The December Massacres were a series of politically motivated executions carried out by the South Korean government following the recapture of Pyongyang by communist forces in the Korean War. The killings took place mainly in and around Seoul but also in other locations in South Korea. It is believed the South Korean government executed thousands of people though accurate estimates are difficult to come by. The Rhee regime received criticism from the international community and the executions damaged his image.
In October 1950, United Nations and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces had succeeded in nearly destroying all of North Korea's military. The People's Republic of China warned Allied forces that if they approached the Yalu River the Chinese might be forced to intervene. In late October, Chinese forces crossed the Yalu River and engaged UN forces near the Chinese-Korean border. A number of victories by the Chinese would send United Nations and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces reeling southward. By early December it became clear that UN forces would not defend Pyongyang and the city was soon after recaptured.
The Rhee regime reacted brutally to the fall of Pyongyang. The regime cracked down brutally on alleged communists following the fall of the city. Following the fall of Pyongyang, mass executions and arrests of communist became commonplace. This wasn't the first time either side had executed alleged supporters of the opposition, as throughout the war planned executions were a fairly common occurrence though usually on smaller more isolated scale. In October The London Times reported that nearly 300 men and women were detained and beaten with rifle butts and bamboo sticks. Other practices included inserting bamboo splinters under the nails as a torture method and mass shootings in public spaces. In the second week of December alone, Western sources suspect that around 800 people were executed in and around Seoul. Reports included truckloads of prisoners being unloaded and executed right in the trenches where they were to be buried. Victims typically included alleged communists, saboteurs and murderers. While the killings were well documented by UN forces, the South Korean government continued to deny accusations that any wrongdoing had taken place.
The international community responded with outrage to news of the mass executions in the South. Globally there were calls for the Rhee regime to immediately halt the executions. Most reports suggest UN forces reacted with disgust to the mass executions. One British soldier reported that ROK soldiers proceeded to execute prisoners a mere 150 feet from their camp; he was forced to walk away when they began executing children during breakfast. UN commanders were particularly concerned that their association with the regime would undermine their mission in Korea but did little to investigate into the killings. Rhee responded by pledging to end all mass executions and promised to mitigate death sentences for prisoners. While he gave assurances to UN leaders that the killings would stop and there would be thorough investigations and court martialing for guilty parties, it’s difficult to access if executions continued out of eyesight.
While mass executions and arrests were common throughout the Korean War, the December Massacres put increased international pressure and criticism on the Rhee regime. North Korean forces were equally guilty of committing large scale atrocities throughout the war. One such instance in June 1950 resulted in the murder of over 700 wounded soldiers, medical staff and civilians in the Seoul National University Hospital Massacre. Other such incidents, notably the Bloody Gulch Massacre, chiefly targeted soldiers but were particularly gruesome. Captured soldiers were routinely rounded up and shot in the head or machine gunned. The back and forth nature of the atrocities fueled the opposing sides propaganda machines for the duration of the war.
Reports of mass executions continued to damage the legitimacy of the South Korean government and in turn the credibility of the United Nations intervention. Mass executions generally declined following the December Massacres but the Rhee regime further cemented its heavy-handed image. The massacres made easy political propaganda for communist forces and were used to denounce the regime in the South for years to come.
- Jager, Sheila Miyoshi. "An Entirely New War." Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea. New York City, 2013. Print.
- Li, Xiaobing. "Beijing's Decision." China's Battle for Korea. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2014. Print.
- "Seoul After Victory:Reverse Side to South Korean Rule," London Times
- Letter from Private Duncan to Member of Parliament, National Archiver, Kew, UK
- Jager, 150
- Jager, 151