The Sincheon Massacre: Historical Fact and Historical Revision
The history of the Korean War is pockmarked with acts of the most abject cruelty. It is this, mixed with a dollop of the lingering anguish of war and a dose of determination to play fast and loose with anything resembling the truth, that makes reconciliation on the Korean peninsula seem like such a distant, nay hopeless, dream. In this excellent essay translated out of the original French, Patrick Tapy examines one of the most controversial of all such Korean War tragedies: the Sincheon massacre of late 1950. — Christopher Green, Co-editor
Temporary Strategic Withdrawal | One of the most controversial episodes of the Korean War happened in the county of Sincheon, South Hwanghae Province between October 17 and December 7, 1950. The Korean People’s Army was being rolled back by United Nations troops at the time; or, as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) puts it, their forces were engaged in a “temporary strategic withdrawal.”
Both North and South Korea were concerned that local populations could join the enemy, and wanted to prevent such alliances from forming. Total war against civilians and infrastructure began as soon as the conflict started; occupied Seoul fell at the end of September 1950, after a coalition of UN forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur launched a northward offensive following the Incheon Landing. Sincheon, 150 kilometers north, was occupied on October 17. There, US forces destroyed most of the homes, factories, farms and arable land in the district, and, according to the official North Korean history, killed exactly 35,383 people, one quarter of the population of the county, “in the cruelest way” during 52 days of occupation. The North recalls several slaughters, such as:
On October 21, they drove five military trucks full of inhabitants, whom they drowned by unloading the trucks in the artificial lake of Sowon. A total of 1,640 people were drowned from the end of October to the end of November in Sowon and Pogu lakes.
On December 7, US soldiers under the command of Harrison kidnapped the children […] imprisoned in a former powder warehouse in […] Wonam, Sincheon county […] and killed them by giving them gasoline instead of the water they were asking for. The surviving children and the mothers were covered with gasoline, and they threw fire and grenades at them. More than 400 women and 102 children passed away.
North Korean sources hold that the US Army alone was responsible for these events, and more precisely a certain Lieutenant Harrison, billed as the American troop commander. US troops did indeed commit several massacres of Korean civilians during the war, such as at Nogun-ri in South Korea on July 26, 1950, when American soldiers shot South Koreans fleeing the war zone, an event for which then-President Bill Clinton expressed his “regrets” in 2001. However, several scholars have put US responsibility for the Sincheon massacre in doubt, as did famous South Korean novelist Hwang Sok-Yong, who traveled to North Korea in 1989.
Guests Dispute the North Korean Claims | In his book “Sonnim” (The Guest), based on eyewitness reports of the Sincheon atrocities, Hwang affirms that Korean Christians fleeing toward South Korea and Korean communists perpetrated the massacre, not US soldiers. Hwang says he did not see any evidence that American troops were involved. Lieutenant Harrison stayed in Sincheon for just two hours on October 17, and therefore, in the words of Hwang, could not have been guilty.
Following in Hwang’s footsteps, Bruce Cumings visited Sincheon and its Museum of American War Atrocities, where he interviewed Kim Myong-ja, a survivor of the massacre. An account of his visit can be found in the 1993 book War and Television:
It was a sickening experience, unmediated by my ability to chalk it up to another good propaganda routine. On the way back Mrs. Kim told me she had not been to Sincheon in years, and that the very sight of the town always ruined her for days. She held her face in her hands most of the way back to Pyongyang. […] My research has never uncovered anything about Sincheon in the National Archives. An awful atrocity occurred one day in Sincheon, however, because we were later able to compare our visit against newsreel footage taken when the bodies were discovered and that could not have been faked. […] We could verify nothing, however, about its authorship.
According to Cumings, only the Korean Military Advisor Group (KMAG) could have witnessed the massacre, but he argues that it was likely carried out by Koreans against Koreans, and notably by communists opposed to Kim Il-sung. Indeed, during the pre-war period, on March 15, 1947, Kim Il-sung criticized factionalist elements in the county; he later denounced anti-regime violence in Hwanghae province more generally in February 1948 and again in August 1949. Sincheon County being an unstable area, the occupation by American troops may have been an occasion for settling scores among Koreans between October and December 1950.
North Korea Fights Back | North Korea, however, rejects this explanation, and still treats Sincheon as the site of a massacre by American troops against Korean citizens. This explanation is the one we were given when we visited the same museum on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the Korean War armistice. Inside the museum, the North Koreans have accumulated what they regard as evidence of American responsibility for the massacre. A dozen rooms filled with testimonies from survivors and from Kim Il-sung, numbers of the dead categorized according to district, paintings, and above all, a lot of pictures of dead bodies and places where atrocities occurred.
These documents, intended to make visitors fully aware of the US soldiers’ ferocity, correspond to the North Korean version of the massacre: a very Manichaean one. On the one hand, the devil incarnate represented by the foreign imperialist aggressor; and on the other hand, the innocent and helpless victims; the Korean people. But if one takes a closer look at the documents disclosed in the Museum, the US Army is barely represented in the pictures; conversely, it is overrepresented in the paintings, such as in this fresco of the Sowon Lake event:
Conclusion | One can deduce that historians from North Korea do not possess any more evidence of actual US responsibility for the Sincheon events than Bruce Cumings or Hwang Sok-yong. However, it does not stop them using Sincheon as a propaganda tool for their citizens and foreign visitors alike. After our visit to the Museum and the powder warehouse where 400 women and children were burnt alive, we participated with Korean citizens in a meeting to denounce US war crimes. Again, during the meeting, it felt that responsibility was on the United States: not the United Nations troops, not South Korea, but the United States and only them, even if their actual role were controversial.
The meeting consisted of foreign speakers from friendship associations denouncing the role of the United States during the Korean War and their presence in Korea in speeches obviously made up by the North Korean authorities. The nationalities of the speakers were not aimlessly chosen: two American men, one of them billed as former US Attorney General Ramsey Clarke, a South American woman, a Turkish man, and the Spanish President of the Korean Friendship Association, Alejandro Cao de Benós.
In other words, people from countries allied to the United States, or in their sphere of influence. This meeting, and more broadly the visit of the Sincheon Museum of American War Atrocities, gave the impression of complete and unquestionable US guilt being used as a propaganda tool, whereas the responsibility of Koreans was completely erased. A “black and white” vision: one that has to be reassessed, at the very least.