GEOCHANG, South Gyeongsang
On a cold February morning in 1951, Kim Woon-seop, a skinny 9-year-old, crawled down a ridge here that was flooded with blood.
Climbing over and through piles of dead bodies, trying to believe this was all a horrible dream, young Woon-seop sensed his life would never be the same as it was a few hours before. Soldiers had just slaughtered his family and people from his village, leaving the ridge bright red and certain no one was left breathing.
There was a tomb-like silence and the stench of gore coming from those who had once comprised Cheongyeon village in Geochang County, South Gyeongsang province.
What had hit little Woon-seop hardest that day was not the ear-splitting sound of the endless hail of machine gun fire. It was the uniforms of the people firing those machine guns ?khaki-green uniforms, the kind worn by the South Korean Army.
At first, he couldn't believe it, telling himself his eyes must be playing tricks. But what he saw was real. The soldiers were the 3d battalion from the 9th regiment of the 11th division of the South Korean Army, led by Major Han Dong-seok, a hard-nosed officer in his mid-20s.
Beginning Feb. 9, those soldiers went on a three-day killing spree, exterminating 701 civilians. Only five children, all under the age of 10, survived the first carnage, the one in Cheongyeon. The eldest of those children was Kim Woon-seop.
The horror of Geochang has long been cloaked in silence. Unlike the better known Nogun-ri massacre in July 1950, in which the U.S. military killed more than 300 civilians, Geochang was different. This was brothers murdering brothers.
Times were hard that first winter of the Korean War. The Chinese communist forces, a human sea of soldiers, advanced southward. The war began to tilt away from South Korean Army's favor. The 11th Division, led by Major Han, was on a punitive expedition, hunting for communist partisans hidden high in the mountains.
Cheongyeon sits in Sinwon township, a basin surrounded by mountains. A half century ago it was a base of operations for communist guerrillas. According to the Korean Army, a group of villagers from Sinwon had been in collusion with the partisans. Two days before the massacre, the Korean Army insisted the Sinwon township office had been attacked by communist guerrillas, who killed several policemen and soldiers.
But even if true, nothing could excuse the annihilation of 701 civilians.
Fifty-two years are not nearly enough time to heal the holes in Kim Woon-seop's heart. He is the only survivor of the massacre willing to speak out.
Recently, Mr. Kim, the head of the Bereaved Family Members Association of the Geochang Civilian Massacre, stood at the site of the bloodbath. The ridge looks this day much as it did that February more than a half century ago: covered with ankle-deep snow. Pausing to wipe his eyes, Mr. Kim, a trim man of 60, begins to recount his trip into hell and back.
It began early in the morning. The smell of gunpowder and the sound of fighting from the Korean War had not yet reached his small town in the south of the peninsula.
On Feb. 8, Mr. Kim, his mother and his two siblings were traveling by foot back to their home in Dongcheong village, returning from a Lunar New Year's visit to a relative. By the time they reached the edge of Sinwon township, dusk had fallen, so his mother decided that they would spend the night at a family friend's house in Cheongyeon village. Home was just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away, but the road was icy and rough. It proved to be a tragic decision.
Near dawn, Mr. Kim awakened with a jump to a banging noise. Soldiers carrying M-1 rifles were cracking open the doors of houses and yelling, "Get out!" No time was given to put on shoes or coats.
Some soldiers fired their carbines into the air, while others torched homes at random. Villagers on their knees begged for the soldiers to stop, only to be answered with a rifle butt to the head.
After dragging out every villager, the soldiers herded the crowd, like a flock of sheep. Barefoot and wearing light clothing, Mr. Kim hopped along the road with the others. "I covered my ears and closed my eyes," he remembers. When he was stopped, he and the villagers were huddled together on a small ridge.
Moving in, the soldiers began firing wildly into the crowd. Villagers, with nowhere to run, dropped where they stood.
Falling bodies knocked over Mr. Kim, burying him. The noise deafened him and the gore panicked him, but he couldn't move, which saved his life.
Somehow, he managed to wriggle enough to witness the scene. What he recalls most are the glaring eyes of a soldier as he fired away. "He had these keen eyes, determined not to miss anyone," Mr. Kim says.
The bullets flew in every direction; one grazed Mr. Kim's head, another his side. "I learned that night that when a bullet passes through your skin, it gets really prickly." Instinctively, Mr. Kim instinctively crept back under the pile of bodies and pretended to be dead. The shooting did not stop until his clothes were soaked with blood.
For what seemed like hours he lay there, listening to people who did not die instantly struggle up, only to topple again. After the last soldier was gone, Mr. Kim worked his way out from under pile.
"I was very lucky," he says sighing, mulling words he has considered countless times in his life.
Standing atop the dead, he gazed around the crimson-colored ridge. Scattered about were 84 bodies, including those of his mother, younger brother and sister. His mother, who had been holding his 2-year-old sister, was among the closest to the soldiers' guns. "I still vividly remember her face -- more than half of it was blown away . . ."
Not knowing what else to do, he decided to search for his father, who had been forced to work for the South Korean Army, hauling supplies. Hearing someone running to the site, he dove under the corpses. But it was an old man, saved from the massacre because of a lame leg, searching for his grandchildren. Mr. Kim followed the old man, who had found his two granddaughters, back to the village. Mr. Kim, who was too exhausted and in too much pain to run, moved along on all fours.
The killings continued for two more days.
In a nearby restaurant, Kim Woon-seop orders lunch but focuses on shots of soju. "I do not understand what I did to have to suffer like that," he says. "I was only a kid, who happened to be living there."
Cursing the soldiers, he says, "They were not human; they were demons. Killing was just too easy for them."
The soldiers took over the village. They occupied the houses they hadn't burned down. They ate the livestock. "They fired at people who happened to be walking by," Mr. Kim says.
After following the old man to Cheongyeon village, Mr. Kim encountered two soldiers. Looking at him in the blood-stained clothes, one of them shouted, "He looks suspicious; let's fill him with holes." After lying to the soldiers, saying that he lived with only his father, he was allowed to spend the night inside a vacant house, whose owner had been killed in the massacre. But the following morning, Feb. 10, he saw another group of soldiers marching into the village. "I knew that if they found out I had survived the massacre, it would all be over for me."
He ran to his hometown, the village of Dongcheong, but it had been captured by the army, too. Still barefoot, he walked 25 kilometers (15 miles) to Namsang township, where his mother's family lived. His father was there waiting for him.
Meanwhile, those who were left in Sinwon township were far from safe. On Feb. 10, the army moved every villager -- mostly women, children and the elderly -- to Sinwon Elementary School. On the way, the soldiers rounded up 100 people in Tallyanggol valley and shot them. To ensure there were no survivors, soldiers set fire to the stacks of bodies.
The next morning, 517 people were dragged to Baksangol valley and killed. The army did not burn the site this time, yet did not let anyone get close to the sites. Mr. Kim recalls a horrible stench coming from the valley, and crows filling the sky. "The crayfish living in the stream by the valley grew plump -- from feeding on the fluids that washed down from the dead bodies."
The soldiers' plan to cover up the massacre worked well, until Shin Jung-mok, a lawmaker and native of Geochang, brought the case to the National Assembly that March. The Assembly dispatched a special investigation team, but the army had a platoon disguised as partisans shoot at the team to interrupt the mission. The first investigation failed, but the Assembly again in May sent a team. This time, they were able to confirm what had happened. A court martial sentenced Major Han and his superior, Colonel Oh Ik-gyun, to life in prison. But the whole truth never emerged, and soon after President Syngman Rhee granted clemency to both officers.
Today, an official with the Ministry of National Defense, says, "We admit that the army back then was a bit too harsh in suppressing civilians during the war. Everyone responsible was court martialed, which is enough." No mention of a massacre is made.
Mr. Kim left his hometown at 15 with his stepmother, who had a son in Seoul. The reminders of the place were just too much after a time.
In the capital, he worked as a landscape gardener, got married and had children. But he could not just let go of the nightmare on the ridge. Last year, he returned to his hometown, where he lives with his wife.
Before he left Seoul he had tracked down Major Han and wrote him several times, urging him to come clean. There was no response. In 1995, Mr. Kim went to Major Han's house in Anyang city, where he learned the old army officer had died in the early 1990s.
"If I had anything resembling a weapon in my hands that day, I have no doubt that I would have stabbed all the family members of that devil," says Mr. Kim, now standing beside the monument to the victims of the massacre.
The bodies in the Baksangol valley were allowed to be claimed in 1954, three years after the massacre. With no clues to determine identities, villagers tried to sort out the bones. The bones were cremated and ashes buried near the massacre sites. Military regimes in the 1970s and 1980s considered the sites to be an embarrassment and pressured residents to keep silent. A memorial stone marking all three sites was defaced so that the epitaph was unreadable, then uprooted. "Nothing has been settled yet," Mr. Kim says.
He wants the dead to be honored and their families compensated. In 1995, then-President Kim Young-sam decreed that the village deserved compensation and a memorial that would honor all three sites. They received some money to establish a marker and a memorial hall; construction is to be completed by June. Last year, members of the victims' families filed suit against the army, asking for compensation. The court sided with the families, but the Ministry of National Defense has filed an appeal.
Jeon Jeong-guy, in charge of the Geochang Civilians Massacre at the county office, says, "There are just too many cases of civilian massacres, which makes it hard for the government to take action."
But that's not enough for Kim Woon-seop. Stroking the smooth surface of the memorial stone, he says, "I'm all set to get at the root of the truth and let the sinners have their due punishment. I have nothing to fear. After all, I should have been dead 52 years ago."
by Chun Su-jin