 1982), 410.

Summing up the daily passion of his work, Kim writes:

The task [of writing a new type of Korean War history] involves challenging official records disguised as science and objectivity, or stories about heroic deeds during the Korean War proudly told by those who are comfortably established in positions of privilege. It also involves literally reassembling the evidence of Korean history, collecting the bone fragments of the slaughtered one by one as has been done since the beginning of the 1990s and acknowledging the undeniable experiences that ordinary people – those who have suffered unimaginable pain and yet were classified as ‘ignorant and dangerous’ – have kept bitterly locked within their ‘bodies in pain.’ Hence, this study sometimes risks forcing those who do not want to look back on the war to examine their wounds in order to investigate the origin of their pain. (p. 23).

An extensive and costly program of expansion at the Sinchon Massacre Museum in South Hwanghae Province is said (by North Korea) to have unearthed new bones of victims in 2015. Here, a guide, who is introduced as a survivor of the massacre (and whom Sino-NK members met at Sinchon in April 2016) delivers a tour of the expanded museum. | Image: KCTV

A costly program of expansion at the Sinchon Massacre Museum in South Hwanghae Province is said (by North Korea) to have led to new bones of victims being unearthed in 2015. Here, a male guide, said to be a survivor of the massacre (and whom Sino-NK members met personally at Sinchon in April 2016), delivers a tour of the expanded museum. | Image: KCTV

Kim Dong-choon’s note about digging up bone fragments is not just an attempt at dramatic prose — it is the reality in both Koreas, where forensic research still awaits. In Sinchon, new bones were allegedly unearthed in the summer of 2015 during the expansion of the Sinchon Massacre Museum and construction of a number of new homes nearby. The fact that such discoveries do not prompt North Korean histories to adjust the huge estimated body count from the bloody autumn of 1950 in Sinchon is, in a sense, immaterial. They are reminders that Korean national identity and collective memory on both sides of the DMZ must deal with or choose to repress evidence from the past.

While one can fault Kim Dong-choon for various analytical faults in the course of his relentlessly-documented book, his persistence in unearthing narratives of war at the local level makes for a rewarding if often grisly and argumentative read. To return to the opening of this essay and the question of how the present impacts the telling of the past, and vice versa: As one author put it in his exploration of a very different — and far more protracted — conflict than the Korean War, there are benefits to seeing the past through the prism of current conflicts:

It is a little like playing with a child’s kaleidoscope: one turns it round, new patterns are formed, old shapes are discernible but with new colours and contexts, new lights appear, old shadows grow greater. One turns it again, and there is a fresh transformation. Here, then, I have been playing, now focussing on past, now on present, now on one group of behaviour-phenomenon, now on another. But as one surveys an aspect of the past, new questions being asked by the present supply new perspectives; as one looks at the present, the past broods ominously over it, now distorting, now giving increased perspective. 7)Owen Dudley Edwards, The Sins of our Fathers: Roots of Conflict in Northern Ireland (London: Gill and MacMillan, 1970), vii.

Having encountered this book over the past two months, I invariably find new aspects, and a freshness of thought and approach that is in short supply in so much other historical writing about the Korean War. As a guide for new or renewed investigation of the course and impact of the Korean War at the provincial and local level, there can be few better works available today.

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1. Kim’s monograph is not related directly to Christine Hong’s introduction to the November 2015 edition of the journal Positions: Asia Critique. The two do share a title, though, and the journal does include an interview with Kim Dong-choon.
2. Kim Dong-choon, The Unending Korean War: A Social History, translated by Sung-ok Kim (Larkspur, California: Tamal Vista Publications, 2009).
3. They were predominantly young; the voting age in Northern areas was 20, whereas the Southern system it was 21. (p. 254
4. Yu Chin-o, et. al., Konan ui 90-il [Ninety days of hardship] (Seoul: Sudo Munwhasa, 1950), 51-68.
5. For the original source, see: Gwahakwon Yeoksa Yeonguso, Joseon tongsa [Comprehensive History of Korea], Seoul: Owol, 1988, vol. 2, p. 394. Note 8, p. 229.
6. Yi Pom-son, “Jeokiha 90-il” [Ninety days under enemy occupation,’ in Jeonhwangi-ui naemak [The inside story of the turning point] (Seoul: Chosun Ilbosa, 1982), 410.
7. Owen Dudley Edwards, The Sins of our Fathers: Roots of Conflict in Northern Ireland (London: Gill and MacMillan, 1970), vii.