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My Trip to North Korea (Part 8)

February 22, 2013

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


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