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that details Alan’s journey from Seoul to Daejeon (hereafter “Taichun” as he phonetically transposes it) where there is unpublished information about what he witnessed.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.