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After intense internal struggle

South Korean gov’t admits massacres

Published Dec 6, 2009 9:38 PM

It took almost 60 years, but the government of south Korea has finally admitted what many in the younger generation had already found out through the progressive movement there: Thousands of civilians were massacred by the south Korean regime at the beginning of the 1950-53 war, for no other reason than that they were considered sympathizers with the communist revolutionaries who had liberated the north of Korea from Japanese rule during World War II and were now battling U.S. imperialism.

What makes the politics around this official revelation even more charged is that it comes during the tenure of a right-wing government in south Korea that has tried to suppress the commission tasked with bringing out the facts.

For many years, if south Koreans spoke about these mass murders by the Syngman Rhee regime, they risked imprisonment and even death. But in the last few decades, a vigorous and courageous people’s movement has carried out massive strikes and protests that resulted in the shelving of the brutal military dictatorships imposed on Korea by the U.S. military occupation of the south. In the space these popular movements achieved, an effort was begun to unearth the truth about the period of the Korean War.

The Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in 2005, when a more liberal government was in office than now and efforts were being made to ease the tensions between north and south. But the struggle to tell the truth about the massacres had begun years earlier.

In June of 2000, 50 years after the start of the Korean War, this writer visited the Tae Won Valley—Tae Won means “suppressed sorrow and rage” in Korean—and met scores of south Koreans working with both an Investigations Committee and a Committee of Victims’ Families. They were filming and taping oral histories from survivors of the fascist pogroms of 1950.

Yoo Yoon Ham, president of the Committee of Victims’ Families, told this reporter that for many years “we were accused of being communist sympathizers, so we couldn’t speak out.” But people were finally coming forward with what they knew.

Even earlier, Lee Bong Yon had served eight years in jail for trying to investigate the mass killings. Attempts to get the south Korean government to release secret documents had failed.

On the trip in 2000, visitors were taken to an abandoned cobalt mine outside the village of Kyengsan. A vertical shaft led down to a cave where you could still see human bones.

Chae Sim Ho of the Investigations Committee told the group that some 3,000 to 3,500 people had been killed in that area by the army and police in 1950. Some had been led to the shaft, bound together in groups of eight, and then shot so that their bodies fell down into the mine. Many were political prisoners who had been held in Taegu Prison under a preventive-detention law dating back to Japanese occupation. (See Workers World article, “Hidden history of Korean War,” June 15, 2000.)

At the time the massacres happened, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was overall operational commander of all military actions in Korea and was therefore responsible for the deeds of the south Korean army.

The current government commission that issued its report this Nov. 26 found it difficult to get cooperation from the police and military. At a news conference in Seoul, members expressed worry that the current government would try to shut the commission down before it could complete its work. They reported they had identified nearly 5,000 people illegally executed by the Syngman Rhee regime. The commission was able to ferret out some old government lists giving names of people who had been killed and showed them at the news conference.

The Committee of Victims’ Families was also at the news conference and said this was just the tip of the iceberg. It demanded that the government extend the commission’s deadline.

An article in the New York Times appears to be the only acknowledgment by the corporate media in the U.S. of this dramatic development in Korea.

It reported on the difficulty the commission experienced in trying to get information from officials, but said that “Lee Joon-young, 85, a former prison guard who witnessed assembly-line-like executions near Taejon, south of Seoul, in July 1950, was one who stepped forward.

“’Ten prisoners were carried to a trench at a time and were made to kneel at the edge,’ he said in an interview. ‘Police officers stepped up behind them, pointed their rifles at the back of their heads and fired.’” (New York Times, Nov. 26)

This corroborated the accounts given by unofficial investigating teams and victims’ families.

The biggest impediment to this truth-seeking mission is the continued occupation of Korea by U.S. troops, which strengthens the far right in Korean politics. It is no wonder that most of the corporate media have shunned reporting on the reign of terror in the south that accompanied the launching of an all-out war on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north.

That war, hyped as a struggle for “democracy” and against “totalitarianism,” cost the lives of millions of Koreans and more than 60,000 U.S. troops. In a prequel to Vietnam, the U.S. imperialists, despite all their high-tech weaponry, finally had to admit they could not break the people’s resistance and signed an armistice agreement with the DPRK.

But to this day the troops remain and Washington refuses to sign a peace agreement. The U.S. is still technically at war with the DPRK and threatens a new assault with every manufactured “crisis.” Thus, knowing the truth about what happened in Korea after World War II is of the greatest importance to the people of the U.S. as well as to Koreans.