Saturday, October 17, 2015

Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine: Civilian Massacre Site

The Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine and massacre site is shrouded in a silenced history. Before going there, I had only heard of the infamous Nogunri massacre, the Cheju massacre and the Kwangju massacre. Actually I heard of the Kwangju massacre first because my first year in Korea back in 1991 was in Kwangju, so my fellow colleagues and I saw many demonstrations and battles between demonstrators and demonstration police fighting with stones, bricks taken from the sidewalks, and molatov cocktails. The year in Kwangju was an intense year of watching demonstrations and not fully understanding that, although the people were said to have democracy, they were still fighting for their democratic rights as citizens. The same seems to apply to many of the Korean War massacres. It seems that many times people spoke out against the ruling party and were permanently silenced along with a lot of other sympathizers and non-involved innocent people.

On October 17 and 18, I went to the Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine and learned for the first time of the massacre. I also learned that there was shockingly a total of 114 bereaved families associations in South Korea that are registered as having family members were who killed in civilian massacres, mostly at the onset of the Korean War. 114 civilian massacres! What an insanely high number, and these families are still waiting for government recognition so they can have legal assistance in expunging the "red" slurs attached to their murdered family member's name and by extension to their own names.

Choi Seung Ho, publisher and president of the Gyeongsan Sinmoon, met two International Strategy Center volunteers, James a young historian, and myself an anthropologist when we got to Gyeongsan and showed us the cobalt excavation site and then took us 1.5 kilometer distance to the mine and massacre site itself. He narrated the dark history to us. Choi had no family connections to the mine but back when he was a 20-year-old journalist he had been asking questions about the history of the Gyeongsan and then he learned that the rumors he had occasionally heard growing up were actually truth. He found out more, shocked that such a history could exist but not be discussed. Back then, because the topic was so politically sensitive, he had to be careful when he wrote about it or referenced it.

Not much could be said publicly about the mine, but in 2001 there was finally a war criminal tribunal in New York pertaining to the mine along with other massacres around Korea. Choi and a few others went. There, Ramsey Clark, human rights lawyer and former US Attorney General, admitted that the US was responsible for war time operations. In 2003 in Geneva the UN sub-committee on human rights requested an investigation on the Gyeongsan mine site. The Jamaican chair said if both North Korea and South Korea agreed to have an investigation, it could happen, but South Korea refused. In 2009, there was finally recognition by the government of the illegal killings. Compensation was to be allotted to each of the 120 bereaved families with each family receiving approximately 100,000,000won (1억), which is relatively little compensation for the years of being marginalized, disallowed to hold any civil servant positions and carrying the taint of "commy" at work, school, play or wherever. Yet, it is a beginning for healing and acceptance and restoring their murdered relative's name and their own. (The money has been promised but the families still have not received it.)

Remnant Japanese constructions 
Remnant Japanese construction from the cobalt extraction area.
Choi Seung Ho says that the task that now remains is to turn the cobalt mine and the excavation site 1.5 kilometers away into a type of peace park with a museum, which could be the venue of a human rights film festival, and an iconic place to give others in international atrocity sites hope. He said that the mine could be made into a historical site demarking Japanese colonialism, but there is already such a mine, and that mine is well-preserved and doesn't have connotations of a massacre.

The reason Choi Seung Ho was showing us the excavation site and mine is to reveal truth about a shamefully disguised past. He is a scholar, and a seeker of knowledge. He values truth and openness. In his quest for knowledge for himself, he also gives knowledge to others and for the past 20 years has dedicated himself to teaching night-school to locals. In a 2010 newspaper article in the 영남일보 위클리포유, he was reported to have already taught 500 people in night schools. That is dedication. He is dedicated to sharing the silent history of the mine also. "The last thing I can do for our children [future generations] is to give them their history, even if it is a shameful past,” he said. So before going to the mine itself, he gave us historical setting context to the mine massacre story by showing us the cobalt extraction site 1.5 kilometers away.

Choi and a number of local historians and a professor of anthropology showed us the excavation site with its large cement structure for sluicing the rock and floating out the cobalt. One large structure for sluicing water was also a random murder site back in 1985 or 1986. A man was murdered up on the low mountain where the sluice structures still exist, and the murderer, thinking to hide the victim's body, threw it in the sluice whereupon it rolled down to the bottom and was soon discovered by a local. Since that time, that mountain too has taken on connotations of murder and a vengeful ghost so few people ventured up the mountain afterwards.

Part of the sluicing system for water and materials separation.
Also the shaft that a murdered man was thrown down in 1985 or 1986.
The other end of the slicing shaft ... and where the murdered man tumbled and was easily found by a local.

The Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine

The mine is kept locked to prevent kids looking for ghosts out and to preserve the evidence still within. The only people who have keys are Choi and the bereaved families.

At some point in history, the entrance we entered was sealed off with cement, and the mine with its spring of water became a reservoir for water (which I honestly don't want to imagine as the water would be very contaminated by the thousands of dead bodies within). In 2001 the blockage was blasted open. Bones that had been disturbed by the flow of water were lying everywhere, and even today there are pieces of wood washed up in areas, and if someone looks closely, bones will be seen washed up under them. The further we went into the cave, the more yellow and oily the mud became. The oily discoloration is adipose which is still decomposing 65 years later because of the coolness of the mine. The largest number of bones recovered were 150 meters into the mine and directly under the shaft, which had been dynamited closed to obscure evidence.

So far, about 400 people have been accounted for as represented by 800 femurs located. The femur is the hardest bone in the body and therefore disintegrates more slowly than other bones; therefore, counting femurs is the measurement for the body toll accounted for.

The humanitarian and right thing to do is to excavate them and give them a proper send-off to quiet their restless spirits. Burying ancestors within three days upon death is the proper Confucian practice as the ancestors properly buried and given filial respects will look favorably on their descendants and "watch over them" in the unseen role as guardian between the real and the spirit world. The bereaved families have never buried their restless dead who died shameful and ignominious deaths; therefore, the families are also disturbed too by the unrest of their ancestors and want to provide closure to this fruitless time of wandering. However, without money to excavate the bodies and give final respects, the restless spirits and families by extension remain uneasy and disrupted. Although the excavated 400 or so people's remains could be buried, bereaved families don't know if their family member is among the excavated and therefore the local families demand that all of the remains be excavated first and then buried with recognition, recognition that is by the government.

There is no recognition and the funding established by Roo Moo-hyun, the last liberal president, was cut off by President Lee Myung-bak. Choi explained that the Lee Myung-bak and present Lee Guen-hye governments have roots in Japanese colonialism as the police officers, ministers, land owners, politicians were educated in the Japanese occupation period and when the new government was established after the expulsion of the Japanese, these educated and connected people were set in power by the American government which had a kind of military rule from 1945-1948. It is the descendants of these educated people who now are in government office.

Choi Seung Ho explaining the history of the mine and why there are so many bags of dirt inside ... basically, with no funds for further excavation, they must keep the mud until excavation can continue and the mud can be sifted through for teeth, bone fragments and other telling pieces of evidence. 
Sandbags of earth waiting to be sifted through and analyzed. 
A natural underground spring keeps the mine muddy and has effectively over time buried the victims' bodies. The mud is not naturally oily and yellow; that is the adipose that has yet to decompose, even 65 years since the massacre happened.

A Box of Bones

To raise awareness about the silence surrounding the cobalt mine and massacre there, Choi took a box of bones to the Kwangju Biennale 2015. People were shocked that the bones would be displayed and shocked that such a history unspoken about existed in South Korea. They wanted to know why the bones hadn't yet been buried, but Choi explained that families want to know that their dead and dishonored family member is peacefully buried and that can only happen if all persons involved are buried and that the government recognizes this burial.

He explained the dynamics of the illegal killings. The people killed in the massacre site were killed without trial. The majority (about 2,500) were political prisoners who had been detained, but prisons were overflowing with political prisoners, and it was feared if the political prisoners were freed, they would join the forces of the North, so they were illegally brought to the mine and killed. Among these "political prisoners" were people who had fed or clothed someone considered to be a "red". Others were thrown in the middle by just being in the wrong place at the right time, or just by innocent association.

The "red scare" was prevalent and stigmatizing to those labeled. Families who had a member who was killed in the massacre were determined to be "guilty by association" and were tainted with "red" labeling, resulting in being watched. Therefore, they were not allowed to travel overseas. They could not hold any kind of government office, which means they could not be civil servants, about the only job an educated person could have back in the developing years of Korea's economic growth, the 1950's, 60s, 70s, and 80s certainly. As a result, parents did not tell their children about relatives that had been killed. Neighbors could not know. The topic became one of silence as families took action for self-preservation. People were imprisoned or disappeared for speaking against the government in the 1960s so silence was the preferable option.

The excavated bones, however, are a screaming testimony to atrocities of the past. Near the mine is a trailer that contains several boxes of bones. Most of the excavated bones, however, are refrigerated at Chungbuk University in order to preserve them for testimony. Choi showed us a box of femurs, another of ribs, and other boxes with carefully separated bones, a skull with a bullet-hole over the right ear opening, another smashed by a hammer, teeth with gold fillings, and the odd leather shoes. Some bones were white, others had been blackened with flame-throwers which were used to incinerate the victims before throwing them down the mine shaft. Perpetrators initially shot the victims before dropping them into the mine, but forensic evidence suggests that when the perpetrators ran out of bullets, they started beating the victims before pushing the bodies into the shaft. Some of these victims were people who
  • belonged to social movements
  • opposed the ruling government
  • demanded redistribution of land after Japanese occupation
  • demanded compensation for barley that the US had confiscated
Local rumor has it that three people survived the 60-70 meter drop. One person is said to have survived the drop but starved subsequently. Another man is reported to have escaped the mine but only to be recaptured, while the third is said to have escaped the mine and run away.

Meeting 4 Members of the Bereaved Families 

The Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine Bereaved Families Association was established after the Korean War, but in the Park Chung-hee era, the association was eradicated. It was started again in 2000 under the presidency of the liberal Kim Dae-jung, when many other bereaved families associations registered also. In total there are 114 bereaved families associations representing Korean War civilian massacre sites. Wikipedia, like the Korean government, is very silent about massacre sites in the country; Wikipedia cites 18 of the reported 114 sites. A strange silence on a very ignominious past.

Lee Jeong Woo, President of the Legal Body
To give background, in July and August 1950 soldiers and police who were part of the National Guidance League killed about 3500 people. So far 500 have been excavated, but many more are in water and mud, but it's painful that we can't excavate the remains. Our original Bereaved Families Association started out in 2000 with 160 families [now there are 120 but some families have passed away and others have removed their names from the association], so we've had about 16 years of activism. The ROK is democratic but nonetheless there's no support; we would like the government to support us. We receive help from a civil society group, a farmers association here in Gyeongsan, and from the newspaper, but we need more and we need more public awareness. 
I was 8, in 2nd grade of elementary school when father was killed. Father was head of the fire-fighters. Life was difficult. We farmed a little, but eventually had to sell the land. After graduating from elementary school, we moved to Daegu and lived in a one-room: my 3 siblings, myself and my mom. After finishing the military service, I took a test to become a military servant and passed at the 4th level. I worked 3 years and wanted to move up to the next level, but every three years there is a background check, and my background check revealed that my father was "killed in a strange way" and that father had been a political prisoner. The office mood became so bad toward me that I was forced to resign after only working as a military servant for three years. I got a job at a regular company and worked there until I retired. 
One of my nephews also had difficulties when he wanted to study abroad. However, his family record showed that my father (the nephew's great uncle) had a political prisoner record, and therefore, he was disallowed to go abroad. I went to the police station, talked with police and pleaded with them. I bought them lunch, and the nephew was allowed to go. Guilt by association was hard.
Kim Kab Soon, on the Board of Directors
When our Bereaved Families Association started in 2000, 114 other bereaved families associations started at the same time. The bereaved families have succeeded in getting reparations in the lower courts, but now the proceedings need to be passed in the Supreme Court. Through government oppression, many of the bereaved families didn't come forward. When others tried to find the cobalt mine bereaved families, people were afraid to come forward because in the past there had always been oppression and guilt by association, so who was to say that if people registered, they wouldn't later be labeled as guilty again. 
Na Jeong Tae, Vice-president

Kim Kab Soon and Na Jeong Tae
The thing that is restricting bereaved families is guilt by association. Supposedly in 1983 when Chun Doo-hwan was grabbed by the knees by a woman who pleaded with him, Chun didn't know what guilt by association was and asked his advisors. When he heard the explanation for the first time he said, "Well, get rid of it!" What he said was publicized but the law was not changed and still exists today.
Kim Kab Soon, on the Board of Directors
Legally it still exists, but it is not put into practice. Now a person can take an exam and, without a background check, the person can become a civil servant. Also before, when becoming a civil servant, a person had to have a background check as well as sign a document about one's political stance. These two things were required before getting a position like a public servant, before being an employee at a large company, or to work at most large companies, chaebols in those days. One also had to submit a document of assets because the government could confiscate those properties if a person was seen politically going against the government. 
I was 13, the oldest son, when my father disappeared. I had two younger sisters. My father was a railroad public servant [basically a union member]. When the [Korean] war broke out, father was apprehended (snatched) and mother went around looking for him... Mother was a seamstress, and I helped. On the way home from school, I picked up sewing for Mother, and the next day on the way to school I delivered the sewing. Mother worked so hard but she had to eat. While she ate, I would be at the sewing machine sewing. Eventually, I took the exam and was allowed to work as a 5th ranking public servant. I retired and immediately joined the bereaved families. I had to retire first before speaking out. Even though there was a background check every three years, records didn't show about my father. If I had been found out as a bereaved family member, I could have lost my job.
On Young Sook, bereaved family member
I was 4. My father had just become a pharmacist. That was a very good position. But he was killed and we had nothing. If he had been a farmer when he died, we would have had land to live off of. It was hard. My brother, born in 1949, was barely born, and live was hard for him. He did go to college and when he came out in 1980 he applied for a construction company, but the job required overseas travel which as a bereaved family member he was not allowed to do. There was one chance though. He needed two public servants of 3rd rank [pretty high] or higher to vouch for him. My mother ran around searching and begging for the signatures. As bereaved family members, the only choice the kids had was to sell stuff, be farmers, so what was the point of going to university if the kids couldn't be public servants? [no private companies at that time] So what was the point of studying? Eventually mother got the signatures, and he was able to take the job and do work overseas. My brother won't talk about the bereaved families. He knows I'm active but he doesn't want to know anything. He had a hard life growing up. 
Also, eventually I studied for a high school degree by myself. I couldn't go to university but I took online courses (at age 60!). My mother before she died was always nagging me about my courses but I wanted to study. I want to learn. I was married. My husband died young. I didn't tell him I was a bereaved family member when we got married. He found out, and asked me, "So what will happen to my job if people know?!" And afterwards whenever he got drunk, he would yell about people finding out and other bad things.
Na Jeong Tae, Vice-president
50 years had passed since the massacre before we were established in 2000 (as bereaved families). People knew about the massacre but didn't talk about it. Certain political dynamics prevented discussion. President Kim Dae-jung acknowledged the massacre at Nogunri and that started the discussion here. 200 families originally joined but there's a decline in the numbers, because old folks have passed away; others were scared because it was a "dangerous place for me" and feared repercussions. President Roh Mu-hyun in the Participatory Government helped a lot. In 2005 the government asked people to register as bereaved families [for all the civilian massacres sites]. Only about 10% came forward, but the government then said that there wasn't enough evidence to prove they were bereaved families. [about 10,000 bereaved families registered but only 8,000 were recognized by the government as being bereaved families. Na Jeong Tae and others believe that the 10,000 who registered is only 10% of the bereaved families and that the number is realistically closer to 1 million!] The problem with this is "Why is the government asking people to register rather than coming to us and saying (personably) there is a problem? Why do we have to go to the government ... and then prove we are bereaved families?"  
When the Korean War started, the bereaved families fought for recognition and on the side of what is South Korea now. Then when Park Chung-hee was president, the families were detained and questioned and not allowed to talk about the mine genocide. The reason why there is little hope now is the children can't talk about it and grandchildren don't know what happened. Parents don't want to tell their children, because of shame. They want their children to be free of shame and have good lives. We want the government to investigate how the victims were killed and how the victims had their human rights infringed upon. We want the civilians who were killed in the massacre to have restored reputations, and a press conference to be held to discuss the problem.  
Now the Bereaved Families Associations are petitioning the government to help the 1 million victims  of the Korean War. The petition, if containing 50,000 signatures and 10% of which are bereaved family members, will be opened at the National Assembly in April 2016. The petition already has 40,000 signatures, mostly obtained since the May 18 press conference on the topic of massacres. The petition appeals for the remains of massacre sites to be excavated, that a project to commemorate the victims (like in Kwangju) be made; the bereaved families want a direct apology from the government as well as the bereaved families registry to be reopened [people could only register during one year, 2000], and they also want the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Korea be re-established and for bereaved families to again be recipients of funding. The petition, only in Korean, for those who wish to sign is here
Na Jeong Tae didn't say much about his life. He was in his 4th year of elementary school when his father was killed, and his education therefore ended. Life was very hard. His mother remarried [because what could a woman do at that time?] He was sent to a relative's house where he worked very hard. Now he does interior decorating, translating as menial labor in gutting and rebuilding the inside of houses or shops. His hard, rough hands are testimony to a life of rough physical labor. He said, "I live 'crying tears of blood'".

September 9 (lunar calendar) 

September 9 on the lunar calendar, or this year October 20 (Tuesday) on the solar calendar, is the day chosen for observing chaesa, ancestor bows and respects. Typically, the day for chaesa is on either the anniversary of the ancestor's death or on his or her birthday; however, with so many families involved in the communal grave, the date in some foggy time in the past was decided upon: lunar Sept 9. Unfortunately, even though our team of 4 were there on October 17 and 18 (solar), we just couldn't return in the middle of the week for the big ceremony of honor and respects to the dead. This is a very important ceremony as in Korea families are linked to their ancestors and respects are given, traditionally, to up to four ancestors immediately past but in the present-day to only parents and grandparents. The dead are thought to bridge the gap between the spirit world and the living world and therefore can influence the fate and blessings of the family. Ancestors properly buried, and especially in propitious sites, are believed to direct greater blessings on the descendants they watch over than those ancestors that are wandering from careless burials or unattended tombs. With family and family connections being so important in Korea, the day of chaesa is a ceremonial calendar day. No wonder the bereaved families seek to console the dead and properly bury them.

Two books written in Korean about the Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine Massacre. (2008)

Truth and Reconciliation Commission links:

Crimes, Concealment and South Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The Unknown Korean War: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea and Excavation of the Remains of Mass-murdered Victims

Other related links:

UbuntuWorks: Reflecting Our Common Humanity: "Bury My Heart at Gyeongsan"
Accountability & Prevention: An Analysis of Civilian Killings in the Korean War
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Korean War
Truth and Reconciliation: Activities of the Past Three Years
Looking Back while Moving Forward: The Evolution of Truth Commission is Korea
The NewYork Times - "Unearthing War's Horrors Years Later in South Korea"

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