Beyond Conflict

Asia beyond Conflictnea-base-map

This site examines recent conflicts over history in Northeast Asia, and explores possible paths towards reconciliation. The site is based at the Australian National University, and is created by a group of academic researchers whose names can be found on our introductory page. Some of the site’s creators are based outside the Northeast Asian region, and we do not seek to provide any simple answers to these, often complex, controversies.

Our aim is to provide a range of historical and contemporary materials which can encourage informed exchanges of ideas, and promote imaginative resolutions to conflict. We invite visitors to look carefully at arguments on both sides of the debates, and at the ideas of those who have suggested alternative approaches. As you look at the documents and images here, ask yourself: who produced these, and why? What is the intended audience?


Imagine yourself reading them from a variety of different perspectives: as a Chinese person, a Japanese person, a Korean (from North or South), a Mongolian, an American or Iranian, German or Kenyan. The materials presented here are created by people with many differing viewpoints. Some include strong nationalist statements, which you may find disturbing. The creators of this site do not endorse the contents of the primary materials exhibited here.

But by bringing together material from a variety of differing perspectives we hope to strengthen the basis for dialogue and understanding. Northeast Asia today is in a phase of profound change, when regional cooperation is more essential than ever.

Main page Asia Beyond Conflict

1. Reconciliation Groups

2. Name of this sea;

3. Ownership of islands;

4. China and Korea – contested pasts;

History foundation fights against nationalism for co-prosperity

By Lee Tae-hoon (The Korea Times, 02-01-2011)

When the Korean government first launched the Northeast Asia History Foundation (NAHF) in September 2006, China and Japan considered it a declaration of diplomatic war against them. In fact, then-President Roh Moo-hyun repeatedly vowed to wage such a war over historical distortions ahead of the creation of the foundation amid growing nationalism in Northeast Asian countries. His remarks came on the heels of China’s Northeast Project, a research program allegedly designed to claim the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo (37 B.C.-A.D. 668) was a fiefdom of China, and a territorial row with Japan over the Dokdo Islets.

Scholars and politicians in China and Japan feared that the Northeast Asia History Foundation would be at the forefront of an all-out war against them and hamper co-prosperity in the region. However, the record and work of the foundation has proven they were wrong. “The goal of the foundation was laying the basis for peace and prosperity in the region,” Chung Jae-jeong, president of the NAHF, said in an interview with The Korea Times Monday. “We see no value in destructive fights.”

Surveys show Japanese people’s sentiment toward Koreans improved last year, the 100th anniversary of Japanese annexation of the peninsula. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan even issued a statement acknowledging that the annexation was forced on the Korean people a century ago. “The Japanese public appears to have reacted positively to the foundation’s openness and its willingness to hear their views in shedding light on the annexation illegitimacy,” Chung said.

He noted the history foundation makes efforts not only to address distorted historical facts, but also help Koreans look back on their country’s own mistakes. “It is now time for Korea to learn a lesson from its past,” Chung said. “We should pay attention to the reason Korea was colonized by Japan from an international perspective. Based on that we can build a more amicable relationship with Japan.”

He said the foundation strives to live up to its name by actively encouraging scholars and civic groups in Northeast Asia to jointly participate in its projects. “For instance, when we hold a symposium or forum, we invite scholars in the forefront of their field from both home and abroad,” Chung said. “If we only invite those supportive of the Korean government’s stance, such an event would not be very meaningful or have much impact on society.”

In March, the foundation plans to hold an international symposium with a German foundation for scholars and teachers from countries that also share historical conflicts with neighboring countries, such as Palestine, Israel, Germany and Poland. Chung said the foundation plans to beef up collaboration with European scholars. He noted that Northeast Asian nations have much to learn from European countries’ success in reconciliation with their neighbors and forming the European Union despite the bitter feelings they hold regarding two World Wars.

Atoning for Murder of Own Citizens

By Michael Breen, THE KOREA TIMES, 12.3.2009

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a governmental body, confirmed last week the long-held suspicion that South Korea murdered thousands of its own citizens in the opening months of the 1950 to 53 Korean War.

Through methodical excavation of burial sites, forensic examination and interviews with eyewitnesses, the Commission said it had verified 4,934 of what some researchers suspect may have been over 100,000 unlawful executions without trial on this side of the DMZ.

Add the killings during the left-right struggles on Jeju Island and elsewhere even before the start of the war and it becomes apparent that South Koreans were more brutalized in the early days of the republic by their own authorities than under the previous 36 years of Japanese rule.

Yet 60 years later, the suffering of the Japanese period is closer to the surface. The smallest wrong comment inflames nationalistic sentiment and seems to bring the memories flooding back. The more recent murder of Korea’s own, however, is forgotten. That is a consequence of education.

Although widely known by foreign troops who occasionally intervened to stop police massacres, the war crimes by the Syngman Rhee government against its own citizenry are little known in Korea because they were covered up.

In place of this shame, nationalistic governments taught children to point the finger of accusation for Korean suffering elsewhere: at North Korea which also conducted mass executions, at Japan for the 1910 to 45 occupation, and at America, for dividing the country and looking the other way when South Korean leaders misbehaved.

For good measure, the authorities classified families of their own victims as potential enemies until the late 1980s to keep any from gaining a voice. Last week’s government admission to the massacres did not make much impact. The story was tucked away on the inside pages and passed most people by.

Those who did read it tend to interpret it in terms of the old violent left-right argument or, since democracy, the liberal-conservative divide. The Commission, which was formed under the previous administration of Roh Moo-hyun, is seen as being on the left, and the present government of President Lee Myung-bak as on the right and therefore uncomfortable with the Commission’s recommendation of an official apology and compensation for families.

But this is the wrong narrative. The fact is that police and army intelligence officials, acting under orders, undertook mass Gestapo-style executions of civilians all over the country in mines and purpose-dug ditches.

These actions can be explained. The authorities may have feared, and not without good cause, that leftists would welcome the invading communist forces. There may have been no time for trials. They may have panicked. They may have taken revenge in some cases for leftist atrocities. The leadership may have been primitive in its understanding of individual rights.

But whatever the analysis, the fact is it happened and was covered up. South Koreans were lied to and encouraged to blame outsiders for their troubles, a shallow habit that is the hallmark of the weak and undeveloped, and completely at odds with Korea’s true status as one of the world’s leading industrial nations in economic terms and increasingly in democratic terms.

This is a contradiction that modern South Korea, as it steps towards the inevitable reunification with the communist North, needs to come to terms with. It can do this through a process of uncovering the truth and acting in the interests of reconciliation. It is only through this cycle of repentance and forgiveness that this chapter can be closed. Until it is, South Korea will continue to be ill at ease with itself.

Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company.

Commission calls on South Korea to apologise for wartime massacre

Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor, Times On-Line, 27 Nov. 2009

South Korea should make a formal apology and pay compensation to the families of thousands of civilians massacred on the orders of the Government during the early months of the Korean War, an official investigation recommended yesterday.

The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission announced that it had confirmed the murders of almost 5,000 alleged leftwingers who were rounded up and killed by the police and army between June and September 1950.

These are believed to represent a fraction of the total number killed during an anti-communist frenzy as the army of North Korea surged down the peninsula, almost overwhelming South Korean and US forces. Historians and researchers estimate that the true number is at least 100,000, and could be twice as much.

The killings, ordered, according to the commission, at the highest levels of the South Korean Government, were a taboo for decades. Surviving families hid the death of relatives in the massacres for fear of being smeared as communist, under the right-wing military dictatorships that governed South Korea after the war.
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Since democracy was introduced in the late 1980s — and increasingly since the founding of the commission four years ago — the truth has begun to come out, with testimony from participants in massacres and the uncovering of mass graves.

The killings, which were confirmed yesterday, were of members of the National Guidance League, an organisation founded to “re-educate” communists and left-wing sympathisers.

Before the Korean War began in June 1950 the authorities in the South were given quotas for the numbers of league members whom they were expected to recruit. As a result many of those listed on its rolls were not true communists but simply illiterate peasants whose names had been added to make up numbers.

By the end of 1949 there were as many as 300,000 listed league members nationwide and 20,000 in Seoul. When the North Korean army began its march south members of the league in areas still controlled by the South were rounded up for fear that they would join the communist forces.

With the passive collusion, and sometimes in the presence of US troops, the league members, sometimes including women and children, were slaughtered en masse, often being shot and then dumped into the sea or into mass graves. “We have confirmed the deaths of 4,934 members of the National Guidance,” the director of the Commission, Park Young Il, said at a press conference in Seoul.

“The 4,934 confirmed deaths represent only about 10 per cent of the estimated number of victims.” Commission members have previously said that, including other massacres, the total number of civilians killed could be as high as 200,000.

“The Government of then President Syngman Rhee was in a state of panic at the start of the war and deeply worried that league members could sympathise with North Korea and become a threat to the Government.”

The commission was established by Roh Moo Hyun, the liberal President who left office last year and committed suicide in May while being investigated for corruption.

Many on the South Korean Right regard its work as divisive. There are doubts the conservative Government of Mr Roh’s successor, Lee Myung Bak, will continue to fund its $19 million (£12 million) annual budget.

It is also examining Korean collaboration with the pre-1945 Japanese administration and rights abuses in the post-war military dictatorships. It has received petitions from more than 7,000 South Koreans concerning 1,200 alleged incidents, including killings of South Koreans by US forces.

The Korean War

The Korean War, which began with the North Korean invasion in 1950 and petered out three years later, is the “Forgotten War”. Seven decades later, it remains the last piece of unfinished Cold War business. And no civil war has had a more devastating effect on the people it divided.

In late 1945, the former Japanese colony of Korea was divided along the 38th parallel into Soviet and American zones of influence. But in the dawning of the Cold War, the division quickly hardened. Both sides claimed legitimate authority over the whole peninsula; both spoke openly of invading and conquering the other. After months of mutual provocation, it was the North Koreans who crossed the 38th parallel in force in June 1950.

The northern capital, Pyongyang, was captured and recaptured; Seoul was lost and won four separate times. The communist Northerners were close to being defeated by the South and its American-led coalition of UN members when China intervened and turned the tide. By the time the war ended, with a temporary Armistice rather than a permanent peace treaty, the South Koreans had lost 415,000 men, the Americans, British and UN forces 37,000. The North Koreans and Chinese lost a million and a half combined and the two armies faced one another in more or less the same positions that they began three years earlier.



candleAt a time when controversies over history have become a major source of conflict between the countries of East Asia (particularly between China, Japan and the two Koreas) this workshop examines how contrasting views of history have come to play such a central role in international friction within the region, and considers means of promoting regional historical reconciliation.  Presentations and discussions will explore the way in which diverse media are used by scholars, grassroots movements and others to promote nationalist interpretations of history or messages of historical reconciliation.

The relationship between Japan, China and Korea is of central importance to the future stability of our region, and of particular political and economic importance to Australia. This workshop seeks to promote a deeper understanding of current tensions in the relationship between these countries, and to contribute to the practical search for resolutions to cultural and ideological dimensions of this conflict…

This workshop is free and open to the public audience.

Inquiries by E-mail:

Workshop Program

Workshop Participants

Workshop Abstracts

Lee administration is trying to ‘bury all the new history we have learned’: Bruce Cumings

Bruce Cumings

Bruce Cumings

‘All the new history has been squeezed out of the toothpaste tube by a lot of courageous historians, and there is no way to get it back,’ Cumings says.  (The Hankyoreh, 26 Nov. 2008)

In an interview with The Hankyoreh conducted via email and published in the print edition of the newspaper on November 26, Cumings discussed his perspective on the issue of history textbook selection in South Korea. The growth of the issue into a controversy has largely been precipitated by the government’s attempts to revise the textbook “A Modern and Contemporary History of Korea” in collaboration with the conservative New Right organization. Textbook authors have since voiced objections to the revisions and educators and parents have voiced objections to reports that the government was trying to pressure individual principals into using the government’s preferred textbook.

Cumings is critical of the administration’s handling of the textbook selection process and was one of the people who signed a statement released November 11 by the Organization of Korean Historians with the support of 676 scholars, 562 from Korea and 114 from abroad. The statement said that the Lee Myung-bak administration’s interference with a school’s ability to choose its history textbook was political and has diminished a student’s right to an education.

The Hankyoreh: How and why did you participate in this campaign? Did you also ask other American scholars to participate in the statement?

Bruce Cumings: I think the vast majority of scholars in Korean Studies in the U.S., Korea and elsewhere think that governments have no business sticking their noses into what historians write, or what responsible authors and editors choose to include in textbooks. Any American presidential administration that did that would be seen as a laughing stock.

Q: The way the government is sticking to the issue of history textbook selection is unprecedented in modern Korean history. Since the launch of the Lee administration, the government’s intervention in the issue has become conspicuous. What do you think about this?

A: The Lee administration is living in the past, still remembering the way Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan operated. It is very anachronistic for politicians to think that they can control history, or history textbooks.

Q: Why do you think this administration is stepping up its offensive against the idea of modern history?

A: After ten years that were truly new and different in postwar Korean history, the Lee administration is trying to turn the clock back, and to deny the enormous progress that has occurred since 1997 under Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun, in gaining a fuller understanding of postwar history, in furthering reconciliation among people in the South and with the North, and in dramatically changing the attitude of the general population in the ROK toward the North.

Q: One of the keywords they often bring up is “legitimacy.” They think that describing unpleasant events in history textbooks could weaken the legitimacy of the regime[[[ the elements that brought about Korea’s independence.]]] What is your opinion about this?

A: Legitimacy is not something to be gotten by controlling textbooks, or manufacturing an historical line. It can only come from the people, as they come to recognize the correctness and authority of a government. Instead of gaining legitimacy, the Lee administration is acting like an ostrich, sticking its head in the sand at the sound of bad historical news. Even worse, they are acting like the right-wing Japanese, trying to paper over difficult issues while claiming to protect “national pride.” The new history produced in the past 20 years in the ROK, uncovering many thorny and tragic problems, is actually the best path toward a reconciliation among people of very different perspectives and experiences in the South, between the victimizers and the victims, and has also helped the reconciliation between North and South.

Q: How does this kind of interference with history textbooks affect students?

A: Students are seekers of truth, and although they also want to be proud of their country, they have utter contempt for authorities who would deny them access to the best historical information and scholarship. When someone tries to do that, as the ROK did for many decades, the result is that young people think that everything they have heard from the authorities is a pack of lies — and then they truly lose pride in their leaders and their country. An example is this: my friend Suh Dae-sook proved in his 1968 book that Kim Il Sung was a genuine fighter against the Japanese for a decade after the Manchurian incident, going through all kinds of trials and difficulties — all scholars know this, and have known it at least since 1968. Yet students were told for decades that Kim was an “imposter” who stole the name of a great patriot. Here is the result: two decades later when Professor Suh delivered a lecture about Kim’s background at Seoul National University, the whole room erupted in raucous cheers! So, it is self-defeating to try to hide the truth from students. Sooner or later, it will come out.

Q: It has been almost nine months since the launch of the Lee administration. Since then, there have been some dramatic incidents such as the candlelight demonstrations. I think you have been monitoring the things Korea has undergone. How do you evaluate the Lee administration as a whole?

A: This administration has made mistake after mistake, and has gotten nothing for it. They cozied up to the Bush administration, the most unpopular in American history (and perhaps in the world), just at the point where Bush was a lame duck. They purposely alienated the North, just as Bush was turning toward engagement with Pyongyang — and the result was, no one in Washington or in the 6-Party Talks pays much attention to Seoul’s viewpoint. They are now trying to bury all the new history we have learned about the colonial and postwar periods, and this only makes young people want to know more — they want to know exactly what the administration is trying to cover up. All the new history has been squeezed out of the toothpaste tube by a lot of courageous historians, and there is no way to get it back into the tube. It’s as simple as that: it can never work.

Also, see here Bruce Cuming’s interview “Censoring History” given to the Donga Ilbo newspaper…

Bruce Cumings is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in History at the University of Chicago and the author of several books, including “Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History” (1997) and “North Korea: Another Country” (2004).

South Korea owns up to brutal past

taejon-massacre-1950Hamish McDonald Asia-Pacific Editor
November 15, 2008

SOMETHING remarkable has been happening in South Korea this year, without getting much attention anywhere. It has been a nation dragging its darkest secrets into the daylight – not historical crimes committed by the long-dead, but those carried out during the 60-year life of the Republic of Korea. The stream of reports coming out of Seoul’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission are unsettling not just for Koreans, but also allied countries, including Australia which defended the southern Korean state and supported its successive leaders.

Out of the competing barrages of propaganda that have shrouded the 1950-53 Korean War, we are finally getting conclusive admissions that some of the worst atrocities, blamed at the time on the enemy, were in fact committed by our side – and we knew it.

The commission is the legacy ofRoh Moo-hyun, the former human rights lawyer and political liberal who was South Korea’s president for five years until February. It was set up in December 2005, and operates with a staff of 240 and a budget of $US19 million ($29.7 million) a year, with the daunting task of opening up a century of hidden history. This covers the Korean resistance to the 1910-45 Japanese annexation of the country, political oppression during the postwar occupation when the Americans and Russians set up rival regimes in their zones, the Korean War, and the succession ofright-wing and military dictatorships that lasted in South Korea until the late 1980s.

The massacres of civilians during the Korean War are the most shocking to read about. The commission is working through no less than 1200 cases, including about 215 incidents in which US and allied air forces strafed groups of refugees and other civilians. The victims total 100,000, which the commission says is a conservative estimate.

One of the worst incidents preceded the Korean War, in 1948, when the new Syngman Rhee government installed in Seoul by the United States ordered its army to suppress a leftist revolt on Cheju Island. About 30,000 local people were gunned down.

By early 1950 Rhee had about 30,000 alleged communists in his jails, and had about 300,000 suspected sympathisers enrolled in an official “re-education” movement known as the Bodo League. When Kim Il-sung’s communist army attacked from the North in June that year, retreating South Korean forces executed the prisoners, along with many Bodo League members.

At Taejon, about 140kilometres south of Seoul, prisoners were shuttled out of the city’s jail by the army and police, marched with hands bound to the edge of long trenches, made to lie down, and then shot with rifles. Their bodies were rolled in and covered.

The death shuttle went on for days, as the North Koreans advanced, with up to 7000 prisoners executed, according to the commission. Two Australian military observers saw the prisoners being taken off as they passed through Taejon, and were under no illusions what was happening. A US Army major took photographs; they were sent to Washington within a month, but suppressed for half a century.The American commander-in-chief, Douglas MacArthur, got a report about the killings, but there is no evidence that he tried to halt them, or investigate, according to a search of US archives by an Associated Pressteam under the veteran correspondent Charles Hanley. The massacre was blamed on the communists.Indeed, killings were authorised at lower level. Inthesouthern port-city of Busan, the US military adviser Lieutenant Colonel Rollins Emmerich recorded that a SouthKorean commander, Colonel Kim Chong-won, was planning to execute 3500 prisoners held for suspected communist sympathies. In a long-classified note, Emmerich said he persuaded him to hold off “until the situation was more critical”.Busan was held by the Americans and South Koreans, but the picture emerging is that about 10,000 prisoners were eventually trucked out of the city and machine-gunned.

The litany of grim findings by the commission goes on: police and soldiers killed 160 civilians in Yeosu and Suncheon; another 600 killed in Cheondo; 140 in Ganghwa; 870 members of the Bodo League executed at Ulsan; 28 at Naju …

There are massacres by North Koreans and local leftists as well: between 140 and 250 civilians around Dangjin in August and September 1950; between 70 and 120 at Gochang-myeon; 61 at Yangpyeong.

It does not stop with the end ofthe stalemated war in 1953. The commission has detailed human rights abuses committed right up to the early 1990s, including many cases of people being tortured, framed on false treason charges, jailed and, in some cases, executed.

The findings are uncomfortable for Roh’s conservative successor since February, Lee Myung-bak.

At a recent ceremony in which the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Lee Yong-hoon, bowed his head and apologised for unjust court judgments in the past, Lee said the courts had to “guard against judicial populism”.

Of course the findings reflect badly on the right, but even worse things will be unearthed if a similar inquest is ever held into North Korea’s history.

The exercise suggests an impressive maturity and sophistication in South Korea, a lesson for its bigger neighbours Japan and China.

ROK’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission news


The Present Status of Civilian Victims

Since the Commission’s establishment, it has received 9,600 petitions for civilian massacres from the Korean War period of 1950-53. Out of those 9,600 petitions, South Korean forces conducted 7,922 massacres and North Korean forces conducted 1,687 massacres. However, among academic circles and civil society, it is widely claimed that the number of victims number in the hundreds of thousands, with some estimates as high as one million. Despite such high numbers of victims, a comparably low number of petitioners appealed to the Commission. This may be due to the following reasons: The period of petition is limited to one year, the victims and bereaved families’ are reluctant to come forward, and most of the victims and immediate descendants are deceased since the massacres occurred more than a half century ago.

The petitioners live throughout Korea , which indicates that the civilian massacres weren’t restricted to any particular region. Therefore, it is necessary to begin a nationwide investigation regarding the status of the victims. In order to understand the scale and overall effects these massacres had on the nation, truth finding work should expand beyond individual cases. Even before the commission’s establishment, academics and civil society leaders raised similar concerns.

Since 2007, the commission, together with academics, have conducted the investigation on “the Present Status of Civilian Massacre Victims around the Korean War Period” in order to analyze and categorize the situation of massacre victims nationwide. By doing so, the commission tries to contribute to truth finding work as a whole. In 2008, the commission and local governments began conducting “the Survey on the Present Status of Civilian Victims.”

The results from the investigation and survey will be used to aid in investigation activities as well as provide a basis for the commission’s recommendations. It will also act as a model for reconciliation and memorial work on behalf of the victims.

Koreas Mark Aug. 15 Liberation Day at Separate Events

SEOUL (Yonhap) — Reflecting the chilled inter-Korean relations, South and North Korea marked the Aug. 15 Liberation Day anniversary at separate functions instead of a joint event, as previously held. From 2001-2006, the Koreas held joint celebrations for the anniversary marking the day in 1945 when Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule.

The two Koreas decided on separate events in June, when civilian delegations completed a joint event marking the eighth anniversary of a landmark summit between the two countries.

North Korea did not hold a massive meeting for Liberation Day, but its main newspaper urged Japan to give compensation for the brutal colonial rule of Korea and the looting of Korea’s priceless resources.

According to the North’s main Internet media site “Uriminzokkiri,” meaning “Between Our People,” Rodong Sinmun, the organ of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, claimed that the history of Japan is the history of invasion and looting, saying, “The history of crime will be neither covered nor destroyed.”

In an editorial, Rodong Sinmun also said that the liberation of the country put an end to the dark era of national suffering, and the Korean people have since then become the proud masters of a sovereign and independent state to build a new life. “The modern history of Korea is the history of President Kim Il-sung, and the country is Kim Il-sung’s Korea shining with his august name.”

Meanwhile, the North, South and Overseas Side Committees for Implementing the June 15 Joint Declaration on Aug. 15 issued a joint statement on “the Japanese imperialists’ vicious colonial rule over the Korean nation,” saying that “Japan has not yet admitted the thrice-cursed crimes it committed against the Korean people, but is getting more frantic in distortion of its history of aggression, moves to grab Dokdo islets and political suppression of Koreans in Japan.”

“Japan, far from making reparation, is whitewashing its history of aggression and crimes and openly betraying its scheme for reinvasion,” the statement said. If Japan does not want to see itself isolated in the international community, it should make an apology and reparation for having imposed numerous human and material losses upon the Korean people and put an immediate halt to the distortion of history, it said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il received a message of greetings from Russian President Dmitri Anatoliyevich Medvedev on Aug. 15 on the occasion of the day of Korea’s liberation.

“The Korean people gained freedom through the protracted self-sacrificing struggle against colonial subjugation,” the Russian president’s message said. “And the Soviet Army made a decisive contribution to defeating Japanese militarism in the Far Eastern region. We support constructive cooperation and development between the north and south of Korea to strengthen the security and stability on the Korean Peninsula and overall in Asia.”


Chosun Ilbo (“TWO KOREA’S TO MARCH ‘VIRTUALLY’ TOGETHER AT OLYMPICS”, Seoul, 2008/07/21) reported that the Olympic teams from the two Koreas will effectively parade together at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony on Aug. 8, although they have not formally agreed to do so, officials of the PRC Foreign Ministry and the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games said Sunday. During the opening ceremony, teams will parade according to the stroke count of their names written in simplified Chinese characters. As the characters for the two Koreas have the same stroke count, the Olympic teams from the two countries are expected to parade one after the other. The ROK Olympic Committee has tried to send a telephone message via the Unification Ministry to the ROK to ask for a consultation on the issue, but the ROK refused to accept the message. The Unification Ministry on Saturday said, “The government still hopes for a joint parade during the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics, and there still is time.”

Korea Times (Kim Sue-young, “GESONG PROJECT WILL CONTINUE DESPITE SOUR TIES”, Seoul, 2008/07/21) reported that Seoul will continue to develop an inter-Korean industrial complex in Kaeseong despite sour ties between the two sides, Kim Young-tak, director general of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex Project Bureau, said Monday. “I think it is difficult to resume the tour to Mt. Geumgang unless the shooting death is clarified,” he said. “But the industrial project should be constantly developed in a stable way.”

BBC News (“N KOREA WORKER KILLED IN KAESONG “, 2008/07/17) reported that a DPRK worker was killed and four others were injured in an accident in the Kaesong industrial complex in the DPRK, ROK officials said. It happened when a steel frame collapsed at a factory owned by a ROK company, Pyeongan. An investigation into the cause of the accident is reportedly under way. Two of the four injured are in critical condition, a spokesman for the ROK Unification Ministry said.

JoongAng Ilbo (Ahn Hye-ri and Jung Ha-won, “SECRET NORTH CONNECTIONS CRUMBLE”, 2008/07/16) reported that H yundai Group has been a pioneer in inter-Korean dialogue since its founder, Chung Ju-young, visited the DPRK in 1989. Its under-the-radar communication channels with Pyongyang have often turned out to be more effective than those of the ROK government. But developments after the death of a ROK tourist in the DPRK show that even Hyundai is rapidly losing its connection with the DPRK, a development that could deal a blow to Seoul’s struggles to find ways to talk to Pyongyang.

Xinhua (“S KOREAN PRESIDENT URGED TO REVISE DIPLOMATIC POLICY”, Seoul, 2008/07/15) reported that ROK’s main opposition party asked President Lee Myung-bak to revise his diplomatic policy. “Pragmatism is becoming another word for opportunism for the Lee Myung-bak government. Recent incidents show that it is time for the president to revise his pragmatism and pragmatic diplomacy which have been threatening the country’s principles as well as its international status,” said Won Hye-young, floor leader of themain opposition Democratic Party. “The issue of the North (DPRK)’s killing of the tourist must also be dealt with sternly, but the government must remember that restoring the inter-Korean dialogue channel is critical for proper investigation as well as peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Won said.

Associated Press (Hyung-jin Kim, “SKOREA PROPOSES TALKS WITH NKOREA”, Seoul, 2008/07/14) also reported that the ROK ruling party on Monday proposed holding parliamentary talks with the DPRK. Hong Joon-pyo, floor leader of the Grand National Party, said the talks are necessary to prevent a further chill in relations between the countries after a shooting incident at Mt. Kumgang. The shooting “paradoxically shows why South-North reconciliation is necessary,” Hong said.

Associated Press (Hyung-jin Kim, “NORTH KOREA REJECTS PROPOSAL TO RESUME TALKS”, Seoul, 2008/07/13) reported that the DPRK on Sunday rejected a proposal to resume stalled reconciliation talks with the ROK. The Rodong Sinmun, said in a commentary that ROK President Lee Myung-bak ‘s proposal to restart bilateral talks was not even worth considering. The paper called Lee’s proposal a “deceitful” tactic to avoid taking responsibility for deteriorated ties. ROK presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan told reporters Sunday it is “not appropriate” for the DPRK to criticize the president’s proposal.

Teachers from South and North Korea meet at Mt. Kumgang amid strained relations

SEOUL (Yonhap) – Educators from South and North Korea held a two-day conference at the North Korean resort of Mt. Kumgang from May 29 and resolved to endeavor for implementation of the two inter-Korean summit agreements from 2000 and 2007.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on May 30 that the educators resolved to launch a struggle to open a new era of independent reunification, peace and prosperity under the banner of the June 15 joint declaration and the October 4 declaration.

The KCNA added that the participants underscored the need for the educators to conduct a dynamic struggle to uphold and implement the June 15 and Oct. 4 declarations under any circumstances and remove all legal and institutional barriers to national unity and reunification.

The two sides were represented by the South’s Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union and the North’s Korean Education Workers Union. But this year, the South’s conservative Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations did not participate in the conference.

SEOUL, May 28 (Yonhap) — Leaders of a South Korean teachers’ union left for North Korea on Wednesday for a three-day meeting with their northern counterparts, hoping to boost cooperation amid strained ties between the two countries.

“This is a tough situation, but if we have a will, passion and the educational conscience to leave a unified country to our children, no obstacles will stop this meeting,” said Hyun In-cheol, spokesman for the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers’ Union.

The 20-member delegation led by the union’s leader Jung Jin-hwa travelled by land to the North’s scenic resort at Mount Geumgang, where they will meet with leaders of the Korean Educational and Cultural Workers Trade Union on Thursday. The two sides will exchange views on how to enhance school education on inter-Korean issues and deal with Japanese history textbook distortions over Japan’s wrongdoing in the early 20th century, the union said.

The teachers’ meeting comes amid strained ties between Seoul and Pyongyang since the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration took office in late February. The North has unleashed verbal attacks against Lee since April, as his administration took a tougher stance over North Korea’s human rights situations and nuclear programs than his liberal predecessors.

Amid the chilly relations, the more conservative teachers’ umbrella union in the South, the General Federation of Teachers Organizations, said it decided not to participate in the meeting.

Teachers from the two countries held their first official meeting in 2005 amid warming ties under the Roh Moo-hyun administration. This week’s meeting is the second of the kind.

New Era for Japan-Korea History Issues

by William Underwood, OhmyNews (16 March 2008)

Memorial services for Korean remains repatriated from Japan six decades after World War II were conducted in a variety of religious traditions at the Manhyange Dongsan national cemetery in South Korea in January.
©2008 Nanba Koji

Historical issues involving Japan and South Korea have entered a new phase with the inauguration in Seoul on February 25 of a conservative president and the repatriation in January of the remains of 101 Koreans who died while forcibly serving in the Japanese military during World War II.

President Lee Myung Bak has said he “does not want to tell Japan to apologize or engage in self-reflection,” calling instead for future-oriented ties and a “mature relationship” with Japan. Lee replaced President Roh Moo Hyun, who spoke of a “diplomatic war” with Tokyo over history.

Yet the tough stance of the previous president, coupled with vigorous cross-border activism involving South Korean and Japanese citizens, has begun yielding results. Tokyo is cooperating “on humanitarian grounds” in resolving some historical legacies, but it is digging in its heels on many others.

Japan’s mixed track record prior to and during the Roh era is most evident in the case of wartime labor conscription. Roughly 700,000 Koreans were forced to work for private companies within Japan. More than 300,000 Koreans were forced to serve in the Japanese military in fighting and support roles; 22,182 are known to have died.

On January 22, the remains of 101 Korean military conscripts killed in nearly a dozen countries were returned to South Korea from Yutenji Temple in Tokyo, following an official memorial ceremony attended by high-ranking diplomats from Japan and South Korea. The Japanese government, for the first time, invited 50 South Korean family members to attend the ceremony — paying their travel and lodging expenses and providing about $300 in condolence money for each fatality. The South Korean government extended similar condolence payments.

South Korea’s ambassador to Japan called the repatriation of the remains a “valuable start to heal historical wounds.” The 1,034 sets of Korean bones still stored at Yutenji Temple are slated to be returned later this year to South Korea and perhaps, subsequently, to North Korea, the ancestral home of 431 of the war dead. The remains belong mostly to military conscripts killed on overseas battlefields, but they include civilians (some of them women and children) who died in the accidental sinking of the Ukishima-maru transport ship soon after the war.

During the Yutenji memorial ceremony, a Japanese government representative expressed “deep remorse and apology” for suffering inflicted upon Koreans under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, quoting from the written apology offered by former Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo to former President Kim Dae Jung in 1998.

Access to the main ceremony, however, was tightly restricted by the Japanese government. Media personnel, members of Japanese activist and religious groups, and even a current Japanese Diet member were barred from attending. Japan’s Foreign Ministry claimed in the days before the event that South Korean family members had requested the private service, but this depiction was rejected by the South Korean government. Larger, more inclusive memorial rites were held for the war victims on January 23 at the Manhyange Dongsan national cemetery in Chonan, South Korea.

Returning Korean military conscript remains has been a fitful, decades-long process. Japan reportedly sent 6,000 sets of remains to South Korea during the Occupation under American supervision, followed by an additional 8,800 sets in 1969. Using military name rosters supplied by Japan, Seoul authorities during the 1970s worked to track down relatives and return remains, but a public backlash ensued because Tokyo provided bereaved families with no apologies and only inexpensive obituary gifts.

This helped to derail the remains repatriation process within South Korea and essentially stranded the bones now at Yutenji Temple, which had been stored in the compound of Japan’s Health Ministry until 1971. It has also recently come to light that Japanese officials attempted to send the Yutenji remains to both South Korea and North Korea in the 1970s. Seoul’s anti-communist regime, however, blocked the plan because it might have led to warmer North Korea-Japan relations.

Former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro promised former President Roh at their December 2004 summit meeting that Japan would promptly return the Yutenji bones and assist South Korea’s broader efforts to settle forced labor issues. But reparations work bogged down due to emotional history disputes that erupted in 2005, scuttling what was supposed to be a “Year of Friendship” marking 40 years of restored diplomatic ties. The main flashpoints were Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Japanese history textbooks, and the ownership of a group of tiny islets (known as Dokdo in the East Sea to Koreans and Takeshima in the Sea of Japan to Japanese).

Roh stated that Japan’s forced labor and comfort women systems were tens of thousands of times worse than the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s. He repeatedly charged that Japan had failed to live up to global norms of morality concerning historical wrongdoing, and suggested that legal claims by A-bomb survivors, former comfort women and former conscripts abandoned on Sakhalin Island have not been resolved.

South Korea’s 85-member Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization under Japanese Imperialism has received over 220,000 statements from elderly former conscripts or family members since 2005. Among the 60,000 cases of forcible conscription certified so far are Koreans who were convicted of Class B and C war crimes stemming from mistreatment of Allied prisoners of war. The commission described the men as “double victims” whose honor should be restored.

Public hearings held across South Korea have helped former conscripts reclaim their dignity and produced a historical record of the forced labor experience — along with a list of more than 2,000 Japanese firms that benefited. Oral histories have been published, in Korean and Japanese, and a documentary movie is being planned. A truth commission website helps former conscripts locate wartime companions, with the site’s database of high-resolution photos being searchable by year of conscription, destination and type of work. The South Korean government plans to eventually open a forced labor museum and research center, most likely in the southeastern city of Pusan.

Last fall the Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization reported that Yasukuni Shrine has inaccurately listed the names of 60 Koreans among the rolls of Imperial Japanese war dead. Forty-seven of the Koreans were confirmed to have died after World War II, but 13 are still alive. Shrine officials, however, refuse to remove the names of individuals once they have been enshrined. Yasukuni received the names of Korean military fatalities from the Japanese government, which never attempted to notify Korean families of their relatives’ fates.

Guided by local Japanese activists, Korean truth commission members have also conducted fact-finding investigations at former mines and construction sites across Japan where civilian conscripts toiled and frequently died. The ambitious goal is to find, identify and repatriate the remains of forced laborers still in Japan.

The Japanese government claims, despite much historical evidence to the contrary, that the state was never directly involved in labor conscription by Japanese companies. On this basis, Tokyo insists it does not know how many Korean civilians were conscripted or how many died in the custody of private firms — and displays little interest in finding out.

In addition to the Yutenji bones, some 2,000 sets of civilian Korean remains have been located in Japanese temples and charnel houses since 2005, following a Japanese government request to corporations, municipalities and religious bodies to supply information. Hundreds of the remains may belong to forced laborers who died during the war. But most probably belong to Koreans who died before or after the conscription years (1939-1945) or were not labor conscripts; the latter category would apply to perhaps two-thirds of the two million or so Koreans in Japan at war’s end. South Korean and Japanese officials have jointly inspected charnel houses containing a small number of these civilian remains. Most Japanese companies are declining to assist researchers.

Left: Community researchers in August 2006 describe a former Mitsubishi coal mine in Iizuka, Fukuoka, to South Korean truth commission members and Korean relatives of a forced laborer who died in a wartime explosion there. Right: Historical rendering of the Mitsubishi Iizuka mine tower from the landmark’s signboard.
©2008 W. Underwood

The Roh administration in 2005 made public all 35,000 pages of diplomatic records involving the 1965 treaty that normalized relations with Japan, setting a new regional standard for information disclosure. The accord provided Seoul with the equivalent of $500 million in grants and loans, but it also states that claims “concerning property, rights and interests” of the South Korean government and its citizens “have been settled completely and finally.” Disclosure of the records cemented the public perception that the treaty’s “economic cooperation” formula had betrayed the countless individual Koreans harmed by Japanese colonialism.

In response, Roh spearheaded the passage in November 2007 of a law granting compensation from South Korean coffers to individual victims of wartime forced labor. The measure will provide just over $20,000 to families of military and civilian conscripts who died or went missing outside of Korea; conscripts who returned to Korea with disabling injuries; and families of conscripts who returned to Korea with injuries and died later. Payouts are expected to begin in May 2008.

In addition to fixed-amount compensation, the new law also calls for the South Korean state to make individualized payments to former conscripts and families based on financial deposits now held by the Bank of Japan (BOJ) — money that forced laborers earned but never received. The 60-year-old deposits consist largely of unpaid wages, pension contributions, and death and disability benefits for both civilian and military conscripts.

Partly to discourage Koreans from fleeing worksites in wartime Japan, companies funneled their salaries into “patriotic savings accounts” and made mandatory deductions for the national welfare pension fund. Japan’s Welfare Ministry ordered companies to deposit all unpaid sums for civilian conscripts into the national treasury in October 1946. American Occupation officials approved of the Japanese government directive, which was considered a first step toward remunerating the large numbers of ex-conscripts in Japan and Korea. The former industrial workers were viewed as a potentially destabilizing force in both societies precisely because they had been harshly mistreated and then cheated out of their pay.

Wages for Korean soldiers and support personnel conscripted into the military were similarly deposited into postal savings accounts during the war. Japanese authorities deposited salary arrears and related benefits for Korean (and Taiwanese) military conscripts into the BOJ in February 1950. Japan’s Finance Ministry reported the total amount of these deposits to Occupation officials later that year, with the figures broken down by branch of military service.

It has only recently become clear that the Japanese government prior to 1965 made extensive preparations to compensate the families of Koreans killed while serving with the armed forces, even earmarking funds for this purpose in the national budget. Likewise, the original intent of the civilian deposit system was to disburse to workers the funds they had earned. The final form of the normalization treaty, however, sidestepped the question of compensating individuals for conscription and recast reparations as a purely state-level diplomatic issue. The South Korean government was aware, at least in a general sense, of Japan’s two postwar deposit schemes.

The Koizumi administration conceded in response to Diet questioning in 2004 that the Bank of Japan continues to possess more than 2 million yen in financial deposits related to Korean labor conscription. The deposits could be worth $2 billion today, if adjusted for six decades of interest and inflation. Japanese courts have confirmed the existence of wage and pension deposits in individual cases, while ruling that the 1965 treaty nullified the rights of Korean plaintiffs to claim the money. Judges have also found that the Japanese state never notified or attempted to notify ex-conscripts or families about the deposits, even when it would have been possible to do so.

The future status of these financial deposits, which remain shrouded in secrecy and are virtually unknown to the Japanese public, represents a major piece of unfinished reparations business. Japan’s commitment to historical reconciliation is now being tested by South Korean requests for details about the deposits and other aspects of labor conscription.

Seoul will not be able to fully implement its domestic compensation program without fuller Japanese cooperation at least in providing records. The South Korean truth commission has requested Japanese welfare pension records in order to verify that applicants for compensation were conscripted during the war. To provide individually tailored payments, the commission will also need a Japanese document known as the Unpaid Financial Deposits Report.

At a state-level conference last December, Japanese officials reportedly supplied their Korean counterparts with name rosters and, for the first time, financial deposit information for 11,000 military conscripts. Japan is inching toward open discussion of the deposits based on the understanding that Tokyo is not legally responsible for wartime conscription and the money will not be released. However, the Japanese side stated that similar data for the far larger class of civilian conscripts is dispersed across Japan and would be difficult for the central government to compile.

This double standard is consistent with Japan’s past practice, for foreigners as well as Japanese nationals, of privileging the status of military victims of the Asia Pacific War over civilian ones. Since 2006 the Japanese government has footed half the bill for memorial visits by Korean family members to battle sites in Okinawa and six South Pacific nations where their conscripted relatives died. There is no similar program for visits to places in Japan where civilian laborers perished.

Neither is the Japanese government helping to send the bones of civilian conscripts home to Korea. In late February, a citizens group called the Hokkaido Forum returned the remains of three Korean teenagers killed at Nippon Steel’s Muroran foundry in July 1945 during an American naval bombardment, along with the remains of a fourth conscript who died at a nearby coal mine during the war. The government rejected the group’s request for an official representative to attend the Muroran memorial service and for travel expenses, funeral expenses and condolence money to be paid to visiting relatives — as in the case of the Yutenji Temple remains in January.

Repatriation of all civilian conscript remains in Japan could take years. Community activists say the project should include compensation, apologies by the state and corporations involved, and explanations about causes of death. Systematic government cooperation concerning cremation records and domicile registries would greatly speed up the work of identifying remains. But local authorities in some cases are withholding such dusty data on privacy grounds, a practice that activists say shields Japanese companies by masking deaths on the job.

A Fukuoka-based citizens group called the Truth-Seeking Network for Forced Mobilization was formed in 2005 to facilitate the work of the South Korean government’s truth commission within Japan. A month-long project in 2006 featured public memorial rites and symposiums at 27 sites nationwide, as well as visits by 20 Korean relatives of conscripted workers who died in Japan. More than 200 people excavated a communal grave in an open field in Hokkaido, containing the remains of 10 Koreans who died while constructing an airfield and were apparently cremated on the spot.

Identifying the bones of Korean forced laborers exhumed in August 2006 from a field in Sarufutsu village, Hokkaido.
©2008 Peacetown

Beginning in 1991, dozens of compensation lawsuits have been filed in Japanese courts against private companies and the Japanese state for civilian and military conscription. Related litigation demanding apology and compensation has involved Koreans who were forced into military sexual slavery, exposed to the atomic bombings, killed in the Ukishima-maru accident, convicted of Class B and C war crimes, abandoned on Sakhalin Island, interned in Siberia, and enshrined in Yasukuni against their families’ wishes.

Virtually all of these legal efforts have failed due to the claims waiver language in the Japan-South Korea treaty and time limits for filing claims. A decision by the Toyama District Court in September 2007 was typical. Judges dismissed the suit by elderly female plaintiffs, but agreed that as teenagers they had been threatened or deceived into going to Japan and then forced to work at a factory where they were confined without pay. Three companies — New Nippon Steel, NKK, and Nachi-Fujikoshi — have compensated a handful of Korean forced labor victims over the past decade in isolated cases through out-of-court settlements. Led by Mitsubishi, Japan’s top wartime munitions manufacturer, Japanese industry has otherwise evaded all responsibility for the massive forced labor program.

In an unprecedented ruling in November 2007, the Japan Supreme Court found that the government’s refusal to provide health-care benefits to A-bomb survivors living overseas is illegal, and ordered the state to pay damages. The top court confirmed that the plaintiffs had been forcibly taken from Korea and forced to work for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Hiroshima, but rejected their demand for back salary. In a December 2007 decision that could aid reparations activities, the Tokyo District Court ruled that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs violated Japan’s information disclosure law by failing to respond in a timely manner to a request for documents concerning the 1965 accord. The Japanese government has appealed the decision.

More than 600 elderly Koreans were moved — at Japanese expense — from Sakhalin to South Korea last October, in the latest phase of a program that has resettled 2,300 people since 1992. Japan denies official responsibility for encouraging or coercing as many as 150,000 Koreans to move to Sakhalin before 1945, but Tokyo has quietly spent millions of dollars building a special village for the repatriates in South Korea. Late last year a dozen Sakhalin Koreans, now living in Sakhalin, South Korea and Japan, filed a new lawsuit seeking the refund of money they deposited into postal savings and postal life insurance accounts when the island was part of the Japanese empire.

The tens of thousands of Korean “comfort women” represent an egregious class of forced labor outside the formal conscription system. In operation from 1995 to 2006, the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) was a landmark initiative by Japanese standards of postwar responsibility, extending prime ministerial apologies and compensation from private sources. But only about 300 women across East Asia accepted the payments due to deep suspicions about Japanese sincerity. The response by Japanese citizens to the government’s appeal for AWF donations was embarrassingly weak; it is likely that much of the private funding was covertly provided by the Japanese government, whose overriding concern was avoiding legal responsibility. The South Korean government has offered financial assistance and medical benefits to former comfort women since 1993.

Last year former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo suggested that comfort women had not been forced into providing sex for Japan’s military. Abe first implicitly repudiated, then under international pressure explicitly supported, the Kono Statement of 1993 acknowledging direct military involvement. The firestorm of controversy prompted national legislatures in North America and Europe to pass resolutions calling on Japan to do more to repair the injustice. In Seoul last month, the eight hundredth “Wednesday demonstration” was held in front of the Japanese Embassy, demanding more robust apologies and compensation based on legal culpability.

North Korea is obviously a central player in Japanese-Korean reconciliation efforts. Pyongyang has often undermined redress efforts through exaggerated propaganda, nuclear weapons development, missile launches and, above all, the abduction of Japanese nationals. Japan is currently excluding North Korea from the remains repatriation process, and North Korean relatives of deceased conscripts have been barred from entering the country to take part in community events.

Tokyo has been trying since the early 1990s to normalize relations with Pyongyang using the economic assistance strategy it employed with Seoul. But North Korea has insisted on formal state reparations for war and colonial responsibility. Around ten percent of forced laborers came from northern Korea and their compensation claims, for damages as well as the salary arrears essentially being held in escrow by Japan’s treasury, remain open. While the Japanese government is keeping silent about its ultimate plans for the BOJ financial deposits, it seems clear that the funds will remain frozen until ties with North Korea are established.

Late 1970s photos of the former Akasaka coal mine in Fukuoka operated by Aso Mining, the family firm of previous Japanese Foreign Minister Aso Taro, and a Korean forced to work there during the war. Aso Mining used an estimated 12,000 Koreans, as well as 300 Allied prisoners of war, for forced labor.
©2008 Hayashi Eidai

President Lee Myung Bak vowed during his election campaign to roll back key features of the past ten years of liberal leadership in South Korea, especially the “Sunshine Policy” of tolerant engagement with the north that the Roh administration inherited from his predecessor Kim Dae Jung. Lee indicated during the presidential transition that he will allow the Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization to expire when its funding mandate ends in late 2008. Although Lee was elected on a primarily economic platform, one reason for the rise of South Korea’s “New Right” is waning public support for the state’s 14 historical commissions, several of which target colonial-era collaboration with Japan. Lee and Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo have agreed to resume reciprocal summit meetings this spring.

Lee himself was born in Japan in 1941 to voluntary Korean immigrants who returned to their homeland in 1946. He was jailed in 1964 for taking part in student demonstrations against the South Korean government and the treaty with Japan. Two years from now, he will oversee commemorations of Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, an event that promises to be both painful and cathartic.

The global trend toward repairing historical injustices offers few parallels for the recent direct involvement of the South Korean government in redress efforts targeting a neighboring democratic state. Japanese and Korean civil society actors will try to maintain the momentum of the Roh years and continue healing the scars of forced labor. The effect upon Japanese-Korean reconciliation of Lee’s weaker commitment to reparations remains to be seen.

A fierce Korean pride in a lonely group of islets

By Choe Sang-Hun, International Herald Tribune, August 28, 2008

DOKDO/TAKESHIMA: Each day, weather permitting, up to 1,800 South Koreans sail to this cluster of barely inhabitable islets and outcroppings, seven seasick hours away from the Korean mainland. The waves around here are so unpredictable that only 60 percent of the visitors can land. And when they do, it is for a 20-minute bout of snapping photos from a wharf before hurrying back onto their ferries for the return trip. The other 40 percent must content themselves with circling around, throwing cookie crumbs at the sea gulls wheeling overhead, and waving South Korean flags.

Still, over the past three years, the voyage to these islets that South Korea administers but Japan claims has become a highly popular pilgrimage for Koreans. So far this year, 80,000 people have set foot here, undeterred by the lack of a souvenir shop, restaurant or public toilet and the fact that its largest flat surface is the wharf. “When Japan claims Dokdo as its own territory, we Koreans feel as outraged as if someone pointed at our wife and claimed that she is his own,” said Cho Whan Bok, secretary general of the Northeast Asian History Foundation, a government-affiliated institute established in 2006 to examine territorial and other disputes with neighboring countries.

Nowhere do South Koreans’ historical grievances, and their fear and mistrust of their neighbors, turn more emotional than in the friction over what South Korea calls Dokdo and Japan calls Takeshima. This summer, tensions have erupted in angry demonstrations. Both countries trace their claim back over centuries. Japan says it reconfirmed its right to Takeshima in 1905, during its war with Russia. For Koreans, however, this was an annexation that marked the prelude to Japan’s colonial rule, from 1910 to 1945, a period during which Koreans were banned from using their language and their women were lured or forced into sexual slavery in front-line brothels for Japan’s Imperial Army.

The postwar peace treaty between a defeated Japan and the Allied powers did not resolve sovereignty over the islets, and since the 1950s, South Korea has maintained a police garrison here. Japan repeatedly urged South Korea to take the issue to the International Court of Justice, and South Korea repeatedly declined, arguing that there was nothing to discuss. Then, in 2005, members of the prefectural assembly in Shimane, on Japan’s western coast, declared Feb. 22 – the 100th anniversary of the annexation of the islands – to be Takeshima Day, to highlight the Japanese claim.

Their resolution set off a firestorm in South Korea. “If the Japanese try to take this island from us, we will fight to the end,” said Kwak Young Hwan, captain of the 5,000-ton Sambong, the South Korean Coast Guard’s largest patrol boat, which prowls the waters around Dokdo. “If we run out of firepower, we will ram our ship against the intruders! Our national pride is at stake.”

Passengers on Kwak’s ship are shown an animated film in which a gigantic Robot Taekwon V figure soars up out of sea and routs Japanese pirates trying to invade Dokdo. This week, another South Korean Coast Guard ship carried journalists representing foreign news agencies out to the disputed rocks on a government-sponsored tour. Ahead an islet loomed dimly in the fog, like the tip of the iceberg of historical animosity that keeps two of America’s most stalwart allies in Asia from cooperating more closely on seemingly more pressing contemporary issues, like North Korea’s nuclear program.

Steep steel-and-wooden steps zigzag up a 98-meter-high, or 322-foot-high, bluff to reach the hilltop police barracks, a lighthouse and a helipad, where cabinet ministers and politicians recently landed to affirm South Korea’s sovereignty over the territory. Their visit followed the release by the Japanese Ministry of Education this summer of a new manual for teachers and textbook publishers urging them to instruct Japanese students that the islets rightfully belong to Japan.

South Korea responded by recalling its ambassador to Tokyo. South Korean citizens chimed in, with some decapitating pheasants – Japan’s national bird – in front of the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul. The Seoul subway pulled down Japanese condom advertisements. Even North Korea, still technically at war with the South, joined in the criticism of Japan. When in July, in the midst of this uproar, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names changed the island’s status from “South Korean” to “undesignated sovereignty,” many outraged South Koreans saw this as yet one more instance of their nation’s fate being arbitrarily decided by a bigger power.

The board insisted that its decision was just technical. But then the Bush administration intervened, ordering the board to restore the old designation on its Web site. The move was well received in Seoul. When President George W. Bush visited on Aug. 5, tens of thousands of South Koreans greeted him waving U.S. flags and placards that read “Welcome President Bush!”

While ownership over the islets can affect fishing rights and access to seabed mineral resources, economic self-interest hardly explains the intense emotions South Koreans attach to the issue. While for Japan this may be just one of several territorial disputes with its neighbors, notably China and Russia, for many South Koreans, Japan’s refusal to surrender title is tantamount to denying South Korea complete independence.

In Japan, said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the private Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, “there is a small group for whom it matters and a smaller group for whom it matters in an emotional sense.” In South Korea, however, “it is a really mobilizing, energizing situation that has managed to strike a chord,” he said. “South Koreans have taken it to their heart.”

Among post-World War II generations of Koreans, a desire to overcome Japan – and fear that they could once again be subjugated by much larger neighbors – remains a powerful driving force. Said Cho, of the Northeast Asian History Foundation: “Even in sports, such as Olympic baseball, South Koreans get twice as happy when they beat Japan as when they defeat, say, the United States.”

In this charged atmosphere, Dokdo, which means “solitary island,” is more than a collection of rocks. South Koreans like to personify it as if it were a sibling or spouse. A popular modern version of “Arirang,” the song Koreans associate the most with their national spirit, begins: “Dokdo, did you sleep well last night?”

“I feel lonely and isolated serving here,” said Kim Eun Taek, 24, a police conscript stationed in Dokdo. “But I feel immensely proud. Not every South Korean gets a chance to guard the easternmost territory of our nation.” “Besides,” he said, a rifle on his shoulder as he gazed across the sea toward Japan, “I never liked the Japanese.”

Dokdo is not an easy posting. Until a South Korean company recently donated desalinization equipment, it had no reliable water supply. Jutting almost vertically from the sea, the rocks have few trees and are covered with moss and birds’ nests. Winter weather cuts off ferry service for weeks at a stretch.

Although experts say South Korea and Japan have too much at stake ever to use military means to settle their differences here, the South Korean Coast Guard notes that the number of Japanese patrol boats sailing around the islands has increased since the issue resurfaced in 2005. So far this year, it says, it has detected Japanese patrol ships in the vicinity 62 times, compared with the 98 occasions for the whole of last year.

Kim Sung Do, 68, an octopus fisherman who with his diver wife has lived here for 40 years as Dokdo’s only year-round civilian residents, said he does not fear an invasion from Japan. But “if they ever do that, I will fight them, even if the only weapons I have are my bare fists,” Kim said. In front of his concrete home at the foot of a bluff, seven Korean flags whipped in the wind.

The Advertisement “Do You Know?”

On Thursday, 14 August 2008, The Australian carried a surprising full-page advertisement asserting South Korea’s sovereignty over the islets of Dokdo, the control over which is being disputed by Japan and the Republic of Korea. Signed by an obscure organisation known only as, this advertisement of such scale in the major Australian newspaper must have cost a fortune. A month ago a similar advertisement was carried by The New York Times and financed by a popular South Korean singer, Kim Jang-hoon, (41) who teamed up with a freelance Korean public relations expert, Seo Kyoung-duk. Both of them promised to publish the ad in the major American and foreign newspapers to reiterate the Korean claim for the disputed islets, the history of ancient kingdoms and the truth about the sexual slavery institutionalized by the Japanese Military during the WWII.

The advertisement, with the headline of “Do You Know?” state “For the last 2,000 years, the body of water between Korean and Japan has been called the “East Sea”. Dokdo (two islands) located in the East Sea is a part of Korean territory. The Japanese government must acknowledge this fact”. The name “East Sea” itself has also been one of the most controversial issues between the two states. The Korean governments (both in the North and the South) traditionally name the body of water the “East Sea”, while the Japanese government insists on the name “Sea of Japan.” The advertisement also asks for cooperation between the two governments to pass down accurate facts of history to the next generation and realise peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.

This publication comes amid the open conflict between the two countries fueled by the Japanese government’s recent attempt to add Dokdo to a part of Japanese territory in a new educational guideline for junior high schools. This move sparked outrage in South Korea and led the government to recall its ambassador from Tokyo in July 2008. There are further fears that the trilateral summit involving China, Japan and South Korea, scheduled in Japan in September may not go ahead if the heightened tensions over the disputed territories continue. A reckless decision of the US agency, Board of Geographic Names, to redefine the islets as an area of “undesignated sovereignty” rather than Korean territory, also infuriated the Korean government and prompted US President George W. Bush to intervene on behalf Koreans.

The territorial dispute between Japan and Korea is over Liancourt Rocks (the name given to the group by French whalers in 1849), which is a small group of volcanic rocks, sticking out of water, located 215 km east of the Korean peninsula and about equidistant from the western coast of Japan. Including surrounding reefs the total area of these two bare rocks doesn’t exceed 210 square km. There is no drinking water and therefore, until recently, they were not populated. However, the sea around it is rich in fishery recourses and the surrounding seabed covers extensive deposits of natural gas. In our times, when the price for natural resources is growing fast, this is an important reason to contest even the uninhabited rocks. Moreover, Dokdo (“solitary islet”) is the focus of patriotic passion because the Koreans regard it as the first Japanese seizure of their territory in 1905, five years before the Korea was annexed and kept as a colony of Japan until August 1945. All that time, Takeshima (“bamboo islet”) was under the jurisdiction of the Oki islands Branch Office of Shimane Prefecture of Japan

After the WWII, Japanese fishermen were expelled from waters adjacent to Korea by Americans because of so-called MacArthur Line. During the Korean War, South Korean fishermen solely enjoyed fishery in that area without being annoyed by any competitors. However, the MacArthut Line was to be abolished by the San Francisco Peace Treaty (September 1951). Article 2 (a) of the Treaty indicated which islands should renounce but did not include Liancourt Rocks (mistakenly or intentionally). ROK hoped the MacArthur Line would be kept indefinitely and negotiated with USA but their plea was rejected. Instead, the Americans advised Korea to negotiate with Japanese government, but at that time they had no diplomatic relations with each other. In January 1952, the President of ROK Syngman Rhee suddenly issued a Declaration concerning maritime sovereignty, with which he installed the so-called “Syngman Rhee Line” and unilaterally included Liancourt Rocks in the Korean territory.

Foreign fishing boats, which were mostly Japanese, that violated the Syngman Rhee Line were often gunned by South Korea or detained. Japan proposed to go to International Court of Justice or United Nations, but the ROK rejected this proposal.Even after the resumption of diplomatic relations between Japan and Korea in 1965, Liancourt Rocks were kept occupied by Korean coast guards and this issue is still unresolved. Inaugurated in February 2008, the current ROK President, Lee Myung-bak, is the third successive president to have come into office offering a fresh start to South Korea-Japan relations but he has been wrong-footed by provocations from Tokyo.

These days both sides are very active in looking for historical evidence that Dokdo/Takeshima has always been their land. But it does not seem to be leading in the right direction. The two countries once concluded the Japan-ROK Fisheries Agreement, which entered into force in January 1999. They agreed to the establishment of “provisional common waters” around Dokdo/Takeshima without prejudice to the title of this island. Since then, however, Japanese fishing boats are still being shut out of the fishing grounds in the area. The local fishermen in Shimane Prefecture become increasingly impatient and discontented with this situation. Such situation lead to the repetitive announcements of Shimane Prefecture that Takeshima belongs to Japan. So, I believe that as far as fishery is concerned, Koreans and Japanese should simply stick to the original agreement. What will happen when they try to extract the natural resources like gas – is another story.

As for “East Sea”, this is the one name that Japan will probably never recognise as it lies directly west of Japan. Imagine the U.S. calling the Pacific the “East Ocean”. It would never happen because it’s impractical. Also, in retaliation Japan might try to rename the universally recognised “Korea Strait”, which separates the two countries. If the Koreans really want to get rid of the name which is so full of colonial memories, they should think about a compromise instead of something Japan would reject outright. For example, I would propose “The Sea of Peace and Prosperity”. Currently, we at the Australian National University are working on the project called Asia Beyond Conflict (ABC), which will soon offer some solutions to conflicts like this one.


Inter-Korean Relations Going From Bad to Worse

By Na Jeong-ju, Korea Times (07-27-2008)

South Korea’s relations with North Korea are expected to go from bad to worse as a row between the two sides over the killing of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier is showing signs of deepening. Last week, the rivals engaged in a diplomatic tug-of-war in Singapore during the ASEAN Regional Forum over the tourist’s death and the agreement signed by the leaders of the two Koreas last October.

Seoul appealed for more global attention to the killing at the Mount Geumgang resort, while Pyongayang urged Seoul to speed up cross-border projects based on the spirit of the inter-Korean summit accord.

Initially, Singapore, the host of the regional security forum, included their demands in a chairman’s statement issued at the end of the meeting, Thursday. However, both Koreas separately contacted Singapore and asked it to remove parts that they considered unfavorable.

Singapore deleted the clauses about the tourist’s death and the summit accord and issued a revised statement. The change of the statement means the South’s efforts to pressure the North to resolve the tourist’s death through cooperation with the international community have failed, critics say. Seoul’s top diplomats are now coming under growing pressure to resign.

Inter-Korean relations will suffer a setback, too, experts say. “South Korea should have tried to settle the tourist’s death through inter-Korean dialogue. Seoul will find it more difficult to improve relations with Pyongyang if it becomes an international issue,” said Cho Sung-yul, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a Seoul-based think tank.

Many observers are increasing calls for Seoul to overhaul its hard-line North Korea policy and engage in more active inter-Korean exchanges in line with advancement of the six-party negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program.

“The fact that Seoul failed to gain support from the ASEAN countries in dealing with North Korea shows Asian neighbors have different viewpoints about the communist state. They believe rising tension on the Korean Peninsula will hamper regional security,” said Koo Kap-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

President Lee Myung-bak has made it clear that his government will not lift its ban on tours to Mount Geumgang unless the communist regime allows a joint investigation into the shooting of the female tourist. Lee also urged North Korea to ensure the safety of South Korean tourists and take appropriate measures to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy. The government will consider suspending civilian tours to Gaeseong if the North fails to meet the demands, he said.

North Korea has demanded Lee show respect toward the inter-Korean agreements signed by former presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Death in North Korea’s Diamond Mountains

The shooting of South Korean tourist Park Wang-Ja at Mt. Geumgang in North Korea has created worldwide shockwaves and damaged relations between North and South Korea, threatening to set back recent developments in the Six Party dialogue process. This footage of Mt. Geumgang, taken by a recent visitor, highlights the paradoxes of the tourism project.

Mt. Geumgang is both a place of great natural beauty where North and South have come together, and place where the contrasts between the two Korea’s are starkly revealed. The shooting has shocked and angered South Koreans, but, as this video suggests, it also a disaster for the many North Koreans who have worked to make Mt. Geumgang a place of friendship. If the shooting causes permanent damage to reconciliation between North and South, that will be an even greater disaster.


Taejon/Daejon 1950

From chapter 2, “The War that Was,” in Gavan McCormack, Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe, New York, Nation Books 2004 (Japanese edition from Heibonsha 2004, Korean edition from Icarus Media 2006)

The official US Army report at the end of the war gave 7,334 as the figure for civilian victims of North Korean atrocities, a small fraction of those now known to have been executed by Rhee in the first moments of the war alone. [1] Of that number, the deaths of an estimated 5,000 to 7,500 civilians were attributed to a single incident, known as the “Taejon Massacre.” This incident, described as “worthy of being recorded in the annals of history along with the Rape of Nanking, the Warsaw Ghetto, and other similar mass exterminations,” became the centerpiece of the US case for North Korean brutality. A US Army report on the massacre, including graphic photographs, was published around the world in October 1953.[2] The notion of North Korea as fanatical and brutal owes much to the way the violence of the Korean War was communicated to the world a half century ago.

At Taejon, a town about 160 kilometers south of Seoul, a massacre undoubtedly occurred. The first published references to it appeared in the North Korean newspaper Choson Inminbo referring to a massacre of around 7,000 people, including many former pro-North Korean partisans held in Taejon prison, which reportedly took place over about five days in early July, 1950. Up to 80 trucks each day were used to cart prisoners to a village where they were either doused with gasoline and burned to death or dumped in air-defense trenches and killed there.[3] The English communist paper the Daily Worker’s correspondent, Alan Winnington, accompanying the (North) Korean People’s Army on their march southwards, reported having inspected mass graves at a village called “Rangwul” near Taejon, about 160 kilometers south of Seoul. He concluded from inspection of the graves, photographic evidence and discussions with villagers in the vicinity, that approximately 7,000 prisoners from the jails of Taejon and nearby had been summarily executed at that spot and buried in mass graves dug by locally press-ganged peasants.

The two Australian officers who constituted the UNCOK Field Observer team, Major Peach and Wing Commander Rankin, were in the Taejon area just when Winnington concluded a massacre must have taken place, acting as liaison officers between the UN and South Korean forces. On July 9, they were, Peach wrote, on the “road from Taejon to Konju”[4] when they saw trucks loaded with prisoners going south. As Peach recalled in a 1982 interview with this author: “Before my very eyes I saw at least two or three killed, their heads broken like eggs with the butts of rifles.”[5]

Later, in Konju, they were told that prisoners were being shot.[6] A contemporary photograph in the London Picture Post shows a truckload of such prisoners, described as “South Korean suspected traitors,” on the banks of the Kum River “on their way to execution.”[7] Four days later, on 13 July, the northern forces crossed the Kum River, and on 20 July captured Taejon, which was still burning when Winnington reached it. The sequence of events strongly suggests that Winnington, Peach and Rankin were all witnesses to different stages of the same terrible event.

There was one further witness. Philip Deane, the captured correspondent for the London Observer, was told a story while in a prison camp in north Korea of a massacre in Taejon just before the town fell to the communists. His informant was a French priest. Deane wrote:

“[Father Cadars] told me that just before the Americans retreated from the town, South Korean police had brought into a forest clearing near his church 1,700 men, loaded layer upon layer into trucks. These prisoners were ordered out and ordered to dig long trenches. Father Cadars watched. Some American officers, Cadars said were also watching. When a certain amount of digging was complete, South Korean policemen shot half the prisoners in the back of the neck. The other half were then ordered to bury the dead.”[8] After Father Cadars’ protest was dismissed, the remainder were likewise killed. He was told they were “Communist guerrillas who rebelled in the Taejon gaol.”

Unless, by some terrible version of serendipity, there were two massacres in the Taejon vicinity, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the most brutal North Korean atrocity in the South was actually a southern atrocity in a brutal ongoing civil war.

This version of the Taejon massacre was also reported by the military attaché to the US embassy, Lt. Colonel Bob E. Edwards, who sent a report together with photographs on to US intelligence in Washington. The figure of 1,800 massacre victims was given, but South Korean forces were clearly blamed, and the orders to execute the prisoners were described as having come from “the highest authority.”[9] Some time between then and 1953, somebody – presumably in either the American military or government – seems to have made the decision to turn this into a Northern massacre, the characteristic, single atrocity of the entire war. The truth seems inescapable: this worst atrocity of the war was committed by forces acting in the name of the United Nations, and a concerted effort was then made to cover it up by blaming it on the North Korean enemy.

In 1992, more than 40 years after the events occurred, in a South Korean monthly journal men who had actually taken part in the massacre confirmed Winnington’s account, tough not the numbers he suggested.[10] The only matter which remained unclear was whether Americans had been directly involved or not.

A much smaller incident, in which according to South Korean records 248 civilians were killed, wounded or missing following an attack when seeking refuge in a railway tunnel at a place called Nogunri in the week following Taejon incident, became the subject of international attention following publication of an Associated Press investigation in September 1999.[11] The US Army then conducted a full investigation, concluding that the deaths were the regrettable result of confusion on the part of poorly trained, raw American soldiers. In January 2001, President Clinton expressed regret, but not an apology, for what had happened.[12] The great massacre at Taejon went unmentioned.

[1] “Korean Historical Report,” War Crimes Division, Judge Advocate Section, Korean Communications Zone, APO 234, Cumulative to 30 June 1953, Copy in Australian Archives, Victorian division, MP 729/8, Department of the Army, Classified Correspondence Files, 1945-1957, File 66/431/25.

[2] See, for example, Daily Telegraph(Sydney), 30 October 1953.

[3] Park Myung-lim, pp. 324.

[4] Extract from the Peach/Rankin report carried in Dispatch by A.B. Jamison, Head of Australian Mission in Tokyo, to Canberra, 10 August 1950, Australian Archives 3123/5, Part 4.

[5] Peach, interview with author, Sydney, 14 August 1982.

[6] Rankin confirmed this account in a 12 August 1982 interview with the author by referring to his 1950 diary.

[7] Stephen Simmons (journalist) and photographer Haywood Magee, “War in Korea,” Picture Post, vol 48, No. 5, July 1950, p. 17. (The caption describes the incident as a matter “which has been investigated by a United Nations observer.”)

[8] Philip Deane, Captive in Korea, London, 1953, p. 83. (The 1953 US Army report locates the headquarters of the North Korean forces it alleged were responsible for the September massacre in “the Catholic mission” in Taejon.)

[9] Park, p. 324 (quoting from US National Archives).

[10] No Ka-Won, “Taejon hyongmuso sachon sanbaek myong haksal sakon” (The massacre of 4,300 men from the Taejon prison), Mal, February 1992, pp. 122-31.

[11] Park (p. 337) concludes from his analysis of various sources, including the North Korean report in Chosun Inminho of 10 August 1950, that 400 people were killed at Nogunri between 26 and 29 July.

[12] Elizabeth Becker, “Army confirms G.I.’s in Korea killed civilians,” New York Times, 12 January 2001. The full report of the official investigation, “No Gun Ri Review” is available on the web The authors of the original investigative report won a Pulitzer for it and subsequently published it as a book – Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza, The Bridge at No Gun Ri – A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean war, New York, Henry Holt, Owl Books, 2002). A fine television documentary was also made of it by the BBC: “Timewatch: Kill ‘em all,” 31 January 2002. See also Bruce Cumings, “Occurrence at Nogun ri Bridge: An enquiry into the history and memory of a civil war,” Critical Asian Studies, vol. 33, No. 4, November 2001, pp. 509-526.

Small town caught in the cross-fire of Korean War


Asia erupts in East-West confrontation

Japan’s defeat in World War II transformed East Asia into a Cold War arena of East-West confrontation. With China’s involvement, the bitter rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union flared during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. This chapter explores the impact of these wars on the people of East Asia.Two lines drawn on the map of the Korean Peninsula irrevocably changed the fate of the small town of Cheorwon and its citizens. In September 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union established the 38th parallel to demarcate their respective zones of control on the Korean Peninsula. The 38th parallel became the de facto North-South border when Korea was officially split in 1948.The bloody Korean War, which erupted in June 1950, raged for three years. The cease-fire of July 1953 resulted in the creation of a strip of buffer zone, now known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Cheorwon lay north of the 38th parallel, but after the fighting in the Korean War, it became incorporated into South Korea. As such, the town was very much a symbol of Korea’s division. I headed for South Korea to see how the town was faring today.Located in the dead center of the Korean Peninsula, Cheorwon can be called its “navel.” With a vast, fertile plain stretching around it, Cheorwon used to be a major transportation hub. In 1914, when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule, the Kyongwon Railway Line was laid through Cheorwon to connect present-day Seoul and the city of Wonsan on the east coast. Cheorwon also became the starting point of another railway line extending to the scenic mountain resort of Kumgangsan. Banks and shops lined the front of Cheorwon Station, and the town boasted theaters and hospitals. And with its good water and sewage services for its 20,000 residents, Cheorwon prospered as an inland town.I toured this once-thriving town with Kim Young Kyu, 45, a scholar of local history. About 30 kilometers north of the 38 parallel, I spotted red-crested white cranes and white-naped cranes resting their wings on a wide expanse of farmland with low shrubs and dead grass, dotted with patches of snow. The scene was idyllic, but the nearby presence of South Korean soldiers at a border checkpoint, as well as barbed wire fencing with red notice boards proclaiming “land mine,” reminded me of my proximity to the DMZ. A few kilometers to the north, I could see North Korean mountains.In what was once the town’s busiest street in front of the train station, there stood the ruins of a building, its walls charred black and scarred with numerous bullet holes. “The town was destroyed in intense street battles and bombings during the Korean War,” Kim told me. “Since this area is off-limits to civilians, the war’s scars have been left as you can see.”

Kim Song Il, 77, was born during the Japanese colonial era and lived in Cheorwon’s busy downtown section in front of the train station until the Korean War broke out. The story he told me of his adult life was typical of the fate suffered by those whose lives were directly affected by the establishment of the 38th parallel and the DMZ. Before Kim could really begin to appreciate the absence of Japanese soldiers from Cheorwon following Japan’s defeat in World War II in 1945, Soviet soldiers arrived. Unbeknown to its citizens, Cheorwon had become a tense border town on the north side of the 38th parallel, the “front line” of the incipient Cold War.

The following year, Cheorwon citizens were mobilized for the construction of a city hall to house the North Korean Labor Party, and portraits of Kim Il Sung were hung all over town. The North Korean People’s Army guarded the 38th parallel, blocking traffic to and from South Korea. “We’d been made to learn Japanese (under Japanese occupation), and then we were told to embrace communism,” Kim Song Il said. “We had no choice but to obey.”

In June 1950, Kim recalled, he noticed a daily massing of North Korean troops and tanks at the 38th parallel. Before the month was over, the Korean War had begun. Kim was in high school at the time, and his classmates and older students were conscripted into military service. Kim became a draft-dodger and laid low for a while, but he gave himself up to authorities when he heard his father had been detained.

Serving with a tank unit of the People’s Army, Kim advanced south. But the unit was driven back by the U.S. Army after crossing the Han River in Seoul. Back in Cheorwon after an absence of about 100 days, Kim became a deserter and fled to the mountains. The following year, he found a job as a bartender at a U.S. Air Force base where he had sought asylum.

One day, Kim overheard an Air Force officer–one of his regular customers–boasting of his successful bombing mission in the “Triangle.” The plains of Cheorwon, where fierce battles were being fought every day, were known then as the Iron Triangle. Kim did not want to believe his ears. “The U.S. military, on whom I depended for my livelihood, was bombarding my hometown,” Kim reminisced. “I was struck then by the sobering reality of life’s uncertainty.”

South Korea and North Korea came into being in 1948, supported, respectively, by the United States and the Soviet Union. With both President Syngman Rhee of South Korea and Prime Minister Kim Il Sung of North Korea considering invading each another, their armed forces clashed from time to time across the 38th parallel. Among those who lived through that period, everyone I spoke with in Cheorwon said to the effect, “The atmosphere back then left no doubt that war was inevitable.”

153 farmers executed

What had started out effectively as a civil war evolved into a major international conflict when United Nations forces led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Chinese forces joined the Korean War. The front line moved back and forth, north and south, forcing the local populace to flee every time with nothing but the clothes they wore; or they had to do the bidding of the occupying forces for their own survival.

Goyang is a city in suburban Seoul. A deep, dark pit that looks like an old well can be found on a small hill along a trunk highway. In 1995, the remains of 153 people were recovered from the pit. The area around Goyang fell under North Korean control within a few days of the outbreak of the Korean War, but South Korea seized it back in less than three months. Police and right-wing organizations rounded up 153 farmers, accusing them of “cooperating with the North.” All were taken to the pit on the hill and shot dead. Some of the younger men and women were no more than children.

At the insistence of the victims’ surviving families, this mass execution was investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an independent organ appointed by the government. The commission concluded last year that the government should make an official apology for the mass execution by the police. The ideological confrontation that formed the backdrop of this “hot war” in the Cold War invited countless tragedies. Massacres were committed by the U.S. military, too. According to various advocacy groups, about 1 million civilians were killed before and during the Korean War.

However, until the early 1990s, the bereaved families were forced to remain silent under generations of South Korean administrations that were led by former military officers. Kim Dong Choon, a SungKongHoe University professor who researched the mass execution as a full-time member of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, pointed out that the massacres represented the war itself for the Korean common folk. “Among the police officers and members of the right-wing groups that participated in the mass execution, many were active supporters of Japanese colonialism,” Kim noted. “Disarming the Japanese military was the U.S. and Soviet purpose for establishing the 38th parallel. The tragedy of the ethnic division and war was a legacy of Japan’s colonialism.”

China enters the war

More than 200,000 foreign soldiers died in the Korean War, fighting for either the North or South. Of these people, Chinese nationals were by far the most numerous. Their toll, including those who went missing in action, was close to 180,000. Why did China send so many of its own to the Korean Peninsula?

A 14-hour ride on a Beijing-Pyongyang night train took me to the Chinese city of Dandong in Liaoning province on the North Korean border. From Dandong Station, it was a five-minute drive to the Yalu River, which forms the China-North Korea border. I got a close look at North Korea on the other side. Trucks rumbled across the China-Korea Friendship Bridge spanning the river. About 70 percent of trade between the two countries is said to move through Dandong. The bridge was built by Japan in 1943, 11 years after the establishment of Manchukuo in northeastern China.

Parallel to this bridge was the Short Bridge, so called because its North Korean end is missing–destroyed in a bombing raid during the Korean War. This bridge, too, was built by Japan in 1911, the year after the Japanese annexation of Korea, in order to connect a railway vertically traversing the Korean Peninsula with another that ran across the Chinese continent.

Formerly called Andong, the little border town of Dandong was once of crucial strategic importance to Japan’s military ambitions on the continent. Atop the hill overlooking the town, I visited a cenotaph dedicated to the Korean War–or “The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea,” as it is called locally. On display were rusted firearms and hand grenades, an army bugle, and fragments of shot-down U.S. military aircraft.
Other exhibits included a letter written by Kim Il Sung to Mao Tse-tung, appealing for aid and declaring that “Korea should never be allowed to become a colony of the American Empire,” and a bust of Mao’s elder son, Mao Anying, who died a Korean War hero. Zhao Yejun, the cenotaph’s curator, said: “Dandong was not only close to the battleground, but it also suffered heavy civilian casualties from repeated bombings. The Korean War was a war to protect China and Dandong.”When South Korean and United Nations forces advanced north across the 38th parallel in October 1950, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army crossed the Yalu River, and Dandong became a munitions supply base. A command headquarters facility stood atop the hill where the museum stands today, according to Zhao.Sun Jingkun, an 84-year-old Dandong native I met, is a Korean War veteran. After the departure of the Kwangtung Army upon Japan’s defeat in World War II, Sun, a tenant farmer, became a landowner thanks to the Chinese Communist Party’s agrarian reforms. I asked him how he felt when he crossed the Yalu River on his way to the front. Sun replied: “It was hard to be separated from my wife for a long time, but we all knew at the time that U.S. troops could attack the town any day. I was determined to fight with my life to protect the land that was finally mine.”He claimed to have killed 21 U.S. soldiers, all in hand-to-hand combat. Of the 120 men from his unit, only five survived. When Sun returned home to his wife, he had fragments of a bomb lodged in his hip, and his shoulder bore a scar from a bullet wound.
The People’s Republic of China was only a year old when it entered the Korean War. The new state still did not have its entire territory under control, and rebuilding the country after the devastating civil war with the Kuomintang was an urgent task. What made China enter the Korean War at such a time?Niu Jun, a Peking University professor and an expert on Cold War-era Chinese diplomacy, explained: “In the autumn of 1950, China was getting ready to send troops to Taiwan. But with the Korean War, the U.S. Seventh Fleet blockaded the Taiwan Strait, heightening tensions in the region. And then there was the fact that China had been asked by the Soviet Union to accommodate the North Korean government-in-exile in northwest China should Kim Il Sung lose the war. “In that event, it was clear that China would be directly confronting U.S. forces across the Yalu River.”The United States was just as eager to avert an all-out war with China. In April 1951, U.S. President Harry S. Truman relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur from command for insisting on using a nuclear bomb and dispatching Taiwan’s Kuomintang Army to Korea. Cease-fire negotiations began three months later, in July 1951. The Korean War raised China’s influence on North Korea and America’s influence on South Korea. The fact that the fate of the Korean Peninsula is inseparably tied to the interests of these two major powers remains unchanged to this day.After the cease-fire, a new downtown area in Cheorwon sprang up about 10 km south of the old downtown that had fallen into ruins. A number of residents of the new town are “displaced persons” originally from North Korea. And many South Korean residents have family members living in the North.In 2004, the 90th anniversary of the completion of the Kyongwon railway line, Cheorwon citizens gathered at the former site of the train station and prayed for a peaceful reunification of Korea as well as for the restoration of the railway tracks severed by the Korean War. A piece of good news recently reached Cheorwon. A project will start in March to partially restore the tracks.Chong Ho Jo, head of Cheorwon County, voiced his dream: “North and South merge in the town of Cheorwon. When Korea is reunified, there’s a good chance that Cheorwon will become the new capital. We don’t know when that will be, though.”

Fact File: Brief History on the Korean War

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea and captured Seoul three days later. The United States denounced the move as an act of invasion. In July 1950, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution, in the absence of the Soviet Union, to dispatch U.N. forces to the Korean Peninsula. Sixteen nations, including the United States, Britain and France, sent combat units to Korea.

North Korean forces advanced as far as the Nakdong-gang River near Pusan, but after the landing of U.N. forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s command at Incheon in September, South Korean forces retook Seoul. They then crossed the 38th parallel in October and occupied Pyongyang. Some of the forces reached the Chinese border.

But the situation reversed that same month when the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army entered the war. North Korean forces re-occupied Seoul in January 1951, but the city fell into the South’s hands again two months later. After that, a tug-of-war continued across the 38th parallel.

Cease-fire negotiations began in July 1951, but they continued to flounder over the treatment of prisoners of war and where to establish the North-South border. With both sides desperate to make the talks go in their favor, bloody skirmishes continued.

Following Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s death in March 1953, negotiations resumed in earnest. Representatives of U.N. forces, North Korean forces and Chinese forces signed a cease-fire agreement in July, but South Korea did not. The cease-fire agreement resulted in the creation of a new buffer zone between the two Koreas. This was the 2-kilometer-wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Fact File: Participants in the war

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, and a cease-fire agreement was signed on July 27, 1953. As such, the war is not yet over. South Koreans call this war the “June 25 War” and the “Korean War,” while North Koreans refer to it as the “War of National Liberation.” China, which participated in this war to resist “U.S. aggression,” calls it the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.”

Upon their foundation in 1948, both South Korea and North Korea asserted their respective territorial rights to the entire Korean Peninsula, claiming one another’s territorial occupancy to be “illegitimate.”

Initially, the Korean War was by nature a civil war over the legitimacy of the respective regimes, but it evolved into an international conflict with the participation of Chinese forces and U.S.-led United Nations forces. Soviet Air Force pilots fought alongside the North Koreans. Japan, too, secretly dispatched a minesweeper at U.S. request, and one Japanese citizen died in the mission.

Korea conflict set Japan’s economic recovery in motion

What effect did the Korean War have on Japan? The special demand generated by the war set the nation’s postwar economic recovery in motion. The creation of the National Police Reserve (which would evolve into the Self-Defense Forces), the signing of the San Francisco Treaty and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, and other developments that took place during the Korean War years were all part of the U.S. strategy to position Japan as a “bulwark” against communism.

Okinawa became the key part of this bulwark. According to a U.S. researcher, nuclear bombs were brought to the Kadena Air Base during the Korean War, and U.S. bombers took off frequently for North Korea to drop mock atomic bombs and other mega-bombs.

Yasuhide Oshiro , 67, who lived in the village of Onna near the Kadena base at the time, saw turbo-prop bombers returning from the north across the East China Sea every evening. In April 1953, while cease-fire negotiations were in progress, U.S. forces ordered the confiscation of land in Okinawa, evicted protesting landowners, and ran bulldozers over their homes and fields to create new military bases.

Teruo Hiyane, professor emeritus at the University of the Ryukyu, pointed out, “Through the Korean War, the United States reconfirmed Okinawa’s importance as a military base.” During the Vietnam War, Okinawa became the most important home base for U.S. bombers assigned to missions in Vietnam.

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