Korea's Grievous War

Korea's Grievous War

Korea's Grievous War

Korea's Grievous War


In 1948, two years before Cold War tensions resulted in the invasion of South Korea by North Korea that started the Korean War, the first major political confrontation between leftists and rightists occurred on the South Korean island of Cheju. Communist activists disrupted United Nations-sanctioned elections and military personnel were deployed to Cheju. What began as a counterinsurgency operation targeting 350 local rebels resulted in the deaths of around 30,000 uninvolved civilians, 10 percent of the island's population.

Su-kyoung Hwang's Korea's Grievous War recounts the civilian experience of anticommunist violence, beginning with the Cheju Uprising in 1948 and continuing through the Korean War until 1953. Wartime declarations of emergency by both the U.S. and Korean governments were issued to contain communism, but a major consequence of their actions was to contribute to the loss of over two million civilian lives. Hwang inventories the persecutions of left-leaning intellectuals under the South Korean regime of Syngman Rhee and the executions of political prisoners and innocent civilians to "prevent" their collaboration with North Korea. She highlights the role of the United States in observing, documenting, and yet failing to intervene in the massacres and of the U.S. Air Force's three-year firebombing of North and South Korea.

Hwang draws on archival research and personally conducted interviews to recount vividly the acts of anticommunist violence at the human level and illuminate the sufferings of civilian victims. Korea's Grievous War presents the historical background, political motivations, legal bases, and social consequences of anticommunist violence, tracing the enduring legacy of this destruction in the testimonies of survivors and bereaved families that only now can give voice to the lived experience of the grievous war and its aftermath.


In 1960, a crowd of mourners dressed in white formed a long funeral procession in a provincial district in South Korea. Young men and widows holding portraits of the dead led the grieving throng to a graveyard where their deceased family members were to be buried together. The collective casket contained the remains of over seven hundred people who had been massacred at the beginning of the Korean War. Their families had disinterred the bodies from a mass grave and were giving them a decent reburial. An inscription placed at the graveside read, “To the traveler passing by: historians of the future generation will tell the story of this grave.” One year later, under a newly established dictatorship, both the inscription and the burial site had disappeared without a trace. The families who had organized the mass funeral were arrested, imprisoned, and silenced. Their stories disappeared from public consciousness for decades.

Stories of atrocities such as the one that prompted the reburial ceremony began to resurface in South Korea in the late 1980s, when the country’s authoritarian regime had been ousted. Through personal testimonies, memoirs, films, and historical accounts, people learned for the first time about some of the massacres that had occurred during the Korean War, involving the deaths of between two and three million civilians. The war began on June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces invaded the South. Recent studies have confirmed that the communist leaders of the Soviet Union and China supported Kim Il Sung’s decision to go to war. This view is consistent with mainstream interpretations of the Korean War, except that Kim is now seen to have had a greater degree of agency than was previously thought.

Perhaps the chief irony of the war is to be found not in its beginning but in its outcome. While the communists started the war, a disproportionate number of civilians were killed in the South’s effort to contain the . . .

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