Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Massacre, Memory, and the Half-Buried History of America's Total War in Korea

In recent days, I've done three articles for Asia Times concerning U.S.-China tensions, as expressed in the maritime venues of the Yellow Sea, the Sea of Japan, and the South China Sea.

South Korea reels as US backpedals

China turns netizen anger on Seoul

A third piece on the South China Sea kerfuffle should go up in the next couple days.  (Update: the piece US goes fishing for trouble is up)

One matter I touch on is ROK President Lee Myung-bak's determined and successful effort to ingratiate himself to the United States. 

I suppose that truth and history are the first victims of a forward-looking diplomatic alliance, but I feel that Lee went too far with by gutting the Truth and Reconcilation Commission investigating ROK and U.S. atrocities during the Korean War.

On the American side, things did not go well in the Korean War, particularly during the initial rout that drove U.S. troops back to the Pusan perimeter, and some shaken units responded with massacre to their unnerving exposure to "people's war" and enemy combatants out of uniform and mingling with refugees.

But more importantly, the ROK under Syngman Ree in 1950 was in large part a congerie of Japanese collaborators and borderline fascists, the most viable allies the U.S. could come up with to counter a peninsula-wide explosion of revulsion against the 35-year Japanese occupation, political division, and archaic land-holding system that Kim Il-sung, an anti-Japanese guerilla and communist, was in an excellent position to exploit.

The U.S. solution for the shortcomings of its ally was a crudely applied and devastating experiment in total war.

Social and economic revolution followed the northern forces' advance on Pusan.  When the tide turned and U.S. and ROK forces drove northward, counter-revolution and white terror followed in their train.

Not hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands allegedly died at the hands of ROK forces as the U.S. Army looked on.

AP, in the face of intense vituperation, has systematically covered the unearthing of this dark period in Korean history.

Now, if the Lee Myung-bak administration has its way, that history will die unrecorded as the last survivors perish.

I think that's a high price to pay for an alliance.

Here's an excerpt from a recent AP report.

July 11
U.S. escapes blame in Korean death probe

Panel rules that refugee killings after the war arose out of military necessity.

CHARLES J. HANLEY and HYUNG-JIN KIM Associated Press Writers

SEOUL, South Korea — In a political about-face, a South Korean commission investigating a century of human rights abuses has ruled that the U.S. military’s large-scale killing of refugees during the Korean War, in case after case, arose out of military necessity.

Shutting down the inquiry into South Korea’s hidden history, the commission also will leave unexplored scores of suspected mass graves believed to hold remains of tens of thousands of South Korean political detainees summarily executed by their own government early in the 1950-53 war, sometimes as U.S. officers watched.

The four-year-old Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea probed more deeply than any previous inquiry into the country’s bloody past. But a shift to conservative national leadership changed the panel’s political makeup this year and dampened its investigative zeal.

The families of 1950’s victims wanted the work continued.

“The truth about all these past incidents must be revealed, so this national tragedy won’t be repeated,” said Yang Won-jin, 82, whose father was believed shot and dumped into a mass grave 60 years ago.

But the commission’s new president said its work must end.

“Even if we investigated more, there’s not much more to be revealed,” said Lee Young-jo, a political science professor who took charge last December.

Attempt to reconcile the past

The commission was established in December 2005 under the late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun to “reconcile the past for the sake of national unity.” It had a broad mandate to expose human rights abuses from Korea’s pre-1945 Japanese colonial period through South Korea’s military dictatorships into the 1980s.

The most shocking disclosures emerged from the war that began when communist North Korea invaded the south on June 25, 1950, to try to reunify the peninsula, divided into U.S.- and Soviet-occupied zones in 1945.

The commission was the first government authority to publicly confirm what long had only been whispered: The U.S.-allied South Korean military and police carried out a vast secretive slaughter of political detainees in mid-1950, to keep southern sympathizers from supporting the northerners. Up to 200,000 were killed, historians believe.

Hundreds of petitions to the commission told another story as well, of more than 200 incidents in which the U.S. military, warned about potential North Korean infiltrators in refugee groups, was said to have indiscriminately killed large numbers of innocent South Korean civilians in 1950-51.

Declassified U.S. documents uncovered over the past decade do, indeed, show commanders issuing blanket orders to shoot civilians during that period. In 2007-2009 the commission verified several such U.S. attacks, including the napalm-bombing of a cave jammed with refugees in eastern South Korea, which survivors said killed 360 people, and an air attack that killed 197 refugees gathered in a field in the far south.

The liberal-led commission, with no power to award reparations, recommended Seoul negotiate with the U.S. for compensation for survivors of what it agreed were indiscriminate attacks. But the government of President Lee Myung-bak, elected in December 2007, has taken no action.

Lee’s Grand National Party had warned during his election campaign that the truth panel’s work could damage the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

Commission shuts down

Late last year, expiring terms on the 15-member commission enabled the Lee government to appoint more sympathetic commissioners, who opted not to extend the body’s life by two years and instead to shut it down on June 30. Lee, the new panel chief, withdrew from distribution a 2009 English-language report on commission findings.

The commissioners also toughened the criteria for faulting U.S. wartime actions, demanding documentary proof U.S. forces in each case knew they were killing civilians, commission investigators told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of their sensitive position.

In a rush of final decisions June 29-30, the commission found no serious U.S. wrongdoing in the remaining cases of civilian killings, attributing them to military necessity.

With military operations nearby, “collateral damage may be inevitable,” commission President Lee told the AP, using the U.S. military’s euphemism for civilian casualties.

“In many cases, we did not have documented evidence enough to clear the fog of doubts,” he said.


It’s more difficult to assess the U.S. role in an even greater wave of killings, the mass political executions of mid-1950 carried out by President Syngman Rhee’s government.

Family survivors hold the U.S. partly responsible, since the South Korean military executioners were under overall U.S. command, and U.S. officers were sometimes present, even photographing the grisly events.

Witnesses say that in the weeks after North Korea invaded in mid-1950, southern authorities emptied the prisons of suspected leftists, lined them up and shot them in the head, dumping the bodies into hastily dug trenches, abandoned mines or the sea. Few had ever faced trial.

Last November, after investigating petitions from surviving relatives, the commission announced it had verified and identified 4,934 execution victims.

But historian Kim Dong-choon, the former commissioner who led that investigation, estimates at least 60,000 to 110,000 died, and similar numbers were summarily executed when northern troops were driven from South Korea later in 1950 and alleged southern collaborators were rounded up. “I am estimating conservatively,” he said.

Korean War historian Park Myung-lim, methodically reviewing prison records, said he believes perhaps 200,000 were slaughtered in mid-1950 alone.

And that doesn't even include the history effectively bottled up by our quarantine of North Korea, which will presumably also be lost if the Grand National Party controls the reunification process and buries the evidence, memories, and outrage surrounding the appalling American air campaign against northern Korea from 1950 to 1953.

The U.S.responded to "people's war" on the ground with total war from the air executed in a primitive, almost atavistic manner against an Asian enemy that seemed to be treated as less than human.

There were no hearts and minds to win in this counterinsurgency; there were only ashes.

MacArthur did not get the 34 atomic bombs he requested, but Curtis LeMay threw pretty much everything else at the northern half of the Korean peninsula, including napalm, incinerating entire cities in virtually unrestricted strategic bombing over three years and blowing up the dams that provided irrigation water for 75% of the North's food crop. 

According to historian Bruce Cumings, the United States dropped an eye-popping 635,000 tons of bombs on northern Korea plus 32,557 tons of napalm.  That's more than we dropped in the entire Pacific theater during World War II. Most of North Korea's above ground infrastructure was annihilated and the civilian casualties were staggering. 

During the war, approximately 1.5 million civilians died in the north (roughly equal to the total northern, southern, US, and Chinese military casualties and southern civilian casualties combined), largely as the result of the U.S. bombing campaign.

And that only got us back to the 38th parallel! 

The U.S. military has always been grudging in acknowledging the limits of military power. 

There are always the hardheads who say that the only problem is that we didn't go far enough. 

In the Korean Armageddon, MacArthur was sure that he could win if he could, as Nigel Tufnel put it, turn the dial up to 11.

In his history of modern Korea, Korea's Place in the Sun, Cumings quotes from an interview MacArthur gave in 1954:

[MacArthur] said he had a plan that would have won the war in ten days: "I would have dropped between 30 and 50 atomic bombs...strung across the neck of Manchuria."  Then he would have introduced half a million Nationalist troops at the Yalu and then "spread behind us--from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea--a belt of radioactive cobalt...[which] has an active life of between 60 and 120 years.  For at least 60 years there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the North."..."my plan was a cinch."

The U.S.--not just MacArthur-- was serious about using nukes in the Korean War.  A significant factor in Truman's relief of MacArthur was that the president did not trust the vainglorious old warrior to properly implement a nuclear strategy that the U.S. eventually came pretty close to executing.

With the exception of the nuclear option, the U.S. let it all hang out during the Korean War, but total war and strategic bombing didn't bring victory; just a draw.  And it left a legacy of bitterness that has persisted for decades.

Because the full history of the Korean War remains untold, the United States military has never been forced to confront that failure.  That probably didn't help us either in Vietnam or Iraq.

Burying that history would a high price for an alliance, and also a high price for America as it struggles to understand the genuine costs and contradictions involved in trying to reconcile democracy, counterinsurgency, and modern warfare.


Justin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin said...

Thanks for the article recommendations. What do you make of the report from Russia that just came out?

"The document was cited as saying that the Cheonan was cruising in a shallow area close to the shore when its propeller got tangled in a net. As the corvette was trying to get into deeper sea, the ship touched an antenna-shaped detonator of a mine, which triggered the explosion. It did not say whether the mine was North Korean."


Dohsan said...

I think the S. Koreans are quite happy that there was a draw instead of Kim & heirs taking over the whole peninsula.

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