Korean War Criminals in the Movement to “Set History Straight”

Frog in a Well welcomes a guest posting from Sayaka Chatani on the issue of Korean War Criminals and the difficulty Korean historians have found in addressing them in modern Korean historiography. Sayaka is a PhD student in the History Department of Columbia University. Her research interests are in the transnational history of early to mid-twentieth century East Asia, mainly focusing on the colonization and decolonization of Korea and Taiwan.


Colonial legacies are one of the most hotly debated political issues in South Korea. The phrase “legacies of Japanese imperialism (ilche chanjae)” is ubiquitous in newspapers and in bookstores, and the topic not only triggers controversies among academics, but inspires social movements, and leads the government to adopt policies to resolve the remnant problems.

Among the many controversies surrounding the history of Japan’s colonial rule in Korea, much attention has centered on the question of collaborators. Many Korean historians argue that former pro-Japanese collaborators subsequently prevented Korea’s unification and brought about significant harm to South Korean society. They see punishing them as a prerequisite to restoring a healthy society.1 In the context of ‘setting history straight,’ The South Korean government has confiscated the property of descendants of nine collaborators.2 A presidential fact-finding panel has finished its second investigation to identify the names of pro-Japanese collaborators, and continues working on a third investigation.3

In contrast to their excitement over the issue of collaborators, historians have only given very limited attention and analysis to the issue of Korean war criminals despite the significant number of Koreans put on trial and executed as Japanese prison guards. When a few Japanese and Korean historians do face the issue, they tend to simplify the complex experiences of Korean war criminals to fit the dominant minjung discourse that blames a distinct group of collaborators for betraying the majority of Korean people. The fact that Korean war criminals were both victims and victimizers makes it difficult for nationalist historians to openly discuss the issue.

Class B/C Korean War Criminals

The term “Class B/C war crime” is unfamiliar to many. Unlike those who were tried in the Tokyo Trial (International Military Tribunals for the Far East) as Class A criminals, all of the accused Koreans were put on trial as Class B/C war criminals. The classification of war crimes did not reflect the gravity of the crime or court sentences, but was based on the kind of crime they committed; Class A was “crimes against peace,” Class B was “conventional war crimes,” and Class C was “crimes against humanity,” although the latter two were usually not distinguished in the tribunals. In the aftermath of the World War II, seven countries, nine governments (the US, the UK, Netherlands, France, Australia, the PRC, the ROC, the Soviet Russia and the Philippines) amongst the Allies conducted tribunals individually in a variety of locations throughout Southeast Asia, China and in Yokohama.4 In the B/C war tribunals, the majority of the cases were made up of Kempeitai (Imperial Japan’s Military Police) and prison guards being tried for torturing and mistreating POWs or for massacring local populations.5 In contrast to the 28 put on trial in the Tokyo Trial, approximately 5,700 military and civilian personnel were tried in Class B/C war crime tribunals, and 984 of these were sentenced to death. Among those convicted, 148 were “Japanese” of Korean origin and 173 from Taiwan. Among these, 23 Koreans and 26 Taiwanese were executed.6 Among the Koreans who were executed, three were military officers, 16 were interpreters, with the remaining number made up of prison guards who had served in Thailand, Malaya and Java.7 Most of the Koreans went through British or Dutch B/C war tribunals.

US UK Australia Netherlands France Philippines China Total
Convicts 1453 978 949 1038 230 169 883 5700
Koreans 3 56 5 68 0 0 16 148
Taiwanese 4 26 95 7 0 0 41 173

Source: Utsumi Aiko, Chōsenjin BC Kyū Senpan no Kiroku (A Record of Korean Class BC War Criminals), Keisō Shobō, 1982, p.152

Accounts of the Korean prison guards are not absent in the Western literature on the history of Western Prisoners of War in Asia. Memoirs of American POWs who survived the hardship of forced labor (especially of the building of the notorious Burma-Thailand railway) have left us with numerous anecdotes of their interactions with Korean prison guards. In their memoirs, Korean guards are most typically depicted as cruel and brutal. Some give a psychological analysis of the Korean brutality, arguing that “[the Korean guards]’d been under the thumb [of the Japanese] so long, when you’d give them a little bit of authority, they took advantage of it. They thought authority meant to beat people… They had some treacherous ways of punishing people.”8 Others show raw prejudice against Koreans, calling them “purely amoral coolie vermin… brutal by nature as well as by orders.” 9

Despite the large number of the Korean war criminals and the Western accounts on them, the attention to the issue in Korean academics has been scarce. This is because the movement to “set history straight” has created a class-based dichotomy between collaborators and victims, as well as focused on the implications on postwar development of South Korea.

Korean Collaborators and War Criminals in the Movement to “Set History Straight”

In South Korea, various civic organizations have used the slogans of “setting history straight” and “settling the past” since the end of the dictatorial regimes and democratization in the early 1990s. Chung Youn-tae describes the goal of this campaign as being “to remove the remaining negative legacies” still found in a “distorted modern Korean history,” and “to build a society based on human rights, peace and justice through democratization and reunification.”10 Among the various problematic legacies, Korea’s colonial experience under Japanese rule is the main target since it is argued that it had a grave impact on the whole Korean society and retarded its development. The issue of collaborators in particular is regarded as “the root of all evil,” and thus treated as a critical issue in the movement.11 The scholar Koen De Ceuster has argued that many Korean scholars are driven by their political convictions as they publish works leveling accusations at collaborators. The works by the Korean nationalist historians reflect the wider social movement against authoritarian rule in the early 1980s, De Ceuster argues, and is “tightly interwoven with the minjung discourse on history.”12

Minjung’ is a Korean word for the masses or people. The emphasis on the minjung experience and perspective has become a trend in works of literature and national history since the 1980s. Roughly defined, the minjung movement is a series of activities that share a class-based narrative combined with a Korean culturalist nationalism. Kenneth Wells identifies some common aspects of the minjung movement; for example, that it challenges histories that only focus on institutions of power, and develops histories of ordinary people; the minjung are the bearers of suffering in these histories. Many minjung scholars emphasize the divide between the ruling elites and the ordinary Korean masses, and question the political legitimacy of the ruling elites. These works and narratives led to the formation of a dominant minjung discourse within South Korea’s nationalist historiography.

The minjung discourse in the movement to “set history straight” has also influenced the literature on the Korean war criminals. Utsumi Aiko, a leading scholar on the issue in Japan, as well as a couple of other Japanese authors, compiled interviews and memoirs of the survivors, but did not provide an academic synthesis which combined consideration of it with other issues, such as international law and the issue of ‘comfort women.’13 A few Korean scholars who write on the issue depend heavily on these Japanese sources.14 They commonly emphasize the suffering and injustice that those Korean war criminals had to bear by pointing out the coercive nature of their recruitment, their difficult living conditions, the inappropriate procedures of the tribunals, and the lack of appropriate compensation from the Japanese government. Like other minjing scholars, their works attempt to adopt the dichotomy of the victimized ordinary masses and the victimizing ruling elites. However, their simplistic narratives reveal problems in narrating experiences of the Korean prison guards; for example, since many Koreans were openly recruited and employed by the Japanese authorities to work as prison guards in Southeast Asia, it is hard to categorize them within the dichotomy of ‘voluntary’ collaboration and ‘forced’ conscription.15 The issue of war crimes highlights the gap between the self-image of ‘victimized’ Koreans and the label of ‘victimizers’ that they acquired in international society. Many Korean prison guards were from the lower social classes, and thus are situated among the ordinary Korean minjung who suffered. However, historians cannot deny the fact that many of the Korean prison guards committed the crimes of torturing and abusing POWs with or without the direct orders of their Japanese superiors. For these scholars, it is of critical importance whether the convicted personnel were from a colonized nation, but from the perspective of international law, neither the nationality nor the nature of their recruitment was an essential element in judging the gravity of their war crimes. On this point, what the Korean nationalist historians (and the Japanese scholars cited above) have to face is not Japanese colonialism or Japan’s own nationalistic historiography, but an internationally recognized standard of justice.

The decision of the “Truth Commission” also reveals the dominant minjung discourse in the movement to “set history straight.” In November 2006, the Korean “Truth Commission”16 studied the records of Class BC war tribunals, and pronounced the convicts of the Korean B/C war criminals innocent.17 The Commission declared that all 86 convicts who had requested reinvestigation were cleared of the guilty verdicts delivered in the Allied war crimes tribunals because the courts had not examined enough evidence. It explained that those convicts who were high-ranking officials or Kempeitai most likely volunteered to cooperate with the Japanese military, and were thus outside the scope of its reinvestigation. It also ruled that those Korean B/C criminals suffered the “double pain” of being conscripted by the Japanese government and being imprisoned as war criminals.18 This, at root, is a preservation of the dichotomy of ruling elites and innocent masses. Its decision not to include high-ranking officials and Kempeitai in its reinvestigation program confirms the worldview that is heavily influenced by the minjung discourse.

Despite its relevance to questions of social justice, it is unlikely that scholars will take an interest in the issue of war criminals if they remain within the confines of the nationalist paradigm. As De Ceuster argues, “the collaboration issue is much more related to the postliberation development of an independent South Korean state than it is to the colonial period.”19 Many writings on the collaboration issue focus on the impact on postwar society—what harms former collaborators caused to Korea’s development in unification and democratization.20 War criminals did not play a significant role in post-liberation Korean politics, and it helps explain why the issue was left out of their research agenda.


The issue of Korean war criminals highlights the complexity of integrating Korean society and people into Japan’s empire, and can trigger controversies over how we should conceptualize the position of those Koreans who worked within the Japanese imperial system. This question is probably particularly hard to face for nationalist historians who immerse themselves in a minjung discourse which dichotomizes the suffering (poor ordinary Koreans who hated and resisted collaborators) and the evildoers (ruling elites who benefited through collaboration). The Korean war criminals indeed suffered from the political circumstances and received unfair treatment after their release. Their compensation issue, however, should not prevent us from drawing from their experiences implications for larger issues, especially on the issue of individuals facing state power across colonies and the metropole, the appropriate procedures of ‘transitional justice,’ the individual criminal responsibility and the relationship between international law and imperialism.

  1. For example, Ahn Byung-ook, “The Significance of Settling the Past in Modern Korean History,” Korea Journal, Autumn 2002, pp.7-17, and Chung Youn-tae, “Refracted Modernity and the Issue of Pro-Japanese Collaborators in Korea,” Korea Journal, Autumn 2002, pp.18-59  

  2. New York Times, “World Briefing, Asia: South Korea: Crackdown On Collaborators” May 3rd 2007.  

  3. The Korea Times, “202 Pro-Japanese Collaborators Disclosed.” September 17, 2007  

  4. Hayashi Hiroshi, BC kyū Senpan Saiban (Class BC War Crime Tribunals), Iwanami Shinsho, 2005, p.203  

  5. Many convicts in China were Japanese-Chinese interpreters.  

  6. Yutaka Shuichi, “‘Japanese’ War Criminals Seek Redress,” Japan Focus, May 22, 2005. Gil Hyeong-yun, “The complicated history of Korean war criminals,” The Hankyoreh, March 14, 2007. See also Hayashi p.153  

  7. Hayashi, p.153  

  8. Lester Rasbury in Robert La Forte & Ronald Marcello eds. The Ordeal of American POWs in Burma, 1942-1945: Building the Death Railway, Scholarly Resources, 1993. p.60  

  9. ibid., p.117.  

  10. Chung p.47-48. Also see Ahn p.7-9  

  11. Chung p.48  

  12. Koen De Ceuster, “The Nation Exorcised: The Historiography of Collaboration in South Korea,” Korean Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2002, pp.18-59  

  13. Utsumi Aiko, Chōsenjin BC Kyū Senpan no Kiroku (A Record of Korean Class BC War Criminals), Keisō Shobō, 1982. Kankou, Chōsenjin BC KyūSenpan wo Sasaeru kai, Sojō (A Complaint to the Court), 1991. The Organization of United Korean Youth in Japan, Chōsenjin BC Kyū Senpan Mondai (The Problem of Korean Class B/C Criminals), 1991.  

  14. See Chae Yŏng-guk, Haebang hu BCgŭp Jŏnbŏmi doen Han’gugin P’orogamsiwŏn (Korean Prison Guards Who Became Class BC War Criminals in the Aftermath of Liberation), Han’guk Kunhyeondaesa Yŏngu (Korean Modern and Contemporary Historical Research), vol. 29, 2004 June, pp.7-36. Also see Kim Yong-hee, BC gŭp Jŏnbŏm Chae’pan gwa Chosŏnin (A Study of the B and C Class War Crime Trials and Korean War Criminals), Pŏphak Yŏn’gu (Legal Studies) vol.27, August 25, 2007. pp. 513-535  

  15. See stories in Utsumi Aiko, Chōsenjin BC Kyū Senpan no Kiroku, and Gil Hyeong-yun, “Convicted of war crimes during WWII, 80-year-old Korean tells his story” The Hankyoreh, March 14, 2007.  

  16. The Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization under the Japanese Imperialism Republic of Korea  

  17. This Commission, comprised scholars and government officials, was established in November 2004 in response to “the Disclosure Act of Forced Mobilization under the Japanese Imperialism.” They set its purpose as “revealing the truth of Japanese war crime [sic] through investigating forced mobilization (forced labor, conscription, and so-called ‘Comfort Women’).” From their website. Seen on September 23, 2007.  

  18. “강제동원 ‘조선인 전범’ 오명 벗었다, (Forcefully Mobilized ‘Korean War Criminals’ Cleared)” Seoul Sinmun, November 13, 2006.  

  19. De Ceuster p.219  

  20. For example, Chung p.46 argues that “the root of all the negative legacies of a hundred years of modernity in Korea—colonialism, national division, war, dictatorship, dependence on foreign powers, and social injustice stem from the problem of collaborations.”  


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