Liberation, War and Exodus

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

One of the most recurrent thematic images of the Korean War was that of the refugees ― crowds of refugees following the retreating armies, housed in tents and makeshift huts, undernourished, exhausted, depressed. These people easily caught the eye of many a foreign journalist, and pictures of their plight are remarkably numerous.

Some of these refugees were heading North, but much larger numbers went South. No precise statistical data is available, and this is not surprising. The late 1940s were an era of chaos and civil disruption. The closest analogue to the Korea of 1948 or 1950 in the modern world would be places like Congo where the poverty, corruption, and civil war nearly paralyse the work of government bureaucracies.

Thus, estimates of the 1945-1950 migration movement vary greatly. But all scholars agree that this was an exodus of great proportions. According to various sources, between 400,000 and 800,000 North Koreans fled to the South between the liberation of 1945 and outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

Technically, border crossing was not difficult in those days. From 1946, both sides tried to seal the border, but the 38th parallel of 1948 was a far cry from the nearly impenetrable DMZ of the later eras. Nevertheless, the migration was a decisive break with one’s past. Even if some valuables could be taken, nearly all possessions had to be left behind – not to mention one’s native home, to which most Koreans are sentimentally so attached. Nonetheless, about 5 percent of the entire population made the trip. What did they run away from?

Whether the North Korean government in the late 1940s was a product of a genuine indigenous revolution or a result of Soviet armed intervention has long been a topic of heated discussion. Since the polemics surrounding this question are essentially political, I suspect disagreement will continue well beyond my own lifetime. However, the sheer scale of the exodus demonstrates that a large segment of the population was very unhappy about the changes ― regardless of whether they came about through internal developments or were imposed from outside.

The discontented included landlords who lost their property during the 1946 land reforms, and owners of factories and workshops whose businesses were nationalized. If you think that these people got what they deserved (and some leftists think that this was the case), please remember that most landholdings and enterprises confiscated during reforms were small. A former owner of, say, a bicycle repair shop with two hired employees was almost certain to be branded as “capitalist”. Back in 1946, this person had no way to know that he would remain discriminated against for the rest of his life and would eventually bequeath his pariah status to his children. Nonetheless, it was already clear that the North was not a comfortable place to stay if one were a “capitalist”.

A large number of the refugees consisted of Christian activists. In those days the North was the major stronghold of Christianity in Korea, but priests were seen as suspicious and reactionary by the new government.

The outbreak of the Korean War triggered a new exodus. During the conflict nearly all cities and towns changed hands at least twice, and people simply walked away, following the retreating armies. Once again, statistics are not available (after all, Seoul changed hands four times during the war), but the estimates put the number of wartime refugees coming to the South between 450,000 and 650,000. This means that in 1945-1953 some 1.0-1.4 million North Koreans fled to the South (and a smaller but still large number moved North). In other words, one out of eight or nine North Koreans moved!

Among the 1950-1951 refugees there were people who had good reason to run away because they had cooperated with the South Korean and/or American forces when the North was briefly overrun in October-November 1950. They understood very well that people who were employed even as minor clerks in the U.S. offices would probably be killed by the returning Communist armies (one has to admit that the South was not soft on the “pro-Communist elements” either).

The penniless refugees had a very tough time in the South initially, but most of them proved remarkably resilient and inventive, so they eventually found a surprisingly good place in South Korean society. They remained especially hostile towards the Pyongyang rulers, but this is typical for the political migrants everywhere (Castro is not very popular in Miami, after all).

After 1953 the flood of defectors instantly constricted to little more than a trickle. The treatment they received also changed dramatically. The post-1953 cohort formed a group completely different from their predecessors.


Comments are closed.