50 Years And Counting
The Impact of the Korean War on the People of the Peninsula

May 2002
by Phil de Haan

AUTHOR'S NOTE: All the links in the text below can be found listed at the end of the article, including a description of each source. Also, all links were working as of May 2002. Books used for this article are cited at the bottom of the page.

It was 50 years ago next summer that an armistice was signed at Panmunjom, ending the Korean War and bringing an uneasy peace to the ravaged peninsula. But for the Korean people, peace is a relative term. A physical peace has for the most part been achieved. But a psychological peace is not yet part of the Korean existence. For the Korean War split a land and separated a people. And no armistice can remedy that ill.

War, of course, always exacts a heavy toll on civilians. But the impact of the Korean War on the civilian population was especially dramatic. Korean civilian casualties -- dead, wounded and missing -- totaled between three and four million during the three years of war (1950-1953). Recent media reports on reunions in Korea estimate that as many as one million civilians in the northern part of the country fled south ahead of the Communists in the early days of fighting. Many of those people assumed their flight to be a temporary measure; they fully expected to return to their lands after the fighting ended. So many left not just property and heirlooms, but also close relatives. In fact, this year's government-sponsored reunions in North Korea brought together some of those families after 50 years of exile.

Somewhere into the third week,
of not being able to eat,
the cries of the little ones,
turned to a terrible timbre,
and the mothers bent their wills,
at the river's edge, silenced the cries.

Others fled with both immediate and extended family but then saw their family bonds breached in the actual rush south as parents were captured or killed and children were lost or died of starvation.

No one knows for sure how many families were severed because of the Korean War, but in the fall of 1999 the world learned of one brutal incident that impacted hundreds of Korean civilians. That year the Associated Press told the sad saga of No Gun Ri, where U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of South Korean refugees, fearing that North Korean agents had infiltrated the fleeing families.

The soldiers, AP said, were unprepared for war, "teenagers who viewed unarmed farmers as enemies, led by officers who had never commanded men in battle. And the Koreans were peasant families trapped in their ancestral valley between the North Korean invaders and the American intervention force."

Such blatant incidents, in which civilians were shot under direct orders, while perhaps rare, were not the only dangers Korean civilians faced. They also were often victims of random and indirect violence. The civilian population suffered enormous casualties in both the north and the south for the duration of the three-year war. The city of Seoul, for example, was first taken by the Communists in their first push south and then retaken by the UN troops after the amphibious landing led by MacArthur at Inchon. But when the Chinese entered the war and pushed the U.N. back to the south, Seoul fell again to the Communists only to be retaken a fourth time in the subsequent UN counter-offensive.

We walked weary for weeks,
while the troops and tanks filled the road.
Backs burdened, pushed to the edges,
stumbling, scared we pressed on.
Unsure of that which lay ahead,
but behind only death.

During much of this fighting civilians were fleeing Seoul (and then returning), but others stayed in the city the entire time, alternately hiding from the Communists and welcoming the UN liberators. There, of course, they were subjected not only to the fates that might befall them should they be captured by the Communists, they also were exposed to fierce battles in the street of the city as well as regular overhead bombing raids.

Author Mira Stout speaks of this in her novel "One Thousand Chestnut Trees."

As the Communist advance on Seoul her mother's family does not leave. They take shelter in a small house in Seoul, pretending to be farmers and determined to stay. But they see others fleeing. And Stout tells us of the horrible panic that accompanied that flight.

"Millions of people were heading toward the Han River like sheep toward a cliff," she writes. But the ferries are overcrowded. Hundreds already have perished in the Han, drowned on sinking boats or trying to swim across the river. Seoul does fall, the Han River bridge is obliterated by Rhee's retreating forces and the family is trapped in Seoul with the enemy.

During this time of occupation, Stout's narrator, her mother, Myung-ja, visits a school friend whose family has turned to Communism and Myung-ja worries that her family will be turned in. This was a legitimate concern. Many non-Communists in the south and north did meet their death after being turned in by fellow civilians. Indeed, Korean writer Pak Wan-so lost her uncle and her brother soon after the war broke out; both were falsely accused of being Communists and died as a result. Her 1972 novel, "A Season of Thirst," deals with her brother's death and the two occupations of Seoul by the Communists.

During the second occupation of Seoul the escape to the south was even more desperate. This flight was ahead of the Chinese who were routing the U.N. forces and moving the front south at a rapid pace. Civilians in Seoul were understandably panicked, especially when they saw the pace with which the military was heading south.

When we at last reached the Han,
the soldiers told us to return,
but we could not, for our homes were gone,
so we crossed that frozen snake,
tears in our eyes from the stinging cold,
not knowing we'd not return.

Stout describes the scene in "One Thousand Chestnut Trees." Civilians trying to cross the Han are told to stop by the police. The roads are full south of the Han. But the poor people of Seoul cross anyhow. And as they do South Korean policemen begin to shoot. The ice cracks and swallows up animals and people alike. Bombed-out bridges are not passable but people attempt to cross them nonetheless, in some cases traversing the girders above the span. At the railroad station in Seoul the scene is the same. The train to Taegu, in the south of Korea, is not only full inside its cars, but also sees people clinging to the sides and the roof. Those of the top of the train are killed when it reaches the first tunnel; many on the sides froze to death during the seven-hour journey south.

Associated Press correspondent Max Desfor remembered the flight from Seoul and the casualties suffered by civilians at a conference in 1999 sponsored by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. In the book that arose from that conference, "Remembering the Forgotten War: The Korean War through Literature and Art," his account of the aftermath of a gun battle in Seoul is memorable and moving.

The tragedy of conflicts," said Desfor, "is that it is not only the combatants who pay with their lives. It is not uncommon for civilians to pay the price of being caught in the path of war, and it is not uncommon for the camera to capture such tragic sights. In a street in the heart of the city, after the immediate shooting passed through the area, I caught sight of the aftermath of battle. Lying in the street were a man and his wife, she cradling a young man in her lap, helplessly sprawled in the midst of their household possessions, which were strewn on the ground. They apparently had been caught in the crossfire as they tried to flee the area.

"On another occasion, I photographed another heart-rending scene. A mother was awkwardly sprawled in death on the side of a road. Alongside her were her two children, crying and bewildered, left there to an unknown fate."

Desfor, incidentally, would win a Pulitzer-prize in 1951 for a picture of civilians attempting to cross one of the damaged bridges as they fled to the south.

But it was not just those in the south who suffered. In the north, too, civilians were subject to both fire from UN ground troops and regular and intense air campaigns. They also were subject to intense recriminations from the UN forces each time the UN pushed back to the North. The South Koreans were capable of great cruelty to the North Koreans; equal to that meted out by the North Koreans during the Communist push to the south. And that cruelty extended to the south too. In the Associated Press package on No Gun Ri it noted that: "In one notorious case, two South Korean army officers were sentenced to life in prison in 1951 for leading an army massacre of 187 people in a South Korean village deemed supportive of communist guerrillas."

Fire fell from high above,
as we cowered below the ground.
Emerged, into the light,
eyes burnt by smoke and tears, to see.
Our town near the Chongchon,
flattened, only the chimneys still stood.

Even after most of the fighting in Korea had ended (primarily during the two years of peace talks from 1951 to 1953) the bombing of the north continued. For while bombs were an important military strategy early in the war, they became a primary means of military might in the latter stages of the conflict (even during the peace talks). This included final stage bombing campaigns against dams and water supplies that flooded much of the rice paddies and destroyed the crops, thus subjecting the people to terrible famine.

It's easy sometimes to think of bombs as sterile instruments of war. They're dropped from on high and when their fall is observed, often in old, grainy, black and white footage, they look almost harmless. But for the people on the ground the impact of a bombing campaign is catastrophic. And now and again, in an unexpected place, there are reminders of what bombs did in Korea. Take a passage early (page four) in Richard Kim's 1964 masterpeice The Martyred in which Kim describes living in Pyongyang early in the war as a member of the South Korean army. He writes of the scene after the first U.N. occupation of Pyongyang:

"The people were back at their labor, working as silently and stubbornly as they had day after day. Ever since I arrived in the city, I had been watching these people. Occasionally, I saw them drag out of the debris some shapeless remains of their household goods or, sometimes, a dead body, which they would quietly carry away on a hand-pushed cart. Then they would continue digging in the crumbled mess of brick, boards, and chunks of concrete."

This scene was repeated in towns and villages across North Korea where the bombs fell from the sky with terrible and predictable regularity. Compounding the destruction was the terrain of the rugged peninsula, described by the United States Air Force (and many others) as "an inhospitable site for a war." Korea is about the size of Minnesota, but unlike that state Korea is predominantly rough and mountainous, with peaks rising to 8,700 feet in the northeast. From those mountains a range extends south along the east coast of Korea. That range then supports several smaller spurs that run southwest. The mountains thus tend to restrict movement in any direction across the country and effectively shrink the size of the country in terms of "fighting space." Because of this the war tended to be restricted to certain key sectors and most of those involved heavy civilian populations. It was a recipe for terrible loss of life.

While accurate numbers for deaths are imprecise, various sources approximate the war's South Korean civilian casualties -- dead, wounded and missing -- at about one million people. North Korean civilian casualties were perhaps twice that, many of them as a result of the U.N. bombing campaign. The numbers vary, but it's probably safe to say that there were somewhere between three and four million Korean civilian casualties; this at a time when the total population was some 30-40 million people! And civilians died at a ghastly rate in Korea. Historian Bruce Cumings, in a 1994 article in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, notes that civilian casualty rates in the Korean War were nearly 70 percent of total casualties, compared to about 40 percent in World War II.

According to a June 20, 2000 article in the Korea Herald: "The war left about 5 million people dead, wounded or missing, more than half of them civilians. It also left more than 10 million people separated from their families, 300,000 war widows and 100,000 war orphans."

Indeed, those war orphans were part of a huge river of refugees that summer of 1950. And such incidents were the beginnings of an adoption stream between Korea and the US that continues to flow today. A recent PBS series on international adoption notes that:

"In 1955 Harry Holt, an Oregon farmer, was so moved by the plight of orphans from the Korean War that he and his wife, Bertha, adopted eight children from South Korea. The arrival of these children to their new home in Oregon received national press coverage, sparking interest among Americans from all over the country who also wanted to adopt Korean children. In partial response, Harry and Bertha Holt created what has become the largest agency in the US specializing in Korean children - Holt International Children's Services." Holt has been facilitating international adoptions for almost 50 years (including this author's two Korean children).

In addition to orphans the Korean War created another phenomenon, bi-racial children, born to Korean women and "fathered" by American soldiers. In fact the Korean government's Ministry of Social Affairs, created after the war, sent mostly mixed-race children overseas for adoption in the first decade of its existence. In a society devoted to bloodlines, and for much of its existence known as the hermit kingdom, bringing other races into the culture was seen in an extremely negative light.

And while many of those children who were left parentless by the war eventually found families through adoption, other children were often too old for such placements and simply wandered until the war's end. A movie made during the Korean War, called "The Steel Helmet," touches on this when it pairs a crusty American soldier with a young South Korean boy. The soldier's company has been killed; only he survived. The boy's parents, he tells the solider, "are with Buddha." So together the two set out for shelter. Such stories are not sprung from the director's imagination but are indeed factual.

One such boy is depicted in Helie Lee's "In the Absence of Sun: A Korean American Woman's Promise to Reunite Three Lost Generations of Her Family." Lee's grandmother, Halmoni, had a son, Lee Yong Un (Helie's uncle), who was left behind in North Korea in the confusion of the wartime flight of civilians from the North to the South. Helie's grandmother made it with four of her children (including Helie's mother), but not with Lee Yong UN, just 16. And although the family searched for him for years he seemingly had disappeared and they gave him up for dead, one of hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths that the war inflicted. But he had not died. And for 40 years he lived in North Korea, not knowing what had happened to his family.

Then, in 1991, he was located in the north. And in her book "Still Life With Rice," Helie Lee included a letter from his daughter that included the names of relatives still in North Korea, a letter that severely compromised those relatives. Having placed them in danger, Lee set out to rescue them. "In the Absence of Sun" traces that rescue mission from conception to completion. In the end there is success for the Lee family as their separation comes to a glorious conclusion.

A year's worth of bombs and bayonets;
to what end, for what gain?
To build even higher
the wall across our ancient land?
Questions without answers,
from a generation of lost children.

But for millions of Koreans the wait continues. And the war lives on.





A joint project between the Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Libraries developed to provide access to Korean War materials related to the two administrations occupying the White House during that period

An account of a January 1998 trip to the DMZ and the truce talk town of Panmunjom by Kevin Sullivan for the Washington Post Foreign News Service

This is the official, public access web site for the Department of Defense commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Korean War and is "the starting point for all public information regarding events during the commemoration period which runs from June 25, 2000 through November 11, 2003"

The Associated Press website package on No Gun Ri, including background, documents, video, photos and more

Website for publisher Henry Holt with information on the book "The Bridge at No Gun Ri" by the three AP reporters who broke the story, including reviews, excerpts, author profiles and a link to declassified government documents showing orders at the warfront to kill refugees

A January 12, 2001 article from a Chinese newspaper, the People's Daily, on the U.S. promise to build a monument and provide scholarships for the No Gun Ri families

A city of Seoul homepage

A June 2000 piece in British newspaper, The Guardian, by Mira Stout on reunions in Korea

Bio of photographer Max Desfor from the Newseum.org website

Home page for the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana

Information on the book "Remembering the Forgotten War" as found on the Mansfield Center website

Associated Press page with Max Desfor's Pultizer-prize winning picture for 1951 of Korean refugees scrambling across a bombed-out bridge as they fled the advancing Communist troops

an Australian Korean War website with a map of Korea centered on the Chongchon River

United States Air Force page on "United States Air Force Operations in the Korean Conflict 25 June - 1 November 1950" and prepared July 1, 1952 as USAF Historical Study No. 71 by Air Force Historian Dr. Albert Simpson and Dr. Robert Futrell

A June 1994 article by historian Bruce Cumings on The Korean Nuclear Crisis: Old and New Korean Wars in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars

Homepage of the Korea Herald newspaper (English)

Site for a PBS series on international adoption, including Korea

Homepage for Holt International Children's Services

Story in Calvin College alumni magazine on adoption

Korea Times newspaper op-ed piece on Korean adoptions

Brief description of the Korean War movie, "The Steel Helmet"

Calvin College news release on talk by "In the Absence of Sun" author Helie Lee


Brady, James ~ The Coldest War: A Memoir of Korea (2000)
Futrell, Robert ~ The United States Air Force in Korea (1961, reprinted in 1996)
Hastings, Max ~ The Korean War (1988)
Kim, Richard ~ The Martyred (1964)
Lee, Helie ~ Still Life With Rice (1996); In the Absence of Sun (2002)
Steuck, William ~ The Korean War: An International History (1995)
Stout, Mira ~ One Thousand Chestnut Trees (1999)
Tucker, Spencer ~ Encyclopedia of the Korean War
West, Philip and Suh Ji-moon ~ Remembering the Forgotten War (2001)


Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
616-957-7069 (f)