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Uncovering the Hidden Histories of the Korean War: The Work of South Korea’s Truth and Reconci

For Dr. Suzy Kim’s interview of Dong-Choon Kim, click here. For a video of the U.C. Berkeley conference on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, click here. For the announcement of the TRC conference, click here.

The Other War: Korean War Massacres

More than 2 million people were killed during the Korean War period. The casualties included not only military personnel but also innocent civilians. Few are aware that allied forces massacred hundreds of thousands of South Korean civilians at the dawn of the Korean War on June 25, 1950. The existing academic research and the survivors’ testimonies tell that the mass killings committed by South Korean and United Nations forces occurred before and during the Korean War (1950.6-1953.7). These incidents are categorized into four types.

The first category involves summary executions against suspicious civilians and political prisoners suspected of rebelling against or threatening the Republic of Korea (ROK) regime. Under orders of “preventive detention,” authorities arrested the victims shortly after North Korea’s attack.1 Most of the detainees were political prisoners including members of Bodoyeonmang (National Guidance League or NGL), a government-established organization composed of former and converted communists.

Although NGL membership was declared voluntary, in actuality, authorities involuntarily registered former communists or anti-government activists to easily monitor their activities and location. Over the course of time, potential membership expanded to include villagers who participated in anti-government organizations. The Bureau of Police would order regional police chiefs to fill a specific quota for NGL membership. These chiefs chose villagers due to their lack of access to information, which made them susceptible targets for membership. Thus, it is likely that this eventually led to a number of NGL members being innocent villagers with no political ideology or ties to anti-government organizations.

In 1950, approximately 30,000 political prisoners were imprisoned in South Korea. Many were detained for violating the National Security Law. Most of these prisoners would later “disappear” after the outbreak of war. It is believed that a majority of them were secretly executed along with NGL members from July to August of 1950. The killing of NGL members surpassed other atrocities of the Korean War in its sheer size and brutality.

The second category involves the arrest and execution of suspected North Korean collaborators by the ROK police and rightist youth groups. Both North and South Korean forces conducted executions to prevent people from supporting the opposition. As South Korean forces advanced to recapture their territory, they and local rightists would begin eliminating suspected “collaborators” without judicial proceedings. This occurred shortly after retreating North Korean soldiers conducted large-scale massacres as they fled the area.

The third category includes killings conducted during ROK counterinsurgency operations against communist guerillas. The victims primarily resided near areas active with guerilla activities in the Southern Mountains. Witnesses residing in the targeted areas described the tactics used as “brutal and devastating.” The ROK employed a three alls policy (kill-all, burn-all, loot-all), which was a scorched earth policy used by the Japanese Imperial forces while fighting against anti-Japanese leftist rebels in China.2

These counterinsurgency atrocities also occurred in North Korean occupied territory. As the ROK police and rightist youth groups followed the U.S. military across the 38th parallel, they encountered people they suspected were communists and collaborators. A typical massacre case occurred in Sinchon (a county located in southern North Korea). North Korea accused American troops of killing 35,380 civilians, but newly released documents disclose that right-wing civilian security police, assisted by a youth group, perpetrated the massacre.3

The fourth category involves civilian and refugee deaths from bombings and shootings by the U.S. combat operations. Under the auspices of “maintaining and restoring international peace,” the U.S. deployed soldiers to the Korean Peninsula after North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. The Eighth U.S. Army, previously stationed in Japan, landed in Korea in July 1950 but proved ill-prepared to repel the communist forces. Due to confusion and panic, American forces killed a number of civilians in the largest single massacre in the No Gun Ri Incident.

While some of the victims were left-leaning or sympathetic to North Korea, the majority of them consisted of innocent civilians. The U.S. and South Korean authorities ignored this incident, arguing that any disclosure of information would threaten the ROK’s constitutional order and national security. As a result, No Gun Ri remains a secret even to people who lived through the war. Considering the severity and number of massacres, these incidents may be called “the other war.” In order to prevent similar tragedies from reoccurring in the future and ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula, the truth must be investigated and publicized.

A History of Silencing the Bereaved Families and Oppressing the Memories

After the student uprising in 1960 toppled the U.S.-supported Rhee Syungman government, bereaved families initiated a series of demonstrations to demand an investigation into mass killings during the war. They established an organization, the National Association of the Bereaved Families of the Korean War Victims, which exhumed and properly buried the victims’ remains in a joint cemetery the members built to honor the dead.

In response to an escalating number of petitions from bereaved families, the National Assembly quickly organized the Special Committee on the Fact-Finding of Massacres. However, after the May 16 coup in 1961, the new military government disrupted these efforts by arresting and prosecuting the leaders of the association and demolishing the joint cemetery. These actions were meant to send a clear message: that any person attempting to raise the issue of truth-verification on deaths during the Korean War would be regarded as a communist and considered a threat to the state.

For 27 years (1961-1987) under the military dictatorship, all sympathetic discourse on raising awareness on massacres was subject to prosecution. The bereaved families suffered severe discrimination as authorities systematically alienated them from civil society and politics and placed them under constant police and Korea Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) surveillance.

The frantic McCarthyism in the U.S. heavily influenced South Korea’s political atmosphere from 1953 onward and resulted in society’s collective amnesia over the mass killings committed by ROK and U.S. troops. Politicians and major media outlets under the authoritarian regime were reluctant to cover or even mention the incidents. This attitude remains today as authorities and the media ignore investigations and the pleas of heartbroken victims. Instead, journalists copy foreign-based news sources, such as the Associated Press‘ story on the No Gun Ri Incident, whenever relevant material surfaces. The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade never officially commented on the U.S. “No Gun Ri Report,” which argued that the mass killings occurred in the midst of combat operations and the dead were therefore deemed collateral damage.

This ignorance led to the widely held view that the South Korean authorities killed the victims three times. First, their lives were taken in the massacres (1948-1953). Second, they were killed again when authorities disregarded their bereaved families’ requests for investigations. Finally, they were killed when their family members were branded as “communists” due to their guilt by association.

The systematic alienation of these bereaved families lasted until the late 1980s. Just as the denial of the Holocaust is painful to Holocaust victims and their families, South Korea’s bereaved families suffer a similar pain as the state disavowed the incidents, and the previous authoritarian regimes politically repressed those considered guilty by association. This tactic was effectively used to exclude alleged political opponents and remove the very foundation of their subsistence from modern South Korean society. In this sense, the uniquely formed governing system utilizing “guilt-by-association” under the authoritarian regimes deepened the hurt the victimized families had borne in their hearts.

The forced amnesia in such a strong McCarthyesque political atmosphere that grew under the military dictatorships silenced the survivors and the victims’ families from revealing their long untold stories. The political and financial hardships the survivors endured were often considered greater than the pain of actually losing their beloved family members. After half a century, these survivors have yet to completely recover from the trauma and terror of witnessing some of the most brutal acts humanity could inflict upon itself. The inhumane treatment and atrocious trauma the survivors experienced continue to haunt them, and the memories of the events remain deeply etched into their hearts.

The prevalent public negligence and silence widely spread throughout the U.S. and South Korea are not just the result of the passage of time but also due to the collective amnesia imposed on society by the state. While scholars and journalists usually raise awareness of such issues like the untold Korean War stories, it is essential that an official institution be given the appropriate authority to investigate, verify these cases and thereby inform the public. This is the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Only after the Commission completes truth-verifications can people begin reinstating the honor of the victims and conducting memorial services for the dead.

From Separate Past-Dealing to the Comprehensive Project

After the demise of the military regime in 1987, the bereaved families of the Korean War massacres were able to express their repressed grievances. The victims’ families of the Guchang and Jeju April 3 massacres initiated the practice of revealing their suppressed suffering on the platform of political democratization.

The Guchang Incident,4 one in a sequence of massacres that occurred during the Korean War, was a rare case. Shortly afterwards, the events surrounding it were disclosed and the military court prosecuted the commanders responsible for the killings. Shin Jung-mok, a National Assembly member representing Guchang, risked his life to reveal the massacre. After Rhee Syngman resigned his position after the April 19, 1960 Student Uprising, the surviving families assembled to expose the facts and identify the perpetrators.

Under such democratic conditions, more survivors and family members of Korean War victims began to demand the settlement of the past. They insisted that the government prosecute the perpetrators and investigate the massacres. The National Assembly quickly organized a special committee to probe the incident and later issued a report. They also raised the necessity of enacting a law to comprehensively investigate the incidents and reconcile with the victims’ families and survivors. However, these efforts abruptly ended on May 16, 1961, when the military staged a coup. The National Assembly’s investigation immediately ceased and leading social movement figures were arrested as communist-related agitators. No one has yet assumed the role in arguing for the full clarification of the massacres or responding to the survivors’ suffering.

The Jeju April 3 Incident5 of 1948 was also a unique case in terms of the time of the incident shortly before the first general election, the number of victims, and the lasting effect it had on the contemporary political community of Jeju Island. Embedded within a strong collective regional identity, the Jeju people’s sorrow is a popular theme for novels and poems. While the victims’ families initiated the activities to settle the Guchang Incident, intellectuals, activists, and the local media drew attention to the Jeju Incident. The transformation of the political and ideological landscape conditioned by democratization, along with supporters petitioning for reconciliation, emboldened the surviving families to divulge their stories. Scholars and reporters argue that most of the victims of the Jeju Incident were innocent civilians.

Despite the opposition of right-wing fundamentalists, the civilian governments of Kim Young-Sam and Kim Dae-Jung finally passed several laws to settle these two unresolved historical cases. The Guchang Special Law was passed in 1996 with the objective of restoring the honor of the victims. This was followed by the Jeju Special Law, the Special Act for Investigating the Jeju April 3 Incident, and Recovering the Honor of Victims (2000). The final law, Recovering the Honor of the Victims, was enacted to investigate the facts and restore the honor of the victims who had long been branded as communists.

These two special committees, tasked with the investigation and restoration of the honor of the victims, conduct difficult assignments. According to the Guchang Special Law, the tasks of recovering the victims’ bodies and establishing a memorial building are nearly complete, and the victims’ families are currently demanding reparations. The Jeju committee also finished the investigation and are preparing for the reconciliation project. However, doubt remains as to whether the Jeju committee can succeed in determining the truth of the Jeju Massacres, as well as the death toll and identities of the victims. The most sensitive investigation involved the role of the U.S. military during counterinsurgency operations against rebel forces. While the final report failed to confirm this role, it did conclude that 86% of the 14,373 deaths reported were committed by security forces, including the National Guard, National Police, and rightist groups.6

President Roh Mu-hyun officially apologized for the abuses perpetrated by the previous government and expressed his condolences to the Jeju April 3 victims. The report changed the existing name of the incident, April 3 Jeju Rebellion Incident, to the Jeju April 3 Incident. This change has raised serious disputes over which name should be used. Nonetheless, the South Korean government’s official recognition of the existence of the Jeju April 3 Incident civilian victims is a crucial step on the road of historical settlement of Korean War massacres.

The Associated Press’ No Gun Ri report and the release of similar incidents attracted public concern about mass killings by U.S. forces. After the publication of the U.S. Army’s report, President Bill Clinton issued a statement of ‘regret’ for the killing of South Korean refugees, but this failed to satisfy many South Koreans who expected a formal apology. The U.S. military extended a friendly gesture to the victims by offering them one million dollars to erect a monument and a $750,000 scholarship fund. However, they did not offer restitution to the victims. The U.S. regarded these offerings as final compensation before closing the case. There would be no more investigations or offered money. The No Gun Ri Incident victims deemed the U.S. Army report and the presidential statement as insufficient restitution and rejected the offer, which was a symbolic reaction towards the U.S-related killings.

The activities of the Jeju April 3 Committee and the No Gun Ri affairs attracted national attention and encouraged the leaders of other bereaved family associations to submit a petition to the National Assembly to settle their grievances. However, they thought it unjust and improper to settle isolated incidents while ignoring hundreds of other cases. Thus, they began demanding the enactment of the Special Act on Unveiling the Truth on the Massacres of Civilians in order to “correct the distorted history.”7

After over half a century, social movements have emerged in response to the outcry of the bereaved families and they have begun to campaign for the restoration of honor to the victims and survivors by rectifying the distorted history that buried the truth. Civil rights activists, sympathetic lawmakers, and the Roh Mu-hyun government concluded that if massacre incidents could be reconciled, then a special law with comprehensive measures should be enacted. After both the public and government approved of this, the Framework Act was drafted and passed.

The Petitions 55 Years Later

The death of the head of a family brought total ruin to a house. In order to survive, many widows remarried, which resulted in children of the first marriage becoming orphans. A lack of education, property, and social welfare reduced them to the lowest status of South Korean society.

Victims and the bereaved families deserve to be informed of the truth of illegal killings and receive official recognition by government or society. The families also deserve sympathy and compensation for their losses. The primary mechanism for the government to initiate past settlement has been the survivors’ memories and the bereaved families’ petitions. The victims’ families’ long persistent demands for truth confirmation and official recognition of victimization culminated in the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and influenced its work.

As the collective voice of the bereaved families represents an instrument for South Korean society to confront its tragic past, the primary objective for the bereaved families is to recover their family members’ dignity. The scope of their concern is usually restricted to familial problems. The families’ long period of suffering and estrangement from society prevented them from trusting relationships outside the family. While they desired official recognition of their parents’ illegal execution and government abuse, they struggled with a dilemma: should they demand settlement from the same state that condoned or even ordered the killings? Although the government perpetrated the massacre and discriminated against families, the bereaved families’ only option was to appeal to the same state for grievance settlement. The change of the regime emboldened them to appeal.

Since the Commission’s inception, the bereaved families have submitted petitions for truth-verification. After the passing of more than five decades since many of the victims’ executions occurred, the government prepared to receive the petitions of the bereaved families. In some cases, all of the family members were killed in an incident, or the remaining members had either passed away or relocated. Without survivors or witnesses, the exact details of the victimization remain unknown. The over 50-year lapse of time limited the number of petitioners. For many families, it was too late to apply for truth-verification, and this is the reason they did not petition after the Commission announced a request for applications.

Although some families were well aware of the Commission’s work, they remained reluctant to apply after remembering the oppression and abuse they suffered under the military government in 1961. This was followed by their subsequent estrangement from society. These traumatic experiences prevented them from submitting a petition.

People who reached the high socioeconomic classes in society also refrained from applying based on the fear that such an act and the possible truth-confirmation would fail to yield any result, or in the worst scenario, it could damage their status. For South Koreans, the welfare of the child is most significant and a family would forgo the restoration of dignity through truth-verification due to the threat it poses to the descendants’ happiness. Thus, disadvantaged people among victimized families were usually the ones who petitioned for truth-confirmation.

The experience of segregation, ignorance, and suffering led to avoidance or resignation by the victims’ families. This demonstrates the extent of their trauma. It is estimated that the 7,800 applications received by the Commission represent only ten percent of the total number of victims.

The Investigation and Confirmation by the Commission

The basic questions of the victims’ family members concern the identity of the killer, circumstances, time, and motive for the killing. The Commission must answer questions beyond individual cases and also investigate the second layer of truth — the historical and societal truth that includes the background, cause, situation, perpetrators, mechanism of killing, death toll, identification of the victims, and legal responsibilities of the governments involved.

The Commission was assigned the work of answering the bereaved families and South Korean society’s questions regarding past incidents. By verifying the truth of historical events, the Commission fosters reconciliation between the victims and their perpetrators. The Commission is also entitled to offer recommendations to reinstate the honor of the victims, mediate reconciliation between the confessed perpetrators and victims, revise policies in order to prevent similar atrocities being repeated, and establish truth-finding research institutes. Although these duties are critical, the chief task of the Commission is truth-confirmation, and these results are to be published in a bi-annual report.

The verification of most petitions filed at the Commission has been a difficult process. This is partially due to the span of time that has passed since the incidents occurred. Despite the Commission’s speculation and careful approach to drawing a draft, it continued to encounter constant doubts as to whether the truth could be verified without a strong authority to investigate the alleged perpetrators. Since most concerned figures and witnesses have already passed away and the related documents have been systematically destroyed or disappeared, it is almost impossible to reconstruct the events from 60 years ago. This does not prevent the Commission from acquiring some crucial testimonies and documents from the government, thus contributing to the reconstruction of the country’s incomplete history.

Thorough listening to the bereaved families’ statements proved to be a crucial initial step towards healing. The investigators’ visits to the victims’ families were often the government’s first acknowledgement of the petition. Some of the petitioners confessed that they had not told their families’ tragic stories to anybody, including their children, for more than 50 years. When the Commission issues the final confirmation of the truth regarding the petitioner’s parents, confirming that their innocent parents were killed by the state, they feel a great sense of relief from the burden of their repressed trauma.

According to the Commission, the truth is to be decided through deliberation and discussion during the commissioners’ meetings. The Commission is composed of commissioners who are expected to represent the different social sectors of South Korean society. The investigators conduct research on the cases or incidents and submit a final report after finishing the investigation of the petitioners’ statements, witnesses’ testimonies, and related documents. Afterwards, the sub-commission examines the results before transferring it to the Commission.

The resolution of the Commission is reached after a series of long discussions and disputes during the meetings. The Commission delivers the final decision, entitled as the truth. Although the verified truth follows an institutional process to ensure objectivity, each party concerned may still reject it. While most petitioners accept it, some dismiss it as incomplete. When the perpetrators are military officials and police officers, they often blame the Commission for tarnishing their honor. In one particular case, a group of extreme rightists filed a lawsuit against the president of the Commission and accused him of betraying the truth and defaming their honor. However, the truth confirmed by the Commission should be valued, because it underwent an objective investigation and deliberation process.

Remaining Tasks

The Commission may not be the only method in the way of past settlement but its truth-confirmation activities would constitute the cornerstone. The Commission must complete its remaining tasks and achieve a concrete settlement of the past by revealing untold stories, thereby leading to reconciliation. Upon successfully completing its mission, the Commission will assist in building a more unified nation and constitute a role model for other nations that choose to pursue truth-seeking activities.

Subsequent measures are to be implemented by the Recommendations Follow-up Board under the Ministry of Public Administration and Security. However, little progress has been made in the establishment of a truth-finding research institute. A specific example of its need concerns 54 cases involving civilian deaths by U.S. Air Force bombings (three incidents). The Commission has issued recommendations including an official state apology a memorial event and measures to compensate the victims through negotiations with the U.S. government. Despite this, both the South Korean and U.S. government8 have failed to reply to the Commission.

President Roh Mu-Hyun publicly apologized for the government’s illegal exercise of public power. On January 24, 2008, President Roh expressed the government’s position regarding the settlement of historical issues and offered an official comprehensive apology regarding the illegal exercise of power by past governments. This official apology may mark a significant step for additional subsequent measures that should be taken by the government. The Commission also needs to plan the enshrinement of the victims’ remains and prepare for future exhumation work by instituting applicable regulations or laws and securing the necessary finance and procurement measures. Documentation of investigative records, including biannual reports to the National Assembly and the president and the utilization of these materials, are essential for any future academic research and promotion of the issue. Relevant laws and systems must also be supplemented, and all documented reports from the Commission’s investigations should be systematically categorized, filed, and stored at an archival institute such as the National Archives.

The work of the Commission has been focused on these two highly demanded requests from the bereaved families and the civil groups. However, the Commission is still encountering widespread public negligence as a result of the government’s heavy influence on major media outlets. The petitioners are now asking for substantial, visible results of the Commission’s mandates, and the approach to answer those demands remains the duty of South Korean law-makers and society.

*This article was originally presented at Boston College at an event sponsored by the Boston College Center for Human Rights & International Justice and co-sponsored by Asian Caucus, Asian Studies Program, Asian American Studies Program, History Department, Korean Students Association, Lynch School of Education, & Theology Department. Sarah Dong-Yi Park assisted in editing this article for KPI.


1‘Bodo'(保道) literally translates to “caring and guiding.” During Japanese imperialist rule, the policy emphasized “caring” rather than “detaining” because ex-political prisoners struggled to find work and manage their family life. However, “caring” cannot be found in the case of South Korea’s NGL. Earlier imperial Japan even organized the “The League for Servicing the State” in order to reorient and rehabilitate the released Korean political dissidents. Later, a band of South Korean rightist prosecutors who had been educated under Japanese rule thought that such an organization would be useful in controlling the left-affiliated political dissidents by organizing it to “preserve the national security and maintain law and order.” See op. cit. pp25-28. 2North Korean troops also killed many POWs and rightists when they retreated northward. Paramilitary youth groups and civilians committed state-sponsored political or personal reprisals. Oftentimes, when a family member was killed in a village by a band of paramilitary youths under the authority of the occupying force, the relatives would avenge a family member’s death by killing the entire family of their enemy when the attackers eventually retreated. This sort of revenge occurred in every corner of the Korean Peninsula during the war. 3Some reporters argued that the American CIC ordered the massacre, but it is not verified (Hangeore 21). 4During February 6-9, 1951, when ROK army’s Eleventh Division was conducting suppression operations against the remaining guerrillas around the mountainous areas in South Keongsang Province, more than 700 unarmed civilians, including children, women, and elderly, were killed during the operation after being suspected of serving the guerillas. Though this Guchang incident was the first in many massacres, it was a unique case that became officially recognized among the numerous undocumented mass killings. See Dong-Choon Kim, op. cit. 5The Jeju April 3 Incident was a series of events in which thousands of islanders were killed as a result of clashes between guerilla and government forces. The Jeju branch of the South Korean Labor Party organized uprisings against the U.S.-sponsored rightist government and protested the general election. They were then forced to march to Halla Mountain. During the suppression operations against leftists and guerrillas, nearly 30 thousands civilians were known to be killed by National Police, Northwest youth and the National Guard. Since this incident occurred during the period of the U.S. military government, this operation, which resulted in numerous civilian deaths, was conducted under the sponsorship of U.S forces. 6See, “Summary of the Report’s Conclusion”,


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