The death of North Korean civilians at Sinchon is significant on a few levels. On the one hand, it calls our attention to the always fractious topic of war crimes in Korea, and the contested nature of the memory of those crimes. On the other hand, the Sinchon massacre has underpinned a great deal of anti-U.S. propaganda in the DPRK and today remains a touchstone of the North’s Korean War narrative highlighting the brutality of the United States.
Kim Jong-un visited the Sinchon Massacre Memorial last year with his sister. His visit underscored not just the salience of state memory of the event as North Korea sits under heavy scrutiny for its own human rights abuses, but for the specificity of the body count, alleged to be 35,383 Koreans killed during “52 days of US occupation.” Subsequently, this past March the DPRK announced that a new train service to the Sinchon Massacre Memorial site was being opened up.
At his on-site inspection, Kim Jong-un stated that he had toured the memorial previously with Kim Jong-il back in 1998, and of course had deep memories of the event. Whether or not this would have actually been possible — the future successor would have been about 14 or 15, and possibly in Switzerland — could certainly be asked, as factual fidelity has never been a North Korean strong suit when it comes to the biographies of the leadership. However, if we assume the statement to be true, it is worth noting that Kim Jong-un would also have recalled the educational presence of future traitor-for-the-ages Jang Song-taek along on the 1998 visit as well:
Kim Jong Il visits Sinchon Museum
Pyongyang, November 23, 1998 (KCNA) – General Secretary Kim Jong Il visited the refurbished Sinchon Museum on Sunday. He was accompanied by Ri Yong Chol and Jang Song Thaek, first vice department directors of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee. The visiting party included generals of the Korean People’s Army Hyon Chol Hae, Kim Ha Gyu and Pak Jae Gyong. General Secretary Kim Jong Il looked round the education ground, waiting place lounge room and other facilities of the museum built by soldiers in a short span of time. He expressed great satisfaction and highly praised soldiers for having completed the project successfully. He then saw the exhibits of the museum and went to the tombs of 5,605 patriots, 400 mothers and 102 children murdered by U.S. imperialist aggressors. The Chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission described the Sinchon Museum as an important place to inform the world people of the brutal crimes committed by U.S. imperialism against the Koreans during the last Korean War and educate the party members, working people, servicemen, students and schoolchildren in class consciousness. He called for intensifying class education in face of the vicious anti-DPRK moves of U.S.-led imperialists and reactionaries. The Sinchon Museum is a very important place to educate the Korean people in class consciousness, he said, and gave important tasks to intensify education and manage the museum.
Interestingly enough, Kim Jong-un’s remarks at the museum sixteen years later are not absolutely identical to his father’s, nor is the body count. However, it appears that DPRK historians and propagandists had indeed settled on the 35,383 overall figure of civilians killed at Sinchon prior to the Kim Jong-il inspection. In a July 3, 1998, Korean Central News Agency dispatch entitled ‘Sinchon simmering with rage,’ a more detailed version of events is given, replete with American dogs (yes, military hounds) killing 1200 North Koreans:
More than 10,000 people from different parts of the country and abroad visit Sinchon, South Hwanghae Province, every day around June 25, the day when the U.S. imperialists provoked the Korean War 48 years ago from now. Sinchon indicts the U.S. imperialist aggressors for crimes that make the brutes blush. Upon occupying Sinchon in October Juche 39 (1950), the aggressors got to massacre inconceivable for men of normal brains. The then commander of the U.S. Forces present in the Sinchon area Harison, said that the communists should be stamped out. He showed up at a powder depot in Wonam-ri and told his soldiers to keep women and their children separated from each other so as to make the detainees feel very much troubled and vexed to death, adding that they might be happy to be detained in the same place. The Yankees separated the mothers from their children before pouring gasoline at the children and babies who were crying for drinking water and milk. When the children and babies sucked gasoline and were crying, feeling great pains, the Yankees threw flaming torches to kill them. They also threw explosives at the mothers. The American soldiers drowned over 2,000 innocent people by dropping them from Soktang bridge. They also drowned more than 1,000 women in Sowon reservoir. Upwards of 1,200 patriotic-minded people detained in an ice warehouse were bitten to death by military dogs. The head of master Yun Hae Won of Jungsan Primary School was sawed up alive. The eyeballs and breasts of chairwoman Pak Yong Gyo of the women’s union of the Sinchon Tobacco Factory were gouged out. The enemies disembowled a pregnant woman to hold up a 9 month-old embryo on the end of a bayonet, laughing aloud. The yankees massacred 35,383 innocent Koreans, or a quarter of the population of Sinchon in 52 days of their occupation of the place. Exhibited in the Sinchon Museum are 6,465 items of evidences and some 450 pictures showing the man-hunting of the U.S. imperialist brutes. A survey group of the International Association of Lawyers published a joint communique in 1952 bitterly denouncing the U.S. imperialists’ massacre in Sinchon as an unprecedented-in-scope murder. The Korean people will remember the massacre for all ages and requite blood with blood.
Other sources that mostly reprise the North Korean version of the events at Sinchon are not terribly abundant, but do exist:
Korean Central News Agency, “Remains of Patriots Discovered,” Pyongyang, June 23, 2007.
Korean Central News Agency, “Remains of patriots discovered in Sinchon,” November 23, 2001.
Korean Central News Agency, “Meetings Held to Vow Revenge,” Pyongyang, June 25, 2004.
The U.S. Imperialists Started the Korean War (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1977), pp. 230-233.
M.R. Gupta. Glimpses of Land of Morning Calm. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1990, p.117.
George Katsiaficas, “North Korea Holds a Peace Conference,” Korean Quarterly, Fall 2003 vol. 7 no.1.
Another prism through which events in 1950 in Sinchon can be read is provincial: How had Pyongyang nailed down its own control over South Hwanghae province in the five years prior? Documents in Record Group 242 could doubtless yield more information, but two or three published documents, rarely referenced in this regard, could be useful. On March 15, 1947, Kim Il Sung had focused on problems around Sinchon, where some leading local party members were acting beyond the bounds of central authority. Speaking of “Ryongmun Sub-county, Sinchon County of Hwanghae Province,” Kim describes an instance in which a peasant had reported a Union leader’s failing moral actions and was punished for reporting the crime. Kim says such an act — effectively subverting the right to inform on misbehaving superiors — should be considered an “anti-Party and anti-popular crime” (Kim Il Sung Works, vol. 3, 144). Kim Il-sung had also denounced anti-regime violence in Hwanghae on Feb. 21, 1948 and August 26, 1949. These sources can be referenced in the relevant volumes of the Kim Il-sung Works.
Bruce Cumings notes that he has not found much in the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland, to verify or deny the North Korean version of events in Sinchon. By contrast, NARA has extensive holdings on the broader topic of war crimes in Korea and about massacres carried out by retreating Korean People’s Army forces in northern cities like Hamhung. (See National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 153, Records of the Judge Advocate General, Box 891 forward.) The U.S. investigated a total of 1848 allegations of North Korean War crimes and these take up about 900 boxes in the National Archives. I have scans of a number of these documents and photographs, and anticipate posting some on this website in the future.
As reference material, the following works are useful, but the Chinnery unfortunately is lacking in footnotes.
Tucker, Spencer, ed. Encyclopedia of the Korean War: A Political, Social, and Military History, the following entries: Wesolick, Duane L. “Atrocities,” Vol. 1, pp. 56-58; see also Esposito, Matthew D. “War Crimes Trials,” Vol. II, pp.733-734.
Phillip D. Chinnery, Korean Atrocity! Forgotten War Crimes, 1950-1953 (Naval Institute Press, 2001).
Ra Jong-yil, “Governing North Korea: Some Afterthoughts on the Autumn of 1950,” Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 40, No. 5 (July 2005) 521-546, especially page 543.
Response from Bruce Cumings (5 March 2008):
In response to J.J. Suh’s inquiry, and with thanks to Adam Cathcart’s informative posting, here is an excerpt about Sinch’on from my 1993 book. I also spoke with Hwang Sok-yong, who told me (before Sonnim came out) that the major part of the Sinch’on massacres were carried out by Korean Christians who had fled the Sinch’on area for the South. In my opinion, If any Americans were present they were probably KMAG personnel, who witnessed many South Korean atrocities against civilians; the Koreans I spoke with were adamant that Americans had carried out the massacres, but it is also true that Koreans do not like to admit that Koreans could do such things, unless they are following American or (in the colonial period) Japanese orders.
Excerpt from Bruce Cumings, War and Television (Verso, 1993; electronic copy, not copyedited):
My research has never uncovered anything about Sinchŏn in the National Archives. An awful atrocity occurred one day in Sinchŏn, however, because we were later able to compare our visit against newsreel footage taken when the bodies were discovered and that could not have been faked. (Max painstakingly counted and measured the bricks [with calipers, etc.] in the charnelhouse wall to verify the footage.) We could verify nothing, however, about its authorship.
Journalist Eli Schmetzer of the Chicago Tribune would disagree. He also visited Sinchŏn, misspelling it as Chichon, and titled his account “North Korean Museum Stokes Loathing of U.S.” He quoted an unnamed East European: “Chichon stinks. It smells of fraud.”
Schmetzer went on to say that “each year 300,000 North Koreans are brainwashed at Chichon.” All this is part of the “twisted version of history that North Korea has dished up,” warning people that unless they’re loyal to Kim Il Sung, “the bogeyman GIs will come back to rape, torture and burn everyone alive.”
I have this to say to Mr Schmetzer: it happened.