Skip to content

Korea in 1945 (Part 3)

In the South, General Hodge and Americans called themselves occupiers and treated Koreans as “occupied,” backing the right wing. Hodge had worked for unilateral American tutelage, rather than multilateral, when the Moscow decision was announced. The Right in the South supported this position; they did not want multilateral trusteeship that would include the Soviets.

To advance what the US planned, in October 1945, MacArthur and Hodge flew in a Korean living in America, Syngman Rhee, to Seoul. Born into an impoverished yangban (aristocratic) family in 1875, Rhee left for the United States in 1905 and received a B.A. from George Washington University (1907), M.A. at Harvard (1908) and a Ph.D. at Princeton (1910). The first Korean with an American Ph.D., Rhee traveled briefly to Korea in 1910, but returned to the US the next year.

Living in America for more than three decades, he made himself out to be an exile politician, but his record as an “exile politician” was less than desirable as a potential leader of a troubled country, just liberated from a long colonial rule. He had been accused of dogmatism and usurpation of authority by the Korean Provisional Government in China and was ousted in 1925. He had been equally, if not more strongly, criticized by expatriate Koreans in America for the misuse of Korean funds and excessive self-promotion.

This Rhee, back in Seoul, quickly projected himself as a unifying figure between the Right and Left and as embodying the will of the nation under the banner of his pet doctrine, ilminjuui (the one-people principle). While advocating the unity of different groups, he denounced Russia and Russian policies, refused to join the KPR (Korean People’s Republic), and allied with the Korean Democratic Party (KDP). Led by Rhee, the Right in the South turned the anti-trusteeship movement into an anti-communist and anti-Soviet affair.

By 1947, political conflict polarized, and repression intensified in South Korea. With potent rightist policies, Rhee was obsessed with myolgong (obliterate communism) and positioned himself to be the first president of the Republic of Korea in 1948. To this end, Rhee manipulated Americans, the United Nations, and his fellow Koreans.

General Hodge continued to enjoy the favor of the Right in the face of its opposition to trusteeship. This also meant that he didn’t hesitate one bit to work with those who had collaborated with the Japanese.

When General John Reed Hodge took his troops to South Korea in September, 1945, he did not have a clue about what Koreans wanted and needed. Worse, when he opened his eyes a bit, he felt a wind blowing to a possible direction of Korea turning into some form of a socialist country. The organizers of the KPR (Korean People’s Republic) saw the need to form a society in which changes were made to benefit the masses who had been long oppressed—the peasants and workers, more than 80% of the population. Clearly, some form of socialism could accommodate this need better than capitalism.

Under this circumstance, Hodge (Americans) supported the Korean Democratic Party (KDP), the conservatives—primarily comprised of landlords, people in manufacturing and publishing, and landlord-entrepreneurs. The majority of these people had been severely compromised by their cooperation with the Japanese. In short, the majority who had been in the colonial administration worked closely with KDP.

So the US not only worked with pro-Japanese but also supported rotten leaders such as Syngman Rhee. Elections were held in May 1948 in South Korea under UN supervision. The United States had taken the Korean issue to the UN General Assembly, and proposed that the international organization supervise national elections on the peninsula as a basis for the country’s independence.

On August 15, the Republic of Korea (ROK) was inaugurated in Seoul and Syngman Rhee became its first President. Thus started the regime of Rhee, a virtual police state. While Rhee claimed that he was building up all democratic forces opposed to communistic elements, he ran an autocratic government, combining Korean Confucianism, Western fascism and Japanese governing methods.

To be continued.

Don’t forget to order, Iowa Sky: A Memoir by Donald D. Gibson at or


Korea in 1945 (Part 2)

The US army entered Korea led by General John Reed Hodge, a well-meaning Midwesterner who became Commanding General of the United States Armed Forces in Korea. He was a choice of convenience, particularly for Douglas MacArthur; his troops were close by in Okinawa.

As the two occupying forces entered north and south portions of the Korean peninsula, where were Koreans? In August 1945, Koreans found themselves with changes made by the colonizer that had not run their course. Many peasants had been torn from their lands and put into industrial labor; landlords were becoming industrial entrepreneurs. However, that process had not been completed, sending both groups right back where they had been. In addition, there were returning masses of peasants, who had migrated from their villages in search for food, and independent fighters in exile. Moreover, Korea had not been self-governing since 1910.

Clearly, Koreans were not best situated to prepare for postwar Korea. Nevertheless, with revolutionary hope and zeal, on September 6, 1945, several hundred activists of the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence announced formation of the Korean People’s Republic (KPR) in Seoul. They wanted to demonstrate that Koreans could run their own affairs and were eager to make revolutionary changes.

KPR organizers set out to form a society with ideals akin to communism but different from Marxism, Stalinism or any other forms of communism. They knew that Korea needed change, and that the changes should benefit the masses who had been long oppressed. During Japanese rule, many who opposed the Japanese turned to communism (socialism). Ideologically, both the peasants and workers found much more in common with communist ideals than with the ideas of conservatives and nationalists who had been severely compromised by their cooperation with the Japanese.

There were, however, leaders—mostly older generation, right-wing types—who wanted organizations of their own in opposition to the KPR. They founded the Korean Democratic Party (KDP) on September 16, 1945. The KDP consisted primarily of landlords and those in manufacturing and publishing, and landlord-entrepreneurs. Many of these people had collaborated with the Japanese. Many Koreans who had been in the colonial administration worked closely with the KDP.

Thus, upon their arrival, Americans found the Koreans divided among themselves: between those who had collaborated closely with the Japanese and underground dissenters; between landowners and peasants; between police and civilians; between managers and workers and among exiled groups.

Above all, they were confronted by two major groups: those who belonged to KPR, ready to try, on their own, to govern their liberated land with a revolutionary spirit, and KDP eager to turn to Americans for help. Americans dismissed Koreans with revolutionary zeal and the slightest hint of communism.

What made the situation worse was the fact that neither the US nor the USSR was prepared to deal with postwar Korea. At Yalta (February 1945), postwar Korean affairs were discussed by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. They reached a loosely defined trusteeship agreement for Korea but not in any specific, written terms. In view of that, at the subsequent conference at Potsdam (July-August 1945), Churchill, Stalin and Truman—who had replaced Roosevelt in April—planned to deal with postwar Korea, but were preoccupied with more important issues, such as the trusteeship of Italian colonies in Africa. Korea was not discussed.

Having failed at two conferences, Yalta and Potsdam, the foreign ministers of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union convened in Moscow in December 1945 to discuss a variety of postwar problems that had remained unresolved in the wartime negotiations. The Moscow accords included provisions for a four-power trusteeship for Korea of up to five years under the United States, the United Kingdom, China and the USSR, and eventual independence.

In the North, the Soviets congratulated Koreans for their liberation from Japan and quickly displayed a willingness to work with the “people’s committees,” set up by Koreans. Further, they were able to keep the Korean left in line on the trusteeship issue. They refused, however, to acknowledge the Korean People’s Republic (KPR) in Seoul. The Soviets focused on issues at hand in the North rather than setting the stage for national unity. Lacking the resources to create states with full control either in Korea or Manchuria, they quit Manchuria in 1946 and allowed a greater degree of autonomy in North Korea than they had allowed in some Eastern European states. This meant Koreans in the North were able to carve out some autonomy in the first years of liberation.

It was a different story in the South.

To be continued.

Don’t forget to order Iowa Sky: A Memoir by Donald D. Gibson at or

In Iowa Sky, Don remembers taking me to Potsdam in 2004 when we went to Germany for our 25th anniversary.

“I wanted to take Dai Sil to Potsdam to show her where the historic 1945 conference had taken place when the World War II allies—the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom—discussed how to deal with the aftermath of the war.” (p.247)

Korea in 1945 (Part 1)

I remember that day long ago in North Korea–August 15, 1945–the day Koreans consider the day of their independence. I still feel the jubilee and ecstasy of Koreans witnessing the defeat of their colonizer (Japan) and getting the country back.  However, reality crept in sooner rather than later. Two occupying forces, the United States and the Soviet Union, two huge whales, entered the small peninsula–a little shrimp, as my father used to say–and cut up the land of morning calm.

If we are to understand what happened after August 15, 1945, we need to go back to those days when the war was coming to an end. The United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. Between those dates, on August 8, the Soviets declared war on Japan and began attacks in Manchuria. Some historians say that by August 10, the United States knew that Japan would surrender. Others say that Americans knew earlier in the summer that Japan would surrender and that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not necessary. Whatever was the case, in the immediate aftermath of these events, Korea was divided at the 38th latitude into American and Soviet occupation zones.

The initial decision to draw such a line was taken by the Americans without Soviet participation. That decision was made during a night-long session of the State-War-Navy-Coordinating Committee in Washington, DC, on August 10-11, 1945. Around midnight, Colonel Charles H. Bonesteel and Major Dean Rusk were ordered by Brigadier General George Lincoln to figure out how to define the zones to be occupied in Korea by American and Russian forces. The two men were given 30 minutes. Feeling the pressure of the ticking clock, Bonesteel saw a small-scale wall map of the Far East and on it noted the 38th Parallel. It passed north of Seoul (Americans wanted to include the capital in their zone) and divided Korea into almost two equal parts. He immediately proposed the 38th parallel as a zonal boundary. Imagine, that’s how Korea was divided and remains divided until today! (Most of this information comes from The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. I by Bruce Cumings.)

The occupying forces, the United States and the Soviet Union, entered Korea, with the Soviets arriving almost a full month before the Americans. Honoring the agreement about the 38th parallel, they stayed in the north.

First about Russians. For that, I want to take myself back to the autumn of 1945 to Shinchun, North Korea, my home town, where I saw Russian soldiers for the first time in my short life. I saw the Russians reaching out and people putting their watches into their hands. Over the years since our family crossed the 38th parallel, the image of their hands with people’s watches grew in many shapes and forms, especially in contrast with Americans putting chocolates and chewing gums into the hands of children.

When the Russians came to our hometown in the North in 1945, my mother was in her mid-thirties and desirable, her beauty still radiant. One day my mother just left our home, leaving us children with our grandmother. I didn’t know what was happening but learned later that my father (who was already in Seoul to greet his adopted father, Kim Gu, one of two best known independent fighters with Syngman Rhee) arranged to send her to Kumdani, the village where we had our family mountain, before she could travel on to Seoul. My father feared that she might be raped.

In May 2006, I went to Seoul to talk with my 94-year-old aunt on my mother’s side.  I asked her to tell me her experience with the Russians after the liberation in North Korea. “As you might remember, your uncle liked luxuries in life. He built a lavish, modern house in Shinchun, the very first such house in that entire region.” (I vaguely remember that house and wondered why we did not have such a house.  My father was wealthier than my uncle). “Well, the Russians came to that house, walked around in their boots, took everything in sight, and then told us that we had to move out. They wanted to use the house for their offices. They were barbarians.” As my aunt talked, I could tell that her chest still heaved with anger and fury.

Some books I read later confirmed my aunt’s story and my childhood memories of the Russians. The Soviets carried out looting, pillaging, and rape in both Korea and Manchuria. Some say that the Soviets did those things because they had no settled policy in Northern Korea and Manchuria, and that they did not have long-range plans to stay. Further, many Russian soldiers were poor peasants plucked out of their rural communities, drafted into the military and shipped to Korea without proper training. After a few months, however, according to some scholars, the Soviet government sent an entire MP unit to stop their soldiers from pillaging and raping. Whatever the case, it is safe to say that the rapid surrender of Japan left Soviet policies toward Korea relatively unformed, and that the Russians did not leave a good impression on the Koreans who fled the North.

To be continued.

 Remember to order Iowa Sky: A Memoir by Donald D. Gibson at or

North Korean Crisis and the American Dream

In the whirlwind of reports of the current crisis caused by North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, who “threatens” the mighty USA with its nuclear attack, and watching Kim Jong-un being depicted as a wild animal by the American government and people, I had an urge to read what Don wrote about America.

In college, I began to question the assertion that America was “the city on the hill,” in John Winthrop’s words, a new, different kind of nation that stood in stark contrast to the corruption of Europe. But the truth was, Americans had it easy, or that’s how I saw it. This was a largely empty continent that we invaded, and then we exterminated much of the native population. We were largely free from external threats. We could establish a new society without any feudal past or other historical constraints. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never has so much been given to so few as it has been given to Americans. A vast open land, with enormous natural resources, and only a few Indians to subjugate and kill, along with the importation of many Africans to enslave and exploit.

Inevitably, I came to realize that the enormous “race sins” of our nation had been perpetrated against Native Americans and African Americans. And they were compounded by the corrupting influence of wealth, and of economic and social disparity. The way I saw it, we created oppression and then used its results to justify further exploitation. This was nowhere close to what I believed the American Dream to be.

Filled with growing ideas and increasing realizations about his beloved country, America, Don was confused but excited to shape his life in directions unimaginable growing up in rural Iowa. During this first trip to DC, he wrote, “Walking around the nation’s capital, I was drawn to the notion that, as an American, I should be part of not only a personal, but a national dream—one accessible to all of us—and that I should pursue a life course for its realization. The importance of political awareness started to stir my consciousness, binding individual dreams to that of society as a whole. I came to realize that I could not and should not isolate my welfare from that of my fellow citizens.”

True to his determination, Don led a life of public service in which the welfare of fellow human beings was the primary concern. Later, living with me in our New York apartment and suffering from his worsening health, Don wrote how he was in profound despair about the United States and the American Dream. He lamented how George W. Bush claimed to know what is just and pure, based on his moral certainty. He grew sadder each day to see how GW and many Americans impose the American Dream on any nation or person. How America misused its superpower around the world.

During his last year on earth, 2008, Don was passionately involved in working for Obama victory, as sick as he was. Alas, he died three days before Obama’s inauguration, which saddened me beyond words.

During that first year of the Obama administration, I tried to hear Don’s gentle advice, “Dai Sil, don’t be so impatient. After all, he took over eight years of GW’s presidency.”

But as the second and third year came, I tried to console myself that Don was better off not to live with the Obama administration as I was. Then the intense campaign between Obama and Romney gave me no choice but to support Obama again.

Well, now I am following how Obama is doing during his second term. He is a bit more gutsy with handling some crucial issues such as gun control, and immigration. He has no more re-election worries. But on his handling of my place of birth, North Korea, he is NO GOOD.

During his first term, I was distressed by his dealings with South Korea. He supported that “arsehole” president Lee Myung-bak but continued to demonize or isolate North Korea without showing any concern or interest to know about the small country. Now using the young leader of North Korea, he seems to be pursuing American interest in the worst way—to secure South Korea as a possible battle ground with China and doing all sorts of things for American interests.

We must never forget that behind the wars that America launches in the name of democracy or help of an allied force (South Korea, in this case), what America is looking for is expanding its geopolitical territories with economic gain.

I am not trying to bow and praise Kim Jong-un. To be sure, he is reckless and obnoxious as if he were the youngest son of a large family who is desperate to draw attention from his father.  But he did not fall down from the sky. He has been in the making for a long time, much of the time by outside forces, primarily the USA.

For the last half a century, I have known that the US policies in Korean Peninsula and its dealings with North Korea and South Korea should be understood in comprehensive historical and political contexts.

Just like the US is trying to impose its democracy in the Mid-East without asking if the people themselves want it, they never bothered to know what it was Koreans wanted at the end of World War II. If they did, Korea might not be divided.

I want to write about this for the next couple posts.

PS. Please do not forget to order Iowa Sky: A Memoir by Donald D. Gibson

at or

My Trip to North Korea (Part 10)

Before I continue, I would like to announce that Iowa Sky: A Memoir by Donald D. Gibson is now available for your order.

Iowa sky: A Memoir
by Donald D. Gibson

This book is the memoir of Donald D. Gibson, who grew up a son of tenant farmers in Iowa and went on to become a scholar in German history, a teacher, political activist, and a senior government official, his career culminating as acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

He and his wife Dai Sil, a woman born in northern Korea, had been working on and off on a memoir (intended to be a joint memoir) for several years when Don died, in January 2009. Dai Sil then undertook to annotate and compile Don’s personal remembrances and chose photos to accompany them. A book was born: Iowa Sky: A Memoir. 

Don was a depression-era farm boy who found his way into the world of ideas and politics. He participated in the Civil Rights movement, organized statewide and national anti–Vietnam War protests, and became involved in electoral politics. Then, as a tireless and staunch advocate of critical thinking, he took up the arms in the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s.

Battered by ill health and other life catastrophes, Don found strength and courage with Dai Sil, his soul mate. In Iowa Sky you will meet a down-to-earth, sky-loving intellectual and activist—what Koreans would call jingook (rich soup stock).

How to order Iowa Sky: visit or

Please tell your friends, colleagues, and family members about this genuine and quirky memoir by an American original.

* * * * *

As the monk led us to the back of the temple, on the way, I asked him: “Most of us in our group are Christians. You are a Buddhist. In your view, are there any common grounds between the two religions?” “Well, I do not know about Christianity well enough to answer you intelligently. But I know this. Christianity was imported from the West. Buddhism had been in Korea much longer, and it is more in the blood stream of Koreans.

He stopped for a while, immersed in thought, before he continued.

“In any case, I respect other people’s religion. I respect Christianity and Christians. I know that Jesus was an inspiring leader and his teachings could benefit mankind. I would like to expect the same from them toward Buddhism.” No more to ask him. His answer was clear.

Then I decided to give myself the luxury of smelling flowers, touching the persimmons still hanging on the tree, and looking at the water mill going around under a clear autumn sky in the back yard of the many-centuries-old Buddhist temple. Away from a group–even from that monk–I wanted to be alone with Don. My heart was filled with peace, at once tranquil and content. I hung onto each moment.

As we walked back to the front of the temple where we had entered and were getting ready to leave, I stopped and asked the monk, “Is there a room in this temple where a passing stranger like me could stay?” “No, there isn’t, but if you wish to come, I will find a room for you close by. Parting, he lowered his head slightly in the gesture of bidding farewell, “Mother (aumenim), I believe we were supposed to meet. So we met but we will meet again. If it is your heart’s desire to spend some time here, you must come back.” I agreed with him in my heart. I hope to see him again.

As our van passed through the winding road toward the top of the mountain, I sat looking out of the window, drunk with Sanshin (mountain spirit). Guwol-san was the mountain where the divine sovereign, Dan Gun (the mythic king of Korea) was to have retired as Sanshin. 

Our van climbed to the top of the mountain in no time at all. It was not very high. I learned later that the highest peak of the mountain is 954 meters above sea level, but the height of its beauty and grandeur soared high into the autumn sky. Some leaves were just turning color. Oh, how I wished I could stay there even for a few days, to enjoy what must be a spectacular festival of color, soon to emerge within a week or so.

Standing at the top of the mountain, I noticed that our car drove on a curved cement road all the way to the top. The road was not a part of nature’s bounty. It was man-made and was pretty awesome. I asked who built the road. “The People’s Army,” answered my guide proudly. “When there was a severe famine, people lay around, energy all but gone and starved. It was then that our great President Kim Il-sung proposed to the army that they engage in constructing bridges and roads. ‘We can either sit around defeated or overcome hardship with work,’ said our President. This was one of those projects. Soldiers carried cement on their A frames and built this road.” I felt sweat and blood of those soldiers on the curvy cement road and bowed my head toward them for their labor.

The people living in the northern half of a small peninsula called Korea, demonized and isolated by the most powerful country on earth, the USA, seemed to survive with purity in their spirits and steel will to go on living. Of course, this phenomenon is primarily presented by 90% of the media as blind obedience, forced by the dictators. But what little contact I had with people in North Korea did seem to substantiate my own view.

The next day I saw groups of little children at an amusement park in Pyong-yang. Many of those faces were changing into the face of that monk in my mind’s eye. Only they might not be wearing a monk’s garment—they raised their hands to tell me what they wanted to be: “a medical doctor, a scientist, a nurse.” “Not father and mother?” I asked. “That too,” and they giggled. I felt hope.


My Trip to North Korea (Part 9)

Mercifully, the next place we went from the Shin-chun Massacre Museum was Guwol-san, a mountain in An-ak (my father’s hometown), a neighboring town of Shin-chun. I didn’t know much about it except that the name guwol comes from the ninth month of the lunar calendar. But my grandmother often talked about Guwol-san. I remembered how I dreamed about going there with her as a girl.

Not far from the gate, we found a beautiful stream where water flowed through the rocks and pebbles. We spread a blanket by the stream and ate food from our lunch boxes which Mr. Paek had ordered with my money. Food, the songs of the stream, and the beautiful trees and wild flowers slowly but steadily released the tight knots in my body and filled me with soft feelings that I was indeed in my gohyang. If only Don were there to put his arms around me, his hazel green eyes gazing into mine. Deep sorrow passed, but only momentarily. I knew Don was happy for me and he was there with me.

Next came the most unexpected part of this trip. Our car drove to a temple–a Buddhist temple, aged gracefully as if in deep meditation. So quiet and still. I didn’t want to stir, afraid that the quietude wrapped in mystery might disappear. Soon, a middle aged monk in grey garment appeared as if from nowhere. I heard his voice, “Welcome to our temple, Woljeong-sa (moon vitality temple).” Automatically, I bowed my head and put my hands together below my chin. At that moment, I was not standing in North Korea, South Korea or the USA. I was not standing. I floated.

The first thing the monk told us: “Our dear leader, President Kim Il-sung visited the temple in January 1990. (It wasn’t clear if the monk met him.) Then in 1997, his son, General Kim Jong-il came.” He relayed the experience of his visit.

“I had never dreamed that General Kim Jong-il would come here. He told me that I was a patriot. I said, ‘I don’t deserve to be called a patriot. In fact, the country and many comrades enabled me to get an education and lead a worthwhile life.’ Then, he said that one who would qualify to be a patriot is he who loves his country enough to devote himself to protecting and cherishing its history and treasures.”

Then the monk gave us a brief history of the temple: that it was founded in the middle of the 9th century and later rebuilt under the Yi Dynasty during the 15th century. “Our dear leader urged  me to take  good care of this temple, stressed that this temple has historical and spiritual resources which our country and people need.” Showing a gold watch under the sleeve of his garment, he told us that it was the watch General Kim Jong-il gave him. “Since then, I’ve always had this watch on my wrist. Every morning as I put it on, I think of the general. When he passed away, I could not even cry.”

As he turned to give us a tour, I cautiously approached him and asked, “You are still young and yet you are buried in this temple, leaving the secular world behind. Do you have moments of doubts or regrets about withdrawing from the world?” His smile was slight but gentle enough to invite my soul into his. “In the past, I regretted. It was not once or twice a year but daily—it might be an exaggeration if I said a hundred times a day but I did daily. I missed my friends more than anyone or anything.”

“I lived in Pyongyang and graduated from the university. I had a great, big ambition for the future and spent much time with my friends. So I missed them more than my own siblings. I cried a lot. Because I missed them so much, even in my dreams, it was my friends whom I saw.”

“I was seven years old when I first visited this temple. You see, my own father devoted his life to protect and preserve national treasures. He spent thirty years of his life for this temple. He did that until he died. It was not so much my patriotic feelings but my father’s devotion that moved me to follow his path. I was determined to succeed him.”

“Though I am a monk, I am married. When I came here, my mother-in-law refused to send my wife here with me. She thought her daughter should not be isolated in the middle of the mountain.”

“In the beginning, it was a struggle.” “But now?” I pursued. “I am determined to die here and I would want my children to take up this task. I can’t leave here.” I said nothing but continued to gaze into his eyes. “Now I struggle only occasionally. But mostly I am in peace.”  I felt his serenity.

To be continued.

I am proud to announce that Iowa Sky: a Memoir by Donald D. Gibson is available for order at or

In Iowa Sky, meet Don Gibson in his own words.

The world is full of people who are brilliant and committed to ideals. Don was all of that and more. Born and reared on Iowa soil and under the Iowa sky, he was free of pretensions and rich with dreams. He was a boy who tended pigs and organized Legion League baseball in a “town” of ninety-five people.

My Trip to North Korea (Part 8)

The woman in Korean costume, white top and navy blue skirt, led us into the gray building, where gruesome photos that smelled of death after all these years stared at me.

The Shin-chun massacre was the largest of many in both North and South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). Roughly forty thousand (some say forty-five thousand) civilians were said to have been killed in Shin-chun. The guide explained in detail that those bodies beyond any recognition as individual human beings were the victims of American soldiers during the Korean War.

No one can and would deny that thousands and thousands of civilians were killed in Shin-chun during the war. That was a fact, but the questions of who killed whom and why were complex. The official North Korean version was that the killings were carried out entirely by American “bastards.” If North Korea knew that their own citizens could have killed each other, they did not want to acknowledge it. It was entirely possible that Christians who had been oppressed by their Communist neighbors, and vice versa, could have caused the mass killing, when Americans and ROK soldiers occupied the town. Additionally, South Korean soldiers could have joined in the massacre.

I interviewed one North Korean scholar for four straight hours after I returned from Shin-chun. He spoke of the Shin-chun massacre this way.

There were many Christians who settled in Shin-chun after the Asia Pacific War. The majority of those Christians had good feelings about Americans (Christians) and did not obey the government order to leave the town before Americans came. Further, because of its central location, the town was filled with traveling merchants, who went from south to north, from west to east. That’s how so many citizens were killed in Shin-chun. Of course, massacres took place all over the country but we could not make the entire country a museum of massacre.

Please convey what I tell you accurately. We do not say that all those who were massacred in Shin-chun were patriots. Nor do we put them on the pedestal. We simply refer to them as citizens.

There is a message we want to convey through this museum: Don’t make the same mistake of believing in Americans as good and to teach a lesson that if the enemy comes with a knife, take a knife yourself, if an ax, an ax, a rifle, a rifle, and fight.

I was told by an eye witness that there were only about forty to fifty Americans. The person in charge was only a lieutenant. The most brutal activities were done by South Korean soldiers and North Koreans who were pro-American. Now fifty and sixty years passed. People question what’s the use of telling people and opening up a wound of killing their own people. Ultimately, the people from the North and South should hold each other’s hand and learn to live together. If North Korea did not charge themselves guilty, they protected South Koreans as well. Their national pride would not allow that Koreans should be that brutal and cruel, be they North or South Koreans. Only the Yanks.

You could say this is distorting history. Of course, history should be recorded and taught as it happened but we all know that we teach and interpret history with flexibility. In the case of the Shin-chun massacre, they chose to hold responsible the superpower behind the Koreans: Americans.

In all candor, this was more than I had expected from a North Korean scholar who was assigned to be interviewed by a Korean American filmmaker. If I disagreed with his rationalization of why only the Americans were charged guilty, I was impressed with his honesty. He did not hide what they did and how they did it!

When inquiring into how current citizens in North Korea view Americans, I learned more or less the same answers from them. They wanted to distinguish American government and people—it is the government which they consider to be an enemy, but not the entire people.

On the way to Shin-chun, I talked with a woman and asked what she thought of Americans. Right off, she wanted to clarify what I meant by Americans. “If you mean American people,” she said, “we don’t think all Americans are bad. Why would we have bad feelings for those Americans who might have good feelings about our country?” Asked to comment on the American government, she sounded a bit annoyed. “What American government does and thinks of us—the entire world knows. You know it, too. Why do you have to hear from me?”

Well, if demonization of North Korea is going on here in the USA, the deep hostility and resentment toward the United States in North Korea match that.

I was afraid that my emotions would explode upon stepping on the soil of my gohyang. But the feelings withdrew deep in my body and soul and froze in the presence of such a large scale tragedy, committed by human beings right there in my hometown. And surrounded by such a complex political situation between the place of my birth and my adopted country, America.

After we walked through all the rooms, Mr. Paek urged us to get into our van. We needed to drive to the next place.

To be continued.

Iowa Sky: A Memoir by Donald D. Gibson will be available at and, Feb. 25, 2013