“Wipe Out All Life”: Postwar Liberalism and Mass Killing In Korea



Undermining the potency of the legal concept of “genocide” is its inconsistent application depending on the perpetrator of violence. Examining U.S.-led aerial campaigns during the Korean War, Ju-Hyun Park describes how the post-World War II international political order allowed mass anti-communist violence in the Korean peninsula to go unpunished in the name of “military necessity.”

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A 1950 or 1951 photograph of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress from the 307th Bomb Wing of the United States Air Force dropping bombs on a Korean target. The B-29 Superfortress was used for its capabilities for high-altitude strategic bombing, as pictured here. Before their use in the Korean War, B-29 bombers dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: they are the only planes in history to have used nuclear weapons in combat.

In his most recent visit to the United States this past March, South Korean President Moon Jae-In, best known internationally for his administration’s efforts at rapprochement with North Korea, became the first foreign head of state to attend a U.S. Medal of Honor ceremony. This year’s recipient of the award was Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., a 94-year-old veteran of the Korean War who was being recognized for assuring the survival of his Army Ranger unit as they retreated from Chinese soldiers near the Yalu River at the Chinese-Korean border. Invited to make a statement, Moon hailed Puckett as a “true hero,” further remarking: “Without the sacrifice of [U.S.] veterans… freedom and democracy we enjoy today [sic] couldn’t have blossomed in Korea.” When memory is more a question of narrative than pure fact, what is absent from the record can often be as significant as what is present. Much went unsaid by necessity in both Moon and Biden’s account of the Korean War, structured as it was by the exigencies of the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea and the formalities of military award ceremonies. 

November 25, 1950 could be remembered for the minor battle Col. Puckett was eventually commended for, but it can also be recalled for its overlap with multiple U.S. and allied atrocities. Just weeks before, General Douglas MacArthur responded to the intervention of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army by ordering U.S. bombers “to destroy every means of communication and every installation, factory, city and village” between the frontline and the Yalu River, which forms the border between China and North Korea. Throughout November, ten major North Korean border towns were obliterated by 3,300 tons of incendiary bombs in what became the start of a devastating, indiscriminate aerial campaign against North Korean cities and civilian infrastructure that ultimately left 18 out of 22 major cities more than half destroyed, and five major agricultural and hydroelectric dams in ruins. A request for bigger napalm bombs submitted by U.S. General Matthew Ridgway in early 1951 reveals the chilling logic of the aerial bombing: to “wipe out all life in tactical locality.” November 25th was also the day that U.S. orders were issued to “liquidate the North Korean Workers’ Party,” which by then boasted around 14% of the North’s population in its membership. In the weeks and months that followed, the international press reported multiple accounts of South Korean mass executions of prisoners, including children and seniors accused of collaborating with the Workers’ Party. An estimated 800 people were killed between December 11th and December 16th and buried in mass graves — U.S. soldiers were mostly content to let “the gooks,” their South Korean counterparts, handle the dirty work of mass executions for them. As General John B. Coulter put it bluntly, the “enemy in civilian clothing” could just be “turned over to the ROKs [sic] and they take care of them.” Yet there was no shortage of U.S. atrocities in North Korea from the ground in addition to the air, as the countless orders from U.S. military leaders for their soldiers to stop raping local women would indicate.

By the signing of the armistice on July 27, 1953, the U.S. had dropped 635,000 tons of explosive ordnance and 32,557 tons of napalm on Korea, mostly, but not exclusively in the North.

By the signing of the armistice on July 27, 1953, the U.S. had dropped 635,000 tons of explosive ordnance and 32,557 tons of napalm on Korea, mostly, but not exclusively in the North. Estimates of the number of Koreans killed (both civilian and combatant deaths) range as high as 3 or 4 million — the majority of deaths occurred in the North as the direct and indirect result of what was, at the time, the most asymmetrical aerial war in history. Nevertheless, the Korean War enjoys a near-unassailable position in American public memory as a “good war,” reminiscent of revisionist memorializations of World War II as a U.S.-led struggle against Nazi fascism. By necessity, this description of the Korean War hinges on the disavowal of U.S. and allied mass killings, as President Moon’s remarks from the Medal of Honor Ceremony demonstrate. A robust, decades-long propaganda effort has been essential to this memorializing process, perhaps best demonstrated by U.S. official histories blaming the massacre of between 5,000-7,000 political prisoners in the southern city of Daejeon on the Korean People’s Liberation Army, when the perpetrators were, in actuality, South Korean soldiers and police acting with the full knowledge of U.S. officers.  

Whereas the roots of the conflict that came to be known as the Korean War can be traced to Japanese colonialism, the embryonic postwar international legal order of the Cold War forms a critical political context in which the war began and continues to be fought (the 1953 armistice did not bring about an official end to the war). While international institutions and law in themselves did not cause U.S. and allied atrocities in Korea, they nevertheless created the conditions that made the violences possible and then obscured after the fact. 

The Korean War enjoys a near-unassailable position in American public memory as a “good war,” reminiscent of revisionist memorializations of WWII as a U.S.-led struggle against Nazi fascism.

The U.S.-led “police action” in Korea was legitimized under the auspices of the United Nations Charter and carried out under the United Nations Command, which was directed by the U.S. generals who simultaneously held operational command of the South Korean Army, just as they do today. Even before the official start of the Korean War, the UN provided a vehicle for the installation of a U.S.-aligned state in the south. After World War II, the Soviet Union and the U.S. agreed to support pan-Korean elections, but the U.S. walked away from negotiations when it became clear that they would be unable to bar the popular Korean communist party from participating. Instead, a separate election without universal franchise was organized in only South Korea for a government that would claim sovereignty over the entire peninsula; these elections were widely boycotted. Syngman Rhee, the U.S.-favored candidate who had been personally flown back to Korea by General MacArthur after spending 40 years in the United States, ran virtually unopposed. The formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — known to most as North Korea — occurred only after the installation of this pro-U.S. Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South.

For Koreans, this was the second time that the United States had foiled native efforts to organize a self-determining state: the beginning of U.S. occupation on September 8, 1945 was marked by the United States Military Government’s (USMG) refusal to recognize the short-lived Korean People’s Republic (KPR) and the violent dissolution of the heterodox but self-organized People’s Committees that had formed the basis for its nascent statehood. The USMG’s authority was always contested: within three years, Koreans fought the U.S.’ peninsular division and rule by organizing hundreds of localized rebellions, strikes, and protests, which were usually met with brutal repression. In order to govern, the USMG absorbed the remnants of the former Japanese colonial apparatus, reinstating the hated National Police and installing former colonial administrators within its bureaucracy. The South Korean Army was also created during this period in defiance of orders from Washington, and its officer ranks were quickly filled with Korean veterans of the Imperial Japanese Army, those who had loyally served their former colonizers in the war against communist and anti-colonial Chinese and Korean guerrillas in Manchuria. 

Having already lived through the terror of an ostensibly temporary occupation, the prospect of the partition’s permanent occupation was too much to bear for most people in South Korea, whose living conditions had not noticeably improved — and in many cases worsened — since liberation from Japan. Before the Constitutional Assembly elections were held in May 1948, a guerrilla insurgency began on the large southern island of Jeju under the leadership of the local People’s Committee and with support from the Workers’ Party of South Korea. By the fall, the insurrection had spread to the cities of Yeosu and Suncheon in South Jeolla province, and then morphed into a protracted guerrilla war after peasants and defecting soldiers took to the mountains to escape the crackdown that followed. Before the conflict known today as the Korean War officially began in June 1950, the U.S.-directed counterinsurgency campaign killed between 100,000 and 200,000 people in southern Korea, in order to squash a guerrilla force that the CIA estimated to be no greater than 6,000 fighters in early 1949. Teams of South Korean state military, National Police, and fascist paramilitary groups — acting under the direction, support, and observation of U.S. military advisors — burned villages and conducted mass executions and rapes throughout Jeju Island and the southwestern Jeolla provinces. In the yearlong suppression of the Jeju uprising, between 25,000 and 30,000 of the island’s 300,000 inhabitants were killed, with an equal or greater number rendered homeless as more than half of all villages were razed. By the time the General Assembly voted to recognize the ROK as a legitimate government, martial law had been declared in Jeju, and a decree had been issued stating that anyone found further than five kilometers inland would be shot. The UN’s oversight of the election and eventual recognition of the South Korean state laundered Korea’s partition as a legitimate expression of Korean self-determination, even as the newly imposed state was rejected by southern masses through force of arms.

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A photograph of a North Korean supply warehouse destroyed by United Nations naval forces during the Blockade of Wonsan, an 861 day naval blockade — the longest in modern history — on the southeastern port city of Wonsan in North Korea from February 1951 to the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in July 1953. Following the bombardment from mostly American naval warships and aircraft, the city was completely destroyed.

The carnage begun by the USMG and extended under the ROK and the U.S. military shadow state continued into the Korean War. Syngman Rhee ordered the execution of 60,000-200,000 suspected leftists in the summer of 1950 as his government scrambled south from the advancing Korean People’s Army. The South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, founded in 2005, received nearly 10,000 individual reports of civilian massacres in the south, 82% of which were attributed to “state agents,” i.e. U.S. and South Korean forces. Evidence was ultimately found for 1,461 civilian massacres, including the exhumation of 154 mass graves. The most famous of these massacres occurred in the village of Nogeun-ri, where U.S. soldiers trapped hundreds of villagers in a railway tunnel and proceeded to kill an estimated 400 people, 218 of whom have been identified. The soldiers killed mostly women and children, returning several times over a period of days for remaining survivors. As U.S. forces retreated south in the face of the Korean People’s Army, commanders targeted refugees in battle zones as enemy combatants — the justification was that civilians could not be distinguished from guerrillas. A U.S. Air Force memo authored by Col. Turner Rogers a day before the Nogeun-ri Massacre began noted: “The Army has requested that we strafe all civilian refugee parties […] approaching our positions […] To date, we have complied.” A letter from John Muccio, the first U.S. Ambassador to Korea, to Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk further stated: “If refugees do appear from north of US lines they will receive warning shots, and if they then persist in advancing they will be shot.”

Descriptions of both South Korean and the U.S.’ wanton slaughter of civilians were widely reported in the early days of the war, before official suppression of the press began.

“Mỹ Lais,” U.S. General Charles Willoughby would later muse in crude reference to the massacre of Vietnamese civilians by US troops in 1968, happened “all the time” in Korea. Descriptions of both South Korean and the U.S.’ wanton slaughter of civilians were widely reported in the early days of the war, before official suppression of the press began. In response to reports of the retreating South Korean Army’s massacre of civilians during the first month of the Korean War, Telford Taylor, chief prosecution counsel at the Nuremberg Trials, wrote in the New York Times: “The traditions and practices of warfare in the Orient are not identical with those that have developed in the Occident… individual lives are not valued so highly in Eastern mores. And it is totally unrealistic of us to expect the individual [South] Korean soldier […] to follow our most elevated precepts of warfare.” 

By 1950, Taylor had returned to civilian life. While his editorializations had no official significance, the legacy of his arguments at Nuremberg had profound implications on the legibility of mass killing in Korea. In his book The Problems of Genocide, historianDirk Moses notes that Taylor “introduced the distinction between genocide as a nonpolitical hate crime and military necessity as a legitimate practice” to shield Allied bombing of civilians during World War II from prosecution. From Nuremberg and beyond, “genocide” as a novel legal designation became determined by intention in addition to effect. Just as the indiscriminate aerial campaign waged by the Allies in Europe went unchallenged, so did the one in Korea. No war crimes trials would ever be held for the Korean War, although the U.S. would briefly attempt to do so during the 1950s — not to prosecute itself or its ally, but to exclusively hold North Korea responsible for its wartime atrocities, some of which are now known to have been committed by the U.S. and South Korea. In the case of the Daejeon massacre, U.S. officers were present for the murder of thousands of communist political prisoners, including women and children, by South Korean forces; photographic evidence of the massacre was suppressed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff until it was released in 1999. 

Although the United Nations Genocide Convention defines the crime of genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” (emphasis mine), the United States has never faced any formal charge of genocide for the massacres it ordered throughout the peninsula before and during the Korean War. It also has never been held responsible for its devastating bombing of civilian targets, which arguably constituted “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” as per Article II of the Convention. The binary notion of discretely “nonpolitical hate crimes” and supposedly more “political” acts of mass killing unmotivated by “hate” is itself a fiction: with Korea, U.S. mass killings, at all points, proceeded through a racialized logic. U.S. policy to target refugees in battle zones, for example, was justified by the rationale that civilians and guerrillas were indistinguishable, and the precedent of U.S. military conduct during the so-called “Indian Wars” — namely the necessity of total destruction — was explicitly invoked to describe and defend these practices. Shielded by the defense of “military necessity” and the anti-racist veneer promulgated by the official desegregation policy of U.S. armed forces, the continuities between strategic military violence and discretely “racial” violence have been muddled by the legal precedents established for the investigation and prosecution of genocide. U.S. historian Bruce Cumings offers a tidy summary of the Genocide Convention’s grim entanglements with mass killings in Korea: “[The Genocide Convention] was approved in 1948 and entered into force in 1951 — just as the [United States Air Force] was inflicting genocide, under this definition and under the aegis of the United Nations Command, on the citizens of North Korea.”

The binary notion of discretely “nonpolitical hate crimes” and supposedly more “political” acts of mass killing unmotivated by “hate” is itself a fiction: with Korea, U.S. mass killings, at all points, proceeded through a racialized logic.

Beyond the complicity of the UN and the inadequacies of the Genocide Convention, it is also necessary to consider the significance of the 1946 International Military Tribunal for the Far East, or the Tokyo Trials, in the making of postwar Pacific under U.S. military and juridical power. As the ascendant victor, the United States organized the trials to selectively prosecute Japanese atrocities. Japanese war acts against British, French, Portuguese, and U.S. colonial territories (most of Southeast Asia and Oceania, as well as Hong Kong) were tried as “crimes against peace,” yet Japanese colonial atrocities in its pre-1931 territories (Ryukyu/Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and Sakhalin) were elided along with the crimes of Allied forces, including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Between 1950-1953, General MacArthur and Presidents Truman and Eisenhower each separately threatened or took steps to use the atom bomb without concern for the legality of such an attack. The tribunal also excluded the Japanese military’s conscription of 200,000 primarily Korean women as sex slaves or “comfort women” from its inquiries. This further protected the U.S. from scrutiny regarding its management of “comfort stations” in occupied Korea and Japan, which evolved over decades into the contemporary system of militarized prostitution spanning across U.S. bases in the Pacific.

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A picture of members of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, or “1st MAW,” showing off their “Christmas gifts” to Koreans. In June 1952, 75 aircrafts from the unit participated in the attacks on the Sui-ho Dam, the name of a series of United Nations Command-ordered bombings on North Korea’s hydroelectric infrastructure. The attacks permanently destroyed 90% of North Korea’s hydroelectric facilities leading to power outages across the country for two weeks.

Today, the international liberal order continues to authorize ongoing mass killing on the peninsula in the form of comprehensive UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, issued in their current form in 2016 in response to the North Korean nuclear program. A report from the organization Korea Peace Now found that 3,968 people, mostly children under the age of five, died in 2018 from shortages and delays in UN aid programs alone. Given that the Korean War has not ended and the U.S. continues to present a credible military threat to North Korea (28,000 U.S. soldiers still occupy South Korea), these sanctions effectively criminalize North Korea for similarly taking measures to deter nuclear assault. At every turn, the existing international political order has not only failed to protect the Korean people from U.S. state violence, but has also served as a pliable framework for its legitimization. As the U.S. continues to wage wars under the auspices of upholding human rights and under the cover of international institutions, reckoning with Korea’s history and the Korean liberation struggle offers a path towards an anti-imperialist internationalism in opposition to the violent mythologies of liberalism. ■