“Facts cannot be hidden forever... all we have to do is our share of getting the truth known”
The above quote is taken from a letter from Winnington to the POW Andrew Condron in 1952. It still stands. So much is left over from the Korean War that is little understood or appreciated.
This is why I wanted to be involved so much in this exhibition of Winnington’s photographs that opened today in Daejeon.
It wouldn’t have been possible without the local council, and the amazing knowledge of local activists Shim Gyu Sang and Im Jaegeun. I could only contribute to the Winnington aspects of everything there. This was “my share”.
I will continue to contribute for the same reasons wherever possible. Both because it is so necessary for a lasting peace in Korea. But also because Winnington himself is so misunderstood. Everyday there is new information that astounds me - and every day I am shocked by the consequences of what he witnessed.
This excerpt from a “Cassandra” article in the Daily Mirror in 1955 is indicative when we consider the lies and misinformation that was spread around at the time. Not an attempt to “get the truth known” but to obscure it further. This is one of the main reasons we can only “s[ee] the truth” today.
The exhibition will be open for ten days in Daejeon this week. At the 전통나래관 behind Daejeon Station (if anyone is reading this in Korea)
I have been trying to write about the significance of Alan Winnington’s photographs for quite a while now. But due to copyright concerns and an evolving situation on the ground this hasn’t been possible.
Thanks to History Workshop Online I was finally able to.
However please note that the archive is still uncatalogued at Sheffield. It will be open at some point this year (Covid allowing)
No matter how hard he trieS, it’s impossible to forget.
The trailer for the new film we have been working on about the Daejeon Massacre is now available. The title is 무저갱 (Mu jeo gaeng), and it follows the stories of the bereaved families as well as the excavations and my research on Winnington.
The film bases itself on the story of a poem written by an orphan of the Korean War, and its journey into being made into a song by a composer and the poet’s granddaughter,
In-between is the story of massacre itself, hauntingly rendered by an award winning South Korean animator.
This week I am involved in the filming of a KBS documentary that will premiere during June in South Korea on the anniversary of the Korean War. I will also put up more details regarding this at a later date.
Below is the trailer and a few screenshots from Abyss in the meantime. I’m hoping I can arrange a few screenings in the UK later this year. Let me know if you are interested on the contact page.
In what follows I will recount a journey I made to the valley in Daejeon with the local journalist Shim Gyu Sang. I am making these posts to fill in the gaps for people who might be interested in the story of Alan Winnington, but also in the narrative that surrounds the Korean War in a much wider sense. Both are important because they are largely “inchoate” accounts that have accrued much complexity and misunderstandings over time. It makes sense to choose this particular word, because it is not that they are just “unfinished” but “unfufilled”. By which I mean these accounts lack context and closure. These posts are part of a collective attempt to truly understand what happened in the war and its aftermath. As a result they require attention to detail, and - as I've discovered recently - a spatial awareness that can evoke a sense of scale and experience. Similar things are true of Alan's “posthumous” autobiography published three years after his death. Both are narratives to which new information and context is constantly being added, and both are victim to prejudice and ignorance where the human element is rarely perceived in its full complexity. This is not about ideology, even if politics is inextricably bound up in what must be told. Instead these are stories about cruel cycles of history that care very little for political affiliation. As always it is people themselves who are disappeared in these partial attempts at retelling.
So, again, I want to point to the “inchoate” status of these stories and events. At the moment it might be said that we are carefully assembling a mosaic, one of the most important parts of which is the oral histories that have been suppressed for so long. This comes with all the trauma these events still uncover, but also a curiosity at new discoveries. In the next few years I hope that this place, and the wider history surrounding it, genuinely promotes discussion. We have made much progress since looking into this in detail this year (most of which I will have to explain in the future), but every day brings new information it is hard to keep up with. At that level be aware that some of the things below may well be superseded in the future. We are continuing the excavations well into 2022 so this will inevitably be the case.
In order to make this post I was taken on a tour of the site by Mr Shim in October. He is a genuinely inspiring person having written on this issue for over twenty years now. He has actually been following it for much longer, even when it wasn't safe to talk about it properly. Mr Shim is now an inextricable part of the discovery and reporting. His story is bound up with any goings on here along with those of another local journalist and academic Im Jaeguen. The enthusiasm and detail that Mr Shim provided me with during the exploration of the site was utterly boundless. His hospitality, and curiosity, are something I hope I can replicate albeit under much more favourable conditions. My mosquito scarred scalp and sunburnt body in October attested to the level of attention and effort that is still required to explore this site in full. I still smile when I think of Mr Shim squatting away snakes from site number three with a stick he had broken off a nearby tree. I hope that what is detailed below encourages more people to embark on a similar journey. Even if it is only with the information I have provided.
The following, then, is a synopsis of the eight sites in the Daejeon Valley as they stand today. It must be remembered that these are only the ones that we know about. This does not mean that there aren't others. One of the most incredible things about dealing with Alan's primary sources is that the smallest detail can have huge implications for things on the ground in South Korea. Having seen primary sources by Winnington recently, as well as examining in detail his original reports, it is clear that much more could exist at this place that is simply unknown. All of the witnesses who lived here during the war have now passed on, and even Shim Gyu Sang had trouble getting them to explain their stories ten years ago. The only way it was possible – so he tells me – was to buy them makkolli and dinner and then drive them to the site where they would point through a closed car window at the mountain in the distance. This was out of a genuine, and completely understandable, fear of retribution by the authorities. I have included pictures of Mr Shim on our journey in the explanations. I should also mention that he soused me liberally in makkolli beforehand as well.
Site One: Emmanuel Church
This is the site in Daejeon at which they are currently digging, although it will be extended to other areas in the future. Some recent discoveries confirm that people as young as fifteen were killed there, but also that (as Winnington stated in his original newspaper reports, and as has been confirmed since by witness testimony) many of them were women too. Both these facts are often omitted from official accounts, and it is important to restate them as often as possible.
The distinctive aspect of site number one is the Emmanuel Church that exists on the site itself. Rather than being a longstanding construction it was actually built in 2001 illegally on land that should have been protected . This was simply an oversight by the local administration at the time, but it led to a protracted battle with the church that has only just ended through the compulsory purchase of the land. A lot of remains were discovered by the Bereaved Family Association as they stood by and watched outraged as the foundations were dug at the time. Shim Gyu Sang collected these in an old kimchi pot and buried them under the memorial stone that existed on site.
At the moment of writing Park Sunju and his team have discovered 200 complete skeletons here, and this is only the very beginning of the process. In 2015 a test pit was completed where 20 bodies were found. After this excavation a raised earthwork was constructed on site in the shape that the pit is believed to follow, both as a memorial but also to point to the urgency of future diggings. It is at this place the final set of excavations will be ending this month. I am not sure it has been deemed wise to dig below the Emmanuel Church at the moment, but it is certainly being discussed as a possibility.
Site Two: The Longest Tomb
This site is the one that gives the valley the name of The Longest Tomb in local mythology. In the two photos attached – I simply circled the camera from left to right where i was standing at the time – you can see the supposed extent (200 yards long according to Winnington) of the trench as it runs parallel with the new road built in the Sixties. It was thought to run from the pylon in the far distance to the house with the blue roof on the other side. New data, however, has shown us that this might not actually be the case. It seems that the residents of the valley confused the new road with the old one that existed at the time. I can't say much more about this at the moment, but the new excavations should be able to find the exact place of this trench due to the discovery of important photographic evidence
This is the place where it was also assumed the construction company discovered a lot of remains when they were digging the road. Actually, Shim Gyu Sang traced this company a few years ago and they denied all knowledge of what went on at the time. It's only speculation, but it is most likely that rather than being “government interference” it was more to do with avoiding paperwork and delays to the project than anything else. But whatever happens, this place is a key area for excavations because of the size of the pit. Now that it has been located expect much more news in the future.
Site Three: Truth and Reconciliation Commission Excavation
Site three is supposed to be the place where people in the collage made by Shim Gyu Sang earlier were killed after the two main massacre sites were filled in. This suggests that their killing was something of an afterthought, and they may have come from outside of Daejeon or were people who were captured further away.
Because of the small size of this place it is quite unique. Apart from the identity of the people killed here lots of information has been found out. In fact, in the councils own list of excavations in the valley it is the only site that is labelled “done”.
These days it is extremely inaccessible and is the place that Mr Shim used his stick to remove unwanted snakes and spiders. As can be seen from Mr Shim's demonstration below the way in which these people were killed was extremely methodical:
All 29 of prisoners were forced to sit in an interlocking position in a trench and then buried were they fell. At the time of excavation in 2007 handcuffs, keys and various other things were found. You can see them in this post I made previously on the Sejeong Mausoleum.
During this excavation enough items were found to prove that the people killed were prisoners as can be seen from the table I have included below:
This is the most inaccessible of the sites and in 2007 it was impossible to discover anything. The site is located on a forest trail in the mountain, and witness testimonies say that people were taken to this place from the second massacre site to be killed. There was nothing found by investigators in 2007, but it is said that there is indeed a small burial site by the stream where another excavation will take place in the future.
At this place 5 people were found in an excavation in 2007, but Shim Gyu Sang is certain that there must be more. These people weren't prisoners as could be easily discerned at site 3 for example and what happened here seems to be most likely down to a personal or political grudge. Four of the people found here appear to be ordinary people but there is a curious aspect to one of the burials in as far as he is a high status person with leather bottomed shoes and expensive watch somewhere in his Forties buried much further away from the others. Also this person was not killed with an M1 cartridge like the other four, but a pistol instead.
The main problem with excavations in this area had to do with the soil quality itself, which was full of slab stones and clay and extremely precarious to dig through.
Site 6: Flood
Site number six is also by the roadside in the valley close to a stream. In 2015 there was a huge storm, however, and local people say that many of the remains were washed away downstream into the city centre. There has never been an excavation at this place, but a skull was found in a Raccoon's nest in 2002 during the filming of a documentary about the Jeju Massacre.
Site 7: Farm Land
This massacre site has never been excavated. It exists at the bottom of the mountain, on farm land, where the owners have been told never to disturb the ground. There will definitely be excavations here in the future, but whether or not the land owners have kept their promise has yet to be discovered.
As we were standing here talking about the land owners, and the long fight against apathy here, Mr Shim turned to me and gave his riposte to those who shrug their shoulders and proclaim they “don't care”. 'This happened to innocent people', he railed as heavy trucks charged past us on the extremely narrow road, “it could just as easily be your family, or yourself'. To Mr Shim this isn't just the apathy of the landowners either. 'This war was ratified by the UN', he told me, 'it was a global event. We have to tell the world”
Site 8: Pylon
As Mr Shim took me to this place two hikers passed us and asked what was going on. Mr Shim told them that we were reporting on the valley, and one of them (a man in his Seventies) told us that we shouldn't call these people "ppalgenies" (the slang word for "communist" , literally meaning "red") as they were just ordinary people. That was indicative to me of a sea change in public opinion in South Korea over the last ten years or so, and it would be rare to hear such a thing in the past.
At the time the killings were witnessed by Park Song Ha from Okcheon who hid behind a tree as truckloads of prisoners were killed here when he was 15 years old. They attempted to dig here in 2007 among the trees behind an electric pylon because of another witness account, but Park Song Ha said that this was the wrong place. The bodies are buried, he tells us, underneath the actual pylon, about 10 meters to the left of where the digging commenced in 2007. When he saw them install the pylon years ago he shuddered, suddenly remembering what he had witnessed all those years ago.
There is much to be written about what happened here, especially in terms of what the families suffered at this time. This place has been the subject of a poem by the local poet Jeon Sukja who's own father was killed in the valley.
Here is a video from the dig yesterday centered on the first massacre site visited by Winnington 70 years ago. The soil is very acidic, so after 70 years the remains are in pretty bad condition. I have included pictures of what has been found so far as well.
It's not possible to see from the video itself, but behind the JCB is the church under which the 'pit' curves and continues for quite some time. This will be demolished later in the month so that the excavation can continue in the assumed direction.
The circles made in chalk surround areas where remains have been found. The soil contains many rocks that were included when the trench was back filled, so usually it is necessary to remove these in order to access the remains underneath. It is very time consuming work, and some of those involved are volunteers.
On the outskirts of Sejeong City this morning I accompanied Park Sunjoo to the Mausoleum where remains from the Daejeon Massacre are currently stored. This isn't just a resting place for those so cruelly murdered at this time, but also a storage facility that allows future testing of the bones. The reason for our visit today was precisely for that reason. As I arrived samples of the bones were being split into bags for a trip to Seoul where they can hopefully be identified at a later date. Once this process has been completed the families will be notified of the results, and if they want to bury the remains after all this time they will have the opportunity. When we eventually open the Peace Park in Daejeon the remains currently being excavated will also be stored on site.
Hearing about all this DNA testing and how this complicated process is designed to end made me think of all of the remains that will never be identified throughout the Korean Peninsula. There will be many places like this in the North, but usually families were able to identify and bury the dead after a short period of time had passed. I would recommend people read Monica Felton's pamphlet for evidence of this. In the South, however, there was only ever an extremely small window for burials before the territory was back in control of the the American and South Korean militaries. I remember accounts of people who travelled to the site in Daejeon to recover the bodies of their loved ones at the time, only to find it impossible because of their condition. Often these people never returned to the mountain valley. It existed instead as a forbidden place at the edge of the city, a site of confluence where opposing narratives led only to a mutually agreed (or “enforced”) silence. This was a place spoken of in hushed terms by both the victors and the victims. Pain, guilt, or even ignorance, leading to a strange and terrifying omerta across the spectrum.
When we were testing for DNA at the mausoleum today Professor Park showed me all of the other places that he had so far excavated for remains. One of these was the place in Gongju that originally drew my attention to this history, but there were also many others of which I had no knowledge at all. To end this post it might be worth drawing attention to one of these in particular. The ramifications of what happened at this place are instructive for many sites in South Korea, where unlike in Daejeon evidence is extremely thin on the ground.
The picture above shows an excavation in a place called Oegong-ri, quite a remote area even today. The specificity of this place comes from the massacre that took place here in 1951. Nobody seems to know why these people were killed, or even where there came from. There were buttons found at the time from "Incheon Commercial School" amongst others (suggesting that many of the victims were children), but they were certainly not local people and no one seems to have come forward to claim they knew exactly who they were. All that is known is that maybe 11 buses came to this place at that time and the killing commenced soon after. Six pits were excavated in 2008.
It is these kind of places that define the Korean War I think. We must focus not just on the families that received some kind of closure, but all of the people who suffered through knowing absolutely nothing about what happened to their good friends and relatives. Even the act of searching became a crime in itself, especially if the name of the person they were seeking had once been on a blacklist. The future Peace Park in Daejeon draws attention well to these unknown stories. It could bring speech and light to a place previously identified with silence and darkness. I hope in design terms that consists of a space that encourages conversation about the multiple ways in which people suffered at this time. Not just what is known as historical fact, but what could be unknown still. Which means cultivating a curiosity about the past and the future. Imagining the things that human beings have been, and could be, capable of again.
This picture released by the American Military of the site in 1950 (taken by Major Abbott on his Leica Camera in July of that year), overlaid on a more contemporary photograph shows exactly what has been at stake in Daejeon over the past 15 years or so. The inhuman activities of Abbot at this time, paradoxically provide a window into the past that makes the recovery of remains possible. This knowledge is constantly shifting and changing, dependent on the sources themselves but also the revelations that come from looking at the topography on site. The mountains in this case are very much a witness, or a provide a constancy that it is hard to obtain from the accounts of local people after so much time has passed.
I was told last week that even though it is a rumour at the second (and longest) massacre site that the government disposed of the remains when building the road, in reality the elderly witness to what occurred at that time mistook the new road for the original one that had existed somewhere else. In which case, there could be much to be found in a completely different place. This kind of work is never an exact science. Probably a mixture of accounts resembles the truth (including Winnington's own). All that exists is rumour and supposition that must be collated and inspected in the light of genuine facts. One clear fact is that bone fragments and "black rubber shoes' have been uncovered by farmers in this valley for some time. But to find the precise source requires opportunities much like in the transhistorical overlapping of images seen above.
There are similar opportunities that arise from Winnington's own evidence, particularly when we consider things like the capacity of military trucks at the time and the evidence he gained via a translator. I hope to cover a few of these soon.
As something of an addendum - and using information from the a series of articles written by the journalist Shim Gyu Sang over the past few days in South Korea - similar patterns emerge to do with Winnington's own report. Of the six "pits" that Winnington discovered in his pamphlet it is clear now that the first three are at massacre site number one, whilst the fourth and fifth (including the longest one by the road of 200 yards) are at the second site, with the sixth in the far distance at the third massacre site. It looks very much like the third massacre site is the one found by using the mountains as topographical markers in the picture at the top of this post.
At the site in Daejeon today we commenced the digging with an official ceremony. This is a month long process, so I will be returning wherever possible to search for updates. Park Sun Joo tells me that they hope to recover a third of the bodies in this one area. There will be digging in other places too.
Like always happens with this history, it seems a strange coincidence its almost 70 years exactly since the publication of Alan's pamphlet. There is a brochure from the event that I will be slowly releasing parts of both on this site (when I deem it appropriate) and in more detail in a newsletter that I will sporadically produce for people who are genuinely interested in this. Send me your email via the tab on the right of this page if you are.
It's worth briefly reminding people of the significance of these events for both the history of the Korean War, but in a much wider sense what passes for journalism in the present. I think of the barely covered trial of Julian Assange at the moment, or how meticulously this story has been withheld from public knowledge for 70 years. Even if this story was known to some in England and America, Alan's Pamphlet only ended up in South Korean hands in 2002. Even then it was most likely in the form of "communist contraband".
I have a lot more to write about this but for now consider this passage from Alan's posthumously released autobiography, where he extremely accurately recounts how his report was received in the UK at the time:
"Apparently not a single British or American journalist paid a visit to rangwul to investigate what would of been a world scoop if they had uncovered a "commie" lie. The British did not ask any of their advisors in Korea to look into it. The labour cabinet even concealed that they had discussed it, by recording their discussion in a secret cabinet paper not to be made publiC till thirty years later when they would all be dead or in the house of lords - Breakfast with MAo, 1986 ( 115)
Last year we made a short film about Esther Samson's (formerly Winnington) trip to the memorial ceremony in Daejeon. As always this was done with contributions from Daejeon Citizens, and the film was made by Jeong Chinho PD (an amateur film maker, who kindly gave his services much as he did for The Longest Tomb one year previously).
Apart from being one of the only films made about this tragedy, it is a really worthwhile film in terms of finding out more about Alan Winnington. As someone very interested in his story I was particularly shocked (although not surprised!) by Esther's description of the trauma that Alan himself carried with him after the Korean War. Also, it is worth watching simply for Esther's incredible stories about Ho Chi Minh and other Communist leaders she met over the years (and of course the King of China!).
It is also great to see the memorial ceremony so well organized in 2019, something that wasn't possible in 2020 thanks to the pandemic.
We are currently producing a professional quality film about the Daejeon Massacre with funding from the Arts Council and the East District Government Office (my current workplace). This will be completed by the end of this year. I will also put this up on here when completed.
One thing that has always struck me about this valley in Daejeon is the way the story always finds itself either expressed in, or involved with, poetry in both its private and public manifestations. As someone who has spent the last twenty years thinking of poetry as one way to foster an engagement -or different attention - to the world surrounding us I find this encouraging. It is something that I recognize perhaps, among so many experiences that I can only fail to come to terms with otherwise.
There is much to be written - and there will be shortly on this site - about the poet Jeon Sukja for whom poetry is a form of catharsis, or an extremely private and confessional way of dealing with what happened to her Father. Her story reveals one of these "untranslatable" experiences, and to see it written down and performed (always saturated with the pain of these memories) provides us with a unique and moving record of what continued to happen at this place long after fighting in the Korean War came to an end.
But there are also many public expressions of poetry here initiated by the Daejeon Writers Group who I was extremely privileged to accompany to a conference on the Jeju 4.3 incident a couple of years ago. At this time of year the whole valley is usually covered in poetry banners in different colours, expressing what this history means to these writers and how it connects to other more recent historical events in South Korea.
At Saturday's memorial I met the poet Park Soyoung for the second time who gave me a reading of her poem. I took my picture with her and talked about future collaborations with poets in the UK because of the Winnington connection. I hope that something meaningful can be arranged in the future.