Type: an interview with Yoon Bok-dong, Korea Truth Commission
Summary: Lost somewhere between World War II and Vietnam, the Korean War has been called 'The Forgotten War'. Pinky tries to learn more about the 50+ year-long struggle to bring justice and reconciliation to the Korean peninsula.
We first met Yoon Bok-dong, a regional representative for Korea Truth Commission (U.S. Chapter), quite by chance. He was setting up an informational booth at the University of Hawaii's annual Festival of Resistance just as Bunny & I happened to be walking by. Needless to say, I was very fascinated to meet someone knowledgeable about the Korean War and its relationship to U.S. imperialism. Mr. Yoon was nice enough to sit down and have an impromptu chat with us; I'm glad I had my tape recorder that day. ~ pinky
Pinky: Hello to everybody out there. Today we are very pleased to talk with Mr. Yoon Bok-dong, regional representative of the Korea Truth Commission. Good morning Mr. Yoon.
Yoon: Annyeong hashimnikka, greetings.Pinky: We're speaking with Mr. Yoon today about the work of the Korea Truth Commission (KTC), an organization dedicated to researching and bringing to light the obscured history of U.S. violence against civilians during the Korean War. I have here some information from the Korea Truth Commission [ reads ]:
- According to the Washington Post, more than 2.5 million of the approximately 5 million casualties of the Korean War were civilians.
- There are approximately 80 sites in South Korea, and over 100 sites in North Korea, at which the U.S. military massacred civilians.
- There have been over 100,000 crimes committed by U.S. troops in South Korea since the 'end' of the Korean War (1953).
It goes on to say:
"The KTC, on behalf of 70 million Koreans and the conscience of people around the world, strongly demands the U.S. government's immediate apology to Korean people and full reparations to the victims and their family members for the U.S. massacres of civilians during the Korean War.
The KTC is not interested in the business of accusations of the past, but committed in letting the truth to be fully told in order to bring a true reconciliation to both Koreans and the people of the U.S. And thereby we will finally be able to move forward to a new and just relationship between both nations, leaving the dark past behind."
Yoon: Thank you Pinky. Before I speak a bit about the Korean War, I'd just like to say that the Korea Truth Commission is an international organization comprised of chapters in South Korea, North Korea, Japan, China, USA, Canada, Australia, and throughout Europe. The KTC participates in research, including forensic scientific research, and creates reports based on that research in order to document the U.S. military's massacres of civilians in both North and South Korea during the war years, 1950-1953.
One of the objectives is to bring the case of U.S. military massacres of civilians as a combined case of war crimes and crimes against humanity to appropriate international legal bodies, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, and eventually to the U.S. legal system.
Pinky: Okay, thank you. Here in the US, the Korean War is sometimes referred to as "The Forgotten War". Most people seem to know much less about the Korean War than, say, World War II or the Vietnam war. It's not part of national consciousness, so to speak. What do you think Americans need to be reminded of about this war?
Yoon: Well it was an enormously tragic war. No one knows exactly how many people died in the war, but it is estimated that between 3 to 4 million people, the majority of them Koreans. There were 16 nations that invaded Korea, the largest contingent being the United States. During that period from 1950-1953, the United States, under the auspices of the United Nations, used conventional, biological, chemical, and bacterial warfare against the people of the North, and even for that matter, in the South. The U.S. claimed that they were trying to root out communist and socialist and independence fighters, guerrilla fighters, both in the mountains and within the cities. Napalm was used, which by the way, was first widely used against Japanese cities near the end of World War II. [ Pinky's note: The U.S. firebombed 67 Japanese cities during WW II ] Napalm is a bomb filled with jellied gasoline, which explodes and creates mass destruction. It burns into the skin of people, tears open their skins and destroys their bodies. And it was used throughout the Korean War, in mass carpet bombing over the North and to some degree in the South. As you probably know it was also used in Vietnam, in the 60s and into the 70s. So in terms of the type of weaponry that was used and the policies that was used against the Korean people, the Korean War is in many ways directly linked to WW II before and Vietnam after.
Strategically the point was to contain these countries, occupy them, and to eventually be able to change the character of those countries. In Vietnam the U.S. didn't succeed. In Japan, the U.S. has been very successful in shaping much of the culture and the history to conform to the American, Westernized way of thinking. In South Korea, that's what the U.S. is doing - changing the character, the culture, the economics, the political and the military structure.
Pinky: I know there are many instances of very tragic circumstances during the Korean War, and I'm sure at least some Americans are aware of the massacre at Nogun-ri, because of the Pulitzer Prize-winning series of investigatory reports about the incident by the Associated Press in 1999. But still, most Americans, I think, don't know. We may have heard of My Lai or Samar or Wounded Knee. But why don't more people know Nogun-ri?
Yoon: Because the US government, the Pentagon, has been trying to quash information about what occurred during that period. Several hundred people - women and children, as well as older people - were machine gunned down on the bridge of Nogun-ri in South Korea. And the U.S. military tried to rationalize it by claiming that there might have been 'communist infiltrators' amongst the refugees. But these were civilians who were trying to flee the US bombings, and firefights that were occurring between the US army and the North Korean Army. The U.S. government successfully covered it up for 50 years.
Pinky: I've looked into this a bit. In 2001, I believe, the US Army Inspector General responded to the Associated Press story with its own report in which the Army officially refuted many of the findings of the AP story. But six years later, in 2007, the Army finally admitted that they had chosen to omit key documents from the 2001 report that proved that the U.S. military actually did have ongoing orders to kill civilians.
Yoon: Well, that shows the bare lies and distortions, the disinformation that the U.S. has put forth to the American people and to the world in trying to cover up these massacres and crimes that occurred in the years during and around the Korean War. Not just at Nogun-ri, but also at Cheju Island, where over 25% of the population - somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 people - were killed. Or at Taegu. Or at the Kyung San mines, 3,500 people. There are many more examples.
Pinky: How wide-spread were these kinds of incidents during the Korean War?
Yoon: Pretty wide-spread. Just as it was in Vietnam, and also what's occurring in Iraq today. The U.S. tries to cover up this kind of information, or sometimes even tries to put the blame on their own soldiers for atrocities that have been committed, atrocities that are the direct result of orders or policies established high up in the chain of command.
Pinky: How many massacre sites approximately does Korea Truth Commission know of in Koreas?
Yoon: Since the formation of the Korea Truth Commission in the year 2000, they were able to study, I believe, 80 or so massacre sites - massacres committed by U.S. military forces - and that was just in the South. In the North there have been even more.
Pinky: So this research is ongoing?
Yoon: Yes, it's ongoing. Yes. There have been research groups formed and in association with the Korea Truth Commission - they are sent into the more isolated areas in the mountains where much of the massacres took place, where many people were killed and buried by South Korean and U.S. troops.
Pinky: Can you please tell me about the First Korea International War Crimes Tribunal in New York City?
Yoon: That was held in 2001. Delegations of researchers and investigators from various countries representing the 16 countries that had invaded Korea were sent to both North and South Korea to investigate these massacre sites. These delegations presented the documented information and evidence they had gathered at the sites back at the New York conference. There were also families - eye-witnesses, survivors - that were brought over from South Korea. The delegation from North Korea were not allowed to come into the United States. Their visas were denied, for them to attend this conference.
Pinky: What was the primary objective of this conference?
Yoon: To expose the atrocities committed by the U.S. military and its allies during the Korea War.
Pinky: Why does the KTC inquire into U.S. atrocities but not into atrocities committed by North Korea or China? [ Pinky's note: China was also directly involved in the fighting during the Korean War. ]
Yoon: Because the U.S. atrocities are the ones that have largely gone unacknowledged, outside Korea they are largely unknown. The United States government doesn't want to let the people of the world know that they acted pretty much like how the Nazis acted during the Second World War, the way the United States treated the Koreans during that period. Such as in Sadiwon (North Korea), one of the sites that I visited was a series of underground bunkers which the United States had built. These were gas chamber bunkers in which people were put into those bunkers and gassed. There are also barn houses throughout the North in which the U.S. military put women and children in there and burned them alive.
Pinky: That's shocking... [ long pause ] In your view, what is the ethical cost or the spiritual cost of U.S. people forgetting these atrocities?
Yoon: Well, it seems that the U.S. people haven't learned their lessons of Vietnam, or Korea. They need to wake up because what's going on in Iraq is pretty similar to what happened in the Asian region. The destruction of human lives, the occupation of another country, the greedy profiteering and desire for control - this it still happening.
Pinky: I'd like to ask you a couple of questions regarding the current situation. What has been the lasting impact of the Korean War for the Korean people?
Yoon: People in Korea, especially the younger people, would like to see the end of the Korea War. Because as you know the Korean War never formally ended. So they would like to see a peace treaty between South and North Korea, China, and the United States [the Armistice Agreement was signed by these countries in 1953]. Just recently, the second historic summit occurred in Pyongyang, the capital city of DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea) in which South Korea President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-Il met in Pyongyang to bring together hopefully a lasting friendship between both countries. And an accord has been signed for cooperation on matters of cultural, economic, public health, environment, and even military friendship between both countries. The United States is being very unsupportive regarding a peace treaty because a reunified Korea would require the total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea peninsula. For many years the South Korean military has been under the military leadership of the U.S. military. One example - the largest military base in South Korea, Yongsan, has been moving down to Pyongtaek, which is located on the western coast of South Korea. They're pushing farmers and other residents off their land in order to build this huge military complex for their missiles. The whole rationale for that is to contain, put a military threat, towards China and North Korea.
Pinky: Does the United States have any nuclear weapons in South Korea?
Yoon: The U.S. has over 1,000 nuclear tipped weapons in and around the Korea peninsula. There are a number of nuclear power plants that have been built in South Korea and there nuclear submarines patrolling the waters - international waters but also within the territorial waters of the DPRK - with nuclear weapons available for use against the North. North Korea's response has been to create a nuclear program as a deterrent against a possible US military attack. Presently there is the Six-Party Talks ongoing, in which the DPRK is being forced - I say forced because the United States is the main instigator in the six party talks - pushing the North Koreans to relinquish their nuclear program.
Pinky: My understanding is that for many years North Korea has offered to dismantle its nuclear program on the condition that the United States abandon its so-called 'right' to carry out "regime change" or "pre-emptive nuclear strikes" against North Korea, but that this is something that the United States has repeatedly refused to do. Is this true?
Yoon: Yes, it's true. I would like to read to you this May 01,
2007 statement by Hwa Young Lee, Chair of Korea Truth Commission -
United States: [ reads ]
"The DRPK has tried repeatedly to get the U.S. to end the state of war that still exists since the 1950-53 Korean War and to sign a peace treaty that would normalize relations between the two countries. The U.S. always refuses. The DPRK's possession of a deterrent power, solely for self-defense, is also fully in line with the interests of the regional countries for peace and security and a peaceful environment. However, the DPRK government maintains its consistent position to resolve the issue of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula peacefully through dialogue and negotiations.
The U.S. doctrine of preemptive nuclear strikes against the DPRK, incessant large-scale joint military exercises of the USA and South Korea, mass delivery to South Korea of all sorts of military equipment including weapons of mass destruction, and the aerial reconnaissance by the USA four hundred-odd times every month constitute the major factors undermining peace and stability and aggravating tension in the Korean peninsula."
Pinky: Regarding the nuclear question, I do find it interesting that so much of the talk about reunification from the U.S. government seems to hinge upon the condition that North Korea dismantle their nuclear program. This seems remarkable to me considering the United States has nuclear weapons everywhere - we have them parked in foreign countries, in submarines and warships in every ocean, we even want to put them in space... The Cold War era was basically built upon the assumption that we absolutely needed huge amounts of nuclear weapons. In 1950 I think the United States had something like 250 nuclear weapons, and just ten years later, in 1960, the number had grown to approximately 10,000. So I don't see how the U.S. has the moral authority to demand the dismantling of nuclear programs anywhere when we, along with the former Soviet Union, were the primary driving force behind the global expansion of nuclear terror. So to me that just seems hypocritical, you know? So I guess I'm curious, like, what is the Korean take on this situation? Do South Koreans see themselves as being like caught up in a larger imperial context?
Yoon: Sometimes it's very clear. For example, the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, a popular uprising in which the people of Gwangju city (South Korea) tried to create a democratic government in opposition to the authoritarian military regimes of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. Both of them were supported by the United States. The U.S. military - occupation forces - allowed elite paratroopers from the South Korean military to go into the city of Gwangju and they massacred thousands of civilians who were trying to create a democratic government.
Pinky: It's interesting, when the Chinese government cracked down on the pro-democracy uprising in Tiananmen Square, everybody talked about that here in the United States. It was all over the news. But when a regime supported by the U.S. government crushes democracy, either nobody talks about it or people just can't see the obvious connections.Yoon: I would say that today there is a sector of the Korean population that sees the imperial context. And there are Koreans who are only now beginning to realize that it is not in their best interests to go along with what the United States demands in regards to its relations with the DPRK, and that the Korean people need to work towards a reunification and to also to call for an end to all US nuclear and military ambitions in the region.
Pinky: Do you have any predictions as to how these most recent meetings between North and South Korea, how it's going to unfold over the near future?
Yoon: I believe that there will be a friendlier relationship and they will work towards formalizing a peace treaty. The U.S. and the South Korean government won't say it publicly but the Korean people know that they need to get rid of U.S. domination, the U.S. occupation of the southern half of the peninsula.
Pinky: This is a sovereignty issue then?
Pinky: Just out of curiosity, how were you able to go to North Korea? Isn't it difficult to go visit North Korea?
Yoon: I was invited by the Young Koreans United, a international organization supporting peaceful reunification of Korea, to participate in the First International Peace Reunification March of Korea. We left from Los Angeles to Beijing, and from Beijing we flew to down to the DPRK on Air Koryo. For me - this was 1989 - it was the first time to return to Korea since I was brought over as an adoption child in 1957. I was four and a half, I was born during the Korea War. So for me it was an emotional moment to return to my homeland. Originally the Peace Reunification March was to be held both in the North and South, but the South Korean government denied visas to representatives of the Preparatory Committee to participate.
Pinky: How did the people in the North receive you and the other delegates?
Yoon: They welcomed us joyously. Wherever we went, we were greeted as friends, as family. It was beautiful, especially the march up into the legendary mountain Baektu-san (Baektu-san borders China) and we visited, looked at Chunji, the Heavenly Lake. So it was a very heart moving, heartfelt moment. And it was a sad moment. When I was able to go to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) knowing that on the other side, the southern part of Korea where I was born, was separated by mine fields laid out in the DMZ... [ pause ] There is a wall there which was built in the mid- to latter part of the 1970s. Built by the U.S. Army core of engineers and South Korean government. It's huge. It makes the Berlin Wall look like a fence. It's 10 meters high, 10 meters deep; it's thick enough to drive an Amtrak on top of it. And the only thing that divides that wall is mountains and streams, rivers. That wall continues from the east to the west of Korea, on the southern part of the Demilitarized Zone. That needs to be torn down.
Pinky: The United States has built a lot of famous walls.
Yoon: Yes. It helped build the apartheid wall in the occupied territories (Palestine) too, West Bank and all.
Pinky: Now we're talking about making a 2,000 mile long wall between the United States and Mexico.
Yoon: Yes, that's right.
Pinky: Thank you Mr. Yoon. I think this is going to be some new information for a lot of people. Myself included, I hadn't heard of many of these things, I'll have to do much more research into these matters.
< end >
[ note from Bunny, July 8, 2008: Here is an excerpt from a recent news report from the Associated Press:
The Associated Press (Charles Hanley and Jae-Soon Chang, "US WAVERED OVER S. KOREAN EXECUTIONS", Seoul, July 6, 2008) reported that in the early days of the Korean War, American officers observed, photographed and confidentially reported on wholesale executions by their ROK ally. Extensive archival research by The Associated Press has found no indication Far East commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur took action to stem the summary mass killing, knowledge of which reached top levels of the Pentagon and State Department in Washington, where it was classified "secret" and filed away. "The most important thing is that they did not stop the executions," historian Jung Byung-joon, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said of the Americans. "They were at the crime scene, and took pictures and wrote reports."...
[ update from Bunny, December 6, 2008: Here is another report from the Associated Press, this one about the execution of children. ]
I think it's important to note that at the time, the South Korean (ROK) Army was trained, armed, and managed by the U.S. military. The idea that ROK personnel pulled the triggers and not U.S. service members does not change my view of U.S. culpability in the matter. I include this report in response to reader e-mails claiming that the U.S. had no knowledge of these war crimes. ]
Korea International War Crimes Tribunal, New York City, 2001.
Running time: approx. 17 min 10 sec
First International Peace March, North Korea, 1989.
Running time: approx. 6 min