Digging up the Past


Recent revelations of mass graves unearthed by investigators in South Korea should have been nothing new to those who have studied some of the Korean War’s history.

Two million Korean non-combatants are believed to have perished in the conflict – according to official narrative, at the hands of Communist forces.

However, with these latest revelations the lesser known history is finally being revealed: the victims died at the hands of South Korean death squads. Unarmed, adults and children alike, their hands were bound, they were lined up in front of trenches in the time-honoured fashion and any "enemy sympathies" were eliminated forever.

Although suppressed significantly, stories about this were filed by journalists at the time – including some Australians. John Colless, after witnessing one atrocity, "became obsessed with South Korean atrocity stories and abused an AAP-Reuter executive claiming his stories were not being used", according to Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty.

Knightley also relates the story of Alan Dower, an Australian ex-commando who, in the finest tradition of interventionist correspondents, bullied his way into a South Korean prison and threatened to shoot its governor if the civilians (including "Communist" babies) he had just seen taken there were harmed. There were stories of thousands of political prisoners, blackmail with the threat of denunciation as a Communist, and one memorable passage about a new weapon. The BBC’s Rene Cutforth:

"Then over this scene of silent desolation crept a reassuring smell that immediately took me back to Sunday dinners in Britain – the smell of roast pork, for that’s what a napalmed human being smells like."

But lest we think our boys didn’t get down and dirty on the ground, journalist William Blum in Rogue State writes of 1999 revelations that "amongst many other such incidents, American soldiers had machine-gunned hundreds of helpless civilians and hundreds more were killed when the US purposely blew up bridges they were crossing". And so on.

However belated, the stories South Koreans can now tell, and the questions they can ask, are hopefully some kind of comfort. From an outsider’s perspective, this bit of revisionism is also part of a much larger hidden history of both the Korean War and the wider Cold War – an early example of the convenient myths of the noble West and the brutal "other" being applied to the anti-Communist crusade.

This began in earnest with the Korean War itself. On 25 June, 1950, we are told, North Korean units rolled across the 38th parallel, beginning the brutal three-year conflict. In fact, not only had cross-border incidents happened both ways since the peninsula’s division in 1945 (mostly on the part of the Southern, US-allied forces), there is strong evidence to suggest that even here, the line was crossed in the first major way by the Southern forces two days earlier. US military communications of the period explicitly outline the Southern aggression.

Channing Liem, later South Korean Ambassador to the UN, wrote of the importance to the US of keeping the appearance that it was only defending against an attack. US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles impressed this on Southern leader Syngman Rhee also. "He advised Rhee … to persuade the world that the ROK was attacked first, and to plan his actions accordingly."

Rhee was one of a series of right-wing strongmen, often ex-Japanese collaborators, that the US kept in power in the South against the wishes of its population. Much like Vietnam, the peasant-liberationist ideology brought by Communism had vast support on both sides of the internationally imposed divide. And as in much of Western Europe during World War II, Communists had led much of the resistance against their country’s occupation. In Korea’s case, the resistance leader was Kim Il-Sung.

The elder Kim’s regime was demonised by the Western bloc, while the massacres and round-ups that had begun even before major hostilities continued to a greater or lesser degree in the South until the 1980s. Economically, despite the destruction of much of North Korea by US bombing, and the US-led application of a mixed market economy with little labour protection in the South, growth in the North outpaced that in the South for some decades, when a range of factors reversed the situation and led to what we see today.

In the North, this was mainly a combination of overpriced key imports and the later collapse of its largest trading partner (and the source of oil for its industrialised agricultural sector), the USSR. In the South, the US and Japan knew the situation was untenable – after all, their toehold on the Eurasian mainland was at stake – and poured in development aid. Hey presto, economic miracle!

When told in total, the story of post-World War II Korea is an enlightening study of threats and use of force, a large economy being used to isolate and pressure a smaller one, and vast amounts of propaganda tied to a coherent but false narrative. The US/UN forces knew who started major hostilities, and knew of the massacres (and, during the War, allegedly participated), but officially blamed everything on those brutal Communists – the "other" of the day.

And the pressure has never let up; even recently, the "supernote" propaganda was used to attempt to cut North Korea’s access to the global financial system, with some success. The charges were baseless, but of course did enormous damage to a small economy.

Now Korea again reflects global dynamics and the seats of global power: most Koreans – North and South – want reunification with far fewer preconditions than any international party on either side would ask for. In the meantime, food distributors led by the West are being given unprecedented access in the North, while China continues to grow in influence at the same time, according to a recent lecture here by China veteran Rob Gifford. Despite what major media outlets tell us, many North Koreans either morally support the Kim regime or understand Western intentions well enough to lend their regime de facto support.

But still, the sabres rattle. Like Burma, it’s simply too valuable a piece of real estate to let go (imagine the US’s mortification if China was able to station troops in a puppet province of a partitioned Mexico).

And whatever one might think of Kim Jong-Il, this is not about one man and the simplistic demonisation applied to him – it is about the suffering of millions of innocents for lies.

If we knew then what we know now, could we have stopped the war or those massacres? And as we’re learning lessons, can we stop the mooted attacks on Iran, Lebanon and Syria? After all, the more things change…

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.