The WIDF and the Debate over Korean War Crimes

In a  recent essay for Japan Focus, Rutgers University historian Suzy Kim includes a retrospective on the Women’s International Democratic Federation’s 1951 report from North Korea and that delegation’s function as a cornerstone in what she calls “a feminist history of Women Cross DMZ” 2015.

Having spent the last couple of days researching the WIDF in the Bundesarchiv in Berlin, I absolutely agree with Dr. Kim in her assertion of the group’s significance with respect to foreign peace movements and the Korean War. While it is not mentioned in the Japan Focus piece, the WIDF delegation that went to North Korea in May 1951 also formed a cornerstone of Sinchon Massacre research and propaganda themes that continues to be drawn from today from both sides of the conflict’s legacy.

I am afraid that the evidence I have encountered has not led me toward wholesale agreement with Dr. Kim, particularly her assertion that the WIDF delegation in Korea “laid its main emphasis on peace, anti-colonialism, and anti-racism as directly related to, and indeed, preconditions for the protection of women’s rights.”

Peace? Yes, absolutely. Peace is a goal which is mentioned unremittingly in the materials. Naturally, this”peace” would only become real, in the Federation’s view in 1951, by American troops leaving Korea immediately. (What the WIDF’s view is of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops engaged in the bloodshed in Korea in 1951 is completely unknown, as they are not mentioned once in all of the WIDF’s extensive documentation. But that is fine; ignoring China’s role on the Korean peninsula can hardly be said to be a specifically feminist point of view.) 

Anti-colonialism? Absolutely, no need to quibble here. Francesca de Haan has an absolutely first-rate research article on the overall history of the organization and some of its well-known members, and their connection to decolonization. The WIDF, to its credit, did not pick up on some of the more bludgeoning arguments of the neo-colonial aspects of American foreign policy put forward by the DPRK, the PRC, and the Soviet Union in 1950 and 1951. While the propaganda organs in these countries included the assertion that the Americans were bringing the Japanese back to dominate Asia, or walking expressly in the footsteps of the Japanese empire, the WIDF did not indulge in such speculation. 

Indeed, the DPRK released a tirade to the United Nations Security Council on 14 October 1950, the very day of the most intense killing in Sinchon, asserting that Japanese troops were running amok in Korea under American leadership. 

The WIDF’s nominal independence from the more outlandish assertions being made in the communist bloc with respect to North Korea can be seen in contrast with the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, which included in their 1952 report on the Korean War assertions that the Americans were roaming through Korea with samurai swords beheading civilians.

So then, racism? I found one single reference to racism in the WIDF’s materials, which was not part of the Korea trip whatsoever. Instead, it was a quote about lynching from the poet Aimé Césaire in an April 1949 speech by the French leader of the WIDF, Eugenie Cotton.

I think what Dr. Kim is missing here is that, in the worldview of the WIDF in 1951 and its leadership, imperialists don’t kill people because they harbor racist ideology, they kill people because they are butchers, war profiteers, and cannibals. Eugenie Cotton’s sole reference to racism in the United States in her same April 1949 speech is accompanied by a number of other very interesting claims:

Year after year, we become increasingly convinced of a systematic sabotage of the work of Franklin Roosevelt…Through speakers at our last Congress, and through the speeches of intellectuals in Warsaw, the WIDF has learned that the answer for this sabotage is headquartered in America and Europe, among a few specific people. The Marshall Plan is [an attack upon the Soviet bloc]…Robert Schumann [showed his true colors by] advocating for rearmament [in West Germany]. The United States doesn’t just have nuclear weapons, it has three other things: It has biological weapons, it can make radioactive dust or radioactive rain, and it has another totally secret weapon [eine völlig geheime Waffe].

Source: Eugenie Cotton, “Die Teilnahme der Frauen an der Friedensbewegung,” speech given in Paris, 21 April 1949, in Democratischer Fraunbund Deutschlands Bundesvorstand, SAMPO, DY 31/1590, Bundesarchiv Berlin.

While Cotton goes on to discuss the inhumanity of the US occupation authorities in Japan for not granting visas to Japanese activist women to attend the conference (strangely, Douglas MacArthur does not get name-checked), the reasoning attributed to the Americans is not anti-Japanese racism but pure malice, or, secondarily, fear that their conspiracies to dominate Europe and unleash their weaponry upon a terrorized world.

It is surely possible that in the WIDF’s long history, anti-racism comes into play as a powerful force, but that does not seem to be the case prior to, during, or in the months after the May 1951 report on US crimes in Korea was released.

Perhaps in future posts, I’ll summarize some of the documents I located and consulted about the WIDF’s North Korea investigative trip. As Francesca de Haan notes, the WIDF’s archives are in total disarray,  but the Federation’s intensive cooperation (indeed, we could say enmeshment) with East German government organizations means that the archives in Berlin are still a very advantageous position from which to view the group’s work in Korea and beyond. 

The WIDF delegation to North Korea in May 1951 was indeed multinational. As the British representative Monica Felton noted in her later pamphlet, Why I Went, the group had a hard enough time communicating with one another, let alone the North Koreans they met along the way. Dependence on interpreters was part and parcel of the investigations they carried out, which were in turn heavily reliant on oral testimony.

The Soviet news agency Tass, which (quel surprise) took great interest in the WIDF delegation’s activities, found a rather more halcyon way of describing the situation: ‘The members of the delegation came from 17 countries and spoke different languages, but they were all animated by the same thought: Peace.’ (Source: TASS, “Die Kommission der IDFF ist in Korea eingetroffen,” Pyongyang, 21 May 1951, in Berlin Bundesarchiv, file DY31/1378, pp. 1-3.)

Actually, they were probably as unified by disgust at the smell of decomposing bodies which they encountered at multiple massacre and bombing sites, as Felton noted in her pamphlet. Peace means that your city doesn’t function as an open-air morgue. Naturally, the TASS dispatch noted the delegation’s hope for a quick North Korean victory in the war, which was just about to enter a two-year period of attrition.

The report compiled by the WIDF would become a cornerstone in North Korea’s evolving narrative of the Sinchon Massacre, but only after more time had passed. In the summer and fall of 1951, the WIDF report would become the centerpiece of a renewed mass mobilization effort in Europe to gain donations for North Korea and put pressure on governments participating in the UN war against the DPRK, the armies of the People’s Republic of China, and the air force and political guidance of the USSR.

Members of the delegation would go on speaking tours in East Germany, bringing audiences to tears and soliciting donations for the DPRK. From a report of one such event in Saxony:

A former officer, who came with someone from another region, had lost an eye in Hitler’s war [note the passive construction here, typical in East Germany; the man was a former officer in the Nazi army]. He said that today was the first time he truly understood what was happening [in Korea]. Most of all, what had moved him was the Korean mother who said that she couldn’t cry any more [having had four of her children killed in the war, being moved to near tears over a portrait of a German baby]. He said that he would gladly sacrifice his good eye in the struggle to defend peace, but would never give a drop of blood for the Americans and their imperialist war.

Source: “Bericht ueber 45 Korea-Versammlungen [Report on 45 Korea Meetings],” 24 June 1951, in Berlin Bundesarchiv, file DY31/822, pp. 12-13.

Image: Poster celebrating the Internationalen Demokratischen Frauenföderation (Women’s International Democratic Federation) and Womens Day, postcard published by Demokratischer Frauenbund Deutschlands, 1954.

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