South Korean soldiers and police, observed at times by U.S. Army officers, executed more than 2,000 political prisoners without trial in the early weeks of the Korean War, according to declassified U.S. military documents and witnesses.
Supreme commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur became aware of at least one of the mass shootings, according to documents originally classified top secret.
The new information, detailed in reporting by Associated Press and a South Korean researcher, substantiates what some historians have long believed: Large numbers of South Korean leftists arrested by the right-wing regime were secretly killed as its forces retreated before the North Korean army in mid-1950, apparently to keep them from collaborating with the Communist invaders.
Subsequently, during their brief occupation of the South, the North Koreans executed many suspected rightists. Those killings, once discovered, were widely publicized in the Western press.
Information about the South Korean government’s mass executions was suppressed for decades under this country’s former military rulers. Relevant South Korean records were destroyed, researchers believe. But victims’ families recently began speaking out, and human bones have been unearthed at mass burial sites.
Witnesses describe brutal mass shootings. A retired South Korean admiral recounted that 200 people, never put on trial, were taken offshore to be shot and dumped into the sea. Villagers in the Dokchon area remembered truckloads of civilians, trussed together, brought to the hills here and executed by South Korean military police.
Associated Press learned that it was a U.S. Army account of those Dokchon killings that reached MacArthur. Although the legendary U.S. general also commanded the South Korean military at the time, he referred this report to American diplomats “for consideration” and “such action as you deem appropriate.”
The U.S. ambassador, John J. Muccio, later reported back that he urged President Syngman Rhee and Defense Minister Shin Sung Mo to end summary executions deemed illegal and inhumane.
“I urged Capt. Shin to see that the Korean army, police and youth groups carry out executions of captured members of the enemy forces, including guerrillas, only after due process of law has been observed and that when carried out they should be in a humane manner,” Muccio wrote in an Aug. 25, 1950, letter to MacArthur’s top subordinate, U.S. 8th Army commander Lt. Gen. Walton Walker.
South Korean soldiers had shown “extreme cruelty” toward the condemned prisoners at Dokchon, a U.S. military police investigator, Sgt. 1st Class Frank Pearce, said in a written report to his company commander about the shootings.
He and other American witnesses reported that 200 to 300 prisoners, including women and a girl 12 or 13 years old, were killed by South Korean military police Aug. 10, 1950, on a mountain near this hamlet 155 miles southeast of Seoul, South Korea’s capital.
A South Korean officer told the Americans that the prisoners were “spies"--not North Korean soldiers or guerrillas.
Pearce, who went to the scene after hearing gunfire, said the South Korean soldiers placed 20 prisoners at a time on the edge of a cliff and shot them in the back of the head. Because of poor aim, some did not die immediately.
“At about three hours after the executions were completed, some of the condemned persons were still alive and moaning. The cries could be heard coming from somewhere in the mass of bodies piled in the canyon,” Pearce wrote in his one-page report.
Local Korean witnesses today echo Pearce’s description of cruel treatment. Several times in mid-1950, military trucks loaded with people in white peasant clothing drove up the winding mountain pass, and shooting later echoed through the valley, villagers said.
“A truck pulled up with seven or eight people. They were all tied together, so they had difficulty getting off the truck. The soldiers kicked them and hit their heads with the butts of their rifles,” Bae In Soo, 83, said. “They dragged the poor people in the gully and shot them.”
“Whenever we heard the shootings,” recalled Bae Choon Dal, 79, “police came later and press-ganged us to bury the bodies. We hastily threw some dirt over the bodies and ran away as quickly as possible. It was a dreadful time.”
The documents found by Associated Press consist of two brief U.S. Army reports on the Dokchon shootings and the high-level correspondence that resulted. In one note, Muccio’s top aide, Everett Drumright, told the ambassador that he had protested previous such shootings in the city of Taejon in early July.
Those earlier executions are recounted in other declassified documents, accompanied by photographs, found by researcher Lee Do Young at the U.S. National Archives and published in January in the Seoul newspaper Hankook Ilbo.
In that material, the U.S. Army attache at the embassy, Lt. Col. Bob E. Edwards, reported that 1,800 political prisoners were executed over three days at Taejon, about 90 miles south of Seoul. A U.S. Army major took photos of the killings with Edwards’ camera. The report and photos were sent to the U.S. Army intelligence staff in Washington.
Edwards wrote that he believed “thousands of political prisoners were executed within few weeks after fall of Seoul to prevent their possible release by advancing enemy troops. Orders for execution undoubtedly came from top.”
After the Hankook Ilbo stories, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said it would investigate reports of mass executions.
Associated Press found the declassified documents on Dokchon while investigating what happened at No Gun Ri, South Korea, July 26-29, 1950, when witnesses say U.S. forces killed about 400 South Korean refugees. American veterans acknowledged that their unit killed many civilians there. Both Washington and Seoul are investigating.
The No Gun Ri report in September spurred South Koreans to go public with other painful episodes from the 1950-53 war, including accounts of mass killings of fellow citizens by soldiers and police.
Rhee’s government had fought a guerrilla war with indigenous left-wing elements in the late 1940s. In mid-1950, it feared leftists would collaborate with the North Koreans sweeping down the peninsula. Tens of thousands were arrested, historians say.
“There was no time for trials for them. Communists were streaming down. It [summary execution] was a common practice at that time,” said retired Rear Adm. Nam Sang Hui, 74, now living in New York City.
Following orders as a navy commander in early July 1950, Nam said, he authorized three ships to carry 200 people out to sea off the eastern port of Pohang, where they were shot by police and their bodies were thrown into the sea, weighted with stones.
“It happened during a critical situation for South Korea. We should not judge these incidents through the standards of peacetime,” Nam said.
Relatives say many execution victims had nothing to do with communism and were not convicted of any crimes.
“You cannot kill people just because you think they were unreliable or there is something wrong with their ideology,” said researcher Lee, a U.S.-educated psychologist who said his father, a government official, was among 210 people killed by policemen and soldiers on Aug. 20, 1950, on the southern island of Cheju.
Lee said those executed included children, students, teachers and even rightist youth leaders against whom local police officers bore grudges.
Lee, citing the Taejon killings, blames U.S. authorities as well.
“The Americans cannot escape the charge that they condoned, if not supported, the massacres. After all, those soldiers killed these people with rifles and bullets the Americans gave them, while American officers stood behind their backs taking pictures,” Lee said.
Reports of such mass shootings appear to have circulated routinely among U.S. Army staff officers.
“The South Korean police have been quite busy in the Yunchon, Sangju, Hamchang vicinity disposing of South Korean communists,” a secret U.S. intelligence report said matter-of-factly Aug. 22, 1950. It said U.S. officers declined a South Korean invitation to witness one mass execution.
Associated Press researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.