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.
Attached to this post is Monica Felton's text "What I Saw in Korea", a pamphlet that recounts her trip with the Women's International Democratic Federation to North Korea in 1951. It was her goal at the time to visit South Korea also, but this wasn't allowed. As well, as Alan's pamphlet there is much to be gained from this text when considering the relentless bombing campaign waged by the US Air force in Pyongyang and elsewhere.
There is also much on war crimes in the North in places like Anak and Sincheon, the last of which is the site of a controversial museum in modern day North Korea.
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.
Read the background to these posts here
In this post I want to deal simply with the facts of the Daejeon massacre, and Winnington’s report nearly seventy years ago. As much as these statistics are upsetting, I believe this post to be necessary as there is such limited information out there. There is an old CBS article on this by Charles Hanley and Jae Soon Chang, which can be viewed here. For background, there is much research by Gavan McCormack and Bruce Cumings also. But in this post I want to explain more about Winnington’s specific role in all this, which is often reduced to just a footnote.
In the course of “I Saw the Truth in Korea” Winnington put the figure of those killed in Daejeon at 7,000. This is the highest figure available, and stands in contrast to a figure of 1,800 that relies solely on leaked American sources. Winnington’s figure is much higher because he claims that throughout the month of July (war broke out on 25th June) a single valley in Daejeon was used as a mass grave for political prisoners. This wasn’t a spontaneous event. It was a calculated slaughter planned with full access to governmental bureaucracy, and practiced with the utmost military efficiency. After the Northern advance Daejeon was made a temporary administrative centre, so that is perhaps why this location was chosen. In this post I want to consider Alan’s report in the context of the time, and then write a little bit about the site today. This will also involve a reminder of a few sources Winnington discovered during the initial stages of the war rarely discussed in the present.
To consider Alan’s reporting it might be best to step back for a minute and put ourselves in his shoes at the precise time of writing. There is actually a journal available that details Alan’s journey from Seoul to Daejeon (hereafter “Taichun” as he phonetically transposes it) where there is unpublished information about what he witnessed. This is a full itinerary, including attempts to amass as much information as possible. For instance, in the file of notes are a series of (unanswered) questions to Kim Il Sung including one on “atrocities”. Winnington’s brief was to examine places like the West Gate Prison in Seoul for evidence of torture, but also assess reports of war crimes carried out under American supervision. There were plenty of these, and his notebooks contain references to what he witnessed. But the notebooks are also interesting because they start with the aim of documenting not just “atrocities” but “heroes” on the North Korean side. It is clear at the end of this documenting however that no “heroes” are to be found. In fact, not a single “hero” is even isolated for the purposes of praise, except for Korean civilians going about their daily lives in the midst of the fighting. The journal is most interesting not for its jingoism, then, but the account it gives of ordinary people's suffering. These observations are incredibly important and remain some of the only ones in English extant from the war.
It is possible to see from the image below the amount of massacres of non-military personnel that took place at this time:
This is basically an entire territory of internecine murder and reprisals. If there is a single "truth” of what happened when Winnington first set foot in South Korea then this is as close as it gets. Some were massacres of those deemed to be pro-Japanese or “collaborators” by those on the left, but they genuinely pale in comparison to the state-sanctioned slaughter initiated from the top levels of command by Rhee Synghman. These "state sanctioned" massacres are most evident in Daejeon, which is why the Peace Park is to be built here in the future. Of these massacres initiated by the South Korean state (and this is a figure that will always have to contain an element of guesswork) Alan came close to the "unfinished" work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in his own estimations:
“This was only one of the massacres carried out at American instructions. Every town, even every village has its murdered democrats to mourn. The lowest estimate puts the number of dead political prisoners at 200,000 since June 25th, but the figure may be as high as 400,000”
Kim Dong Choon - one of the commissioners for the original Truth And Reconciliation Commission - put the figure at 100,000 - 200,000 people, whilst admitting there are others who believe it to be in the range of 300,000 or more. This is quite incredible accuracy on Winnington's part, and shows the consistency of his journalism. One place Alan often came unstuck was when he had to consider the complicated issue of American Involvement, something I will cover in much more detail later on. Alan makes the assumption above that the massacres were completed under “American instruction”. Given what is known today 'supervision’ or “observation” might be more appropriate terms. But documents Winnington recovered from Seoul after the Americans left in haste made it possible for him to put two and two together. This was a brutality the United States Army (specifically, their fledgling Korean Military Advisory Group or KMAG) allowed to take place. Whatever bespoke terminology is used it is clear nothing was done to curtail this slaughter whatsoever.
The details are completely shocking, and even if the numbers are impossible to confirm, they serve to give a true awareness of the climate of fear permeating the early days of the war. People in Korea would have heard these figures by word of mouth, and I cannot even imagine the sense of injustice and fear they must have created at the time. At Incheon Alan writes of 1,000 prisoners simply having their hands and feet bound and being thrown into the sea. At Suwon he writes of a cave about 3km away where 260 people had been shot and buried. He actually includes a vivid description of this scene I will intentionally leave out. These are just endless tallies of the dead essentially, and the state in which Winnington and the KPA found them. It must be remembered that nobody in Korea was able to talk about what happened for 50 years or more, even if the killings existed as some kind of “folk knowledge” in the interim.
This is why Alan’s account of Daejeon is so important. It is the only complete picture of what happened here that remains after a cover up and the failure of the English or American authorities to investigate the truth. But his words must not be removed from the context in which they originally emerged, neither should they be treated with the automatic contempt and dismissal of those seeking a rerun of the Cold War. This is something I can sense in the toxicity of international relations as I write these words, and makes the need to objectively engage with this history of paramount importance. So, instead, merely picture the scene……
Alan arrives in “Taichun” at 2am, the city is utterly demolished with American B52s pounding the ruins. The remnants of South Korean troops have taken to the safety of the mountains, reduced to “bandits” as Alan calls them. This will have included General Dean, the highest ranking soldier in Daejeon at that time. Things are genuinely bleak. Daejeon is a city in name only, just piles of rubble where houses should be. “They tell us nothing can move on the road to Seoul during the day time now” Alan writes in his journal on arrival. Then in the morning – after sheltering in one of the only remaining houses left standing at the edge of the city – he is taken to the massacre site in Daejeon. What happens next is covered in great detail in the pamphlet itself. But what isn’t explained is how local people reacted to his visit. In the journal there is a smaller piece of paper that contains all the notes. Spilt into three sections these give us most of the information that eventually went into the pamphlet. It seems that Alan was getting most of his news from local partisans and people in the village of Rangwul by the site itself. The main details are explained to him by the partisans, but then Alan also investigated the scene – “pacing the pits” as he calls it – and speaking to local villagers via his interpreter. It seems that the final section of notes where he spoke to the villagers was a bit overwhelming. His handwriting becomes rushed at this point, like he has nowhere to rest his pen and paper. Most likely there are facts and figures flying at him from every direction. “Families were rounded up and killed”, Alan writes in shorthand of one villagers reflections, “Some tried escape. One succeeded. Others shot”. He puts an asterisk next to the line reading “US officers supervising”. But overall it is far too much information for anyone to process. It might be worth mentioning that as well as the trauma inherent from simply being in Daejeon at that time, Winnington suffered in later life as a result of these experiences. The search for heroes was to be quest that ended in failure almost as soon as he put pen to paper.
Alan’s account may be controversial given its proximity to North Korean narratives at the time, but it remains the only attempt to cover what happened. Quite honestly I think that the opposing side knew he wouldn’t be believed, so they simply ignored his assertions and chose to deal with them via a series of omissions and exaggerations that created an entirely separate narrative. But before we deal with this it would be wise to look at Winnington’s account of events. I have decided to reproduce these in table form, so that what was originally reported on can be seen as clearly as possible. After his visit to the site in Daejeon Winnington published the following account of what happened in that valley in July 1950. It must be noted that the final three days were left out of the information in the pamphlet, because there wasn't much substantial information to impart other than it was "heard.... single truckloads of prisoners were being taken in':
These bleak statistics are mostly gained from witnesses at Rangwul village who lived by the massacre site and were forced to dig the pits and stamp dirt down on the bodies afterwards. I have much more to say about Alan’s journalism, but for now it is best to let this table stand as starkly as possible. To this day Alan’s account is the only testimony to this tragedy, other than that gained from leaked documents I will cover in the next post. It is a sound bit of journalism rather than being the “atrocity fabrication” it was claimed to be by politicians in London and Washington at the time. As can be seen the figure stands at 6,700 without even taking into account the final days of July when prisoners were still being driven to the valley to be killed. As war approached the vicinity of Daejeon we can see that less information becomes available. It seems that the chaos of the approaching KPA made observations more difficult. This is perhaps reflected in the differences between Winnington's own account and that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission covered below.
The following picture (again, from the Newstapa documentary) is the clearest image I have with me of how the site looks today.
At the moment there have been only 52 bodies recovered in Daejeon even after two separate excavations in 2007 and 2015 respectively. This is for many complicated reasons. But for now it is enough to say that there will be many more attempts to recover the bodies of those missing. This is being done purely through witness testimony - much like Alan's own - and a combination of ultrasound tests above ground which will hopefully be followed by excavations in September. The last I heard it costs over 100,000 KRW (currently around 83 US Dollars) to retrieve even one set of remains. Also, in some places in the valley these excavations are impossible due to changes in topography and development. This is the first time this has been attempted whole scale, and it is no small task. But it must be done before the Peace Museum is completed and is in the very capable hands of Park Sun Joo, the anthropologist who has dedicated much of his free time to finding out the truth of the Korean War. I hope to include an interview with Mr Park on this website sometime in September, where we can finally get a more accurate sense of what is happening. Sometimes it seems hard to explain that this isn't an historical problem we can resign to the past, as much as a phenomenon very much rooted in the present. It was my good friend Yoonyoung who used the word "fatigue" to describe her feelings about this place back in 2018. This term sticks for me because it conjures up the sense of an endless battle for recognition, manifest in a decades long appeal for justice still underway. It is hoped that by sensitively dealing with sites like this in the future another English word - "healing" - might take its place.
But for this to be achieved there is much to be clarified about Winnington's original report. In the picture it is possible to see three separate massacre sites that would correspond to the information given by Winnington in his pamphlet. The figures on the right are those worked out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2010, before its activities were halted by the Lee Myung Bak administration. They are slightly different to Alan's in terms of the figures, but also in how they state the massacres began at the end of June. Regardless they give a very accurate account of what could be found there. The prolonged wait of ten years to continue the investigations has complicated things further, but it is worth stating that their extremely professional assessment of the valley is close to Winnington’s own. Actually, in Im Jae Guen’s Korean language book on this history from 2015 he identifies eight separate massacre sites in the valley. These consist of the three main ones covered by Winnington and others that were most likely identified from witness accounts given at the time of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Actually, the 2007 excavation was one of these identified by Im Jae Guen, and it is horrifying to think that there are at least four more of these at various points in the valley. But this is the scale of what needs to be dealt with here before something like the “truth” of what happened can officially be made public. There is a new sign at the massacre site as from June this year that gives the figure of those killed as somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 people. As much as this wrangling over statistics seems ultimately futile it has to be attempted for the historical record. One thing I have recently learned is that - as can be seen depicted on the sign below - massacres are known to have continued at this place until 1951. This reflects what happened in the Korean War when territory changed hands a number of times, and is indicative of a continuing pattern of reprisals throughout the conflict. As will be seen later on, this timeline can now be stretched even further back (thanks to information in the Winnington archive) to 1949 before the beginning of war proper. This is a developing situation, and I expect more information to come out shortly.
But it might be wise to say a few more things about progress at the three main sites Winnington uncovered. The first (labelled number 1 on the Newstapa image) is where the journalist most likely stood with his camera in August 1950, whereas the other two (labelled 2 and 3) represent the massacres that occurred later in July. At site number one there is a church built over the end of one of the pits, and it is likely that some of the remains were found during the period of construction, but had to remain unreported thanks to the suppression of information. Likewise at site two (the longest of the trenches) there was a road built at some point in the Sixties that could well of obscured the remains under asphalt, or the dictatorship of the time could have disposed of them during construction. This could possibly be confirmed by further excavations, because when a test pit was attempted in the past no bones were found but there was much "material" (ie buttons, glasses, personal items and clothing). In the same sense trench number three has been actively ploughed and farmed land since after the war. There are also multiple other issues to do with land ownership and local politics that make complexity a byword for the entire project. The picture below – showing the memorial stone erected in 2010 – gives a sense of some of the animosity and resistance with which this project has been subjected to by local residents in the past:
As is perfectly visible, the stone carries a series of chips on the surface that are said to result from protesting landowners five or six years ago. This animosity may have evaporated now because of compulsory land purchases by the central government, but it stands as testament to how fractious and bitter this history remains. Apart from a few moments in history – of which the current moment is hopefully one – this has generally been something not to speak about in anything other than a whisper. I hope to do justice to some of these experiences in a later post on the poet Jeon Suk Ja, who has published much on the Daejeon Massacre and how it affected her directly.
But this is not to say that Alan’s journalism starts and ends with just this one report. There are also bits and pieces missing from this story that have largely been forgotten as the cold war progressed for the next forty years or more. One of these concerns a memorandum seized from Seoul by the People’s Army after the American retreat, that shows that the CIC (Counter Intelligence Corps) were supervising these killings as far back as 1949. Alan actually sent a telegram to his Peking office about this communication, and said he was trying to “get a Photostat”. This may have happened, because I found a copy of this memorandum at the Marx Memorial Library when I visited in 2018. For some reason it seems to have been omitted from the narrative in the west, or simply forgotten about. It is even alluded to in the pamphlet itself. These are very important documents, contributing to a narrative on the Korean War that is incredibly damning for the US and its allies. Actually, in Winnington’s notes from the time, it was stated to him by “Han Chung Suk” (a leader of the local militia) that people had been killed in this Daejeon valley (to use Winnington’s words “on the same spot”) since 1949. These are thought to be prisoners from the Yeosu and Suncheon resistance that year, and may have included other prisoners from the Jeju Uprising (more delicated phrased as the 4.3 incident) in process since 1948. It is this kind of information that will be incredibly important in the search for truth at Daejeon in the future. This is a process started with Winnington’s bold assertion in his pamphlet nearly seventy years ago, and will only end with the investigations these blog posts are an intrinsic part of.
There is excellent background to all of this in Bruce Cumings text The Korean War (2010), but also in Gavan MacCormack’s book Target North Korea (2004). MacCormack’s attempt to piece together what happened via accounts from servicemen at the time is particularly interesting, whereas Cuming’s section on the Daejeon Massacre provides more focus.
 I will talk about these documents briefly at the end of this blog post. But specifically I am referring to a telegram sent by Winnington to Peking before he arrived in Daejeon, and some recovered Counter Intelligence Corps documents about executions committed under American supervision.
 Actually we now know that this was a popular method of execution used by the police at this time. You can see in the following video a memorial ceremony taking place on a boat this year for people who know that their relatives were dumped in the sea at Changwon:
The bodies in these instances were never found. This happened especially in the far south of the peninsula in townships surrounding Busan.
Over the next couple of years I will be working for the local government in Daejeon in order to research the Daejeon Massacre before the building of a Peace Park here in 2024. Given the current state of the global pandemic this is proving more difficult than expected, but the goal is to have an International Conference in Daejeon at the end of this year, as well as a variety of other events that I aim to remind people of sporadically. Please get in touch if you would like to contact me about Winnington or the site in Daejeon where new information is emerging on an almost daily basis.
But what is desperately needed before any of this can happen is a clear sense of what actually happened here in the Korean War. We have very little information, and some of the sources that we do have are a little bit wanting. This is why Shim Kyu Sang and myself have dedicated the next few years to subjecting this matter to as much public scrutiny as possible. Mr Shim with the documents that exist in South Korea, and myself with neglected accounts like Winnington's that have recently come to light. Last month the Korean government passed a bill that called for the investigation of historical crimes on this peninsula, which should hopefully make our work a little easier.
The previous post was meant to be the first step towards a reappraisal and contextualization of Alan Winnington's 70 year old text "I Saw the Truth in Korea". It will hopefully be one of many. In this post i have included the pamphlet itself. Further posts will give information on the history of its production, as well as how things will be progressing on site in the future. Given that most people in England and America seem completely unaware of these events, I hope that they can be a primer for those who have yet to appreciate how significant this history - and its exclusion from most people's thinking - still remains.
The provisional title for these posts is "What is News", because this was the title of Alan's lectures on journalism in Maoist China. Actually, it was these lectures that saw him fall foul of the Chinese authorities, and led to his eventual move to East Berlin. This is part of a much-needed context I am aiming to build around Winnington's journalism, and will be the focus of later study.
The following posts are my first attempt to explain the work I have become involved in in South Korea. This is a project I have been part of for over three years now, but it is only at this point that I feel confident enough to speak of it as someone who knows “the facts”. As the constantly-reoccurring Tory government in the UK makes the possibility of an eventual home-coming increasingly unlikely it is about time I threw my full energy and commitment towards exploring and uncovering the reality of what happened here.
Over the last few years my hometown has been Daejeon, South Korea. Whilst living here I have become heavily involved in truth-seeking work at a place where it is said 7,000 people were murdered by their own government with American supervision at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. I will explain more about this in my next post, but for now it should be understood that this is an absolutely devastating event in Korean history that it is almost impossible to explain the gravity of to those on the outside. There are few historical parallels that can be adequately talked about in the west outside of World War Two anyway. The historian Bruce Cumings has rightly pointed to how little is known about this massacre when compared to something like Screbrinica in Bosnia. But as someone living in the vicinity it has been my goal over the past three years to find out everything I can. This is because I am adamant that it concerns not just Korea but the entire world. These tragedies result from the same mendacity by politicians, from the same warmongering and apathy, wherever they take place. That is why the more that is found out here - and we still know very little - the more I am drawn into the difficult process of discovering the truth.
Let’s start with what facts there are. These are curious for me because they are at once local and global in affect. What happened here was witnessed by the English journalist Alan Winnington in his pamphlet “I Saw The Truth in Korea”. The shock waves accompanying this history extend way beyond what is immediately visible at this one place.In our recent film on this subject at Ahim Media this is clearly visible. It is a story with no closure, an attempt at truth telling shrouded in propaganda from both sides. This is because Alan’s account was dismissed as an untrustworthy source. He was exiled from the UK for fourteen years and accused of “treason”. His sincere attempt at journalism struck from the record he lived the rest of his life in East Berlin. But his pamphlet has remained for the last seventy years successfully interred in antique left wing bookshops. It’s value not in the words on the page, but a kind of ‘Communist kitsch” torn from context and unaware of the pain still existing half way across the world.
But this is no longer the case. Alan has has now been front page news in South Korea thanks to the joint efforts of our organization Ahim and the journalist Im Hyoin. What is important to understand is that Alan’s report is merely the tip of the iceberg. Monica Felton - councillor for West Pancras in London and a tireless campaigner for feminism and peace during the war - was another person on the left who tried to report on massacres at Sincheon in the North. This is the place that inspired Picasso to paint an extremely powerful picture around the same time (maybe he'd been reading Alan and Monica’s reports)! But she was also investigated by the UK authorities, expelled from the Labour Party and fired from the council, with phony charges of “treason” applied to her reporting much as it was with Winnington. Her pamphlet and book “Why I Went” is similar to Alan’s. Available in the same bookshops, divorced from the reality that has always existed on the ground in Korea.
For various reasons this censorship was particularly noticeable in the UK and much of it is covered in great detail within Ian McLaine's text "A Korean Conflict: The Tensions Between Britain and America" (2016). What is clear is that Winnington’s pamphlet was something that worried the state so much even mildly critical accounts of what was happening began to be censored in its wake. Apart from Monica Felton's later pamphlet, one of these instances concerns the famous UK journalist James Cameron, who wrote articles on the outbreak of war in Korea for the Picture Post. In a special edition Cameron and a photographer called Bert Hardy attempted to publish an article called “An Appeal to the UN” with images and text carefully arranged to favour neither side in the conflict. There were pictures of prisoners in Busan being treated terribly, but there were also pictures like this one of American troops in the North made to parade around dressed like Hitler with Stars and Stripes trailing behind them.
In his autobiography Cameron talks about the care with which he had written and edited this article before it was published, as well as the ways in which he tried to strip it of all emotion and just present the ‘facts’:
“Finally we agreed on a layout which in the circumstances was the most tactful and unsensational possible. We used only those pictures of the prisoners which would establish their dire condition without unnecessary shock; my article was written and re-written over and over again until it became almost bleak in its austerity”
The Times and The Telegraph newspaper in England had already written similar articles on the Korean War at this time. Even the conservative papers in the UK were critical of the brutality with which prisoners were being treated. ‘My article amounted to a vigorous plea that if our ally Dr Synghman Rhee saw fit to use methods of totalitarian oppression and cruelty’, Cameron explains in his autobiography, ‘it should not be done under a UN flag”. This issue of the Picture Post was never printed. The press was turned off before it could reach the public. It’s editor – Tom Hopkinson – had to leave the magazine after its Conservative owner Sir Edward Hulton feared he would be breaking the law. These pictures and opinion pieces were never actually published at all. Even though they are often used in discussions of the Korean War they are torn from any context and people seem largely unaware of their origin. The only reason they even exist today is once again because of the Daily Worker who leaked some of the pictures and published them under the headline “KOREA EXPOSURE SUPPRESSED – PICTURE POST EDITOR SACKED”.
The Picture Post was eventually taken out of circulation in England completely. It became a shadow of its former self, desperate to avoid any hint if opprobrium from the state. These images on the road to Gongju were also included in the suppressed version:
The picture above was one of a series quickly snapped by an Australian photographer as he passed by the scene at the beginning of the war. It's power rests in how it captures a moment that otherwise would be lost in time. Photographs like these speak a truth that needs no accompanying words and it is easy to see why the decision was made never to print them. In 2008 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Korea used the photo above and witness accounts to find the exact place in which these people were so cruelly slaughtered. In South Korea there are likely many places like this that have since disappeared under apartment blocks, or simply have no living witnesses able to reconstruct the story of what went on. This doesn't even take into account the terror with which any surviving family members were subjected to under successive dictatorships. For a bold and compassionate look at this see Hwang Sukyoung's text "Korea's Grevious War" (2016).
It is important to know that these events did not exist in isolation and were deliberately suppressed. They were part of a series of state sanctioned killings - often referred to as the Bodo League Massacres - that took place all over Korea at the beginning of the war. These massacres peaked thanks to the brutality of the first South Korean President Synghman Rhee, but continued in a wave of revenge killings and cycles of violence until the end of the war. The Korean War may have ended in a stalemate, but the civilian toll suggests the complete opposite of a draw. From the killing of suspected communist prisoners at the beginning of the war, to the awful treatment of North Koreans after the Incheon Landings, the eventual death toll of civilians is 2,730,000 even when relying on the most conservative estimates. This includes deliberate strafing of refugee columns by aircraft, the endless bombing of cities, as well as the senseless massacres already covered above.
That is why I was so glad to find an archive of Alan Winnington’s notes and journals at Sheffield University earlier this year with the help of his eldest son Joe. Thanks to the mayor of Daejeon - Hwang In Ho’s - letter, we were able to visit and find some incredible primary sources about what happened at this time. The archive is still uncatalogued, so it was incredibly generous of the person in charge (Chris Loftus) to allow us access. The Winnington archive - from my own experience - will be able to provide much needed information that either refutes or backs up both first hand accounts and official versions of the narrative around these civilian deaths. Further to this on the seventieth anniversary of the Korean War critically evaluating these sources has the potential to genuinely contribute to research that will inform the curation of information and exhibitions in a peace park that will be built on the site that Winnington visited in 2023. This is why the search for truth is so necessary, even when on the ground in Daejeon it seems long overdue. The word repeated by those in charge of the museum project is an English one: "healing". All information can only add to this important goal.
I will be visiting Sheffield regularly in the future and hope even more of interest can be discovered. Read these three articles by the journalist Im Hyoin (In Korean) if you want to get a sense of our trip, including an excursion to Cable Street and Marx’s Grave at Highgate (both places associated with the beginning and end of the political journey of Winnington himself):
In 2019 our production company Ahim Media (with the help of the donations from Daejeon citizens) invited the widow of Alan Winnington (Esther Samson) to South Korea. In all of the posts that follow I think nothing speaks with more wisdom, conviction and clarity than the words of Esther herself who gave a short speech at the memorial where she held aloft Alan’s pamphlet (the subject of my next post) in a gesture of defiance that moved me greatly. It is to the Bereaved Families Association of Daejeon, Esther, her son Joe, and Alan's grandsons Thomas and Jonathon to whom I dedicate these series of posts on Korea. As time passes I am confident we will find out much more together.
A MEMORY OF ALAN WINNINGTON
I first met Alan in Beijing in 1949 when he was a foreign correspondent covering the civil war in China for his English Newspaper. I was his interpreter and assistant.
When the Korean war broke out in June 1950 he was sent by his paper to cover a war that he thought would be over in weeks. He stayed until in the end of the war in 1953 and on one of his rare visits back to recuperate from the dreadful conditions in Korea, we married.
He witnessed unspeakable horrors - indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilians, and the use of napalm dropped on the population. Alan described a five year old boy, his face and body horribly burnt, with no eyelids and his weeping mother saying “who will marry him”? not realizing her son would not survive. It affected Alan for the rest of his life and he could never get over the pain and misery he saw because of the war.
But the most horrifying description was when he visited the mass grave in Rangwul near Daejeon of thousands of intellectuals slaughtered by the authorities with bodies barely covered with soil. He wrote a pamphlet likening it to the Nazi slaughter in the concentration camps. His report of what he witnessed was suppressed by the warring parties and Alan was branded a traitor by the British Government, his passport confiscated and if he returned to Britain he would of faced charges of treason. Not a single British or American journalist paid a visit to Rangwul to investigate and Alan was exiled from his country for twenty years for exposing the truth.
He died in 1983 too late to realize his sacrifices for exposing the crimes against humanity had not been in vain and acknowledged by those thousands of intellectuals massacred by the warmongers.
In the first half of 2018 I was privileged to be involved in The Longest Tomb, the first documentary on genocide in Daejeon aided and abetted by the US military in 1950. We took the film to SOAS with Mr Lee and Ms Jeon at the end of May this year. Ms Jeon read two poems, which I then explained to the audience. There was also a lively discussion at the end of the event. I truly hope I can find a copy of Ms Jeon's reading to put on this site. I will add a link to this post if one emerges. In the meantime please watch the above film, another version of which we hope to premiere in the US (Washington DC) in 2019.
There is one review of the event on Tongil news in Korea (In Korean, obviously). Click the following link:
There is also a similar review of the Korean premiere here: