The Korean War was one of the bloodiest conflicts since the second world war. Lasting from June 1950 to July 1953, it saw a wide-ranging imperialist coalition, headed by the United States, aim to conquer the infant Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and also overturn the Chinese revolution.
The war concluded with the signing of an armistice, not a peace treaty, with the United States having failed in its objectives. Both an uneasy peace and the constant threat of a new imperialist war of aggression have prevailed on the Korean peninsula for the succeeding 55 years.
Millions of Koreans were killed during the war. Pyongyang, the capital of the DPRK, and all other cities and towns in the north of the country were completely flattened by American bombing. The US even used bacteriological weapons in an attempt to spread plagues among the stricken population.
The US commander, General Douglas McArthur, requested permission to use atomic weapons against the DPRK, the newly-founded People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union’s Far East. His proposal was rejected solely because the Soviet Union had by then succeeded in developing its own atomic weapons and so was in a position to make a devastating retaliation.
Although atrocities by the imperialist forces, and their south Korean puppets, were widely documented at the time by missions such as that organised by the World Federation of Scientific Workers and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, the ensuing decades saw a concerted campaign to write them out of history and discredit them.
In south Korea, a series of military fascist dictatorships criminalised attempts by progressive forces and ordinary people to speak out about the war crimes suffered by themselves, their families and communities.
As the south Korean people scored successes in the struggle to democratise society, however, more and more people began to come forward to expose the war crimes of half a century ago. Finally, the government of President Roh Moo Hyon, which stood for reconciliation with the DPRK, established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
As the commission has continued to do its work, much to the annoyance of the new right-wing government of Lee Myung Bak, it has discovered numerous mass graves right across south Korea, containing thousands of bodies, including hundreds of children.
In a 29 December 2008 article, the Daily Telegraph reported:
“Trawls of records including declassified files in Washington have uncovered evidence of the massacres of at least 100,000 people [in south Korea alone – Proletarian] suspected of having sympathy with the North Koreans.
“In some cases, American forces are alleged to have been present and in at least one case an American officer authorised a massacre of prisoners believed to have left-wing sympathies.”
The Telegraph report continued:
“Under the South’s military dictatorship, the crimes of its own forces were rarely discussed. The new findings suggest there was a pattern of disposing of those suspected of left-wing sympathies as the North Koreans advanced, and then again of those who were accused of collaborating as they retreated.” (‘More than 100,000 massacred by allies during Korean War’ by Richard Spencer)
One survivor, the paper reported, Kim Jong Chol, now 71 years of age, escaped as a 14-year-old from one such massacre, but his father, seven-year-old sister, grandparents and cousins were all killed.
“‘Those who witnessed the killings said it was pitiful. Babies were killed with their mothers holding them,’ he said. ‘Now I want the government to find their bodies, and to erect a monument in their memory.’
“Mr Kim’s father was a South Korean guard recruited into a local militia after the North’s forces overran the border at the start of the war in 1950.
“When the South Korean and American armies swept back north, a local police chief in their district, Namyang Ju, ordered those suspected of collaborating to be rounded up, along with their families.
“‘We were taken to a village storage room,’ said Mr Kim. ‘But I managed to slip the ties on my wrists and run away.
“‘Two days later I found the pit where they had shot the captives. I dug with my hands, and found the bodies of my grandmother and grandfather. I never found my father or sister.’
“The massacre in Namyang Ju was eventually brought to a halt, but not before 460 had died – one of many such killings documented in painful detail by the Commission.
“Research in US archives has found one exchange in which a US colonel gives approval to a massacre in which 3,500 suspected leftists were shot.”
Professor Kim Dong Choon, one of the commissioners, commented:
“For people who are in their 70s and went through the war and the dictatorship this may not all be new – it was like a public secret for those years. But for the younger generation a lot of this was unknown, and it is coming as a shock to them.”
According to the latest revelations, British troops are said to have been aware of the massacres of civilians by the Americans but failed to try to prevent them. Private David Strachan of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers told the Telegraph:
“They were killing refugees all over the place. We witnessed loads of massacres. When I got back I never saw anything about it. It was all hushed up.”
Although the fighting ceased in Korea in 1953, tens of thousands of US troops have remained in occupation of the south and hence the people’s suffering has continued unabated. Another imperialist crime recently dragged into the spotlight has been the organised prostitution services, in reality a form of sexual slavery, provided to US troops in Korea over decades.
In an 8 January 2009 article, the International Herald Tribune noted how the south Korean government has long been vocal in recalling the similar abuse of so-called “comfort women” in the period of Japanese colonial rule and continued:
“Now, several former prostitutes in South Korea have accused their country’s former leaders of a different kind of abuse: encouraging them to have sex with the US soldiers who protected South Korea from North Korea. They also accuse past South Korean governments and the US military of taking a direct hand in the sex trade, working together to build a testing and treatment system to ensure that prostitutes were disease-free for the US troops …
“‘Our government was one big pimp for the US military,’ one of the women, Kim Ae Ran, 58, said in a recent interview.” (‘After Korean War, brothels and an alliance by Choe Sang-Hun’)
According to the International Herald Tribune, the women further suggest that the south Korean military regimes also viewed them as “commodities to be used to shore up the country’s struggling economy in the decades after the Korean War. They say the government not only sponsored classes for them in basic English and etiquette – meant to help them sell themselves more effectively – but also sent bureaucrats to praise them for earning dollars when South Korea was desperate for foreign currency.”
Stating that it had reviewed official documents, both south Korean and US, from the 1950s to the 1990s, the International Herald Tribune revealed that US military authorities also actively organised and regulated the sex trade in the camp towns surrounding the US military bases:
“In one of the most incendiary claims, some women say that the US military police and South Korean officials regularly raided clubs from the 1960s through the 1980s looking for women who were thought to be spreading the [sexually-transmitted] diseases. They picked out the women using the number tags the women say the brothels forced them to wear so the soldiers could more easily identify their sexual partners.
“The Korean police would then detain the prostitutes who were thought to be ill, the women said, locking them under guard in so-called monkey houses, where the windows had bars. There, the prostitutes were forced to take medications until they were well.
“The women, who are seeking compensation and an apology, have compared themselves with the so-called ‘comfort women’ who have won widespread public sympathy for having been forced into prostitution by the Japanese during World War II. Whether prostitutes by choice, need or coercion, the South Korean women say, they were all victims of government policies.
“‘If the question is, was there active government complicity, support of such camp town prostitution, yes, by both the Korean governments and the US military,’ said Katharine Moon, a scholar who wrote about the issue in her 1997 book Sex Among Allies.”
The report noted: “In a sense, the women’s allegations are not surprising. It has been clear for decades that South Korea and the US military tolerated prostitution near bases.”
In a 2006 television interview, a former south Korean government official, Kim Kee Joe, who had been a high-level liaison to the US military, said: “Although we did not actively urge them to engage in prostitution, we, especially those from the county offices, did often tell them that it was not something bad for the country either.”
In a parliamentary exchange between two legislators in 1960, the government was urged to “train a supply of prostitutes to meet what one called the ‘natural needs’ of allied soldiers and prevent them from spending their dollars in Japan instead of South Korea. The deputy home minister at the time, Lee Sung Woo, replied that the government had made some improvements in the ‘supply of prostitutes’ and the ‘recreational system’ for US troops.” (Ibid)
Turning to the contemporary situation, the paper reported: “These days, camp towns still exist in South Korea. But as the country’s economy took off in recent decades, prostitutes from the Philippines began replacing local ones.
“Many former prostitutes live in the camp towns, isolated from mainstream society, which shuns them. Most are poor. Some are haunted by the memories of the mixed-race children they put up for adoption overseas.”
One such survivor, Ms Jeon (she would only agree to be identified by her surname), now 71, was an 18-year-old war orphan when hunger drove her to Dongduchon, a camp town near to the border with the DPRK. She had a son in the 1960s but gave him up for adoption when he was 13.
“The more I think about my life, the more I think women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans. Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the US military’s.”
The new revelations of imperialist crimes in Korea are no different from the contemporary realities in Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever else US imperialism commits its acts of aggression. A resolute struggle against imperialism is the only road to a free, dignified and happy life for working and oppressed people.
In the socialist DPRK, every educational institution, from kindergartens to universities, has rooms where young people are taught about the suffering of the preceding generations at the hands of the Japanese and US imperialists. Such revolutionary education is essential to ensure that the horrors of the old society never return to liberated territories.