Posts filed under 'Korea'

1981: Not Kim Dae-jung, South Korean president and Nobel laureate

Add comment January 24th, 2018 Headsman

South Korea’s dictator reluctantly commuted the death sentence of democracy activist Kim Dae-jung on January 24, 1981 … a gesture that would eventually enabled Kim to return the same favor to the dictator.

A farmer’s son who became a wealthy businessman and a charismatic orator, the Catholic Kim had been a fixture of the political opposition since the 1960s which was a dangerous profession. In his address accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for 2000, Kim reflected that

five times I faced near death at the hands of dictators. Six years I spent in prison, and 40 years I lived under house arrest or in exile and under constant surveillance. I could not have endured the hardship without the support of my people and the encouragement of fellow democrats around the world. The strength also came from deep personal beliefs.

I have lived, and continue to live, in the belief that God is always with me. I know this from experience. In August of 1973, while exiled in Japan, I was kidnapped from my hotel room in Tokyo by intelligence agents of the then military government of South Korea. The news of the incident startled the world. The agents took me to their boat at anchor along the seashore. They tied me up, blinded me and stuffed my mouth. Just when they were about to throw me overboard, Jesus Christ appeared before me with such clarity. I clung to him and begged him to save me. At that very moment, an airplane came down from the sky to rescue me from the moment of death.

His life on that occasion was saved by the aggressive intervention of U.S. ambassador Philip Habib.

South Korean politics went on tilt after the ruler who nearly had Kim “disappeared” in 1973 was himself bizarrely assassinated by the country’s intelligence chief in late 1979. Emboldened democracy movements raced into the ensuing power vacuum, roiling cities and universities and culminating in May 1980 when a popular uprising in Kim’s native Jeolla was crushed with hundreds of deaths, bringing martial law in its wake. This was the Kwangju or Gwangju Rising (and/or -Massacre), and it led to Kim’s condemnation for sedition.


Kim Dae-jung in the front row of prisoners on trial after Kwangju.

The U.S. Carter administration, and (from November of 1980) the transition team for the incoming Reagan administration, worked strenuously behind the scenes to effect a commutation;* hanging Kim, Reagan foreign policy advisor Richard Allen warned a Korean intelligence delegation, “would be like a bolt of lightning out of the heavens that will strike you.”

The dictator Chun Doo-hwan eventually traded Kim’s life — he’d be sent into exile in the United States under the pretext of going abroad for medical treatment — for an official visit in the first weeks of the incoming president. Reasoning that

Kim’s execution would inflict long-term damage on Chun’s rule, which by this time had stabilized … On January 24, 1981, Chun commuted Kim’s death sentence to life imprisonment and lifted martial law. On February 3, Reagan warmly welcomed Chun to the White House for a summit meeting. He was the second foreign head of state Reagan met after his inauguration. This meeting was important in enhancing the legitimacy of Chun’s leadership both at home and abroad.

-Chae-Jin Lee, A Troubled Peace

Kim returned to South Korea in 1985 as a closely-monitored opposition figure and re-entered politics, repeatedly seeking election to the presidency — which he finally won in 1997, earning not only executive power but the rare opportunity to repay Chun Doo-hwan’s bygone act of grace.

Earlier in 1997, Chun had been convicted by the post-dictatorship courts on a number of capital charges relating to his reign in the 1980s, and himself sentenced to die. President-elect Kim coordinated with his predecessor Kim Young-sam to have Chun’s sentence commuted during the transition.

“In all ages, in all places, he who lives a righteous life dedicated to his people and humanity may not be victorious, may meet a gruesome end in his lifetime, but will be triumphant and honored in history; he who wins by injustice may dominate the present day, but history will always judge him to be a shameful loser. There can be no exception.”

-Kim

* For period context, recall that in April of 1979 the Pakistani military government had hanged the former prime minister, over Washington’s objections.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Korea,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Politicians,Power,South Korea,The Worm Turns,Treason

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1950: Shooting on Seoul’s Execution Hill

Add comment December 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1950, South Korean police shot more than 100 alleged Communists on a hill outside Seoul. It was just one day amid a weeklong bloodbath that claimed a reported 800 or more, although December 15 was the one that helped to thrust the horrors into public consciousness in the West.

These mass executions occurred in the paroxysm after the North Korean capital of Pyongyang — briefly captured by the United Nations offensive earlier in 1950 — was retaken by Chinese-supported Communist forces in early December.

These were themselves only the most recent installment of numerous indiscriminate mass murders that had scarred the South Korean rear once Chinese intervention in the summer of 1950 turned the tide of the war. A South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigation from the 2000s estimated that the collective death toll of countless such executions could “conservatively” run to 100,000-plus: “the worst tragedy of 20th century South Korea,” as one commission member provocatively characterized it.

In a Kafkaesque bureaucratic twist, many of those rounded up for execution were culled from the rolls of the “National Guidance League”, an organ set up by the Seoul government to re-educate former leftists. Enlistment to the League was incentivized by extra rations pushed by local officials with signup quotas to make, and that was just great for everyone until that same state decided to turn it into an expedient roster of fifth columnists.

“The authorities pressed us to join the league,” one aged survivor said at a 2009 news conference. “We had no idea that we were joining a death row.”

American officials directing the South Korean army downplayed all this as it was occurring. Even when the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea remained under the dictatorial administration of its wartime president Syngman Rhee, whose commitment to strangling leftist dissent extended so far as hanging the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. For many years the wartime massacres could be no more than murmured at.

The chaos of war helped bring the executions to momentary prominence in December 1950, however, when western conscripts bivouacked down adjacent to the capital’s “execution hill” and were aghast to witness what was happening there.

“A wave of disgust and anger swept through American and British troops who either have witnessed or heard the firing squads in action in the Seoul area during the last two days,” reported the United Press on December 17, 1950. (via the Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times of the same date) On Friday, December 15, those soldiers “were horrified upon seeing truckloads of old men, women, youths and several children lined up before open graves and shot down by South Korean military police with rifles and machineguns.

“One American captain George Graff reported he kicked aside the dirt lightly covering one of the bodies and found it still twitching.”

Deeply shocked, one British soldier wrote to the government “wondering which side was right in Korea.”

Revulsion among these forces and their newspaper-reading publics threatened to badly erode support for the mission — a point made forcefully by the Archbishop of York in a letter to the London Times (December 20, 1950):

Sir, —

I hope that our Government will convey to the South Korean Government the horror and detestation with which the people of this country have read the accounts of the wholesale execution of suspected Communist sympathizers. Your Correspondent says it is reported that some of the murdered women “carried babies on their backs.” If these barbarous executions continue, all sympathy with South Korea will vanish, and instead there will be a general demand that the forces of the United Nations should no longer be used to protect a Government responsible for these atrocities. I am glad to see that British soldiers on the spot already have shown their anger at these killings.

Yours faithfully,
Cyril Ebor
Bishopthorpe, York, Dec. 18

Christian ministers in Korea likewise raised alarm over these atrocities with both United Nations and South Korean authorities. Due regard for humanity and/or public opinion led the United Nations on December 17th to exhume the execution grounds looking for evidence of child executions. But the very same day, according to the U.P. (via the Cleveland Plain Delaer, Dec. 18, 1950),

South Koreans hauled another batch of prisoners to snow-covered “Execution Hill” this afternoon and shot them.

Evidently to escape the eyes of angry American G.I.s and British Tommies, the prisoners apparently were forced to lie down in trenches where they were killed.

The new executions occurred only two hours after U.N. observers had supervised an exhumation of bodies lying in four trench-like graves on the hill and after 29th Brigade Commander Tom Brodie had told his officers he was not prepared to tolerate further executions in his area.

As layer after layer of bodies were disinterred from the mountain graveyard, Fusillier Capt. Bill Ellery, tall, moustached British officer, said coldly and precisely what all watching British and American troops were thinking.

“We don’t do this sort of thing in my country.”

A South Korean apologized. The prisons were so crowded with Communists sentenced to death that Execution Hill was the only solution.

“There are so many to execute,” he said.

An abatement of visible-to-western-press executions and the cosmetic expedient of a small Christmas amnesty appears to have stanched the immediate threat to homefront support for the war — which would continue for another two and a half years.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Known But To God,Korea,Mass Executions,Shot,South Korea,Wartime Executions,Women

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1946: Hong Sa-ik, a Korean general in the Japanese army

1 comment September 26th, 2017 Headsman

Hong Sa-ik, an ethnic Korean officer of the Imperial Japanese Army, was hanged in Manila on this date in 1946 for war crimes against captured prisoners in the Philippines.

Korea surrendered her diplomatic sovereignty to Japan in 1905 when our man Hong was just 16; five years later, Japan annexed Korea outright. These were events that would move many years of violent hostility on the peninsula and shape the progress of Hong’s life and death.

However many and well-remembered are martyrs in resistance, there are always many who would sooner go along with events. Hong was in this agreeable latter camp; when Japan shuttered the Korean military academy he was attending, he simply transferred to the Japanese one. When Japan took over his homeland, he declined his Korean classmates’ entreaties to put his combat training at the service of an underground resistance.

Instead, Hong rose through Japan’s ranks to the position (late in World War II) of lieutenant general and supervisor of all the POW camps in the Philippines — whose conduct rated a sore Allied grievance as the war came to a close.

Hong was prosecuted by the United States as a Class B war criminal, and was the highest-ranking Korean officer to be executed for war crimes in the postwar period.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Japan,Korea,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,War Crimes

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1950: The Chaplain-Medic Massacre

Add comment July 16th, 2016 Headsman

One of the noteworthy atrocities to decorate the chaotic early weeks of the Korean War took place on this date in 1950: the Chaplain-Medic Massacre.

Named by the Joe McCarthy-led Senate committee that in 1953 set out to catalogue (pdf) “a series of war crimes against American and United Nations personnel which constituted one of the most heinous and barbaric epochs of recorded history,” the Chaplain-Medic affair stars a chaplain and (wait for it) a medic.

During the Battle of Taejon in mid-January as the North Korean army swept down the peninsula, it committed a number of war crimes against American POWs.

In this instance, the North Korean 3rd Division came upon some 20 to 30 injured Americans of the 19th Infantry in the hills outside the village of Tuman. They had been left during a withdrawal in difficult terrain by their comrades who could no longer carry them, in hopes that another American detachment would pass through who could escort them back to friendly lines.

With them were two uninjured and unarmed non-combatants who had voluntarily remained behind to succor the stricken men: Catholic chaplain Herman G. Felhoelter, and medic Linton J. Buttrey.

As the North Korean patrol approached, Buttrey was able to flee. (He would later testify to McCarthy’s committee.) Felhoelter, remaining, knelt to issue extreme unction to his comrades and was executed mid-prayer … followed by all the wounded men in his care.

Buttrey earned the Silver Star for remaining to treat the wounded men. Felhoelter was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross; his name appears on Arlington National Cemetery’s Chaplain’s Hill monument to slain military clergy.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Korea,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,North Korea,Shot,Soldiers,South Korea,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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1985: Major Zin Mo, failed assassin

Add comment April 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1985, North Korean Major Zin Mo was hanged in Buma’s Insein prison.

Eighteen months earlier nearly to the day, a huge bomb ripped apart Rangoon’s monumental mausoleum tribute to martyred founding hero Aung San.

The bomb was meant for visiting South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan,* who planned to lay a wreath at the site. But the infernal machine detonated too early, sparing its target — though 21 others lost their lives, 17 of them Korean, including Foreign Minister Lee Beom-seok.

The ensuing manhunt turned up three North Korean commandos, each of whom had been detailed short-fused grenades to commit spectacular suicide to evade capture.

Zin Kee-Chu started pulling stuff out of his bag. First a pile of money came out and while the policemen were temporarily distracted by the cash he then pulled out a hand grenade and detonated right there.

Their hand grenades had short 1 second fuses unlike our M-36 hand grenades with the longer 4 seconds fuses. So the explosion was immediate and some policemen and Captain Zin Kee-Chu himself were killed there. (Source)

But Major Zin Mo survived his explosives, albeit with devastating injuries, and fellow-captain Kang Min Chul lacked the fortitude to make the suicide attempt at all. Under none-too-gentle interrogation, Zin Mo kept his mouth shut and accepted his secret execution for the People’s Republic. Zin Kee-Chu didn’t have any better stomach to hang for his country than to blow himself up for it; he didn’t hang and lived out his life in Burmese captivity, having apparently cut a deal to tell all in exchange for his life.

There’s a phenomenal firsthand retrospective on these events, liberally illustrated, here, written by a present-day Burmese exile who was in Rangoon on the day the mausoleum was bombed.

* Chun was the guy who emerged in charge after Korea’s intelligence chief bizarrely assassinated President Park Chung-hee in 1979.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Burma,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Korea,Murder,North Korea,Notable for their Victims,Soldiers,Terrorists,Torture

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2013: Jang Sung-taek, North Korean purgee

Add comment December 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 2013, according to North Korea’s state news organ, Kim Jong-un‘s uncle was sentenced to death and directly executed.

Days earlier, Jang Sung-taek (alternatively, Song-taek, Sung-thaek, and various similar transliterations) had suffered an extremely visible fall when, in a Saddam-like twist, he was arrested on live television in the midst of a politburo meeting.


Image from KCTV (North Korea) shows Jang Sung-taek being arrested during a politburo meeting in Pyongyang.

Even so, the severity of his treatment was a surprise given his family tie to the supreme leader (he was the husband of Kim Jong-il‘s sister).

Long one of the secretive state’s top officials — his prestige recovered from two previous falls from favor in the late 1980s and early 2000s — Jang was among the officials involved in the transfer of power from the late Kim Jong-il to the young dictator Kim Jong-un. It is uncertain exactly what brought about his destruction; speculation ran to differing philosophies of economic development and/or raw power rivalry, little clarified by a government statement denouncing him as “despicable human scum … worse than a dog” for his “thrice-cursed acts of treachery” and “decadent capitalist lifestyle.”

Jang was executed by shooting: machine gun fire in the “normal” version, or the more spectacular novelty of anti-aircraft fire by some accounts. (Reports to the effect that Jang was executed by being fed to a pack of wild dogs can still be found, but this story was fabricated by a satirist and its subsequent circulation cautions against a propensity to give credence to every lurid rumor about North Korea.)

Jang’s fall reportedly also brought about the execution of “all relatives” and hundreds of officials who were considered members of his faction.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Korea,Mass Executions,North Korea,Politicians,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Treason

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1932: Lee Bong-chang, would-be Hirohito assassin

Add comment October 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1932, Korean nationalist Lee Bong-chang was hanged at Ichigaya Prison for attempting to assassinate Japanese Emperor Hirohito.


The would-be assassin under arrest.

Remembered now as a patriotic hero, Lee on January 9, 1932 chucked a grenade at an imperial procession in Japan as it passed the imperial palace’s Sakuradamon Gate — the aptly-named Sakuradamon Incident. Korea at that point had been directly ruled by Japan since 1910.*

Lee’s hand grenade targeted the wrong carriage, and didn’t even kill the occupants of that conveyance — it just injured a guard. A second grenade failed to explode altogether.

Three months after Lee’s attempt, another Korean, Yoon Bong-gil, also tried to murder Hirohito with a bomb. Both men are interred with garlands at Seoul’s Hyochang Park. A statue of our man Lee, poised with a grenade in hand, stands in the park.

* Newspapers in China — also under Japanese occupation — expressed regret that Lee’s attempt had missed its mark; this impolite language helped to catalyze a Japanese show of force later that month known as the January 28 Incident or the Shanghai Incident.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Japan,Korea,Martyrs,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Separatists,Terrorists

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1846: Andrew Kim Taegon, the first Korean priest

Add comment September 16th, 2014 Headsman

The first native Korean Catholic priest, Andrew Kim Taegon, was martyred for his faith on this date in 1846.

Catholicism had begun making inroads in Korea from the late 18th century, a development most unwelcome for the Confucian Joseon dynasty. Catholic adherents graduated over the decades of the 19th century to heavier and heavier degrees of persecution. By 1866, the peak of anti-Catholic sentiment, it’s thought that Korea’s Catholic community numbered about 20,000 living souls — and had lost about 10,000 others to martyrdom.

Andrew’s father was one of these 10,000.

The son, and the principal figure of this post, was baptized in his childhood. He trained for Holy Orders at overseas seminaries, in China and the Philippines (according to Wikipedia, he has a statue in the Philippines village where he once hung his hat), finally stealing illicitly into Korea to evangelize underground. Such missions were of ancient vintage for the Church; they have also proven a font of martyrs.

Kim managed about 13 months before he was captured and put to death in the 1846 “Pyong-o persecution”, one of several distinct crackdowns on the alien faith whose episodes punctuated the overall fearful climate for Korea’s Catholics.

Beheaded at the age of 25 among a group of 20 Catholic martyrs, the young man was eventually canonized as St. Andrew Kim Taegon by Pope John Paul II. He shares a common September 20 feast date with other Korean martyrs, including Paul Chong Hasang.

St. Andrew is the patron of the Korean clergy, and of the Pontifical Korean College in Rome. When in Seoul, stop at the Jeoldu-san museum and shrine to remember him.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Korea,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Religious Figures,Torture

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1762: Crown Prince Sado, locked in a rice chest

1 comment July 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1762, the Korean king Yeongjo had his son and heir Crown Prince Sado immured in a rice chest — where he would die after eight excrutiating days.

This bizarre incident, attested by the memoirs of Sado’s widow Lady Hyegyeong, continues to perplex down to the present day.

In Lady Hyegyeong’s telling, the tyrannical father warped the sensitive son, sending the latter into a destructive spiral of madness. As the 1750s unfolded, Sado’s behavior grew erratic, violent, and delusional. He was prone to sudden fits of rage, stalked and raped court ladies, and wandered Seoul streets in disguise. He eventually murdered numerous servants, eunuchs, and miscellaneous commoners — even his own concubine. The court lived in terror of the mad prince’s impunity; the ruling dynasty itself stood in peril.

Many years later, the prince’s desperate wife in her autobiography remembered Sado’s own mother finally appealing to the king to do the necessary, unthinkable thing:

“Since the prince’s illness has become quite critical and his case is hopeless, it is only proper that you should protect yourself and the royal grandson, in order to keep the kingdom at peace. I request that you eliminate the prince, even though such a suggestion is outrageous and a sin against humanity.

“It would be terrible for a father to do this in view of the bond of affection between father and son; but it is his illness which is to be blamed for this disaster, and not the prince himself. Though you eliminate him, please exert your benevolence to save the royal grandson, and allow him and his mother to live in peace.

Perhaps to avoid spilling the prince’s blood, the royal lunatic was that very day forced into a sturdy chest in a palace courtyard. The ferocious prince entered it placidly, and his living eyes never again beheld the outside of that box: it was nailed shut and buried. (A recently discovered inscription, however, perhaps implies that the king didn’t actually mean for eight days locked in a box to be fatal. If so, it certainly lends credence to the idea that Sado’s mistreatment in childhood lies behind the later psychotic breaks.)

The royal grandson was indeed spared. When that child, Jeongjo of Joseon, finally succeeded to the throne upon his grandfather’s death in 1776, he wasted little time restoring the honor of his dead father.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Famous,History,Immured,Korea,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Royalty,Scandal,Starved

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1969: Lee Soogeun, North Korean defector

Add comment July 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1969, alleged North Korean operative Lee Soogeun (other transliterations exist for his given name, such as Soo Keun or Soo-geun) was hanged at a Seoul prison for espionage.

A North Korean party elite, Lee was the Vice President of the North Korean Central News Agency.

On March 22, at the Military Armistice Commission meetings at the border outpost of Panmunjom, Lee suddenly leapt into a UN official’s vehicle and escaped over the frontier.

The high-profile defector got a hero’s welcome in the South. (A U.S. Army captain also copped a medal for helping him escape.)

Lee hit the lecture circuit critically discussing the situation north of the 38th parallel, and worked as an analyst for South Korean intelligence.

However, the KCIA also had Lee under surveillance, and came to believe that he was actually gathering intelligence to send to the north. Realizing his predicament, Lee fled with his niece for Cambodia. They were captured en route in Vietnam.

South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has, while stopping short of exonerating Lee, ruled his confinement illegal, and the self-incriminating statements he made in that environment insufficient evidence, and urged his case be re-tried. Lee’s niece served 20 years of a life sentence as his accomplice, but was released in 1989 and eventually won a 6.8 billion won wrongful imprisonment suit.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Korea,North Korea,South Korea,Spies,Wrongful Executions

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