By Sandra H. Park
At the Truman Library last April, I learned of a vast photograph collection donated by the local Center for the Study of the Korean War (CSKW) before its closing. The archivists were still processing this collection, and the photographs I handled featured mostly commemorative or touristic scenes. These were all originally donated to the Center by the Mosquito Association (veterans of the 6147th Tactical Air Control Group, or TACG). On the second to last day, I came across five photographs documenting varied scenes of massacred bodies on a hillside. The back of one photograph (below) read: “Taejon Massacre. Some work the North Koreans and Chinese did. The [sic] sure was brave, to tie there [sic] hands behine [sic] there [sic] back.”
In early July 1950, the South Korean (Republic of Korea, ROK) state executed thousands of political prisoners in Taejon (Daejeon), a city in the center of South Korea. Some experts estimate that 1,800 people were killed in what is now known as the Taejon Massacre, though others contend that the death count reached as high as 7,000 (part of the 60,000 to 200,000 political prisoners summarily executed by the South Korean state). Under the observation of U.S. military officers, South Korean forces massacred thousands of people in Taejon (and other cities) that July after Seoul fell to the North Korean army. Many victims were members of the National Guidance (Bodo) League, a nation-wide re-education organization that inducted 300,000 individuals “tainted” by leftism, including many illiterate peasants. Despite knowledge at the highest levels (i.e., Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command General Douglas MacArthur), the U.S. military selectively emphasized the atrocities committed by the “communists” but made no mention of executions carried out by the South Korean side. The U.S. military reinforced this narrative when American forces recaptured Taejon in September and discovered North Korea’s execution of rightists (a 2009 South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission report later estimated that death toll at 1,557).
After entering Taejon with the North Korean army that July, British journalist Alan Winnington exposed South Korean responsibility for the Bodo massacres with photographic and testimonial evidence. His reporting was censored and denounced by the U.S. military, which subsequently classified all records of evidence in their possession. And for half a century, the official narrative of the U.S. attributed all massacres at Taejon to the North Koreans, while the successive authoritarian governments in postwar South Korea suppressed the horrifying truths that haunted bereaved families and witnesses.
Fifty years later, the first decade of the 2000s saw a watershed moment on both sides of the Pacific in the struggle for truth-telling over the nature and scale of political violence during the Korean War. In early 2000, on the heels of the Associated Press’ reporting on American killings of civilians at No Gun Ri, a small corpus of archival evidence documenting South Korea’s execution of political prisoners in Taejon emerged out of the declassified U.S. Army records at the U.S. National Archives. Over the next decade, diligent investigations by journalists, scholars, and the South Korea Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SKTRC) drew unprecedented global attention to the unearthed evidence of massacres committed by all sides of the war—South Korea, the United States, and North Korea. A sobering finding from the Commission’s investigation was the excessive, indiscriminate pattern of the South Korean state’s killings.
Photographing the Massacre
Prior knowledge of these events, however, did nothing to lessen my horror at viewing the photographs I saw at the Truman Library. The angles and composition capture both the magnitude and details of the violence. One photograph (figure 1) shows two male bodies lying parallel, with the camera’s distance suggesting the photographer approached the bodies within a few feet. Lying in the center of the photograph, one man suffered severe beatings to the face with both hands bound. The other three photographs (figures 2, 3, and 4), taken from a distance, show scores of massacred bodies strewn over a hillside. And in figure 5, the photograph gruesomely depicts upright corpses in shallow trenches or hastily dug graves.
Based on the idiosyncratic spelling in the sole caption, the photographer was likely not an army signal corpsman trained in bureaucratic documentation. And as with much of the collection, neither the date nor creator can be determined, except that the photographer was possibly with the 6147th TACG that operated out of Taejon in early July 1950.
If the photographer was a service member of the TACG, I wondered if they ever displayed these photographs to visitors or ever shared them with their families? How did viewers make sense of these holocaustic scenes from the past? In 2000, when the Associated Press exposed South Korean responsibility and U.S. complicity in the Taejon Massacre, did the owner(s) recall and ponder these horrifying photographs in their possession?
Unfortunately, the photographs are not accompanied by textual reports, as they were not intended for bureaucratic documentation. However, despite the knowledge claimed in the brief caption, Taejon (like Sinch’on) is a site of contested, suppressed, and competing truths.
Overlapping Sites (Sights) of Violence
The overlapping sites of state violence in Taejon continued to raise questions as I examined the Truman Library photographs. Were the victims Bodo League members massacred by South Korean police in July 1950, or were they rightists executed in retaliation by the retreating North Koreans in late September 1950? Or, were they executed by the South Koreans for “collaborating” with the Northern army after the U.S. and ROK recaptured Seoul that month? I do not have any firm answers to these questions. Perhaps experts on Korean War massacres can shed more light by comparing the light-colored clothing worn by victims in figure 3 to the darker clothing worn by the victims in the now iconic declassified photograph (figure 6, in slideshow above) of the ROK-ordered Taejon massacre.
What further perplexes me is that the scene in figure 4 is identical to one in a photograph describing a massacre of South Korean prisoners by North Koreans on this online history of the Korean War. When I contacted the author and image curator, they could only recall that the image was pulled from Wiki Commons at the time. However, a search through Wiki Commons and Google revealed that the photograph is no longer available.
While the significant question over responsibility cannot be answered sufficiently at the time of this writing, these photographs remind us that the task of unearthing evidence on Korean War massacres in the archives is far from completed.
Rethinking Archives of War Violence
In other words, these photographs prompt us to rethink the relationship between observing violence and archives of violence. So far, evidence of Korean War massacres has been unearthed in the U.S. National Archives-College Park. However, the Truman Library photographs inform us that American observers of state violence against civilians were not always photographing the violence for recordkeeping. As historian Su-kyoung Hwang has keenly addressed, various actors observed and documented the political massacres during the Korean War.
Yet, unlike the declassified records, the photographs discussed in this essay were in private collections until acquired by the Mosquito Association. While they were in the possession of the Mosquito Association and later the CSKW, we cannot know whether they were ever exhibited or even viewed by visitors. Yet, they are now under the custodianship of the U.S. National Archives, which oversees presidential libraries.
This leaves more unsettling—yet, for the curious historian, hopeful—questions. What more evidence of Korean War massacres might exist in attics or private archives? Or, in overlooked repositories of National Archives across the United States? What role does (should) the U.S. National Archives play in its documentation and custody of evidence on wartime crimes?
As a result of destroyed evidence and decades of state suppression, the handful of publicized records is far too inadequate when considering the scale of violence that Korean civilians were subjected to. Nevertheless, the discovery of these photographs in an unexpected place hints to scholars and activists that more evidence might be found.
Sandra H. Park is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Chicago, where she is preparing a dissertation on the mediating role of Christianity in the making of South Korean citizenship. Sandra’s research at the Truman Library in April 2019 was made possible by the Truman Library Institute Research Grant.