Posts filed under 'South 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.

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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.

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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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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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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.

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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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2011: Two leaflet-readers

1 comment January 3rd, 2012 Headsman

South Korean activists have in recent years taken to balloon-lifting propaganda leaflets over the DMZ into North Korea — including on the occasion of the recent leadership succession.

North Korea is not amused by this tactic and has pressured — and even militarily threatened — South Korea to clamp down on it. But that’s nothing next to the clampdown within North Korea.

On this date in 2011, according to an activist whose father is a North Korea abductee, two were publicly shot for the crime of handling these leaflets.

An army officer who pocketed dollar bills enclosed with the leaflets was shot along with a 45-year-old woman who concealed one of the flyers, said Choi Sung-Yong.

He said the executions were carried out on January 3 at Sariwon, 45 kilometres (27 miles) south of Pyongyang, in front of 500 spectators following a special ideological session on the leaflets.

Choi, citing a source in Sariwon, told AFP that six members of the victims’ families had been sent to a camp for political prisoners.

“North Korea apparently carried out the executions to teach a lesson to its people,” Choi said.

He said the regime appeared to have tightened ideological control as it grooms the youngest son of leader Kim Jong-Il as eventual successor to his father.

Those dollar bills that cost the army officer his life are, very sadly, enclosed with some leaflets to induce North Koreans to pick them up despite the risk to life and limb.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Korea,North Korea,Power,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,South Korea

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1974: Mun Segwang, errant assassin

1 comment December 20th, 2009 Headsman

This morning in Seoul, Mun Segwang (various similar transliterations possible) was hanged for an assassination attempt four months earlier.

Mun, a Japanese-reared Korean who needed a translator for his subsequent trial, tried to gun down dictator Park Chung-hee at a Independence Day speech Aug. 15.

Mun missed Park, but he did kill two others: a high school student; and, Park’s wife Yuk Yeong-su, the seated white-clad figure in the middle of the assassination footage who can be seen beginning to crumple on stage as the camera pans away.

South Korea figured him as the agent of a North Korean/Communist plot, which conclusion Japan and the North rejected vehemently. (Trial evidence also indicated that he read The Day of the Jackal.)

Park got lucky this time, but the autocrat was successfully iced five years later by his own intelligence chief. (Guess what happened to him.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Korea,Murder,North Korea,Shot,South Korea

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1950: Col. Choi Chang-Shik, military engineer

Add comment September 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1950, an unfortunate military engineer was shot by the South Korean government for trying to obey his orders.

As North Korea overran South Korea in the opening months of the Korean War, it put the government in Seoul to flight. A predictably chaotic situation attended South Korea’s evacuation of its capital in the summer of 1950, with Korean and American agents frantically destroying anything of potential value to the invading army.

Among the things mooted for destruction were the bridges crossing the Han River south of Seoul, and in the confusion of the evacuation, some bridges were indeed blown early on June 28 — killing hundreds of civilians and soldiers who were trying to escape over them.

All hands on this unpleasant affair quickly scrubbed themselves clean; James Hausman, the (underappreciated*) American military advisor who was instrumental in creating the South Korean military, denied it but seems to have given the order by way of his Korean collaborator Chae Byong-deok.

Choi, the luckless military engineer who carried out the operation, was left holding the bag and drew a death sentence for gross misconduct on September 15, the same date the Americans counterattacked by landing at Inchon.

After the 1961 coup led by Park Chung-hee — a gentleman we’ve met in these pages — Choi’s conviction was reversed upon an appeal from his widow.

[I]n accordance with operational orders from a superior officer. Choi tried to stop people and cars approaching the bridge by firing over people’s heads and delaying the explosion for forty minutes. His behavior was according to military behavior.

* See “Captain James H. Hausman and the Formation of the Korean Army, 1945-1950,” Armed Forces & Society, Summer 1997, Vol. 23, Issue 4.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Korea,Military Crimes,Occupation and Colonialism,Posthumous Exonerations,Shot,Soldiers,South Korea,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1959: Cho Pong-am, Presidential runner-up

Add comment July 31st, 2009 Headsman

A half-century ago today, South Korean strongman Syngman Rhee, winner of that country’s 1956 presidential election, had the runner-up hanged for treason.

Cho Pong-am (or Cho Bong-am), who cut his teeth as a young Communist in the 1920’s and 30’s but had become an independent socialist since, won over 2.1 million votes as the Progressive Party candidate in 1956, on a platform of peaceful reunification with North Korea — the outstanding political issue in South Korea at the time.

The position had some popularity as against Rhee’s “march North” policy of conquering North Korea by force. Peaceful unification and support for the Progressive Party continued to grow after 1956, to Rhee’s fury.

Probably in fear of the increase in popular sentiment favourable to ‘peaceful unification’, the Rhee regime was determined to destroy the Progressive Party. On 13 January 1958, Cho Pong-am was arrested, together with other party officials, on charges of espionage and violation of the National Security Act … Given the fact that the government had suspected Cho’s ideological orientation, and that Communist infiltration of the South was increasing at that time … the arrest of the progressive leader might have been caused partly by the government’s genuine fear of Communist subversion. Cho’s trial, however, clearly indicated that the main purpose of Rhee’s action was to suppress political opposition, and especially to control the idea of ‘peaceful unification’.

Cho Pong-am was indicted on charges that his advocacy of ‘peaceful unification’ by elections in North and South Korea denied the sovereignty of the ROK and consequently was subversive in nature, and that he had been in secret contact with North Korean agents. … police and prosecution officials admitted that the espionage case against Cho was ‘very weak’, and indicated that they were expending considerable effort on analysing his concept of ‘peaceful unification’ in order to classify it as a crime against the ROK.

… Seoul district court, in July, sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment … [and] found that the Progressive Party’s platform did not violate the National Security Law. Three months later, however, the appellate court, reversing the decision of the district court, sentenced Cho to death … [and] ruled that his unification formula represented a plan to overthrow the ROK government.

Cho was hanged just one day after the Supreme Court rejected his appeal — “sudden and highly questionable,” to the American embassy that hurriedly attempted to impress Rhee’s Foreign Minister with the damage this execution could do to South Korea internationally. Cognizant, perhaps, of such concerns, Seoul imposed press censorship from August 1 on further reporting about the case.

Rhee himself would be forced from office by popular outcry the following year after attempting to steal the 1960 election, but “the tragic end of Cho Pong-am and his Progressive Party made it unequivocally clear that a serious leftist movement could not be openly promoted in South Korea without falling victim to violent suppression by the Government.” (Source)

Update: He was posthumously rehabilitated in 2011.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Korea,Politicians,Power,South Korea,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1980: Kim Jaegyu, intelligence chief

3 comments May 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1980, the former intelligence chief of South Korea was hanged for assassinating President Park Chung-hee.*

In this surreal affair — known after its date as the “10.26 incident” in South Korea — the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency popped the autocratic head of state during a private dinner party at a secret KCIA compound.

He then returned to another dinner party at the compound and, without disclosing what he had done, reported an “accident” and started dropping suggestions to a general that this might be an opportune moment to arrange martial law. Instead, the two repaired to a bunker. There, several hours’ confused wind-gauging by a hastily assembled cross-section of the country’s power brokers (not knowing their own chief spook had pulled the trigger) gave illustration to the Ovid maxim that “treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? If it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

Only two participants, Kim Chae Kyu and Kim Kye Won, had witnessed the assassination, and neither disclosed the killer … Without an explanation from these two, the others present were left to speculate whether the killings were truly accidental, organized by North Koreans, or perpetrated as part of a South Korean conspiracy, large or small. They could not rule out the possibility that some among them … were part of a plot. Without knowing the balance of power, both civilian ministers and military officers worried about making a wrong move … (Source)

The truth, eventually, would out. But the reason for this shocking internecine turn by a supposed confidante of the president? The murder was too well-planned to square with initial reports of an argument gone out of control. It seems a coup, but if so, our assassin disastrously — almost delusionally — miscalculated the post-Park lay of the land. Maybe we have to entertain the defendant’s own far-out claim to have struck against the authoritarian concentration of presidential power.

I shot the heart of Yusin Constitution like a beast. I did that for democracy of this country. Nothing more nothing less.

The controversial 2005 flick The President’s Last Bang offers a darkly comic look at the twisted mise en scene in the intelligence compound that fateful 10.26 … and doesn’t find a lot of participants worth admiring.

Whatever its cause, South Korea’s unanticipated transition was a wobbly one. Even as the spymaster who had set it in motion was hanged this date with some of his conspiring security men, successor dictator Chun Dwoo-hwan was crushing a student uprising in Gwangju.**

* Park had survived previous assassination attempts, often authored by North Korea — including one that slew his wife in 1974.

** This uprising resulted in a death sentence against future South Korean president Kim Dae-jung — obviously not carried out. Under Kim’s administration years later, Chun was himself condemned to die for the massacre; Kim returned the gesture of clemency.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Infamous,Korea,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Popular Culture,Soldiers,South Korea

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1975: Eight South Korean pro-democracy activists

Add comment April 9th, 2008 Headsman

At dawn on this date in 1975, the South Korean dictatorship hanged eight pro-democracy activists, the day after the Korean Supreme Court had approved their spurious conviction as agents of the fictitious “People’s Revolutionary Party”.

The eight, Woo Hong-seon, Song Sang-jin, Seo Do-won, Ha Jae-wan, Lee Su-byeong, Kim Yong-won, Doh Ye-jong and Yeo Jeong-nam, were tortured by the Korean CIA into admitting affiliation with this organization supposedly collaborating with the Communist North.

They were among numerous opponents of South Korean strongman Park Chung-hee rounded up for protesting against the legal codification of outright dictatorship in the early 1970’s.

Early last year, a South Korean court officially ruled that they had been wrongly executed, and awarded their surviving family members $26 million.

According to the worldwide anti-death penalty organization Hands Off Cain, the death penalty remains on the books in South Korea but has not been employed for over a decade.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Korea,Mass Executions,Notable Jurisprudence,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,South Korea,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions


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