Revolution#136, July 20, 2008

Little Known Truth about the Korean War:

Nightmare of Massacres by
U.S. and South Korean Troops

Slowly, a nightmare picture is emerging of how U.S. imperialist armed forces and their South Korean allies massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians during the Korean War from 1950-53.

The roots of the Korean War lie in the division of the Korean peninsula into north and south by the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the end of World War 2, in 1945. The U.S. imperialists saw the southern half of Korea and the puppet regime they installed there as a major element in their plans to contain and perhaps wage war against the Soviet Union, and also as a step toward surrounding and threatening the People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949 after nearly 30 years of revolutionary warfare.

In 1950, when war between the north and south of Korea appeared imminent, the U.S.-installed president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, imprisoned 30,000 people, accusing them of leftist sympathies. The puppet government also forced 300,000 peasants whose loyalties were questioned to join a state-sponsored “National Guidance League.”

After a year of provocations and incursions by South Korea, North Korean troops began advancing quickly into the south. Then, in the summer of 1950, as described in an article by Associated Press reporters Charles J. Hanley* and Jae-Soon Chang in May of this year, “the southern army and police emptied South Korean prisons, lined up detainees and shot them in the head, dumping the bodies into hastily dug trenches. Others were thrown into abandoned mines or into the sea. Women and children were among those killed. Many victims never faced charges or trial.” The South Korean armed forces, in full retreat at that time, committed wholesale executions of prisoners jailed for leftist sympathies that they feared would join the rapidly advancing North Korean troops.

These mass executions and others, said Hanley, “were carried out over mere weeks and were largely hidden from history for a half-century.” Alan Winnington, a communist journalist, covered the advance of the (North) Korean People’s Army for the London Daily Worker. In July 1950 he reported inspecting mass graves of approximately 7,000 prisoners in Daejeon, who, according to villagers he interviewed, had been summarily executed by the South Korean troops and buried by locally press-ganged peasants. Winnington was widely vilified for reporting this story, and the English Parliament considered charging him with sedition. His story has now been substantiated by recently released photos from the U.S. National Archives.

Historian Kim Dong-choon, a member of the two-year-old Truth and Reconciliation Commission formed in South Korea to investigate the massacres, said the massacres represent “the most tragic and brutal chapter of the Korean War.” The Commission estimates that at least 100,000 and probably closer to 200,000 people were executed, including many of those who had been forced to join the “National Guidance League” to be “re-educated” as a result of supposed leftist sympathies.

The key role of the U.S. in these mass killings is now coming more fully to light. Recently declassified U.S. documents and photographs reveal that U.S. Army officers were aware of these horrific slaughters and in some instances orchestrated them. According to a declassified U.S. State Department cable, General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the U.S. forces in Korea, viewed the killings as “an internal matter”—meaning these were independent actions of the South Korean armed forces—but in fact he commanded not only the U.S. but also the South Korean armed forces.

Mass indiscriminate killing of civilians was the doctrine of the war and not an aberration. U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay boasted that U.S. planes had “burned down every town in North Korea” and killed 20 percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war or from starvation and exposure. U.S. armed forces used more bombs and artillery shells in Korea than in all of World War 2, and used napalm against military and civilian targets. An estimated 5 million people were killed in the war, 3 million of them civilians, a huge human cost out of a total population of 30 million in North and South Korea at that time.

The Commission is investigating 215 cases in which the U.S. military is accused of killing South Korean civilians indiscriminately, along with 1,200 cases of mass executions charged against the South Korean armed forces in petitions filed by 7,000 South Koreans.

One such U.S. massacre occurred on July 26, 1950, in and near the village of No Gun Ri [also spelled Nogun-ri], where hundreds of civilians, mainly women and children, were killed.

The U.S. commander, concerned that North Korean soldiers disguised as civilians might try to infiltrate U.S. lines by joining refugee columns, told his troops that all civilians seen in the area “are to be considered as enemy and action taken accordingly.” One witness said that Capt. Melbourne Chandler said to his soldiers in No Gun Ri, “the hell with all these people. Let’s get rid of all of them.”

Some soldiers reportedly refused to shoot at those one described as “civilians just trying to hide.”

Eun-yong Chung, a representative of the Nogun-ri Victims’ Organization, related what happened during the incident: “We were ordered by U.S. army, ‘Everybody, come together! We will escort you to the safe place.’ Following the order, we, local villagers, walked the road in the dark night, leading ox-carts, with children on our backs. About noon of next day, July 26, when our refugees’ march arrived at Nogun-ri area, 5-6 GIs blocked our way. They brought all the people and ox-carts onto parallel railroad tracks. After fully investigating all of us, they spoke to someone by radio. We Korean refugees didn’t know why. There we took a rest for a while.

“About that time, two U.S. airplanes flew over us. At that moment the GIs disappeared, something black fell down on us and exploded among the refugees. It was like a storm, with clouds of dust and pieces of rock bursting into the sky. The bloody pieces of bodies and oxen were all around. The rest of people alive ran into the tunnel under the railroad trestle [Editors’ note: U.S. air attack caused 100 dead before a shot was fired at the bridge].

“GIs [of H Company of the 2nd Battalion, 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment] aggressively pushed the rest of the scattered refugees into the tunnel. The refugees felt they were suffocating because of compacted mass of people within two narrow tunnels. Since one woman couldn’t endure the suffocation, she came out of the tunnel. On that spot she got shot and fell down. From the opposite side of the tunnel, firing began. GIs set up machine guns on both sides of entrance and fired on us.

“As the time passed, dead bodies were piled up in both entrances and the stream of blood abounded within the tunnel. In such way massacre continued for four days. When NKPA arrived there, they said, ‘the U.S. Army is gone! Any person alive can return to your home now!’ But, the cold corpses were silent.” [Quoted in “Rethinking The Nogun-ri Massacre on the 50th Anniversary of the Outbreak of the Korean War,” by Sung Yong Park, a minister of the Korean Methodist Church and a Representative of Philadelphia Branch of the Congress for Korean Reunification, cited at]

On the very day of the massacre, John J. Muccio, the U.S. Ambassador in Seoul at the time, cabled the State Department that the U.S. military command had adopted the policy in a meeting the night before of shooting approaching civilians: “If refugees do appear from north of U.S. lines, they will receive warning shots, and if they still persist in advancing they will be shot.” The cable was acknowledged by the State Department just last year.

Soldiers are expected to take “due precautions” to protect civilian lives, said Francois Bugnion, director for international law for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, in 2006. After reading Ambassador Muccio’s 1950 letter, Bugnion said the standard on war crimes is clear. “In the case of a deliberate attack directed against civilians identified as such, then this would amount to a violation of the law of armed conflict.”

Other instances of indiscriminate killing by U.S. armed forces in Korea now confirmed by declassified U.S. documents include: U.S. planes firebombing civilians trapped in a cave, killing 300; the destruction of two bridges as refugees streamed across them, killing hundreds; the Navy destroyer USS DeHaven, at the Army’s request, firing on a refugee encampment in the city of Pohang, killing 100 to 200—mostly women and children—according to survivors.

These monstrous crimes committed by U.S. imperialist military forces, and similar heinous acts carried out by the imperialists’ South Korean allies, loom as a dark shadow over the same kinds of savage U.S. military operations now going on against innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now these forces have the Iranian people in their murderous crosshairs.

* Hanley and co-authors Martha Mendoza and Sang-hun Choe won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for their AP article breaking the No Gun Ri story and published their book, The Bridge at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean War, in 2001.[back]

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