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The Mt. Kuwol partisans
Lee Wha Rang

The tragic saga of the North Korean freedom fighters. A book review: "Mt. Kuwol Partisans", Republic of Korea Ministry of Defense, 1955, Seoul, Korea

In 1948, a band of anti-Communist youth rose up against Kim Il Sung's rule in the region of Mt. Kuwol, a mountainous area between the 38th Parallel and the Taedong River. The freedom fighters conducted hit and run guerrilla war on Kim's forces from mountain hideouts.

When Kim Il Sung invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, the freedom fighters expected Rhee Syngman's much daunted army to march north and free North Korea in a matter of days. To the surprise and dismay of the freedom fighters, Rhee's army broke and ran, and Kim's army very nearly occupied all of South Korea. Only the massive and timely intervention of the US military saved Rhee's skin.

The tide of war turned against Kim Il Sung in late summer of 1950 after MacArthur's daring landing at Inchon, which broke the back of Kim's army. The main body of Kim's army was trapped in South Korea and over 100,000 of his troops surrendered. The UN forces crossed the 38th Parallel in September 1950 and raced toward the Chinese border with little resistance from Kim's shattered army.

As the Communists evacuated towns post hates, they executed a large number of political prisoners. In the Sinchun County, the Communists executed nearly one thousands political prisoners, teachers, shop keepers, and other 'impure' elements. The Kuwol freedom fighters saw many of their family members and relatives murdered in cold blood, and believing that the UN troops would be arriving soon, they sallied forth from their mountain hideouts and occupied Sinchun and other towns in the Kuwol Mountain region. The demoralized Communists defenders put up token fights and fled north leaving behind their families, whereupon, the freedom fighters went into a frenzy of revenge killing: they killed anyone tainted Red in any way - whole families - including infants and old people, were beaten or shot dead without mercy.

Some Christian ministers joined in the killing frenzy and preached to their flock that Communists were Satanic devils, and as such, it was perfectly OK to kill them. Not only Communists but also their spouses and children were killed. A woman, whose husband was a minor official, killed her own children in order to save her own skin. She pleaded in vain that she was no longer tainted by Communism because she was free of her red husband and of her tainted children.

Unfortunately, the UN troops advanced north bypassing the Sinchun area, while tens of thousands of the retreating red troops passed through the region. Red troops chased out the freedom fighters from Sinchun and other towns, and executed those who had sided with the freedom fighters, whereupon the freedom fighters raided villages and killed those who had collaborated with red troops, who would reoccupy the villages and exact revenge, and so on. The cycle of revenge killings continued until the UN troops arrived in the region, and the diehard red troops fled to the mountains and conducted guerrilla raids on the liberated towns.

The liberated areas of North Korea were officially administered by the US military, and the US Army CIC (Counter Intelligence Corps - The 4452nd CIC HQed and Japan and the 308th CIC detachment in Korea) was tasked to form and command local police units called 'chi-ahn-dae'. Rhee Syngman wanted his own people running North Korea and had appointed administrators and police officers years before the war. It was an open secret that Rhee planned to invade North Korea and had a governing body ready to take over. Unfortunately, the US military did not recognize Rhee's authority over North Korea. In fact, Rhee had to get an American officer's permission to visit the liberated Pyongyang in late 1950.

It was the local chi-ahn-dae, commanded by the US CIC, that had done the lion's share of killings the Communists as well as anyone suspected of being Communist sympathizers: teachers, minor public office holders, engineers, and so on were hunted down and murdered without any due process. No one knows how many people were killed by the CIC-controlled chi-ahn-dae and other anti-Communist vigilantes during the brief occupation of North Korea by the UN forces. According to a CIA estimate, the population of North Korea was about 12 million before the war and about ten million after the war. Taking into account of the refugees numbering about 500,000, one may estimate that about one and half million residents of North Korea perished during the war.

It is impossible to estimate accurately how many of the estimated one and half million deaths were caused by chi-ahn-dae and the vigilantes. In the Sinchun area, where relatively accurate account of the killings has been made by both North Korean and South Korean witnesses, some 40,000 residents - about 2% of the Sinchun population - were murdered during the UN occupation of the area. If we were to apply this percentage to the prewar population of North Korea (12 million), we get the astounding figure of 240,000 North Koreans murdered during the three-month UN occupation of North Korea. It is interesting to note that about the same number of 'suspected' leftists were murdered by Rhee Syngman's forces in South Korea as they retreated in the early phase of the Korean War.

Years before the Korean War broke out, Rhee Syngman dispatched covert action 'suicide squads' and agents to North Korea to assassinate Communist leaders. Jung Ja-whan was one of these agents. Jung was arrested soon after his infiltration and was jailed, but somehow, he managed to free himself and go into hiding in Sinchun. Jung did not sit idle: he formed an anti-Communist group of more than 300 members. Once, Jung, disguised as a People's Army colonel, commandeered an army truck and 'requisitioned' ammo from an unsuspecting enemy supply depot. Jung's little army mounted hit and run attacks on the enemy troops. Jung was killed in action.

Chang Sok-lin was another of Rhee's operatives sent to North Korea before the Korean War. Chang was a pro-Japanese police before the liberation and became an intelligence officer after the liberation. He came to North Korea with the US CIC and commanded a chi-ahn-dae unit in the Sinchun region. When the UN forces retreated, Chang fled to an offshore island with his 25 men. In 1951, the US military took over all intelligence and covert action assets, and Chang and his band came under Col. Burke's command, designated as Donkey 4 (aka "White Tigers").

Many of the anti-Communist freedom fighters chose to stand and fight, while many others fled to offshore islands and the rest followed the retreating UN forced to South Korea. The freedom fighters from North Korea found South Korea run by corrupt officials and former stooges of the Japanese, and found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. The freedom fighters were intensely nationalistic and did take US military controls kindly. On the other hand, South Korean and US military did not quite trust the freedom fighters and suspected rightly that there were many Communist agents among the fighters.

There were about 20,000 freedom fighters in 1951. The US military (G-3 - The Miscellaneous Group) organized them into a number of 'donkey' units, trained and supplied them with food, weapons, radios, and transportation. The donkey units were basically autonomous and no Americans were directly involved in the military actions of these units. The freedom fighters took food and supplies from the Americans but they were not inclined to take orders from the Yanks. The Americans doled out monthly rations based on the donkey battle reports. 'No blood, no bread' was the American policy, and the donkey commanders often falsified battle records and overstated their head counts.

A case in point was the Donkey 4 commander, Chang Sok-lin. His American handlers were sold on Chang's 'brilliant achievements and rapid growth' of his unit. Little did they know that much of Chang's exploits were made up and his 'large' army was mostly on paper. Thanks to the gullible and generous Americans, Chang got rich. He ran Donkey 4 as his personal fiefdom and filled choice jobs with his relatives. In January 1951, he was assassinated by his own men.

Not all partisan leaders were mercenaries bent on getting rich quick. Captain Kim Jong-byuk was one of the many paryisan leaders dedicated to the cause of freedom. Capt. Kim was an active-duty officer in Rhee's army and he was sent to the Sinchun region to organize freedom fighters into effective fighting units. His parents lived in the region and, being originally from the area, he was comfortable being assigned there. After Sinchun was freed by UN forces, Capt. Kim returned home with a truck loaded with weapons and supplies, and started to provided much needed military expertise to the freedom fighters.

Capt. Kim organized the freedom fighters into a regular army-style organizational structure - companies, battalions, and regiments - and imposed strict military discipline. Capt. Kim stopped the random killings, beatings and other violent acts by the freedom fighters. Capt. Kim's little army kept on growing and he was hard pressed to keep them fed and armed. The US CIC shunned Kim's army because it was a South Korean army enterprise and refused to provide any assistance, and Capt. Kim had to drive around begging for food and weapons from his friends. South Korea had a number of HID (Higher Intelligence Detachments) in North Korea and these agents were happy to help Capt. Kim's little army.

Capt. Kim was forced to flee to offshore islands when the Chinese Volunteered poured in. Kim's main force was based on Ung-do and smaller units were dispatched to smaller islands. Kim's forces mounted numerous raids on the enemy on the mainland and captured large quantities of food and weapons. He. had to feed not only his army but also several thousands refugees under his protection.

Officially, the South Korean Army (ROKA) listed Capt. Kim as an MIA (missing in action) because the good captain had no radio contact with the ROKA HQ since he left for North Korea in September 1950. In April 1951, Capt. Kim traveled to Daegu where the ROKA HQ was located and made a full report on his activities. His exploits came as a total surprise to the ROKA commanders and Gen. Jung Il-kwon, the commander in chief of ROKA, awarded medals to Capt. Kim and his key commanders. Gen. Jung told Capt. Kim to keep up his good work, and Capt. Kim, thus reinforced, returned to his base.

Soon after his return, Capt. Kim received an urgent message from Major William Burke, requesting Kim's presence at a meeting at Paikryong-do. Capt. Kim's trip to Paikryong-do was held up for several days because there was no ship available. When Kim arrived at last, he was bluntly told to quit and return to Daegu for another assignment. Maj. Burke informed Kim that he was no longer wanted on the islands. Since Maj. Burke was in command of all partisans on the West Sea islands, Capt. Kim had to obey his orders.

Maj. Burke was irked by Capt. Kim's independent actions and frequent disregard of his direct orders. In March 1951, Burke ordered Kim to establish a base near Sariwon, but Kim believed it was unrealistic and refused to obey. Kim did not wish to sacrifice his men for such an ill-conceived mission. Burke told Kim not to engage in large-unit combat operations but instead to conduct intelligence collection operations. However, Kim had to attack enemy troops in order to obtain food and weapons for his hungry men. In addition, Burke accused Kim of piracy. Capt. Kim's men had to live off the land and occasional plundering of villages on the mainland was unavoidable.

Capt. Kim had no other choice but to leave his men and report to Daegu for reassignment. But, no one at the ROKA HQ knew what to do with him - he had no unit, no superior, and no place to go. Fortunately, his friends at HID and Choe Gyu-bong of the KLO Coat Unit provided some help with living expenses and lodging. Capt. Kim tirelessly lobbied for his men with just any authority who would listen: national assemblymen, cabinet ministers, generals, and businessmen - all in vain. There was precious little interest in a group of freedom fighters from North Korea.

Capt. Kim decided to bring out his parents, who were staying at an island (Suk-do) at the time, to South Korea, and went to Inchon looking for a ride to the island. Luckily, he ran into a supply ship of Donkey 15 (aka "White Horse"), which used to be under his command before Maj. Burke took it away. Capt. Kim arrived at Suk-do on July 9th to an enthusiastic welcome of his men and the refugees. By a popular acclaim, Capt. Kim was reinstated as the commander, Maj. Burke's order notwithstanding. Cap. Kim wasted no time and mounted daring raids on enemy positions on the mainland and succeeded in capturing food stocks for his starving men.

The news of Capt. Kim's return reached Maj. Burke, who immediately ordered American MPs and ROK Marines to arrest him. But Capt. Kim had over 700 heavily armed men guarding him and Burke's emissaries were unable to come anywhere near him. Capt. Kim decided to leave the islands and to return to Mt. Kuwol and conduct partisan warfare on the mainland. His island base (Suk-do) was too far from the coast and he decided to move to Daewha-do, which was the base of Donkey 15. Since this unit used to be under his command, Kim expected a full support and cooperation.

Contrary to Kim's expectation, Donkey 15 was cool to their former comrades. Kim's men were fed low-quality foods and placed in an old shack for the night. Kim Ung-su commanded Donkey 15 at the time. Kim Ung-su served in the Japanese Army during World War II and ran a bank in Sinyiju. Unknown to Capt. Kim, Kim Ung-su was in cahoots with Maj. Burke and wanted Capt. Kim eliminated. Together they hatched a plan to disarm and capture Capt. Kim and his men.

Early in the morning, Kim Ung-su asked Capt. Kim and his senior commanders to a staff meeting. When they arrived, they were jumped by armed men and arrested. Soon after, Capt. Kim's men were surrounded and forced to lay down their arms. To the utmost disbelief, Capt. Kim and his men were tagged POWs. Kim Ung-su told Maj. Burke that Capt. Kim and his men were Communists, and Burk ordered them to be shipped to the POW camps on Koje-do.

The captured men were loaded onto two ships, about 150 men a piece. The seas were rough and one of the ships sank with only a few survivors. Thus nearly 150 anti-Communist freedom fighters who had survived all manners of hardship and tribulations in the name of democracy and freedom died in the most inglorious manner. Capt. Kim's ship made it safely and the 'POWs' were sent to a POW processing center near Pusan. Fortunately for Capt. Kim, his true identity was recognized and he was freed, but his men had no such luck and were sent to Koje along with real Communist POWs.

Capt. Kim reported to the ROKA HQ and began his year-long crusade to free his men. The US military managed all POW camps, and the ROKA had little, if any, influence on POW affairs. Many of the POW camps were run by hardcore Communists who conducted secret kangaroo courts to mete out death sentences to those POWs who had cooperated with the UN forces in any way. Death sentences were carried out immediately in the dark of the night. The bodies were either buried beneath the beds or were chopped up and dumped in latrines.

Capt. Kim's men were placed in a POW camp run by Communists and the most urgent task was to move them into a friendly POW camp. Capt. Kim tirelessly begged politicians, generals, and government officials to intervene and save his men. After months of desperate non-stop lobbying, the US military reluctantly agreed to move Kim's men to a separate camp of their own. At least, his men would be safe. Capt. Kim's next task was to get his men freed. But, he was promoted to major and then was sent to America for advanced military training. This did not stop him from lobbying for his men's release.

At last, his case hit the news headlines and the US military was forced to admit its tragic and unforgivable mistake - Kim's men were at last freed from the POW camp with no apology from anyone. Maj. William Burke, the man responsible for this dastardly deed had left Korea months ago, and the Korean War was winding down. Kim's men returned to their former island bases to resume their partisan war - but they had lost much of their enthusiasm. When the war ended in a tie, the unit was disbanded and the former freedom fighters drifted away, forgotten, destitute, and dejected.

This article appears on AFAR with permission from Korea WebWeekly.

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