Members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of south Korea have recently toured the U.S. and Canada, speaking out about how bloody repression by the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Syngman Rhee accompanied the political partitioning of Korea in 1948.
Their first stop was Columbia University on March 24, where TRC Standing Commissioner Dr. Kim Dong-choon and Dr. Hee Kyung Suh, a member of its Investigation Bureau, talked about some of their findings.
The TRC is investigating massacres carried out by the Rhee dictatorship both before and after the 1950-1953 war in Korea, as well as disappearances and murders that occurred under later military dictatorships.
Among the many incidents of mass killings, two stand out: the bombing of Jeju Island and the Yeosun-Suncheon Uprising.
Until 1948, there was one Korean nation. Japan in 1905 had imposed colonial rule over all of Korea, but by the time of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, liberation forces led by Kim Il Sung, a communist, had freed the northern half of Korea while U.S. troops occupied the south.
When Syngman Rhee, a puppet of Washington, announced the establishment of a Republic of Korea in the U.S.-occupied area, a rebellion against the division of the country broke out on Jeju Island on April 3, 1948. It quickly spread and was supported with armed actions by communist guerrillas against both local police and troops of the U.S. occupation.
Washington ordered the RoK army to use scorched-earth tactics against civilians and guerrillas alike. The U.S. bombed the island indiscriminately with napalm, causing an enormous number of civilian casualties. By the RoK army’s own estimates, there had been less than 3,000 guerrillas on the island. Before the U.S. napalming of civilians, Jeju had 400 towns and villages. Only 170 survived. U.S. military estimates of the dead ranged between 15,000 and 20,000. The Seoul government claimed that 27,719 had perished, but according to an account by Jung Byung-joon in “Attempts to Settle the Past during the April Popular Struggle,” “The Jeju provincial governor told a U.S. intelligence agency that over 60,000 people were killed and 40,000 migrated to Japan.”
When word got out about the savage U.S. bombing of civilians on Jeju Island, the masses were outraged. The anger spread to the rank and file of the RoK army. On October 19, 1948, troops of the 14th Regiment of the National Defense Guard of South Korea were ordered to the island to finish off the resistance to the U.S. occupation. Instead, the soldiers rose up in rebellion against not only their deployment but also the partitioning of their nation. When the 2,000 rebel soldiers arrived in Yeosun, they found that the people were in full solidarity with their rebellion, which quickly spread throughout the eastern areas of Jeonnam Province.
Memorial placards at Suncheon National University, Suncheon Station and Dongcheon River tell the story: “On October 20th, the Suncheon police and right-wing youths from adjacent regions established a defensive line at Gwangyang Samguri, but failed to keep the insurgent forces from advancing to downtown Suncheon because the 4th Regiment, a support troop from Gwangju, joined the insurgents. The nearby Suncheon Northern Elementary School was the site of questioning and executing of civilians who were suspected of taking sides with the insurgents. The victims were executed without trial on the levee of a rice paddy behind the school auditorium.”
The only reliable element for the RoK state was the cops, who remained loyal to the Rhee dictatorship during the Yeosun-Suncheon Uprising. According to Jung Byung-joon, “The police retained their pro-Japanese officers. According to 1960 statistics, those who had served as police officers under Japanese colonial rule accounted for about 15 percent of the 4,000 police lieutenants nationwide, about 30 percent of the 500 police captains, about 40 percent of the 160 senior superintendents, and about 70 percent of the 20 police commissioners and superintendents general. … The pro-Japanese nature of the police, a remnant of Japanese colonialism that should’ve been eradicated in the wake of the nation’s liberation in 1945, remained intact under Syngman Rhee. Pro-Japanese police officers … suppressed democracy to maintain the security of the Syngman Rhee administration.”
The same was true of the RoK army brass, most of whom had been in the Japanese Imperial Army during the colonial period. As stooges for imperialist Japan in its occupation of the part of China known as Manchuria, they carried out Japan’s “Kill all! Burn all! Loot all!” tactics against the people in an attempt to stamp out their resistance.
During the Korean War, when the U.S. had operational control over the RoK military, this kind of savagery was repeated. The Korean communists, led by Kim Il Sung, were fighting to liberate their country from these agents who had switched from one imperialist master to another. Park Chung-hee, a general who ruled the south with U.S. blessings from 1961 to 1979, had himself been a member of the Japanese army and was an informer for the RoK government at the time of the Yeosun-Suncheon revolt.
The TRC is in the process of investigating the many pre- and postwar massacres carried out by the Rhee dictatorship, as well as later disappearances and murders. The commission was set up in 2005 by the south Korean government in a period of democratic opening that followed a mass, student-led movement that battled the cops and the military in the streets in the 1980s.
Nodutdol, a progressive New York-based Korean grassroots community organization, says the TRC “represents a dramatic change from the silence imposed by past authoritarian regimes in South Korea about massacres of civilians committed by U.S. forces and the South Korean police/military both before and during the Korean War.”
Now a right-wing government in Seoul is trying to hinder the TRC’s investigations and strip it of its funding. Nevertheless, Washington is worried that the truth about Korea is coming out.
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