During World War II, the United States (U.S.) and the Soviet Union (USSR) agreed to divide the Japanese colony of the Korean peninsula into two parts along the 38th parallel north circle of latitude, with the North controlled by the USSR and the South by the U.S. In 1948, Kim Il-sung was designated the premier of North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK), while the South (the Republic of Korea, or ROK) elected Syngman Rhee as its president. Both nations used force and mass killing to control their populations’ suspected political leanings, with the North targeting South Korean sympathizers as “rightists” and the South similarly targeting “leftists” and “communists”. Kim Il-sung, believing the South to be weak, eventually persuaded the USSR and the newly communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) to support an attempted invasion.
While the question of which side made the first move at the 38th parallel remains unresolved, North Korea invaded the South on June 25th, 1950, using its Soviet-supplied armament to easily route the lightly armed South Korean Army. Citing concerns of a potential global spread of Communism, the U.S. requested and received the approval of the UN Security Council (during a Soviet boycott) to militarily intervene. U.S. General MacArthur was appointed the head of the collective UN Command forces charged with the defense of South Korea, the majority of which were South Korean and American but which included a significant number of troops from the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Thailand, Canada, Turkey, and Australia, among others.
Despite resistance, UN Command forces eventually controlled South Korea and crossed the 38th parallel to invade North Korean territory, triggering Chinese military intervention as they approached the Sino-Korean border. While UN Command forces were then repelled by the Chinese to the 38th parallel, serious logistical problems caused the Chinese offensive to fail to push beyond this limit. Despite repeated attempts by both sides, the front stayed at the 38th parallel from 1951 to 1953 until the war ended in an armistice between the UN Command forces, the Chinese and the North Korean Army. The Armistice Agreement formalized a ceasefire and the division of the Korean peninsula, effectively ending the war on July 27, 1953.
The killing of civilians during the Korean War are attributable to a wide variety of situations, actors, and intentions. Based on existing analyses of Korean War atrocities, these methods are best categorized into the following groupings[i]:
- Civilians deaths caused by North or South Korean state-directed executions for the purposes of internal control, typically because state troops or officials believed the civilians to be enemy collaborators and/or failed to adequately support their state.
- Civilian deaths that occurred during perpetrators’ combat operations (including bombings) by Chinese, South Korean, North Korean, and American troops, typically due to troops’ negligence of civilian life during the pursuit of their operations and indiscriminate bombing campaigns.
- State-sponsored inter-village reprisal killings by civilians.
- Killings of American and ROK prisoners of war by North Korean forces.
Each of these kinds of killings possessed their own unique dynamic that interacted with other kinds of civilian killing and the repeated ebb and flow of the front line between DPRK-allied and ROK-allied forces.
Excessive, lethal force and mass crackdown by the state in response to any political opposition characterized the pre-war and wartime patterns in both the North and South. Civilian executions in the interest of maintaining state control had already begun prior to the formal initiation of the Korean War, with the South Korean state killing tens of thousands of civilian protestors because of alleged communist sympathies during the Jeju Uprising (April 1948 – May 1949) and associated events of political dissatisfaction like the violently repressed Yso-SunCheon Rebellion.[ii] In an event now known as the Bodo League Massacre, South Korean President Syngman Rhee ordered the deaths of supposed Communist sympathisers as the North Koreans invaded.[iii] The execution of these suspected traitors occurred throughout the conflict as the ROK regained control of areas that it had been previously unable to purge of prisoners, or located ROK refugees who had been unable to escape cities while they were controlled by the DPRK and were therefore branded as collaborators.[iv] Similarly, as the DPRK invaded they engaged in class cleansing, particularly targeting ROK intelligentsia, bourgeoisie, and all those associated with the ROK government, including family members of anyone associated with any of those categories.[v] Civilians were also polarized, attacking each other after being liberated based on their perceived and real affiliations with and deliberate support of the North or South.[vi]
Armed forces were frequently responsible for civilian deaths, either through apparent disregard or deliberate targeting due to policies to treat civilians fleeing areas of combat operations like combatants (in response to alleged DPRK infiltration tactics). The infamous No Gun Ri Massacre of July 1950 allegedly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians,[vii] with troops sometimes opening fire at advancing refugees, as dictated by explicit U.S. policies, outlined in a memo from U.S. Ambassador to Korea John J. Muccio.[viii] Roughly 200 similar incidents of crossfire-related and targeted refugee killings were entered onto the investigatory docket of the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including repeated indiscriminate bombings and use of napalm in civilian-occupied areas by American forces.[ix] Transport infrastructure was also typically destroyed by troops during periods of retreat despite the possibility that such actions would either directly harm civilians using the infrastructure at the time, or that these actions would strand civilians in an active combat zone.[x] Stranded refugees would then become vulnerable to targeting by the ROK government for their supposed collaboration with the enemy, and under accusation of being “infiltrators.”[xi]
Prisoners of war were also subjected to deadly conditions during the War. DPRK troops executed POWs after their surrender and used death marches to ensure POWs were either killed or moved beyond the rescue of their advancing allies.[xii] While POW camps run by all sides seem to have struggled with basic problems of hygiene, resources, and preexisting problems like poor health education and general poor health, conditions in DPRK and PRC camps seem to have been particularly egregious, with numerous former American POWs reporting a lack of access to food and medical care, as well as suffering torture and medical experimentation.[xiii]
1948 – 1951: Rough minimal estimate of 1.75 million people, including pre-war period, civilians killed during the war and POWs killed while in captivity.
For the pre-war period, we found estimates that between 15,000-30,000 civilians were killed during the 1948 Jeju Uprising[xv] and 1,092 during repression of the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion.[xvi] While statistical claims for civilians killed during the conflict vary, there is consensus that at least 1 million civilian deaths occurred over the course of the War (1950 – 1953), with the phrase “probably exceeded 2 million” also a common, if imprecise, refrain.[xvii] Estimates of civilian fatalities include, for instance, a range of 500,000 to 1,000,000, with several sources suggesting the higher number may be more accurate.[xviii]
Additionally, estimates of POWs killed in captivity include 2,700 American POWs (roughly 40 percent of US POWs)[xix] An unknown number of South Korean POWs also died, with 13,836 missing South Korean soldiers known to be killed, 19,409 soldiers of unknown status, unknown percentage of both statistics died in North Korea, as it includes those who were missing but died in combat and POWs who were not allowed to leave, were pressed into the North Korean Army or chose to remain in North Korea.
While it is difficult to say for certain, the vast majority of non-POW civilian deaths seem to have occurred during 1950 and 1951, prior to the military stalemate that began in July 1951. While government executions by North or South Korea may have occurred beyond this point, and POWs continued to die until they were repatriated in 1953, there are no other incidents recorded in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s docket within the timespan of the Korean War after 1951, and examinations of general histories seem to produce similar results. However, we do know that scholars have “estimates that about 45 percent of the deaths and battle wounds during the war occurred after the armistice negotiations began,” estimating 425,000 combatant deaths in the later half of the war.[xiv] Given that this portion of the conflict was isolated to an already flattened area of Korea, and given an absence of historical evidence, the degree to which this portion of the conflict impacted civilians remains uncertain. It should also be noted that Stephan Courtois’s The Black Book of Communism alleges that 100,000 deaths occurred in North Korean purges immediately following the War, but the North’s secretiveness makes uncovering additional information difficult to impossible.
Baik, Tae-Ung. 2012. “A War Crimes against an Ally’s Civilians: The No Gun Ri Massacre.” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy 15:2, 455 – 505.
Cumings, Bruce . 2011. The Korean War: A History. Modern Library.
De Haan, Phil. 2002. “50 Years And Counting: The Impact of the Korean War on the People of the Peninsula,” Available at: http://www.calvin.edu/news/2001-02/korea.htm Accessed July 2, 2016.
Deane, Hugh. 1999. The Korean War: 1945-1953. China Books and Periodicals.
Goldstein, Donald M. and Harry James Maihafer. 2000. The Korean War: The Story and Photographs. Potomac Books.
Halliday and Cumings, Unknown War, 1988
Hee-Kyung, Suh. 2010. “Atrocities Before and During the Korean War: Mass Civilian Killings by South Korean and U.S. Forces,” Critical Asian Studies 42(4): 553-588.
Kim, Dong Choon. 2004. “Forgotten war, forgotten massacres—the Korean War (1950-1953) as licensed mass killings”, Journal of Genocide Research 6(4): 523-544.
Lee, Steven Hugh. 2013. The Korean War. Routledge.
Lewis, Adrian R. 2007. The American Culture of War: The History of U.S. Military Force from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Routledge.
Mikaberidze, Alexander. 2013. “Atrocities during the Korean War,” Atrocities, Massacres, and War Crimes: An Encylopedia ABC-CLIO: 376-377.
Millett, Allan R. 2014. “Korean War,” Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/322419/Korean-War>, last updated August 8, 2014. Accessed May 28, 2015.
The National Committee for Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju April 3 Incident. 2003. “Final Report.” Available at: http://www.jeju43.go.kr/english/sub05.html.
Tirman, John . 2012. The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars. Oxford University Press.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 2009. “Truth and Reconciliation: Activities of the Part Three Years.” Republic of Korea. Available at: http://www.jinsil.go.kr/pdf/%EC%98%81%EB%AC%B8%EB%B0%B1%EC%84%9C_20MS%ED%8C%8C%EC%9D%BC_0205.pdf
U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Korean War Atrocities. 1954. “Korean War Atrocities: Report of the Committee on Government Operations”, January 7. Available at: https://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/Military_Law/pdf/KW-atrocities-Report.pdf Accessed January 3, 2017.
[i] Kim 2004; Tirman 2012; and Hee-Kyung 2010.
[ii] Hee-Kyung 2010.
[iv] Kim 2004, 536.
[v] Mikaberidze 2013.
[vi] Cumings 2011, 236.
[vii] Baik 2012, 463 – 465.
[viii] Tirman 2012, 293.
[ix] Deane1999, 149-151.
[x] De Haan 2002.
[xi] Kim 2004, 536.
[xii] U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Korean War Atrocities 1954.
[xiv] Lee 2013.
[xv] The National Committee for Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju April 3 Incident 2003.
[xvi] Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Korea 2009, 40.
[xvii] Goldstein and Maihafer 2000; Halliday and Cumings 1988.
[xviii] Millett 2014; Lewis 2007, 144.
[xix] Wiest, Barbier, and Robins 2009.