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Book Review: Korea’s Grievous War – Su-kyoung Hwang

Ford, G. (2016). “Korea’s Grievous War” by Su-kyoung Hwang, Asian Review of Books, 26 December.

Apart from on the Peninsula itself and in the vernacular, the Korean War is framed by a chronology between June 1950 and July 1953. Su-kyoung Hwang’s Korea’s Grievous War challenges that common perception by pushing its opening salvos back to shortly after the Peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonial occupation in August 1945.

Hwang focuses on three key incidents to demonstrate the extent of anti-communist atrocities over the period from 1945 until 1953: the Cheju uprising of 1948 and its brutal suppression; the systematic extermination, on the cusp of the war’s start, of the members of the National Guidance Alliance; the terror bombing of civilians during the war itself.

Korea, with the defeat of the Japanese Empire and after thirty-five years of increasingly cruel occupation, was a society waiting to explode. Inchoate ideological cocktails of nationalism, socialism and Marxism cut with residual anti-Western sentiments left from the late nineteenth century meant radical change was in the air. The slicing in half of the Peninsula in a side deal between Washington and Moscow in those circumstances left the two superpowers in very different positions. The Soviets just rode the wave, gently steering it in the direction of Kim Il Sung. In contrast the US and their client leader Syngman Rhee faced a series of insurrections that they savagely repressed with former Japanese collaborators and anti-communist militants, many of whom had earlier fled across the semi-permeable membrane of the 38th Parallel.

Cheju was far from the first insurrection: in 1946, the South Korean Labor Party (SKLP) had helped instigate the unsuccessful Autumn Harvest Uprising. On 3 April 1948, the 350 SKLP Members on the island launched an armed revolt. Initial attempts by the US Military Government in Korea (USMGIK) to contain it failed, but after the Ninth Regiment of the Korean Army was sent in by 28 April 28, the two sides had reached a settlement. Rejected by USAMGIK’s General Dean, this triggered—with the help of “false flag” atrocities—wave upon wave of repression, murder and massacre that endured for nearly a decade and cost between 30,000 and 80,000 lives—almost one in three of the adult male population—before the last rebel was captured in April 1957.

Hwang’s second study in state murder is the National Guidance Alliance (NGA) which was both modeled on Japan’s idea of reeducating communists through public condemnation and conversion (tenkõ) in lieu of mass imprisonment and execution as well as precursor colonial organizations designed to control and limit the activities of political offenders. Formed in April 1949 and led by an apostate SKLP leader, it was targeted at transmuting former left activists into right wing nationalists. Joining the NGA was to avoid incarceration in exchange for accepting ideological confinement in an “open penitentiary” where regeneration was imposed through discipline and surveillance.

The Alliance was administered by the police and intelligence service; local police stations kept lists of its members. Members were promised priority in employment and many poor labourers volunteered to join on the promise of jobs. On the outbreak of war, NGA members in areas occupied by the North were viewed with deep suspicion. Far worse was the fate of those in the South. Between July and August 1950. 200,000 out of the 330,000 members were executed. It was preemptive retaliation against a self-identified group who by their very existence could not be trusted to stay loyal. Buried anonymously in mass graves, the victims were hidden from history for close to half a century.

The third crime had the US as perpetrators rather than spectator. The North’s airforce—in as much as it existed at all—was annihilated early in July 1950. Apart from the deployment of Russian squadrons, some with Chinese pilots, around the Yalu river area, from then on the US had total air supremacy. Consequently, by mid-September 90 percent of the North’s industry had been destroyed. Even earlier pilots were complaining of the absence of “real targets”. After September, the USAF had a new target—fear not factories—convinced that terror bombing would shatter civilian morale.

By February 1951, the Rand Corporation’s “wizards of Armageddon” were recommending more rigorous operations with a report describing bomb-ravaged Korean towns, crowded with panic-stricken refugees fleeing for their lives. These aerial strategists favored napalm over conventional ordnance with its ability to cause extraordinary pain for the victims and demoralize even those not directly affected by its cruelty. The recommendation was approved. More bombs were dropped on Korea than Germany.

Yet for the first two sets of victims, the pain didn’t end with the armistice. It was guilt by association. Those left behind—the families of the massacre victims—were deprived of educational opportunities, suffered police harassment and lived as social outcasts shorn of voice and visibility. After Syngman Rhee’s resignation in 1960, there was a fleeting moment of liberalization. Families found and unearthed the mass graves and reburied the dead under single tombstones. When Park Chung Hee seized power in 1961, the wheel turned again and they were lost once more. The fresh graves were razed, bones exhumed and tombstones shattered. The families were accused of “anti -state” activities, tried and imprisoned. An ailing widow in Ulsan was sentenced to a year in prison for excavating the remains of her husband and teenage daughter. Others received death sentences.

Korea’s Grievous War opens up the wider horrors of the Peninsula’s history after Liberation that have been long lost with the obsessive focus on Washington’s later war with Beijing. Korea’s civil war started early and Cheju’s own civil war was effectively over well before June 1950, but family punishment continued for half a century. It has only been in the last decade or so that the truth could be told in the South. In 2001, the groundbreaking book The Bridge at No Gun Ri exposed the killing of villagers by US Forces during the Korean War. Su-kyoung Hwang has, with her research, exposed the wider temporal footprint of collective crimes that still taint the South today, but which will only become a part of history as the ripples of their exposure spreads.