by Valtin | 8/20/2008 05:52:00 PM
Charles J. Hanley, special correspondent for Associated Press (AP), has written a compelling, fascinating and sad tale of the execution of purported Korean "Mata Hari", Kim Soo-im, at the start of the Korean War. He linked her torture and death to the recent revelations about the more than 100,000 murders of leftists or suspected leftists sympathizers in 1950 by the U.S.-allied (and some would say puppet) regime of South Korea.

This massive human rights crime was covered up by the United States for over fifty years, and it's unclear to what extent U.S. forces participated in the slaughter. We need to understand the history of lies and cover-up perpetuated by the Pentagon, State Department, and executive branch in general, not simply for history's sake, but because the aggressive U.S. militarist policy is accelerating beyond its Middle Eastern goals, and aiming itself at Russia. Placing missiles less than 200 miles from St. Petersburg -- US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski signed the deal today -- the U.S. flirts with a Third World War. Such a war would be a disaster of epic proportions, if anyone were left alive afterwards to judge the scope of its destruction.

Does the U.S. government tell the truth, particularly when it comes to war? Here's one story, with some notice of differential press coverage. It mostly follows the details as laid out in Hanley's AP story.

Kim's Story

Wonil Kim, Kim's son by former U.S. Colonel John Baird, has been trying to find out the truth about his mother's death, and the charges of spying for North Korea that led to her death. But recently declassified files, including those of a 1950 U.S. military investigation into the charges of spying by Soon-im, revealed it was known soon after her trial (if not even then) that the charges had no basis. Col. Baird, from whom Kim supposedly stole secrets, had no access to the disputed military information. Her confession had been elicited through waterboarding torture, and perhaps by electric shock and other barbaric physical means.

But like the deaths of many tens of thousands of others in cold blood by U.S. ally South Korea, the truth was hidden from the world. Important aspects of what occurred in Korea over 50 years ago remain unknown. As the censorship work of Fox News demonstrates, if they could, major players in the media would keep the reality of what happened hidden, caged in an ideological prison, unsafe for general distribution, the better to protect the image and behavior of the U.S. from both domestic and international condemnation.

Kim's story begins in 1941, when the glamorous and educated Soon-im married Lee Gang-kook, a German-educated Seoul leftist. Lee ended up on the "Central People's Committee, a broad nationalist coalition that sought to take over Korea from a defeated Japan in September 1945." The Japanese had occupied Korea in a brutal fashion since 1910. In Korea, this period is referred to as the Japanese Forcible Occupation Period.

After Japan was defeated in World War II, the U.S. occupied the southern portion of Korea, and the Soviets occupied the northern area. The dividing line was set at the 38th parallel. According to the AP article, in its full version published by Newsweek (emphasis added):
Cho [Myung-hwa, a film director planning a film on Lee's life,] pointed out a little-known fact: In 1946, a year after the U.S. Army occupied southern Korea at World War II's end, a U.S. Embassy poll found that 77 percent of southerners wanted a socialist or communist future.

Instead, the U.S. military government kept many of Japan's right-wing Korean collaborators in power, and the U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. John R. Hodge, vowed to "stamp out" the communists.
In the version of the story posted by Fox News, the first of the two quoted paragraphs is omitted. This is a "little-known" fact that Fox, and many in this country, would like to keep as obscure as possible. Fox News made one other redaction in AP's story, but I'll get to that in a minute.

After the U.S. occupational forces withdrew in 1949, Kim's former lover, Gang-kook, became a leader in the north, while Kim herself worked as for her new lover, Col. Baird, assisting him in his work advising the national police of the new South Korean government. Kim also had a child by Baird, and he set up a house for her and the child, often spending his nights there with her.

Confession by Torture

But in March 1950, as arrests of thousands of leftists or suspected sympathizers in South Korea began in earnest under the right-wing, U.S. backed government of President Syngman Rhee, Kim was arrested. The North Korean invasion was still some three months away. The most serious charge against Soo-im was espionage, which carried the death penalty. Kim was supposed to have given U.S. military information to her former lover Gang-kook. There were assorted other charges, of keeping guns, of stealing government vehicles. There never was any material evidence, nor any eyewitnesses, to back up any of the charges.
"It was witch-hunting," said historian Jung Byung-joon, who has studied the case. "The South Korean police and prosecutors hated her because she was the lover of Lee Gang-kook, and then of Col. Baird, and nobody could touch her. They waited for their chance."
The South Korean prosecutors used torture to obtain a confession. By the third day of the trial, Kim broke down.
Col. William H.S. Wright, head of the Korea advisory group, had testified that her confession was probably forced through "out and out torture," probably near-drowning, or waterboarding, as it's now known.

"The water cure is a very common method," Wright said. "Electric shock and the use of pliers is frequent." [emphasis added]

A Korean source backs this up. In a 2005 Seoul TV report on Kim Soo-im, longtime government propagandist Oh Jae-ho, a staunch anticommunist, said he learned from a police official that the defendant had to be carried into the courtroom to confess on the final day.
For some reason, the Fox News version of the story did not include the middle paragraph quoted above. Was it the claim of the regularity by which a U.S. ally used waterboarding torture that Fox sought to hide? Or was it the use of other barbaric techniques? The use of pliers?

The confession sealed Kim's fate. She was found guilty by the South Korean military court, and executed. A top-secret inquiry by the U.S. military, initiated only weeks after the verdict, found Kim Soo-im innocent of the charges. Her file "was stamped 'case closed.'"

A government recommendation for a court martial for Col. Baird was ignored. The entire affair entered the realm of purported history, another bit of propagandistic lore, meant to display the perfidy of the communists, and the rightness of U.S. intervention and war.

Baird never spoke out to defend his lover, the mother of his son. The U.S. government never released its exculpatory findings, even as her case was used for propagandistic purposes over the years. One teleplay from the 50s said to depict Kim "as Asia's Mata Hari," was introduced by host Ronald Reagan. Cornonet magazine labeled her "The Korean Seductress Who Betrayed America."

As for Lee Gang-kook, an Army intelligence document links him to the CIA's "JACK" program (Joint Activities Commission, Korea). Lee was executed in the North after the war, labeled an American spy. One wonders if the story against Lee weren't concocted by the CIA, in part to build up the credentials of their own agent in Pyongyang. We shall likely never know.

After This, What Redemption?

Thanks to the valiant efforts of Kim's son, who only wanted to know the truth about his mother, Kim's story is being heard again. But in the wild roar that is the rush of 24-hour news, the clamoring of the blogosphere, and the distractions of video, gaming, films, and music, her story will sink back into the anonymity of old historical fact, like a stone dropped forever into the river Lethe.

And yet, poised on the edge of a new "Cold War, and the blood not dry yet from the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, with its own hundreds of thousands dead, and millions of forgotten refugees... and yet, the story of Kim Soo-im has more relevance than ever. The use of torture by a U.S. ally, the cover-up of mass killings and judicial injustice, the censorship of what "foreigners" really think and feel, these lessons must be internalized by the body politic.

A terrible, final war approaches: a nuclear war. Make no mistake about it. If the U.S. keeps up its present direction of provocation and aggression abroad, and secrecy and lies and censorship at home, the convergence of the two will make war inevitable. And this time, missiles will fly, and civilization as we know it will end. The word "hope," cheapened into campaign slogan cant, will be banned, or worse, forgotten.

Only an educated populace, following leaders who are strongly anti-militarist, and recognizing the dangers that unbridled capitalism, imperialism, and nationalism represent for the future of mankind, will be able to take the necessary steps to turn the giant ship of history around, and steer it towards safer waters.

Also posted at Invictus

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Blogger Unknown on 8/20/2008 8:52 PM:

One of the best things I've read on this site all year, Valtin, and an early candidate for my Post of the Year award. You've done a truly excellent job with this.

For now, I'm nominating it for the History Carnival.


Blogger Valtin on 8/20/2008 9:01 PM:


Thanks for the praise. This is a story I felt viscerally. It's details touch upon a number of my personal, historical, psychological, political, and, shall we say, ontological concerns.

I was happy to be able to post something interesting at PH.

Thanks, but thanks too for the AP reporters who worked so hard on this. Probably, though, Wonil Kim deserves most of the credit for making his mother's story public.


Anonymous Robert on 7/10/2009 4:44 PM:

This is a pretty incredible story, and like so many of the events of the Korean War, is very little known among the general populace. We've started a timeline about the Korean War at Our idea is to create an interactive historical record of anything and everything, based on specific events that combine to form timelines. We're trying to achieve a sort of user-created multimedia encyclopedia, in which no event is too big and no event is too small, and where each event can contain various types of resources, such as video, images, maps, etc. It's also a good way to direct traffic to your blog because your events will pop up along with anything else that's thematically related.