Selections from Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings, Korea: The Unknown War (London: Viking; New York: Penguin, 1988) [emphasis added - GF]

1. American and South Korean Atrocities in the Korean War

The North Koreans fought a war on all fronts: a conventional war, a guerrilla war and a political war over the people's committees and land reform. In other words, in some sense this was a people's war, and, like the subsequent war in Vietnam, it called forth an appalling American response. Collier's magazine began an article by saying, 'Our Red foe scorns all rules of civilized warfare, hid[ing] behind women's skirts', then quoted the following colloquy between American soldiers: / 88 /

The young pilot drained his cup of coffee and said,'Hell's fire, you can't shoot people when they stand there waving at you. 'Shoot 'em,' he was told firmly. 'They're troops. ''But, hell, they've all got on those white pajama things and they're straggling down the road' . . . 'See any women or children? ''Women? I wouldn't know. The women wear pants, too, don't they? But no kids, no, sir. ''They're troops. Shoot'em."

Reginald Thompson, a sensitive British war correspondent, wrote in Cry Korea, 'There were few who dared to write the truth of things as they saw them.' Journalists found the campaign for the South 'strangely disturbing', very different from World War II in its guerrilla and popular aspects. Thompson witnessed an American Marine kill an elderly civilian as if in a fit of absent-mindedness, showing no sign of remorse, and remarked that GIs 'never spoke of the enemy as though they were people, but as one might speak of apes'. Even among correspondents 'every man's dearest wish was to kill a Korean. "Today . . . I'll get me a gook."' Americans called Koreans 'gooks', he thought, because 'otherwise these essentially kind and generous Americans would not have been able to kill them indiscriminately or smash up their homes and poor belongings'.

Charles Grutzner, who reported the war for The New York Times, said that in the early stages 'fear of infiltrators led to the slaughter of hundreds of South Korean civilians, women as well as men, by some US troops and police of the Republic.' He quoted a high-ranking US officer who told him of an American regiment that panicked in July and shot 'many civilians'. Keyes Beech, another American correspondent, wrote, 'It is not the time to be a Korean, for the Yankees are shooting them all . . . nervous American troops are ready to fire at any Korean.'

Reginald Thompson found himself sickened by the carnage of the American air war, machined military might used against 'an almost unarmed enemy, unable to challenge the aircraft in the skies'. In September 1950 'handfuls of peasants defied the immense weight of modern arms with a few rifles and carbines and a hopeless courage ... and brought down upon themselves and all the inhabitants the appalling horror of jellied petrol bombs.' Every enemy shot, he said, 'released a deluge of destruction. Every village and township in the path of war was blotted out.' In such warfare 'the slayer needs merely touch a button, and death is on the wing, blindly blotting out the remote, the unknown people, holocausts of death, veritable mass productions of death, spreading an abysmal desolation over whole communities.'

Perhaps the most daunting story is that from the first days of the war the Americans contemplated the use of atomic weapons in this 'limited' war. On 9 July - a mere two weeks into the war, it is worth remembering - MacArthur sent Ridgway a 'hot message' that prompted the Joint Chiefs of Staff  'to consider whether or not A-bombs should be made available to MacArthur'.

General Bolté, Chief of Operations, was asked to talk to / 90 / MacArthur about using atomic bombs 'in direct support (of] ground combat'; some ten to twenty bombs could be spared without 'unduly' jeopardizing the general war plan. Bolté got from MacArthur one of the earliest suggestions for the tactical use of atomic weapons and an indication of MacArthur's extraordinary ambitions for the war, which included occupying the North and handling potential Chinese - or Soviet - intervention as follows: 'I would cut them off in North Korea. In Korea I visualize a cul-de-sac. The only passages leading from Manchuria and Vladivostok have many tunnels and bridges. I see here a unique use for the atomic bomb - to strike a blocking blow - which would require a six-months repair job. Sweeten up my B-29 force ...' At this point in the war, however, the Joint Chiefs of Staff rejected use of the bomb.

All sides in the war were guilty of atrocities. KPA forces executed several hundreds of American prisoners of war, albeit usually in the traditional battlefield 'humane' manner: one bullet behind the ear. Treatment of ROK prisoners of war was said to be considerably worse, but there is little evidence of this. There were a number of brutal atrocities against civilians, especially as the occupation of the South ended.

The United Nations archive contains well-documented accounts, verified by witnesses and relatives, of several mass murders of Southerners by the Northern occupants, including a particularly ghastly one at Chonju. For what it is worth, captured North Korean documents continued to show that high-level officials warned against executing people. Several orders to stop any further executions were picked up on the battle-field; handwritten minutes of a party meeting, apparently at a high level, said, 'Do not execute the reactionaries for [their] wanton vengeance. Let legal authorities carry out the purge plan.'

It has been alleged that the North Koreans perpetrated one of the greatest mass killings of the war in Taejon, where between 5,000 and 7,000 people were slaughtered and placed in mass graves. Some Americans were included; in one incident six survivors, including two Americans, were found alive, feigning death under the light soil thrown on top of them. Mass burial graves were reputedly also found at many points in South Cholla, and Appleman writes that the North Koreans 'ran amok' in Wonju on 2 October, killing between 1,000 and 2,000 civilians.

What actually happened in the Taejon atrocity is not at all clear, however. In early August Alan Winnington published an article in the London Daily Worker entitled 'US Belsen in Korea', alleging that the South Korean police, under the supervision of American advisers, had butchered 7,000 people in the village of Yangwol, near Taejon, during the period 2-6 July. He visited the area and found twenty eyewitnesses who said that on 2 July truckloads of police arrived and made local people dig six pits, each 200 yards long. Two days later political prisoners were trucked in and executed, by bullets to the head and decapitation by the sword, and layered on top of each other in the pits 'like sardines'. The massacres continued for three days. The witnesses said that US officers in two jeeps observed the killings. /91/

North Korean sources said 4,000 had been killed (changing the total some months later to 7,000), comprising mostly imprisoned guerrillas from Cheju Island and the Taebaek-san area and those detained after the Yosu-Sunchon incident. They located the site differently, placing the events at Change village in Sanae township, Taedok county.

The American Embassy in London called the Winnington story an 'atrocity fabrication', however, and denied its contents. British officials in Tokyo said, 'There may be an element of truth in this report.'

There is undeniable evidence of South Korean massacres on a lesser scale. A New York Times reporter found an ROK policeman with forty civilians in his retinue, alleged guerrillas, observing him as he 'crashed the butt of his rifle on the back of one after another'. 'We bang-bang in the woods,' the policeman said happily, meaning that the prisoners would be 'taken into the groves and executed after their backs had been broken.' An Australian witnessed a similar incident in Kongju, where twenty civilian prisoners were kneeling and being beaten by guards 'on [the] least movement'. On inquiry the guards said, 'Guerrillas, bang-bang.' A Manchester Guardian correspondent saw a truckload of sixty prisoners taken to the Kum river on 12 July and executed by ROK authorities. 'Tiger' Kim had fifty North Korean prisoners of war beheaded in August; when the Red Cross made representations to KMAG about it, KMAG officers said they 'would not like to see it get in the hands of correspondents'.

James Cameron of London's Picture Post wrote about what he termed 'South Korean concentration camps' in Pusan in the late summer of 1950:

I had seen Belsen, but this was worse. This terrible mob of men - convicted of nothing, un-tried, South Koreans in South Korea, suspected of being 'unreliable'. There were hundreds of them; they were skeletal, puppets of string, faces translucent grey, manacled to each other with chains, cringing in the classic Oriental attitude of subjection, the squatting foetal position, in piles of garbage ... Around this medievally gruesome market-place were gathered a few knots of American soldiers photographing the scene with casual industry ... I took my indignation to the [UN] Commission, who said very civilly: 'Most disturbing, yes; but remember these are Asian people, with different standards of behaviour... all very difficult.' It was supine and indefensible compromise. I boiled, and I do not boil easily. We recorded the situation meticulously, in words and photographs. Within the year it nearly cost me my job, and my magazine its existence.

Picture Post never published Cameron's story, causing a 'mini-mutiny' on the magazine; shortly thereafter Picture Post 'withered away, as it deserved'.

/ 132 / There was renewed panic in the Rhee [South Korean] regime as the communists approached [December 1950]. Executions of political foes and prisoners were speeded up. On 15 December police carried out a mass execution of prisoners -- which was witnessed by some British troops. The report from Britain's man in Seoul, Alec Adams, read:

As I understand it, considerable feeling was aroused among British troops both because of the callous way in which the executions were carried out and because they mistook two of those shot for boys (they were in fact women wearing trousers). Fearing that there would be an incident if British troops were again subjected [sic] to the spectacle of mass executions in their vicinity, I represented to the United States Embassy yesterday the urgent need to dissuade the Korean authorities from running unnecessary risks.

On 17 December another mass execution took place, but this time there was no problem - British (and US) troops were kept well away. The tenor of the times and the shallowness of the British Labour government's concern are shown by the Foreign Office documents. J. S. H. Shattock at the Foreign Office wrote to Adams in Seoul: 'The continuing reports of '"atrocities" and '"political shootings" are, as you know, giving us a lot of trouble . . . we are indeed sorry to have to burden you with these requests for information.' A few days later all is well; a Foreign Office official writes on the report: 'Public interest in the executions seems to have abated and we do not expect much further trouble.' ('Trouble' here, of course, refers not to Rhee's executions, many of which were carried out after torture, but to irritating questions in Britain.) Adams had earlier cabled the Foreign Office to say that 'even by reading between the lines' it was hard to imagine the brutality of the regime.

/ 141 / The USA continued to blow up cities and installations on its retreat within the South. The port city of Inchon was, in the words of one US source, 'destroyed by UN forces' as they pulled out on 3 January 1951. Much of Seoul was also put to the torch by UN troops. The USA marked its abandonment of Seoul with a massive air raid on Pyongyang on 3 January.

Somewhat later Ridgway had second thoughts about the firing of towns, telling one of his commanders, 'I have been struck by those areas I have visited which had formerly been occupied by the CCF [Chinese]. There appeared to have been little or no vandalism committed.  You have my full authority (to safeguard your troops] . . . this does not, however, extend to the wanton destruction of towns and villages, by gunfire or bomb, unless there is good reason to believe them occupied.'

2. / 146 / Political Questions in the Civil War

The political character of the war is rarely addressed. In its early phases there was a political struggle - to gain adherents and to eliminate enemies. From about the time of the entry of the Chinese forces in late 1950, the character of the war changed.

Although the North Koreans could not reach across the battle line in the same way as the Vietnamese revolution did, this does not mean that the war was simply a 'front-line' war. Guerrillas played a big role. Nor does it mean that Rhee acquired any greater popularity or legitimacy than before. Cutforth summed up the activity of his forces in this Period as 'plenty of massacres, not much fighting'. A US Embassy official wrote that 'probably more than 100,000' people were killed by Rhee officials in the South after his regime was re-imposed by MacArthur in September 1950. This is a far higher figure than the maximum US claim for all people murdered by the communists in North and South during the whole war. No one knows how many people were killed by Rhee later on. One of the few cases of mass executions that reached the Western press (and was universally accepted as having been carried out by his forces) took place in February 1951 in Kochang, in the South. There some 600 civilians, women, children and men, were herded into a ditch and mown down by machine-gun fire - on the grounds solely of being suspected of being communists.

Guerrilla warfare was the most important factor characterizing the nature of the conflict. Many weeks after the Inchon landing, MacArthur reported: 'Communist guerrilla units varying from a few hundred to several thousand men are operating in isolated areas throughout the United Nations occupied portion of Korea. At present, nearly 30 per cent of the United Nations troops in Korea are employed against them in . . . protecting supply lines and the more vital urban centres.' MacArthur estimated guerrilla strength at between 30,000 and 35,000. A well-informed US military source says that guerrilla activity increased after that to a peak in mid- January 1951:'The attacks, which invariably surprised the defenders, were based on detailed target information, meticulously planned and executed with split-second timing.' They were 'frequently noted in the rear of the most active sectors of the UN front'.

Most Western sources suggest that the guerrillas were a short- lived phenomenon that soon dwindled away. This is not true. The official US military history states that in late 1950 'enemy guerrilla action ... extended all the way to the southern tip of Korea'. Guerrillas were harassing the railways in central Korea and even seized medium-sized towns. Ridgway moved to wipe them out towards the end of 1951 with 'Operation Ratkiller'. By the end of January 1952, according to Ridgway, the operation had succeeded: 'Nearly 20,000 freebooters - bandits and organized guerrillas - had been killed or captured, and the irritation was ended for good.' Most of the guerrillas were in the Chiri mountains in south-west Korea, but there were some in other areas. Stanley Weintraub records that guerrillas /148/ were able to kill a top US officer and others outside his office near Pusan in mid-1952. Nor were the strongholds in the Chiri mountains wiped out, as Ridgway claimed, by January 1952. The photographer Margaret Bourke-White did a feature for Life magazine in December 1952 entitled 'The savage, secret war in Korea', in which she described a powerful guerilla force - which included many women - still highly active in mid-1952: 'Some of the guerrillas are converts who went over to the Reds in their first great offens- /149/ ive. Thousands of others are North Koreans bypassed in the UN breakout from the Pusan perimeter. Others have filtered South through Allied lines' - in other words, a composite force that could hardly have survived for two years, in harsh mountain conditions and in the middle of generalized warfare, without some substantial local support.

Command of 'Operation Ratkiller' was assigned to one of South Korea's toughest and most anti-communist officers, General Paek Sun-yop. No one can compute what really happened in the campaign. A footnote in the official US history hints bleakly at one possibility:

Although there were reportedly only 8,000 guerrillas in south-western Korea before RATKILLER and supposedly over 9,000 were killed and captured during the operation, Ridgway's headquarters estimated in March (1952] that there were still over 3,000 guerrillas left in the area. Either there were far more guerrillas to begin with or a great many innocent bystanders were caught up in the dragnet.

The Southern regime was not able to show any such support in the North, in spite of overwhelming technical superiority (control of the sea, helicopters and the possibility of parachuting in agents, none of which was available to the North). There was also a much larger campaign than has generally been recognized to try to promote guerrilla activity in the communist-held area. The senior British officer involved, Major W. Ellery Anderson, described to us the inability of a US-British team, with Korean agents, to stir up anything in the North in 1951-2. The population of the North, he told us, 'just didn't want to know.' Gen. Charles Willoughby

After his sacking, MacArthur told the US Congress, 'The war in Korea has almost destroyed that nation. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach the last time I was there. After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited. . If you go on indefinitely, you are perpetuating a slaughter such as I have never heard of in the history of mankind.' The devastation that MacArthur saw was a quarter of the way into the war - and not in the most shattered part of Korea. | | last modified 1 Oct 99