Written by Choe Sang-Hun
On a lush hillside torn open by an excavator, Park Sun-joo and volunteers combed through the soil with trowels and brushes, looking for villagers, including children, who were bludgeoned and buried, some still alive and moaning, by their own neighbors in 1950, at the outset of the Korean War.
Park, a physical anthropologist by training, has excavated ancient human bones all his adult life to study the origins of the Korean people. But by recovering more recent human remains in this and other towns in recent years, he is cracking open one of the most tragic chapters of modern Korean history — and becoming a lightning rod for criticism from conservative nationalist groups.
“Colleagues ask why I do this work, which is not exactly my academic specialty, paleoanthropology,” said Park, 71, in an interview. “But I cannot ignore the reality, the still-living agonies of the victims’ families, the old men and women who come out to our excavation site every day and watch us, hoping that they will finally be able to take home the remains of their loved ones.”
The stories the old villagers tell Park resonate with him.
His father was running a transportation company in Seoul when the war broke out. Police came and tortured him, demanding the whereabouts of his brother, a publishing company official who was accused of being a Communist sympathizer.
Park’s uncle eluded police, but his father never recovered from the injuries inflicted on him and died a broken man, sick and jobless. His mother was forced to toil in a shoe factory to support her six children.
“The people killed in these sites are of my father’s age,” Park said. “While digging up their bones, I think the same thing might as well have happened to my own family.”
As Park learned during his work, the killings of the Korean War were done not just by troops, but also by police and rival villagers.
When North Korean invaders swept down into the south, the South Korean police executed thousands of political prisoners and people suspected of sympathizing with North Korea to prevent them from joining the North’s side. Then, as the rival armies swept up and down the Korean Peninsula in the early months of the war, towns changed hands, and more bloodbaths followed.
North Korean supporters slaughtered the relatives of the South Korean police and soldiers with spears and pitchforks. When the South Korean police came back, they and right-wing villagers who had lost their relatives quickly ferreted out and executed those they accused of being Communist collaborators and their family members.
Sometimes the revenge killings were fueled not just by political ideology but also by prewar family feuds. Villagers often wiped out entire families so there would be no one left to retaliate.
After the war ended, those murdered by the Communist invaders and leftist vigilantes were treated like martyrs in South Korea.
But military dictators who ruled South Korea after the war banned any public discussion of the atrocities committed by the South Korean police and right-wing vigilantes. Police put the victims’ families under surveillance and kept secret files on them into the 1980s. The families themselves hid their backgrounds, fearful of the stigma of being labeled the “reds’ offspring.”
Today, many victims remain buried where they were executed and dumped nearly seven decades ago.
“There is still a leftist-rightist tension at the bottom of our society, with the red stigma not yet removed, and many people deeply uncomfortable with any attempt to excavate the past,” Park said. “One way of healing the wounds that still divide our society is to recover the remains and return them to their families.”
Park, a Seoul native, was a history major and aspiring journalist at Yonsei University in Seoul when he fell in love with archaeology while interning in a museum. But he had little inkling that he would become involved with Korean War remains when he returned home in 1989 with a doctorate in human osteology from the University of California at Berkeley and began teaching at Chungbuk National University.
Then, in 2000, the Defense Ministry asked Park to help recover fallen soldiers in Korean War battle sites. A colonel told Park that he was the only osteologist he could find in South Korea.
While excavating the young fallen soldiers, Park felt the tragedy that the war brought home. A soldier whose remains his team uncovered inspired the movie “Taegukgi: Brotherhood of War,” a 2004 box-office hit in South Korea.
Around this time, another tragedy of the war was brought to Park for excavation.
Under the liberal government of President Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea established its Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2005 to investigate civilian massacres during the war. The commission eventually confirmed widespread extrajudicial mass executions of unarmed civilians across South Korea by its own police and military, as well as by right-wing villagers.
When it started excavating the killing sites in 2007, Park was asked to lead the efforts.
Park’s team quickly uncovered the long-suppressed horror: skeletal remains stacked one on top of another, with hands still tied and bullet holes in the skulls. They corroborated witness accounts of police making victims crouch in trenches before shooting them in the head. Children’s bones were found with toy marbles.
“Villagers were mobilized to dig anti-air-raid trenches when their towns were under Communist rule,” said Ahn Kyung-ho, a former truth commission investigator who still works with Park in excavating burial sites. “When South Korean forces took over, they were taken to the same trenches and executed.”
The commission’s work proved deeply divisive, with conservative politicians condemning it as an ideologically driven campaign to discredit their fight against Communism. By the time President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, shut it down in 2010, Park’s teams had excavated only 11 of 168 potential mass burial sites, recovering 1,600 sets of remains, a small fraction of the tens of thousands of civilians killed.
Families felt dejected. Their efforts to reinstate the commission has remained stuck at Parliament, even after President Moon Jae-in, a liberal, took office in 2017. In 2014, their advocates launched a nongovernmental excavation team and asked Park to lead it.
By then, Park was retired and was ready to join his Korean American wife in Washington. Both of his children grew up as U.S. citizens and live in America now. His son works in the U.S. Agency for International Development. His daughter works at a software company after a stint in the White House.
“I asked my wife to give me five years before joining her,” Park said. “It looks like I have to ask for five more years.”
Park’s team has recovered the remains of 400 people in six killing sites since 2014, including 208 executed in an abandoned gold mine in Asan, about 50 miles south of Seoul, in what the truth commission called a “crime against humanity.”
Of those found in the mine, 58 were 12 years old or younger. Of the rest, more than 80% were women.
In May, Park’s team returned to Asan to excavate a hillside near a village called Daedong-ri.
“They bludgeoned the victims, adults and children, indiscriminately,” a witness identified only by his last name, Lee, told the truth commission, describing the execution of 80 people by fellow villagers at the site in 1950. “They then threw dirt over them, some still alive and writhing in pain.”
“For years, the victims’ families could not dare come near this site for fear of being called reds,” said Hong Nam-hwa, 53, a Daedong-ri resident who lost several relatives and watched Park’s team work on a recent Saturday.
Park’s work, funded largely by donations, has been painfully slow. Old burial sites have been destroyed to make room for highways and factories. The few witnesses alive who could locate the killing sites often would not cooperate, fearful of rekindling the ill feelings that remain raw in isolated rural communities.
After 29 days of searching the hillside, Park’s team found bones that appeared to come from four people. But they had to stop to wait out the monsoon season.
“I know there are more bones down here,” Park said.