The Unknown Truth About Korea: U.S. Sanctioned Death Squads and War Crimes, 1945-1953

January 1, 2000

The mostly unknown record of the brutal U.S. occupation and subsequent control of Korea following the Japanese defeat in August 1945, and the voluminous number of war crimes committed between 1950 and 1953, have been systematically hidden under mountains of accusations directed almost solely against the "red menace" of northern Korea. The Korean War itself grew out of U.S. refusal to allow a genuine self-determination process to take root. The Korean people were exuberant in August 1945 with their new freedom after being subjected to a brutal 40-year Japanese occupation of their historically undivided Peninsula. They immediately began creating local democratic peoples’ committees the day after Japan announced on August 14 its intentions to surrender. By August 28, all Korean provinces had created local peoples’ offices and on September 6 delegates from throughout the Peninsula gathered in Seoul, at which time they created the Korean People’s Republic (KPR).

The United States had a different plan for Korea. At the February 1945 Yalta conference, President Roosevelt suggested to Stalin, without consulting the Koreans, that Korea should be placed under joint trusteeship following the war before being granted her independence. On August 11, two days after the second atomic bomb was dropped assuring Japan’s imminent surrender, and three days after Russian forces entered Manchuria and Korea to oust the Japanese as was agreed to avoid further U.S. casualties, Truman hurriedly ordered his War Department to choose a dividing line for Korea. Two young colonels, Dean Rusk (later to be Secretary of State under President’s Kennedy and Johnson during the Vietnam War) and Charles H. Bonesteel, were given 30 minutes to resolve the matter. The 38th parallel was quickly, and quietly, chosen, placing the historic capital city of Seoul and 70 percent, or 21 of Korea’s 30 million people in the "American" southern zone. This was not discussed with Stalin or any other political leaders in the U.S. or among our allies. Surprisingly, Stalin agreed to this "temporary" partition that meant the Russians already present in the country would briefly occupy the territory north of the line comprising 55 percent of the peninsular land area. On August 15, the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) was formed and on September 8, 72,000 U.S. troops began arriving to enforce the formal occupation of the south.

The Korean People’s Republic officially formed just two days prior to the first arrival of U.S. forces was almost immediately shunned by the U.S. who decided its preference was to stand behind conservative politicians representing the traditional land-owning elite. The U.S. helped in the formation on September 16 of the conservative Korean Democratic Party (KDP), and brought Syngman Rhee to Korea on General MacArthur’s plane on October 16 to head up the new party. Rhee, a Korean possessing a Ph.D. from Princeton (1910) and an Austrian wife, had lived in the United States for more than 40 years. To his credit he had detested the Japanese occupation of his native country, but he hated the communists even more. Just before Rhee arrived to begin efforts to consolidate his power in the south, long-time resistance fighter Kim Il Sung returned from exile to begin his leadership in the Russian occupied north. As a guerrilla leader Kim had been fighting the Japanese occupation of China and Korea since the early 1930s.

Rhee and his U.S. advisers quickly concluded that in order to build their kind of Korea through the KDP they must definitively defeat the broad-based KPR. While Kim, with the support of the Russian forces in the north, was purging that territory of former Japanese administrators and their Korean collaborators, the USAMG was actively recruiting them in the south. In November the U.S. Military Governor outlawed all strikes and in December declared the KPR and all its activities illegal. In effect the U.S. had declared war on the popular movement of Korea south of the 38th Parallel and set in motion a repressive campaign that later became excessively brutal, dismantling the Peoples’ Committees and their supporters throughout the south.

In December 1945 General John R. Hodge, commander of the U.S. occupation forces, created the Korean Constabulary, led exclusively by officers who had served the Japanese. Along with the revived Japanese colonial police force, the Korean National Police (KNP), comprised of many former Korean collaborators, and powerful right-wing paramilitary groups like the Korean National Youth and the Northwest Youth League, the U.S.Military Government and their puppet Syngman Rhee possessed the armed instruments of a police state more than able to assure a political system that was determined to protect the old landlord class made up of rigid reactionaries and enthusiastic capitalists.

By the fall of 1946, disgruntled workers declared a strike that spread throughout South Korea. By December the combination of the KNP, the Constabulary, and the right-wing paramilitary units, supplemented by U.S. firepower and intelligence, had contained the insurrections in all provinces. More than 1,000 Koreans were killed with more than 30,000 jailed. Regional and local leaders of the popular movement were either dead, in jail, or driven underground.

With total U.S. support Rhee busily prepared for a politically division of Korea involuntarily imposed on the vast majority of the Korean people. Following suppression of the October-December insurrection, the Koreans began to form guerrilla units in early 1947. There were sporadic activities for a year or so. However, in March 1948, on Korea’s large Island, Cheju, a demonstration objecting to Rhee’s planned separate elections scheduled for May 1948 was fired upon by the KNP. A number of Koreans were injured and several were tortured, then killed. This incident provoked a dramatic escalation of armed resistance to the U.S./Rhee regime. The police state went into full force, regularly guided by U.S. military advisors, and often supported by U.S. military firepower and occasional ground troops. On the Island of Cheju alone, within a year as many as 60,000 of its 300,000 residents had been murdered, while another 40,000 fled by sea to nearby Japan. Over 230 of the Island’s 400 villages had been totally scorched with 40,000 homes burned to the ground. As many as 100,000 people were herded into government compounds. The remainder, it has been reported, became collaborators in order to survive. On the mainland guerrilla activities escalated in most of the provinces. The Rhee/U.S. forces conducted a ruthless campaign of cleansing the south of all dissidents, usually identifying them as "communists," though in fact most popular leaders in the south were socialists unaffiliated with outside "communist" organizations. Anyone who was openly or quietly opposed to the Rhee regime was considered suspect. Therefore massive numbers of villagers and farmers were systematically rounded up, tortured, then shot and dropped into mass graves. Estimates of murdered civilians range anywhere from 200,000 to 800,000 by the time the hot war broke out in June 1950.

The hot war allegedly began at Ongjin about 3 or 4 A.M. (Korean time) June 25, 1950. Just how the fighting started on that day depends on one’s source of information. It is mostly irrelevant, since a civil and revolutionary war had been raging for a couple of years, with military incursions routinely moving back and forth across the 38th parallel.


  1. Ed Baugh
    Posted July 17, 2010 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    During the winter of 1950-51 subsequent to Chinese intervention in the Korean War, the South Korean Army (ROKA) conducted draft sweeps mainly in Seoul. These ‘draftees’
    were brutally herded over mountain trails, largely out-of-sight of American forces, to concentration like training camps. Many of these draftees died in route. Those who made it to training camps were mistreated even by the harsh standards of Rhee’s era. A ROKA general officer responsible for this program was supposedily tried and executed by the ROKA. I suspect that this brutal chapter in Korea’s history was largely covered-up, Do you have any information pertaining to the events I discibed. Thanks for you attention. Ed Baugh, Livonia, MI

  2. Posted July 17, 2010 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate hearing of this history. I did not know of it. Were you a witness to this practice or know of citations that document it? I don’t doubt it at all, but if I use it I need to cite my source. You would be a good source if you can reveal how you know about it. Thanks.

  3. Ed Baugh
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    A very brief Wikipedia entry list a few references. See
    Of particular note is the footnote based on a NY Times article, “50,000 Koreans Die in Camps in South,” p. 3, June 13, 1951.

  4. Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

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  5. skyblu5555
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    I learned nothing about the Korean War during all of my years of schooling. It is unbelievable. Only now as an old person watching the Military Channel I have caught two segments on combat on the ground at two different locations, Marine platoons, and the political tension between then President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur that resulted in Truman’s recall of MacArthur from Korea.

    I have learned:
    the U.S. lost 54,000 troops during the Korean War; hundreds of thousands of civilians and Chinese were killed;

    2. Truman considered dropping four or more atomic bombs of China but England talked him out of it as again the war would become WWIII;

    3. The U.S. Marines were sitting ducks and entire platoons were massacred.

    Your essay above describing the political history of Korea at the time of the Japanese occupation and withdrawal with the close of WWII; the speed with which the Korean people organized all around the country to implement self rule and self determination; and then the authoritarian edict determined Korea’s fate, i.e. breaking that nation in 1/2 at the 38th parallel; the installation by Truman et al of a right wing Princeton PhD education guy who lived for 40 years in the U.S. and hated by the Korean people
    is beyond shocking…the pattern is inescapable and has been brought home to the U.S.:

    Viet Nam
    US: Phony “War on Terror”
    Instill fear and subservience in the populous
    Destroy the currency
    Remove jobs
    Sell Off the public’s assets
    De-vest from America;
    and more.

    My goal is to learn as much as I can about the Korean War. I do wonder whether FDR and Stalin were in their right minds at the time of the Treaty of Yalta.

    I appreciate your bibliography/reading list.

    I memory of all of the innocents and those killed and maimed during all of our wars…the interesting thing is this country was established on the principle of tranquility, not authoritarianism and certainly not militarism. But I do know the “Dept of Homeland Security” and the
    “National Security Economy” are a real danger and threat to world peace and must be DEFUNDED.

    D. Shatin

  6. Posted January 27, 2013 at 4:59 am | Permalink

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  7. Imperial_Treaty
    Posted April 7, 2013 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    I apologize, but all this anger over American imperialism was b/c they want to violate the war norms of war treaties. Anyone heard of victor goes to the spoils? That’s all it is. What would American soldiers think if they risked their lives for nothing? They will revolt against their very nation. Look back @ all the conquerors in the world. There’s always a treaty somehow (or just massacre).

  8. VNOhara
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Brian.

    The similarity to the tactic US used in VN is chilling.

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  8. By Come Home America on August 8, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    [...] by a truth commission recently set up in the US backed Republic of Korea in the South, proceeded to mass massacre nearly 200,000 communists, socialists, unionist, farmer organizers, members of that overthrown [...]

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