대전형무소 학살 사건: 역사를 이야기하는 것의 중요성 The Daejeon Massacre and the Importance of Talking about History

Seoul National University, Sociology Department, Graduate Student

Yuri Ceriale

What is the Daejeon Massacre?

This past semester, I participated in a history course where on the first day of class, the professor asked the class–consisting of a majority of students born and raised in South Korea–a question: “How many of you have heard about the Daejeon Massacre?” Hardly a single person raised their hand in response. Not shocked by this outcome, the professor went on to explain this incident in detail: the Daejeon Massacre (in Korean: 대전형무소 학살 사건) refers to the 1950 extrajudicial killings by the Korean People’s Army of the Republic of Korea of between 3000 and 7000 civilians suspected to be communist sympathizers. U.S. military officers were also present during these mass executions, even writing reports and taking pictures of the killings. Given the politically sensitive nature of the world at the time, knowledge of this massacre was highly restricted; in the U.S., for example, details about the incident were hidden away from the public record until they were formally declassified in 1999. (The New York Times, 2009).

Going back to the issue at hand, public knowledge of this massacre in the present day–though not officially “classified,” is clearly limited in terms of public awareness. It came as a surprise to me that, although the incident was one of the most deadly in South Korea’s recent history, not one of the Korean students in our class was aware of the massacre having happened at all. And this begs the question, about which we spent much time discussing in class: Why doesn’t anyone know about the Daejeon Massacre? There is no clear answer to this, but as our class discussed hypotheses, a few commonalities arose, most notably the fact that the incident clearly paints the South Korean and United States governments and militaries in an unfavorable light. The mass murdering of civilians is inexcusable (even presupposing some individuals were guilty, this does not authorize execution without a trial), and thus it is reasonable to assume that both countries would not proactively advertise to the public their participation in such an incident. 

Plans for a Memorial Museum 

Despite the lack of public dialogue about the incident for the last several decades, the Daejeon government is currently in the planning stages of constructing a memorial museum to commemorate the Daejeon massacre and its victims, with plans to complete construction of the museum by 2023. The bodies of the victims of the massacre are also currently being unearthed from their initial burial sites. The significance of this museum cannot be understated—it is of my opinion that the surprising lack of general knowledge about this incident, both domestically and internationally, is deeply unfortunate and reflects a disturbing historical trend to turn a blind eye to tragedies that, if their details were made public, would invoke any kind of potential political critique. This museum has enormous potential to stimulate complex and necessary conversations about South Korean history and international relations. 

A picture containing grass, outdoor, ground, sport

Description automatically generated
<Figure 1 Private memorial services for victims of the Daejeon Massacre>

Why the Silence? Investigating the Lack of Awareness about the Daejeon Massacre

This development is a promising first step towards breaking the silence about the Daejeon Massacre and, more broadly, untold or silenced histories in South Korea as a whole. In the case of the Daejeon Massacre, a number of factors may be at play that can help explain the lack of public awareness about the incident.

  1. Involvement of Civilians: As mentioned previously, the fact that the Daejeon Massacre specifically involved the execution of civilians, instead of military personnel, would not be one that the South Korean government would want to highlight about its history. 
  2. U.S. Involvement: The individuals that were aware of the Daejeon Massacre were not limited to solely South Koreans. In fact, these mass executions were supervised by U.S. military forces, acting as South Korea’s ally during and after the Korean War. Many of the reports that U.S. officers wrote covering the details of the Daejeon Massacre, as well as pictures they took of the incident, were classified as confidential information until more information about the massacre became publicly available due to the unearthing of new evidence facilitated by the Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2006 onwards. (Frontline, 2008) Politically, shedding light on the Daejeon Massacre would potentially incur critique on not just the South Korean government, but also the U.S. government—as its actions may be interpreted as allowing the execution of civilians. The potential for engendering critique on both South Korea as well as one of its allies might act as one reason to explain the continued silence regarding the massacre. 
  3. Connection with North Korea: If we consider the political context in which the Daejeon Massacre occurred—in which the massacre’s victims were alleged, but not confirmed, communist sympathizers who were thought to be planning to escape to North Korea—the story of the Daejeon Massacre becomes even more muddled. In the current South Korean political context in which South-North Korea relations are shaky as it is, increasing public dialogue about an incident which was primarily based on South-North Korea conflict might be seen as better to be avoided. 

Looking at all of these factors together, we might stipulate that the lack of public awareness about the Daejeon Massacre can only be understood within its specific historical, political, and social contexts. In the face of the raw facts and figures of the Daejeon Massacre—about the people involved, the number of deaths, the sheer brutality of the incident, etc.—a conversation about the Daejeon Massacre has a high likelihood of transitioning into a conversation about North-South Korea relationships and South Korean domestic and international politics. Such topics are ‘touchy’ and oftentimes taboo, and a reluctance to invite conversation about these topics might inform our understanding as to the low levels of knowledge about the Daejeon Massacre in the general public. Nevertheless, it is this student’s opinion that these conversations are an invaluable resource to South Korea, and dialogues about the Daejeon Massacre should be not only welcomed, but actively encouraged. 

Histories Told and Untold: A Reflection on the Tulsa Race Massacre

The trend of keeping an informal culture of silence about certain historical occurrences such as the Daejeon Massacre is not at all isolated to South Korea. The United States, as an example, has a long track record of picking and choosing which periods and incidents in its history to highlight or otherwise de-emphasize. For example, one of the deadliest and most destructive massacres in the U.S. was the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The immediate cause of the Tulsa Race Massacre was a rumor spread in downtown Tulsa that a Black man had physically assaulted a white woman. After hearing this rumor, a mob of white men and women stormed the Black neighborhood of Greenwood, and set fire to the entire district. The aftermath was devastating; 300 Black Americans were killed and another almost 10,000 lost their homes in the destruction (1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, 2021). 

However, despite the enormous scale of this incident, the fact that this massacre happened at all is not well known to the general public. Although the information regarding this incident was not publicly classified, such information was nevertheless enshrouded by a culture of silence. Tulsa residents have claimed that they themselves had never heard of the incident, partially because it was never included in history textbooks. (Education Week, 2021) Though this culture of silence about history is far from governmental censorship, it clearly represents a societal-level effort to “hush” certain aspects of history that may paint the U.S. or U.S. culture in a bad light. Clearly, the Tulsa Race Massacre represents but one of these episodes of systemic racism in the U.S. 

Recently, however, there has been an effort by community organizations in Tulsa to revisit these histories, and in 2021 a new historical center called “Greenwood Rising” was unveiled. The historical center both commemorates the massacre and dedicates a significant amount of museum space to asking questions regarding systemic racism in the U.S. in general. (The Architect’s Newspaper, 2021) 

The Value of Dialogue about the Daejeon Massacre

The example of the Tulsa Race Massacre goes to illustrate a simple fact: nearly every country has certain aspects of its histories that it would rather not publicly advertise, for various reasons. Of course, it is necessary to recognize that the histories underlying the Tulsa Race Massacre and the Daejeon Massacre are vastly different. However, the two share an important commonality: they both point to certain unflattering or politically sensitive aspects of their respective country’s histories.

While this may help to explain previous culture of widespread lack of awareness about the Daejeon Massacre in South Korea, as encouraging discussion about an incident that invites potentially negative criticism about South Korean politics and history seems at first glance counterintuitive, greater public awareness of the incident is indeed a positive and necessary change for reasons including but not limited to the following:

  1. Allows families and communities of victims/perpetrators to gain closure and heal. 

An unfortunate consequence of silencing dialogue about atrocities such as the Daejeon Massacre is that the families of victims and perpetrators are left without recognition, reparations, or apologies from their countries and communities. Agreeing to re-open dialogues about massacres means also re-opening possibilities for these people who have long been suffering in silence to finally be recognized and/or share their stories, aiding in their healing processes and allowing families closure.

  1. Encourages a greater understanding of the past to prevent further atrocities.

The political and social circumstances that surrounded Daejeon Massacre, most notably South-North Korea relations, are very much still relevant in today’s sociopolitical landscape. Talking about the Daejeon Massacre is important in that it allows us to not forgot the ‘ugliness’ of our past and examine what failures or failures to act allowed for such an atrocity to occur. In doing so, we gain considerably more agency and insight to prevent future atrocities from happening.

  1. Creates a capacity to reflect on internalized conceptions about certain countries, peoples, and histories. 

In the “Greenwood Rising” historical center, one of the concluding exhibits asks museum visitors to extrapolate from their historical learnings and reflect on their own relationship to race and systemic discrimination in the United States. Similarly, increasing avenues of dialogue about the Daejeon Massacre in South Korea can provide opportunities for both South Koreans and non-South Koreans to reflect and perhaps even add new insight to their conceptions about North Korea and South Korean history.

  1. Increases historical empathy. 

Historical empathy refers to the concept of studying history and historical actors with an empathetic lens, and “encourages [people] to think critically about the past.” (Foster & Yeager, 1998) Open dialogues about the Daejeon Massacre will no doubt be complicated by the fact that the massacre was an atrocity in which hundreds of civilians died, and perpetrators executed civilians and/or witnessed such executions without intervening. Discussions about such atrocities can become emotionally-charged. However, it is in these discussions that people may increase their ability to emphasize and consider different historical perspectives. The Daejeon Massacre involved many actors and analyzing these actors’ actions is not as simple as labeling all perpetrators ‘evil.’ (consider the fact that many perpetrators of the massacre were just South Korean soldiers following orders from higher-ups, for example) Talking about this incident carries will allow for people to increase their understanding of history from the perspectives of many different parties and, with this increased historical understanding, decide a path forward.

The importance of increasing dialogue about the Daejeon Massacre cannot be overstated. Encouraging the discussion of the Daejeon Massacre means increasing dialogue about topics such as future South-North Korea relations, the political relationship between South Korea and the U.S., and historical education in South Korea. The planned construction of a Daejeon Massacre memorialization museum indicates the start of a potentially positive trend. It hints at the future possibility of increased public awareness, and hopefully increased discussion, about the Daejeon Massacre, as well as its political and societal contexts, which are extremely relevant to South Korea in the current day and in forging a better, more historically-informed future. 

Bibliography 

「1921 Tulsa Race Massacre」, https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/ 

Education Week (2021, June 29). 「A conspiracy of silence’: Tulsa race massacre was absent from schools for generations. 」

Foster, S. J., & Yeager, E. A. (1998). “The role of empathy in the development of historical understanding,” International Journal of Social Education, Vol. 13(1), 1-7.

Frontline (2008, June 20). 「Chilling to the bone」

The Architect’s Newspaper (2021, May 6), 「A new history center in Tulsa’s Greenwood District recounts a grievous past while spurring future change」

The New York Times (2009, November 26). 「South Korea admits civilian killings during war」 

연합뉴스 (2020, September 22) 「진상규명될까…대전 낭월동 민간인학살 피해자 유해발굴 개토제」

답글 남기기

아래 항목을 채우거나 오른쪽 아이콘 중 하나를 클릭하여 로그 인 하세요:

WordPress.com 로고

WordPress.com의 계정을 사용하여 댓글을 남깁니다. 로그아웃 /  변경 )

Twitter 사진

Twitter의 계정을 사용하여 댓글을 남깁니다. 로그아웃 /  변경 )

Facebook 사진

Facebook의 계정을 사용하여 댓글을 남깁니다. 로그아웃 /  변경 )

%s에 연결하는 중

WordPress.com 제공.

위로 ↑

%d 블로거가 이것을 좋아합니다: