National Archives: Captured North Korean Documents

I returned last week from the second of what will be four trips to the National Archives before I leave for Korea in June. On my first trip I had only two days and decided to stick to easily accessible microfilms of early postwar South Korea related State Department documents that were not available in published reproductions in the Harvard-Yenching library. My second trip however, and in other trips to come, I have been focusing entirely on North Korean documents captured by the United States during the Korean War found in Record Group (RG) 242.

A lot of the best research related to the early postcolonial history of northern Korea and the first years of the North Korean regime to come out in recent years has made use of RG242 material. The captured North Korean documents only make up a tiny fragment of RG242, a record group which is primarily made up of the vast ocean of captured documents from World War II Germany, but is still said to consist of more than 1.6 million pages of wonderful material.

There are some articles floating around in English about the archive1 and I understand that there are several papers and a full length index of the collection available in Korean. In his book on the North Korean Revolution, Charles Armstrong has a great appendix dedicated to these sources, and also reports that many of the documents have been reproduced in a Korean source collection that I hope to get a look at when I no longer have easy access to the originals in Washington D.C.

So what is to be found in this collection? Well, just about every sort of document you might imagine, though the majority of what I have seen dates from 1946-1950. For a short time during the Korean War the United States was in control of large proportion of North Korean territory and the fleeing North Korean forces certainly weren’t able to burn or evacuate documents fast enough to prevent many materials from falling into the hands of US/UN forces. A lot of this material, however, clearly seemed to be of a normal published nature. Many of the documents, photos, books, newspapers, and magazines found by troops in North Korea were put together, organized by date and location of capture and sent back to the US divided up into a collection of boxes grouped by Shipping Advices (SA). A few items appear to have been removed from the collection during and after the Korean war for “local exploitation” and not all of these items were returned to the archive. Most of this material was declassified in the late 1970s and I only saw a handful of items in the index blanked out and accompanied with a sheet designating an item as restricted.2

You can find a hundred page handbook on swine-raising for farmers3 listed in the same original shipping box with three thousand pages or so run of a journal on Korean linguistics.4 You can find a book of military songs5 in the same original shipping box with the minutes of a Peasant League Committee on village defence.6 You can find applications to join the North Korean Democratic Boy Scouts7 or a bunch of handwritten reports on education in Christian sunday schools8. There are long lists of Chinese and Japanese residents in various counties throughout North Korea9 or a handwritten “table of truant school children.”10 There are trial records, police records, financial records, salary receipts, student lecture notes and idle doodles, propaganda books, election posters, literature, folders full of photos, political cartoons, thousands of pages of newspapers and journals, lots of speech compilations and meeting minutes. It is, in a word, overwhelming.

I spent an entire day at the National Archives just going through the large English-language index to the collection available on a single reel of microfilm which allowed me to locate potential items that are of interest to me in my own research. This index divides the RG242 captured North Korean materials up by SA (2005-2013, and 10181), Box number, and Item number. It shows the date and location of capture for each box. Each item has a one or two line description in English of what it contains. However, I have learnt to treat this information with caution, because occasionally what you actually get when you request the material is more or less, and sometimes somewhat different from what this index shows. I sympathize with the monumental task the indexers faced, however, because many “items” consist of a vanilla folder which contains a pile of sometimes completely unrelated handwritten documents.

It is truly wonderful that any of us can walk into the National Archives, which is a short metro subway and bus ride from Washington D.C. at the College Park complex (Archives II), sit down in their wonderful second floor reading room, and look through these documents at our leisure. But how do you request this material? Below I offer a few tips for anyone who would like to look at this collection:

I have posted some general information about getting to and into the National Archives on my own personal blog here.

Once you are there:

1. Much of what I have read about RG242 suggests the documents are at Suiteland, not College Park, but I was able to request everything I wanted to see at the College Park facility.

2. Remember that to Korea studies scholars RG242 means captured North Korean documents, but to most archivists at the National Archives, when you say “RG242” they immediately think you are looking for German wartime captured materials since only a fragment of this record is dedicated to North Korean materials. I spoke to one German specialty archivist who was surprised to learn that her RG242 had North Korean materials in it and she did not know which of the several location numbers were correct for the materials I was looking for.

3. I would definitely recommend looking at the microfilm index of the captured North Korean documents, unless you have access to the (published?) Korean language index which I have heard of but have not seen. The English language index is located in a single reel in a blue reel box, in the bottom right hand corner of an open box located on top of a pile of boxes on the far left side of the long table you face as you walk in the microfilm room on the 4th floor. Those I asked in the microfilm room had only a vague recollection that such an index existed but an Asia specialist on the 2nd floor remembered the exact location of this reel, which is not numbered or properly filed. I am not sure what I would have done were it not for the memory of this archivist (Rich[ard?], I believe was his name).

4. Once you have made yourself a list of things you want to look at (mark down the SA number, the box number and the item number in this format: SA XXXX X/XX) bring this to the second floor. There are “pull times” when your request for materials are processed at 10am, 11am, etc.

5. The “box number” in the original index has no relation whatsoever to the box number of the collection’s current state. The original SA and box numbers do not correspond to anything physical in the archival collection, only to the state in which they arrived. However, these SA and box numbers are faithfully recorded on the side of the boxes the archival collection is currently found in so when you request the materials you can refer to them in your request. If you request a “box” directly by number however, you will get a box that has no connection to the original index.

6. On your request slip, in the large open space put:

Captured North Korean Documents
BOX ________

NOTE: Only put contiguous box/item entries, you need separate request slips if the items you are requesting are not contiguous. You can submit up to 20 slips at a time but there is a limit to the number of boxes you can get from this. The last line with “BOX ____” is left blank intentionally so the archivist can fill this in when they find the items you are looking for in the collection and give you the boxes.

7. On the request slip above the large open space, I was told to put (and this worked in almost every case):

RG: 242 Stack Area: 190 Row: 16 Compartment: 7- Shelf: 3-

NOTE: I don’t know if this location will stay this way or if it contains all SAs, but the archivist named Rich says this is where the North Korean documents are mostly located. There is a red location folder for RG242 in the reference room (right side of the clock-stamp, 2nd or 3rd row from top) which locates the North Korean documents in several different areas and has location codes different from the ones above but the above location worked well for me for the SAs that I requested. The hyphen next to the compartment and shelf number tells them that they should start looking from the number that precedes it.

8. You are allowed to bring computers, scanners (without paper feeds), tripods, and digital cameras into the reading room, as long as you register your equipment at the front desk. There are also a range of copy services. I was allowed to copy everything I wanted from RG242 materials, ranging from relatively fragile handwritten pages on the regular copiers to photos (on the more expensive machine that uses glossy paper) and larger books (on the special book copier, which is also more expensive).

Information Last Confirmed: March, 2007

  1. Including Thomas Hosuck Kang “North Korean Captured Records at the Washington National Records Center, Suitland, Maryland,” in The Association for Asian Studies, Committee Asia Libraries Bulletin (Feb 1979). 30-37.  

  2. Classified materials appear to include SA 2009 1/31 “Handwritten sheet, titled “Roster of Informants” containing the personal history of ******* born on 5 Aug 31 and dwelling at MANSU-dong, INCHON city, dated 14 Sep 50, belonging to NAM-dong Police Substation, 1 p.” – withdrawn 3/10/77 because it contained “Otherwise restricted information” and an item in SA 2011 box number 8: “Handwritten and typewritten file of personal history of civilians living in Pusan, ROK August 1950 written by ***** pp. 45” Also withheld for “Otherwise restricted information” 3/10/77. I did not try to request these materials so I don’t know if they are still restricted. 

  3. SA 2012 1/131 

  4. SA 2012 1/24 

  5. SA 2012 5/12 

  6. SA 2012 5/145 

  7. SA 2005 4/30 

  8. SA 2005 4/41 

  9. SA 2005 all over box 9, those interested in Japanese repatriation, Chinese minorities in Korea or in Korean-Japanese intermarriage could potentially find some great material here and I have no idea if this has been exploited yet 

  10. SA 2005 10/17 


  1. Fascinating, thank you for posting this. Do you know if there is anything in these archives regarding ethnic Koreans from the USSR? Did the North Koreans even have any documents on Korean communities abroad in places like the USSR, China and Japan? Also did you find anything interesting on the North Korean penal system? I would be interested in how the early prison camp system developed in North Korea. Was it based primarily on the Soviet or the Chinese system or did it follow its own North Korean pattern? Sorry for all the questions, but anything you can answer would be greatly appreciated.

  2. I wish I could give you a much more detailed answer. I have only begun to look at this vast collection of material and I’m looking for very specific things related to the punishment of traitors and collaborators with the Japanese. Due to limited in-archive time, I’m not able to read much beyond the specific things I’m looking for.

    The index is hundreds of pages long and I remember seeing many index entries related to Russians, Russia, and I think I remember seeing at least one entry related to repatriation of Koreans from Russia. There may be many more that I zoomed past in the microfilm. However, I don’t have the full index printed. I would recommend trying to get a copy of the Korean language index which I have heard of , which may be in published form (I will find out more about this when I get to Korea and speak to others who have worked with these materials).

    As for the penal system. I have so far looked at trial records from two counties, some prisoner rosters, and published North Korean legal/judicial journals. One thing that strikes me so far is the rapidity with which North Korea seems to get a functioning legal system up and running. Already by 1946, for example, the case records for offenses as trivial as the “reactionary” crime of being lazy at work could amount to several dozen pages of court documents.

    The prison roster I looked at didn’t say much about the nature of the prison that I could tell (but I wasn’t really looking). It had a page for each prisoner with their personal details and sentence but also a simple overall list of name+crime.

    In the small amount of things I looked at so far there are a lot of translated Russian books related to law and punishment. I also found a fascinating Korean translation of a documentary collection on a Hungarian purge trial.

    There may have been translated books from Chinese as well that I didn’t notice as I looked through, the Russian translated materials are so much more easily recognizable by their Russian sounding authors on the cover.

    I’ll keep my eye open for this when I make my next two trips.

  3. I believe the National Institute of Korean History (국사편찬위원회에) has already published the captured North Korean documents in several thick volumes. They should be readily available in most libraries in Korea (if that is where you are based). I have looked through them in the library of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul (formerly part of Kyungnam Univ.).

  4. Thanks for that comment James. I just saw around half a dozen volumes of copies of varying quality containing some of these documents in the Yonsei library last week. I don’t know if that is all they have, but it would take several hundred volumes of that size to get close to covering the interesting stuff. Do you remember how many volumes there were?

  5. Note that a large selection of these documents can now be found in the conveniently reprinted 國史編纂委員會 multi-volume series: 北韓關係史料集 – unfortunately, they do not include the original RG242 SR numbers, and I’m not sure what percentage of the collection has been included in the series. I’m currently going through the volumes and cross checking them with my own archival photos.

  6. Dear Mr Lawson,

    Thank you very much for your shared information as it will greatly help me when I go next week for the first time. Best of luck with research!

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