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Excavating the Hidden Truths of the Korean War

Excavation of a civilian massacre site.

A KPI Interview with physical anthropologist Park Sun-joo


On December 27, 2019, the Korea Policy Institute (KPI) executive board spoke with Park Sun-joo, a physical anthropologist who has spent the past two decades excavating the remains of the Korean War dead, including unarmed civilians massacred by the South Korean police, military, and right-wing villagers. Since the establishment of South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2005 and its shutdown by the Lee Myung-bak administration five years later, Park, as one of the sole osteologists in South Korea, has continuously been at the forefront of efforts, both government-driven and nongovernmental, to illuminate the truth of wartime atrocities perpetrated against civilians, weathering the shifts from liberal to conservative administrations and back again. His current archival work is almost entirely donor-driven.


KPI: Could you tell us about the kinds of projects you are working on now?


Park Sun-joo (PSJ): To answer this question, I feel that you need to understand what projects have been worked on. Things started in 2000 when the government actually gave us funds to excavate the remains of soldiers. In South Korea, these soldiers are described as having been “killed in action” whereas in the United States, I believe the term used to describe them is “missing in action.” I was the investigation committee leader from 2000 to 2008, and this project is still ongoing. In 2008, the South Korean president authorized a nongovernmental noncombatant excavation project.

The second project started in 2005 when a truth-and-reconciliation law was passed. After that law passed, from 2007 to 2010, the government conducted an initial survey to register all the victims of massacres or civilian victims. During the initial registration period, 168 [massacre] sites were identified, and the government selected 30 sites to investigate the mass killings that occurred there. During that three-year period, however, they only investigated 11 sites. They were able to identify about 1,700 remains.

The law then expired and did not get extended. Although people repeatedly petitioned and undertook actions to get the timeline extended or make it permanent, these efforts were not successful. In 2014, many civil-society organizations gathered to organize support for a second phase of the truth-and-reconciliation process. But the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly hasn’t passed the law authorizing a second phase yet. The National Assembly right now is a bit chaotic. The law was supposed to be passed or examined this year [2019], but this year is almost over.


So, in the meantime, until this gets nationally funded, civil-society organizations have formed joint investigative teams, with volunteers coming from all fields. These teams have conducted the seventh investigation at the sites. The findings from these investigations were used to put more public pressure on the National Assembly to pass a law that would formalize it as a national project.

Each local government has its own legislative body and ordinance-making power. Locally, Asan City and North Chungcheong Province have funded three separate excavation projects. Last year, in 2018, in Asan City, as you might have seen in The New York Times article, 208 people’s remains were discovered at an abandoned gold mine site. They were able to identify 58 victims between the ages 2 and 12, and 85% of the remains were identified as female. They are guessing that these were families of “communist sympathizers” who worked for the People’s Army at the time of the great retreat on January 4, 1951. During the Korean War, some of the most excruciatingly painful incidents occurred during the January 4 retreat. But these incidents are not broadly known by the public. Based on findings from the Asan investigation, I presented at a public event in January 2019 in New York.

The New York Times article mentioned another excavation in Asan City. Although investigators didn’t find many remains, the bones yielded a lot of DNA, which they were able to match to family members.

In North Chungcheong Province, with funding of this project continuing until 2022, they are hoping in March to excavate remains from another site.

The government has a plan to create a facility for memorial services. In and around Daejon City, they are trying to create a public park for all the civilian victims. There will be a contest for the park design, under the title, “Memory and Remembrance.” They plan to move all the remains to this memorial park, which is supposed to be finished by 2022.

My third project focuses on Korean conscripted labor in Japan and in the Pacific during the Japanese colonial period. Geographically this extends beyond Japan to the Pacific, including sites like Saipan. From 1997 to 2005, people from civil-society organizations volunteered at an excavation in Hokkaido where they found 150 people’s remains. In 2016, they moved these remains first to Shimonoseki and then to Seoul. They were able to inter all of the remains in Baekje Public Cemetery. The Korean government, by the end of the Moon Jae-in administration, intends to repatriate between 700 and 800 remains.

The fourth project I am working on is identifying the remains of the people who were killed during the colonial-era independence movement. We have been trying to find Ahn Jung-geun, the martyr who killed the Resident-General of Korea, Ito Hirobumi. We now know the whereabouts of his burial. From 2006 to 2008, we collaborated with North Korea on an excavation in Yosoon (Lüshun District, Dalian), China. We did not succeed in identifying Ahn’s remains, but we were able to narrow down where he might be buried. The South Korean government continues to support this project. One of the one hundred promises Moon Jae-in made was to find Ahn Jung-geun’s remains.

One of my most recent projects is locating the remains of the Sewol Ferry victims. In Mokpo, they were only able to find 5 people’s remains out of 9. I have briefly gone over the five major excavation projects, both national and private, that have taken place after the liberation [Korea’s 1945 liberation from Japan].

People ask why we do these excavations. Our answer is that it is really important, first of all, to establish national identity and, second of all, to uplift human rights within the country. In my personal opinion, I believe that without the firm establishment of national identity and human rights, Korea cannot become a developed country. In Korean society, civilian deaths during the Korean War are not well known. In fact, these deaths have been subjected to the greatest historical distortion. Because Korean history, especially around the Korean War, has been distorted so much, we are trying to correct what has been distorted with truth. The remains that have been excavated are proof of what happened. They testify to past wrongs. They also hold meaning for rites for the dead. For the surviving families, the excavation of massacred civilians begins to redress the mistreatment they suffered. For the last 70 years, they have been treated by the entire community as families of “Reds,” or similar labels.


A separate issue is what the government should do for the families of the massacred. First of all, the truth has to be investigated and illuminated. Secondly, what has been lost must be restored. Thirdly, the dead must be memorialized. Fourthly, there must be compensation. Fifth and last of all, there must be broad education about human rights. These are what we demand from the government.

What’s absolutely necessary is a specialist, an expert who can oversee excavations, forensic testing, and memorial services. Because I have expertise and experience in these three areas, I have been at the forefront of these activities for the last 20 years. I am also the chairperson of the preparatory committee for memorial services. Regrettably, not too many young scholars are interested in this kind of work, but the continuation of these projects requires young blood.

The biggest problem is that there are no professors who can teach forensic anthropology in college. This is why new scholars are not emerging. Culturally, Koreans regard it as a taboo to touch a dead person’s bones and remains. However, there are too many surviving families in the Korean population, and too much unresolved han remains. For this reason, this discipline really needs great attention and support.

KPI: How do you organize memorial services, especially in situations in which surviving families have been living side by side for the last 70 years in the same communities with those who perpetrated the massacres?

PSJ: For the last 70 years, the families of the massacred have been labeled as communists or communist sympathizers and thus were not able to participate in public life or assume any public position. Guilt by association precluded them from becoming officers in the army, municipal employees, national government officials, or judges. They could not serve in any legislative body, and they were regularly surveilled by the police. Members of these families were not able to get a better education, and even if they were educated properly, they were not able to get good jobs. As a result, they became disgruntled or voices of dissent against the government.

Furthermore, most of these people were not able to get out of Korea, go overseas, or travel. Given their similar situation, these people got together often, and then created family associations of the victims of massacre during the Korean War. There are about twenty such associations throughout South Korea, and they are housed under an umbrella organization, the management of which is, of course, very hard. There’s a lot of infighting within these associations. Financially speaking, they are not very well off either, so they represent a really unhappy demographic in Korean society. Conservative administrations found it difficult to embrace these people. Yet even the Moon Jae-in administration has similarly struggled to satisfy survivors and families of massacred civilians.

People who were living—and still live—in the same villages, often in rural, under-developed areas, know who the aggressors and victims were. Because the sense of victimization is still very strong and persists into the present, reconciliation won’t be easy. Ten years ago, when we were conducting an investigation in Asan City, we relied on the testimony of people who perpetrated the massacre. Our hope was to narrow down the possible burial ground so we inquired with people who were still alive. When we returned, they refused to answer our questions. They were saying, “I don’t remember,” or “I don’t know.” Most refused to talk because after they first testified, they were given the cold shoulder by the rest of the village. During the Korean War, four Hong families were killed by the rest of the village, and no one really talked about it for 70 years.

In another instance, when I came to the United States, I learned there was a survivor of a massacre at an abandoned gold mine who was 6 years old at the time. The survivor was later able to immigrate to the United States and now is living in the DC area, yet he still regards Asan City as his hometown. He came to the excavation site at Asan City, and when we found the bones of a one-and-a-half year old, he actively participated in a DNA test. It wasn’t a match, but what this survivor shared of his recollections was illuminating. As a child survivor, he was struck by the fact that the wealth and property of the people who were killed were taken away and shared among the villagers. That’s why no one wanted to talk—why no one came forward to talk about these cases.

It’s well-known that in 1996, the U.S. government released a trove of declassified documents, some of which were about Daejeon Sanrae Village. During the Korean War, about 1,800 to 7,000 people were estimated to have been executed in that city. One of the declassified photographs showed an ROK army officer whom people were able to identify. In 1996, this person was a really famous conservative figure. He was the chairperson of the board of directors of a private university, his daughter was a dean of a college of the university, and his son in-law was a three-star general in the ROK army. In South Korea, there are still aggressors in society. Some of these war criminals are still in power. This makes it hard to find the truth.

KPI: How much national media coverage has there been about the kind of work you’re doing and related to this, how much popular awareness? Is your work beginning to make an impact on public thinking about the Korean War? Or is the violence of the war still an issue neglected by big media, even as it remains important to communities and those most affected?

PSJ: The major media outlets are The Choson Daily, The Joongang Daily, and The Dong A Daily. Unless the story concerns ROK army forces or Ahn Jung-keun, the independence fighter, these newspapers do not cover our excavation work. Their indifference is intentional. Only small papers like The Kyong-an Daily, Hankyoreh, or The Seoul Daily cover the massacres, and they only reach a certain target audience, not the general population. This is not a popular topic that most people are keenly aware of.

Among those people who are reading about this, though, there is a generational gap in understanding and looking at this issue. Older people usually say, “It was inevitable—all the communists were executed” or “Because it was during the war, executions without due process were justified.” The more democracy-minded younger people usually state, “These massacres were not inevitable. They could have been avoided, and now must be revisited. The truth has to come out.” However, since the excavations are not covered by the national media, popular media, or major media, few people are aware of these projects. Maybe one day popular major media outlets will cover these projects.

KPI: In talking to villagers, have you uncovered any evidence of U.S. involvement in these atrocities or at least knowledge by the U.S. government of what was going on?

PSJ: I offer a cautious answer. People on the left tend to believe that everyone in the ROK army knew that the police and ROK army killed civilians. I would rather say that there were a few political soldiers or a few special agencies within the ROK army that were responsible for these massacres.

A few years ago, I was involved in the No Gun Ri excavation. Many people had concluded that American soldiers killed No Gun Ri people. Yes, the killing may have been carried out by American soldiers. But it might not have been intentional because the location of the shooting suggests they were trying to prevent people from coming out of the tunnel, not trying to kill everyone in the tunnel. Further investigation might be needed. Factually speaking, I can just state that a few declassified photos indicate that U.S. officers were present at the No Gun Ri site, and there are also stories and testimonies that corroborate what these photos reveal.

KPI: Because we are in the United States, we are concerned about U.S. intervention in the Korean War.

PSJ: As a physical anthropologist, I cannot arrive at the conclusions that need to be made by other scholars and other experts. For example, at the No Gun Ri excavation, people remember different stories and rumors—the latter mostly because they didn’t really see what was happening. Let’s say there was a lot of bombing or shooting targeting the people along the railroad where they were walking. During the excavation, we should have been able to find shells by the railroad. We did find one, which enabled me to conclude that there was bombing or shooting along the railroad. But was it intentional, and was it aimed at the people? My field doesn’t enable me to say, “Yes” or “No.” At No Gun Ri, when we were excavating, we found so many bullets around the walls of the tunnel at the entrance. This suggests that they weren’t really trying to target the people inside but maybe trying to prevent them from coming out. Uncovering the truth requires the involvement of more experts.

KPI: Could you speak further about what’s holding the National Assembly Legislation and Judiciary Committee up in terms of funding for excavation of these Korean War massacre sites? Is the Moon Jae-in administration supportive or are these excavations a low priority?

PSJ: Initially, we believed that after Moon Jae-in entered into office, the law extending the truth-and-reconciliation process would pass right away. The work we are doing is very important but it doesn’t appear to be a priority for his administration. The current government plan is to finish the establishment of memorial service facilities on a national level by 2021. After that, the goal is to embark on major excavations at 360 identified sites. The latter, however, requires funding, manpower, and the creation of an agency that will oversee the process. For the last decade, National Assembly members have been preoccupied with the question of how to form this agency. Should it have six or nine people on the steering committee? Such matters are not of any importance to people in the field, but they constitute the main debate in the National Assembly right now. At issue seems to be some kind of political back-and-forth between the conservative and the democratic parties.

KPI: Do you know of any excavation projects taking place in North Korea? Have you collaborated on any excavation projects with North Korea?

PSJ: There are remains in South Korea of Chinese or Korean soldiers or combatants that are identified as “enemy” forces. About three years ago, there was a control room in the South Korean Ministry of Defense that communicated with the Chinese Ministry of National Defense and shipped all the remains identified as Chinese to Shenyang. However, if the remains were identified as North Korean, they are still interred in the Cemetery for North Korean and Chinese Soldiers in Paju. I have demanded that the repatriation of North Korean remains be an agenda item during the joint South and North summits. This would enable us to ship the remains to the North and in turn to receive what North Korea has identified as South Korean soldiers to us.

This year, at the Arrowhead Mountain former combat site near the DMZ, the North and the South were supposed to embark on a joint excavation project. But when it started, the North Korea team did not show up. The South Koreans did a little work and then North Korea also did its own excavation. I’m not aware of any other collaborations between the North and the South.

If remains are identified as American, North Korea sends those to the United States because of political or financial reasons. The incentive is mostly financial. There was a rumor in the field that for each set of remains, North Korea received $50,000 or $80,000 or something like that.

KPI: How have Koreans living in the United States responded to your work? Are they drawn to it or do they want to keep distance from this history, as well? How have they responded when you’ve shared your work?

PSJ: I presented on my work twice in the United States, once in New York and once in Washington, DC, as well as later in Osaka and Okinawa in Japan. People who were directly impacted tend to take polarized views. Either it was all done by the government, thus sole accountability resides with the government, or they are very critical about the excavation projects, align with the wartime government, and refuse to listen to the other side. What’s needed is a more balanced view, an objective perspective that concedes that atrocities in war can happen. To adhere just to one side makes it hard to hear the other side of the story. This applies not just to overseas Koreans but also to the government and people in South Korea. In light of the widespread lack of knowledge about civilian massacres during the Korean War, those of us who disclose the facts also need to have more balanced presentations so that people will believe what they are told.

KPI: What are your sabbatical plans? What will you be working on while you’re here and when will you be returning to Korea?

PSJ: I retired in 2013, but I had to get back to the field, once the excavation projects started. I don’t teach anymore, but I would like to retire from fieldwork, as well. It looks likely, however, that I’ll be able to hand over these projects only when the governmental agency that oversees the project is installed. Until then, I have to keep working. My family lives in the United States. I’m the only one living in Korea. I’m currently in DC to visit my family during winter vacation and will be here until the end of January [2020]. Once the excavation starts in Asan City in March, I will have to be there. The law extending the truth-and-reconciliation process has to be passed very soon.

KPI: Do you have any thoughts about what an institute like ours can do to support your work?

PSJ: People in Korea and overseas Koreans really need education and information so that we can create a better society where people can live and come together as a unifying force. I ask you to join in this work.

We really need the truth-and-reconciliation extension law to pass. If overseas Koreans write or contact National Assembly members, that might draw some positive attention. Alternatively, you can send volunteers to aid in the excavations. Three-to-four days—or a week—would be good. We need a lot of people. Being there at the site and feeling what really is happening is educational and meaningful.

KPI: We can work on those things, and after you go back to Korea, we would like to follow your work and publicize it too.


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