The secret genocide in South Korea you’ve probably never heard of
On February 6, 1991, Song Joon-ae, an industrial worker, was preparing to lay building foundations in an anonymous area of land in Daejeon, South Korea. When he shovelled the last clump of dirt away, he discovered something which would shake South Korean society. Amidst the soil was something unmistakeable: a child’s skull, with several bullet holes.
It wouldn’t be the last one. Subsequent discoveries would reveal what had really happened in Daejeon in the summer of 1950, what was later termed the Bodo League massacre.
Song Joon-ae immediately told the manager of the site. The manager of the site called the Daejeon division of the construction contractor company. It continued upwards until the discovery was brought to the attention to South Korean authorities. The construction site became an excavation site, and the bones which Soon Joon-ae found were not the last to be unearthed.
Government officials at the various sites around Daejeon found hundreds of sites with hundreds of bodies, some children, some infants, some civilians, some wearing peasant clothing, others wearing military uniform. Park Rae-mun, an archaeologist who appeared at the site estimated that 1.2 million people were massacred at the various sites around Daejeon. Kim Dong-Choon of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a South Korean governmental body, conservatively estimates that approximately 100,000 were executed by the South Korean military on October 1950, while many point to 400,000 as a likely figure. Both executioners and escapees came forward, and a picture gradually built up that these people were massacred on the suspicion of being leftists.
What followed the sudden awareness of the mass graves in Daejeon was the revelation of a systematic cover-up by government officials during some of the darker days of South Korean history. In the media coverage that followed the event, the international public slowly became aware that the Republic of Korea wasn’t always such a “bastion of freedom and democracy”.
The mainstream media often chides the hypocrisy of North Korea for calling itself the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”, but up until recently, it would have been difficult to call South Korea the “Republic of Korea” with a straight face as well. For much of South Korea’s history, the country was under the administration of various brutal military dictatorships.
The story of South Korea’s past starts with a provisional government often forgotten about in history textbooks. The People’s Republic of Korea lasted only from 1945 to 1946, and its capital was in Seoul. Through people’s committees all over the Korean peninsula, a twenty-seven-point programme was formed through democratic participation in government, a relatively novel experience for Korean people at the time.
“the confiscation without compensation of lands held by the Japanese and collaborators; free distribution of that land to the peasants; rent limits on the non-redistributed land; nationalization of such major industries as mining, transportation, banking, and communication; state supervision of small and mid-sized companies; …guaranteed basic human rights and freedoms, including those of speech, press, assembly, and faith; universal suffrage to adults over the age of eighteen; equality for women; labor law reforms including an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, and prohibition of child labor; and “establishment of close relations with the United States, USSR, England (ed. should be the United Kingdom), and China, and positive opposition to any foreign influences interfering with the domestic affairs of the state.”
With this progressive programme, the PRK enjoyed a wide array of popular support before the peninsula was carved up by the Cold War. Past the 38th parallel, the People’s Republic of Korea turned into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, keeping the basic structure of democratic people’s committees, and continued to carry out progressive reforms as if nothing had happened. In the South, the situation was very different.
As soon as American troops landed on the September of 1945, something seemed off about the People’s Republic of Korea. Nationalisation of major industries? Free distribution of land to peasants? People’s committees? Strong labour-unions and an eight-hour work day? To the United States, this experiment in a united Korean peninsula under democratic rule whiffed of communism.
What immediately occurred afterwards was the abolition of the People’s Republic of Korea by military decree. Officials serving under the government were shot, buildings were bombed, and supposedly “communist-sympathetic” Korean troops stationed in the country were summarily executed in a bloodbath lasting for several months. The United States Army Military Government was established, causing the eruption of mass public outrage at military personnel from the former Japanese Empire serving in office in South Korea.
To even further outrage, Lieutenant General John R. Hodge of the 24 Corps of the U.S. Tenth Army, assessing the situation badly, announced that the Japanese colonial government in Incheon would be kept, and, surprised at the poor reaction from Korean citizens his decision had elicited, tried to placate them by creating the Korean Advisory Council to represent the voice of ordinary Koreans. Unsurprisingly, his council was composed of landowners, wealthy businessmen, and officials from the Japanese colonial government.
Still not taking the hint, the military government continued to rule over months of civil unrest and outbursts of violence after outlawing the people’s committees and the PRK government. On September 23, 1946, 8,000 railway workers in Busan lead a strike, quickly spreading to hundreds of other towns and cities. A police station in Yeongcheon went under siege as a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands converged all at once, killing 40 policemen. More rebellions killed more than 20 Japanese officials and landlords. The situation escalated, and the American military declared martial law, tens of thousands being killed as military troops fired into mass crowds of demonstrators.
With haste, the First Republic of Korea, what we now know as South Korea, was declared in 1948. Syngman Rhee was flown abroad a US military aircraft to Tokyo, travelling to Seoul, and was installed as President. Rhee immediately arrested the remaining left-wing opponents in the political arena, setting his sights on Kim Koo, a former independence activist, an increasingly popular statesman, and advocate of unification. Syngman Rhee, as a fierce anti-communist and nationalist who would later be forced into exile by his own citizens, had him killed on 26 June 1949.
Rhee encouraged his internal security force, headed by his trusted ally, Kim Chang-ryong, to arbitrarily detain people he suspected of having “leftist affiliations” and subject them to days of detainment in labour camps where they were sometimes held in torture camps for years.
Despite officially being paid barely $37.50 per month, Rhee’s luxurious lifestyle lead many to believe that he had found an alternative income source. Indeed, he had: he and his close friends in the administration regularly purloined with government cash intended for social welfare and sold army equipment on the black market.
Rhee’s regime was so intensely corrupt that newspapers around the globe found it without historical precedent, and a particular incident with the National Defense Corps made international headlines: the South Korean government went under the spotlight of attention as it was revealed that Rhee’s paramilitary service had frozen to death during the winter as their winter uniforms had been sold off on the black market. The money intended to buy heating equipment for them was later learned to have been stolen by the commander, General Kim Yun Gun. The Yeosu–Suncheon Rebellion followed, in which 3,000 Yeosu soldiers rebelled against Rhee’s brutal government, and joined with residents in parading through the streets flying the red flag, and restoring the town committee.
Syngman Rhee was such a popular leader that he was re-elected four times. During elections, his political opponents often suddenly died or were arrested by South Korea’s internal security force under the suspicion of being “North Korea collaborators”.
Radar: There’s only one operator on duty in Seoul because of the parade.
Colonel: What parade?
Radar: Syngman Rhee was just elected dictator again.
“Mail Call…Again”, season 4 episode 15 of M*A*S*H
At the end of the 50’s, with a long and illustrious political career behind him, Syngman Rhee’s political career was brought to an close on April 28, 1960 as thousands of protestors, angry at the shooting of student demonstrators in Masan, converged on his executive office, forcing a DC4 owned by the CIA to help him make a quick escape to Honolulu, Hawaii. He died of a stroke on July 19, 1965 while relaxing in his beach-house, leaving his bloody legacy not quite in the past.
What is the significance of South Korea’s story? It tells us that many functioning liberal capitalist democracies are fundamentally founded upon repression, mass-killings, and bloodshed.
Current Western societies demonstrate remarkable ideological homogeneity (that is, in support of liberal capitalism), and we should never forget that this is homogeneity is the birthmark of a much more violent era.