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Geeva Gopalkrishnan 1

HIST 226: Modern Korea


March 31, 2015
On Seoul’s Ninety Days of Ordeal: The Reds Take a City

In a blitzkrieg style invasion, North Korean forces crossed the 38th Parallel on June 25, 1950. The

onslaught of tanks supported by artillery was no match for the ill-equipped South Korean forces, and

the capital Seoul fell within days. Schramm’s The Reds Take a City (1951)1 details translations of first-

hand narratives written by eminent Koreans who tell of their personal experiences during the ninety

days of Communist North Korea’s capture of Seoul and the South Korean response to the act of

aggression. The personal insights describe the character and structure of the three months of

Communist rule in Seoul, and articulate the mixed and complex Korean ideological stances and

reactions to Communist rule in Seoul – ranging from the cooperation and popular support to fear and

revulsion. Mining the rich content of these accounts, this paper posits that the experience of Koreans

under Communism, while initially was one of seeming liberation, was progressively disillusioning and

especially repugnant as the collapse of Communist Seoul grew imminent. It is argued, then, that the

three-month long communist experience chastened most South Koreans and served to solidify

Syngmun Rhee’s subsequent control, but also contributed to the confusion and violence that ensued

following the retreat of North Korean forces.

Cooperation and Popular Support

While the North Korean forces occupied Seoul and much of South Korea, it was not an

exercise of subjugation. Indeed, the North’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) seems to have enjoyed

considerable popular support from South Koreans. One significant reason for the initial support could

be attributed to the generally amiable conduct of the KPA. Testimonies of other survivors point to the

fact that the invaders were not ruthless initially and even “reactionaries” who were targeted by the

KPA reported their conduct to be courteous and reasonable. This is apparent when Chul-Hoe Koo, a

1
Schramm, Wilbur, and John Winchell Riley. The Reds Take a City: The Communist Occupation of Seoul. With Eyewitness
Accounts. Narratives Translated by Hugh Heung-wu Cynn. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Pr., 1951.
2
newspaper reporter and reactionary, states that the KPA official examining him ordered food and

“when white rice and beef soup were brought in he ordered them to be placed before me and … in a

kindly manner he asked me to eat”.2 Evidence of this official behavior of courtesy is observable at

several different social and official levels, suggesting that the North Korean forces were “well trained

to win the hearts of the people”.3 This points to the fact that the North Korean conquest was aimed at

the unification of the divided country and the establishment of a Communist government in Seoul by

gaining the good will of the people rather than mere subjugation – though military force was present.

Disillusionment with the corruption and economic injustice rampant in the capitalist democracy

was another significant factor that accorded the Northern forces popular support initially. Such

supporters seem to have pro-communist or nationalist inclinations, and it is worth mention that most

personal accounts suggest the active involvement and collaboration of many students from Seoul.

Propaganda through radio addresses, flyers and other media sources that called for the unification of

Korea and the expulsion of “imperialists like the United States” and “corrupt and inefficient

representatives”, 4 alongside themes of neocolonial rule, monopolistic capitalism, and authoritarian

puppet regime – Syngman Rhee referred to as “the puppet of American imperialism run by

warmongers of Wall Street”,5 – seem to have struck a chord with individuals who had not seen their

lives improve significantly since post-liberation. Others were enamored by the institutional reform that

Communist regime promised, especially in the position of women, on land and industries with respect

to ownership. Notably, appreciation was often expressed for the efficiency and discipline of the

Communist state that was displayed. Professor Yu, one of the framers of the Republic of Korea

2
Schramm, Wilbur, and John Winchell Riley. "Treatment of Reactionaries." In The Reds Take a City: The Communist
Occupation of Seoul. With Eyewitness Accounts. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Pr., 1951., pg 81.
3
Schramm, Wilbur, and John Winchell Riley. "Official Conduct and Personnel Policy." In The Reds Take a City: The
Communist Occupation of Seoul. With Eyewitness Accounts. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Pr., 1951., pg 66.
4
Schramm, Wilbur, and John Winchell Riley. "The Blueprint of Occupation." In The Reds Take a City: The Communist
Occupation of Seoul. With Eyewitness Accounts. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Pr., 1951., 34.
5
Ibid, 37.
3
constitution, is observed to comment that “the shortcoming of democracy is its slowness to act;

communism to the contrary is con-controversial and quick in action”.6

The Communist government promised a “paradise for diligent people”7 with the elimination of

social hierarchies, nationalization of industries and the introduction of sweeping reforms. Employment

was promised on an equal basis to both men and women, and with the claim that “women are no longer

slaves” 8 a crackdown on licensed prostitution and concubinage ensued. The obvious respect with

which a Seoul husband reported that “if the Women’s Alliance accused a man of having a concubine,

he was put into jail”9 points to the admiration of the populace for the institutional reforms that were

promised and enacted.

Fear, Disappointment, and Repugnance

The admiration and popular support that the North Korean occupation enjoyed eroded over

time as the courteous behavior of North Korean officials gave way to brutality and repression. Kun-Ho

Lee, a Korean writer, attributes this change to the fact that “[the property class and liberals” of the

South were so ‘reactionary’ that they not only showed unwillingness to cooperate but also engaged in

hostile activity”10 (page 52). The worsening war situation and the growing intensity of U.N. air raids

were observed to be correlated with the escalating repression faced by the citizens in Seoul. The

occupation government engaged in forced migration of inhabitants of Seoul for relocation in North

Korea. Those forced to leave for the North arrived in P’yongyang only to be told that nothing was

prepared for them. Upon returning to Seoul, they found their former homes occupied by complete

strangers and their possessions gone. Survivors attribute this injustice to punishment for non-

6
Schramm, Wilbur, and John Winchell Riley. "The Reds Come to Seoul." In The Reds Take a City: The Communist
Occupation of Seoul. With Eyewitness Accounts. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Pr., 1951., 29.
7
Schramm, Wilbur, and John Winchell Riley. "The Blueprint of Occupation." In The Reds Take a City: The Communist
Occupation of Seoul. With Eyewitness Accounts. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Pr., 1951., 37.
8
Ibid, 35.
9
Schramm, Wilbur, and John Winchell Riley. "Institutional Reforms." In The Reds Take a City: The Communist
Occupation of Seoul. With Eyewitness Accounts. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Pr., 1951., 161.
10
Schramm, Wilbur, and John Winchell Riley. "The Character of the Invader." In The Reds Take a City: The Communist
Occupation of Seoul. With Eyewitness Accounts. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Pr., 1951., 52.
4
cooperation and to “make the majority of the city population propertyless so that they would have to

cooperate”.11

Even those who had previously been pro-communist or enamored by the institutional reforms

promised grew progressively disappointed in the new Communist order. The poor performance rate of

promised reforms and the worsening of economic conditions and status of many supports contributed

to the erosion of support for the occupying government. Although the nationalization of large

industries and land had been one of the initial strident promises of the occupying forces, farmers were

often found to be at the expense of unjust taxation policies. The plight of farmers were known even to

non-farmers who are noted to state that “[the occupying government] collects more than seventy per

cent of the output in spite of their announced twenty-five per cent” and that “farmers rather preferred to

have no land at all since after all their trouble most of the harvest would be requisitioned”.12 Small

business owners, too, saw their capital erode due to taxation after trusting state propaganda that small

businesses would be encouraged and protected.13

Atrocities mounted as the collapse of the occupying Communist regime seemed apparent, much

to the repugnance of South Koreans. Rounding up prisoners of war and ‘reactionaries’ for summary

execution also became increasingly prevalent. Public officials, property owners and prisoners-of-war,

bound by their wrists, were forced to stand in line for hours awaiting interrogation by “People’s

Courts”. These improvised trials were conducted under a climate of fear and though the “jury” were

asked for their opposition, none responded any such opposition for fear of their lives. The “omniscient

and omnipotent prosecutors, judges and executionors”14 were often political prisoners released by the

occupying government seeking retribution against their former oppressors. The massacre of innocent

11
Ibid, 55.
12
Schramm, Wilbur, and John Winchell Riley. "Institutional Reforms." In The Reds Take a City: The Communist
Occupation of Seoul. With Eyewitness Accounts. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Pr., 1951., 168.
13
Ibid, 163
14
Schramm, Wilbur, and John Winchell Riley. " The Character of the Invader." In The Reds Take a City: The Communist
Occupation of Seoul. With Eyewitness Accounts. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Pr., 1951., 51.
5
citizens by the People’s Court, forced migration and mobilization of males into the military force

(“Voluntary Corps”) intensified as weeks rolled by – much to the dread of South Koreans.

Source Analysis

Having said that, however, this paper acknowledges that while the narratives in The Reds Take

a City lend insights into the governance styles present in Communist Seoul and South Korean reactions

to the experience, it cannot be taken to be wholly authoritative or unbiased due to the possibility that

the author was compiling accounts that would sell American anti-Communist propaganda. The

compilation of personal accounts is not entirely representative of every walk of life and the canvas is

spread to show the suffering experienced by eminent Koreans with liberal political leanings. It fails to

account for pro-socialist or nationalist members of society and to describe their relationship with the

North Korean forces. While the tragic accounts can scarcely be thought representative of Seoul as a

whole, a close study of their motives and reactions, as well as the intensity of their anti-Communist

feelings offers some limited perspectives on the attempted communist aggression on South Korea.

Moreover, Schramm’s research on Korea was funded by the United States Information Agency,

translated into twelve languages and distributed throughout the world. The distinctly anti-communist

theme present in the book could be intended for members of the world to “reflect well upon the

bitterness, the indignity and the inhumanity of the Communist leaders of aggression and their misled

followers” and to join America’s rallying cry against Communism. This inherent bias in the

compilation of accounts may overestimate the harshness of the North Korean occupation of Seoul.

However, this also demonstrates that the United States viewed the North Korean assault as a case of

Soviet aggression and believed that it needed to respond, not just by preparing itself militarily, but also

politically in order to galvanize global support to meet Soviet aggression. It is also an indication of the

extent to which this “naked Soviet aggression” in Korea was a powerful impetus and would go on to

shape U.S. foreign policy in the cold war years.


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Conclusion

The North Korean occupation of Seoul effectively ended when United Nations forces drove the

former out in September 1950 – restoring Syngman Rhee’s anti-communist South Korea. The

experience under Communist governance chastened most South Koreans and the North Korean

occupation only served to solidify Syngman Rhee’s subsequent control. It could be imagined that

many now came to believe that Rhee’s government, despite its many shortcomings, was preferable to

the one led by Communist North Korea. Outraged by the North Korean invasion and emboldened by

U.S. support, Rhee would go onto become ferociously anti-Communist – eliminating domestic

political opposition. The temporary North Korean occupation also set off a new wave of violence as a

new round of reprisals against all who might have rallied to the Northern cause began. The experience

during the occupation of Seoul and much of South Korea would significantly set back the peaceful

political unification of Korea.