Sancheong County, nestling at the feet of Jirisan in Gyeongsangnam-do, has two memorial museums to the struggle between the leftist partisans and the Southern military and civilian authorities at the time of the Korean War.
The key headlines of the conduct of the Korean War itself are well known: the Northern sweep southwards, the UN Incheon landings and advance beyond Pyongyang, followed by the Chinese drive back south ending in the stalemate near where everything started three years earlier. But behind these headlines, tragic as they are, there is the more tragic story of Korean fighting an ideological war against Korean. It was a struggle which started well before the formal outbreak of hostilities in 1950.1
Two vice-consuls from the US embassy toured the south of the peninsula in early 1949 and reported that “the government has lost control outside of the cities and large towns.” Daegu was under curfew, while Kyongju was described as “a mountainous area infested by Communists who hide in the hills and make frequent raids on the villages.”2
The first major pre-Korean War conflict of this nature was in Jeju-do, an island traditionally slightly independent of thought from the mainland, and where left-right tensions had been aggravated by the introduction by the authorities of some mainland rightist thugs. In the guerrilla rebellion that followed (March 1948 – April 1949) it is estimated that up to 30,000 Jeju islanders died.
Next came a rebellion in Yeosu on the mainland in late October 1948. It was quickly suppressed. But over 1,000 of the Yeosu leftists escaped to the Jirisan area where they joined with the partisans and bandits who were already sheltering there. Bruce Cumings regards this point as the start of “organised guerrilla warfare on the Korean mainland”.3 It was at about this time that the picturesque Daewonsa temple was burned down (again), a casualty of the fighting between leftist elements and the police force, not to be rebuilt until well after the end of the Korean War.
The mountain strongholds proved to be a good base for the partisans. And following the early successes of the Northern armies the partisan numbers grew stronger as people were encouraged to join with the promise of the best jobs following the inevitable communist victory. Additionally, the sweep south by the Northern armies after the start of the Korean War in 1950 brought reinforcements in the form of regular North Korean soldiers.
The UN counterattack at Incheon, half way up the west coast, did nothing to clear out the Jiri mountains in the south, and the partisans remained a thorn in the side of the Southern forces, carrying out acts of sabotage and raiding towns and villages for food. The Chinese intervention brought new hope. In the Jiri mountains, the conflict led to atrocities on both sides.
One of the more controversial incidents took place on 7 February 1951, two days before the New Year festival of Seollal, when several villages were cleared by southern forces under the harmless-sounding Plan Number 5, a scorched earth policy to tighten the grip on Wangsan, one of the peaks in the Jirisan area near Sancheong. Unofficial statistics place the number of civilian deaths at 705 (the official death count is 386), as villagers were rounded up and shot by Southern soldiers. Statistics also indicate that nearly half the dead (45%) were under 19 years of age; 84% of the casualties were women, the elderly, or children. The story is movingly told in a 15-minute film shown in the Sancheong-Hamyang Massacre Memorial Park museum in Sancheong County. Elderly survivors of the incident, small children at the time of the shootings, are interviewed and display their wounds. Outside, visitors are invited to keep silence at the foot of the memorial to the incident, and remember that war drive humans to atrocious acts.
Later in 1951, the dirty job of aiming to root out the rebels fell to General Paik Sun Yup, who had fought with distinction in the conflict further north. Learning the lessons of what had gone before, one of his key objectives was not to alienate the local civilian population, while still offering no quarter to the partisans. The operation as a whole was called Operation Rat Killer.
While General Paik’s campaign against the partisans was judged to be a success, it did not completely eliminate the threat. Indeed, the clean-up had to carry on for a further ten years after the 1953 armistice was signed. The last partisans were shot or captured in November 1963. The cottage where the last partisan was caught is the centrepiece of the Nambugun memorial museum, nestling on the hillside beneath what is now a bamboo forest.4 The last partisan herself, Jeong Sun-deok (정순덕), was found hiding in the ondol system under the kitchen floor, a place so hot she thought no-one would think of looking there. She was wounded, captured, and eventually died in 1993.
The two museums provide an interesting contrast: one a conventional museum documenting a troubled episode in Korean to educate the current generation, and the other a more emotive experience designed to commemorate an appalling tragedy and reminding us that in war humans are capable of terrible deeds.
- To those who like to explore Korean history through watching Korean film, the classic ones to illuminate this aspect of the Korean war are Im Kwon-taek’s Taebaek Mountains and Chong Ji-young’s Nambugun. Director Chong was in London during April 2010 for a screening of his film White Badge – which explores Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War. I asked him what film, from whatever period in the history of Korean cinema, he thought best captured the Korean war. After some thought, he answered Nambugun.
- Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, p 243-244
- Korea’s Place in the Sun, p 243.
- The official English title of the museum seems to be “Jirisan subjugation of the communist guerrilla exhibition hall”, and in Korean, 지리산 빨치산토벌전시관.