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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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.

On this day..

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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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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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.)

On this day..

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

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