Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine and Massacre Site


In various English publications, International Strategy Center (ISC) had a posting inviting up to 10 people to take an overnight historical tour of the “Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine and Site of Civilian Massacre”. This type of tour is totally different than the typical templestay experience, visit a tea plantation and learn about tea ceremony, take a bus to Seoraksan for a color tour or to Haeundae Beach to soak up the rays. I’ve been to Ganghwa Island to see the famous table-top dolmen, have gone to several festivals, and climbed the tallest mountains in most of Korea’s 20 national parks. What really is lacking in a lot of these excursions is the voice of the people—not the voice of the festival participants or the Korean tourists who are traveling somewhere for entertainment, but the voice of the average person who has seen history unfold and is living that history. For that reason, I was quick to sign up to be among the 10 privileged people who would go on the tour.

On October 17 the participants and two leaders from the ISC met at Dong Seoul Bus Terminal, and imagine my surprise to find out only one other person, James a young historian, besides myself, an anthropologist, had signed up. Where were all the people who want a very unique tour rich in history? Are people not signing up because nowadays trips are taken for pleasure and personal entertainment? Shouldn’t mental enrichment also be a drawing factor when choosing a weekend activity? So just the four of us boarded the bus to Gyeongsan. While the hard-working ISC volunteers slept, James and I read the provided literature on the mine—all of it published in 2010 in Japan concerning the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Korea.

Choi Seung Ho, publisher and president of Gyeongsan Sinmoon, met us at the bus terminal and became our guide. Choi is a pillar in the community, knowing and shaking hands with everyone; a dedicated man—according to a 2010 영남일보 위클리포유—who had educated more than 500 people in night-schools in the preceding 20 years. He is not related to the bereaved family members of the mine massacre but takes a very philosophical stance on why he wants exposure to what we learned was hidden history in the Truth and Reconciliation articles. “The last thing I can do for our children [future generations] is to give them their history, even if it is a shameful past,” he said. So before going to the mine itself, he gave us historical setting context to the mine massacre story by showing us the cobalt extraction site 1.5 kilometers away.

In the late 1930s the Japanese used Korean labor to mine the gold and silver in the mine, but with the discovery of cobalt and cobalt being useful for strengthening steel necessary for war munitions, cobalt became the more valued object of the mine. The mine was shut down with the expulsion of the Japanese from Korea. Right after the onset of the Korean War, from July to September, political prisoners were brought to the mine, beaten, shot, burned with flame-throwers, and thrown down the mine shaft, which was then dynamited to obscure evidence. I’ve read since that the largest civilian massacres occurred on the sites of former Japanese occupation.

The mine is kept locked to keep ghost-seekers out and to preserve the evidence. Already two excavations have taken place and bones for 400 or so people have been removed, but with the 3,500 people reported victims of the massacre, 3,000 are yet unaccounted for. Unfortunately, excavations are expensive and the bereaved families poor. Bags and bags of dirt with bone fragments and teeth line the inside of the mine, waiting for funding to further the excavation. Beneath the shaft where the largest number of bones have been excavated so far, the mud is oily with yellow adipose, even now, 65 years later. A trailer not far from the entrance stores several boxes of bones while the greater number are refrigerated for preservation at a research lab until funding can be obtained to further excavation. Bereaved families don’t know if their family members have been excavated yet, and DNA testing is too expensive, so they wait to excavate all before giving all wandering spirits a soul-cleansing ceremony to bid them cease their wanderings. But there is no money, no discussion, and no reconciliation. Therefore, there is no closure for the mine victims and for the bereaved families by extension.

As one Truth and Reconciliation article pointed out, “During the military dictatorships and repressive regimes of President Rhee Syngman, General Chun Doo-hwan, and President Park Chung-hee, these atrocities were kept secret,” and bereaved family members who organized in the 1960s were imprisoned. Korea has had a long history of guilt-by-association so for survival the bereaved family members became silent.

In 2000 under the presidency of Kim Dae-jung, a special law related to the Jeju Uprising, another Korean War massacre site, was passed and all bereaved families members were finally encouraged and invited to register as such. This registry as I understand it was only open for one year and has never been opened since. It is estimated that only 10% of the bereaved families registered for fear of continued guilt-by-association consequences that they had lived with all of their lives. Guilt-by-association prevented them from being civil servants which therefore discouraged them from studying as jobs opened to the educated were in general not opened to them. 2,500 of those massacred in the cobalt mine were classified broadly as ‘political prisoners’. A ‘political prisoner’ could be someone who spoke out against the ruling party, fed someone who spoke out, or even had money and therefore was viewed as being associated with the moneyed “reds”. Just by having a relative massacred in the mine placed the label of “red” on whole families by extension.

President Roh Mu-hyun allotted funding for excavations and made an apology, officially recognizing the illegal use of power in previous governments. However, this funding was cut short in the Lee Myung-bak presidency and at present the topic of funding or recognition is like a heavy tombstone under the office of Park Guen-hye. Elder daughter of the military dictator-president Park Chung-hee, Park Guen-hye presently seeks to use government office to write and enforce a “Correct History Textbook” in middle and high school classes across Korea. Many historians argue that replacing the current choice of eight textbooks with only one, which they feel will “whitewash” her father’s era of military rule among other historical events, will continue to hide historical truths and events that need to be academically discussed and presented. Korea disputes the Japanese textbooks which Koreans say distort history, and yet the current government is taking steps to change history via textbook also. Franklin P. Jones, 18th-century publisher, so aptly said, “Perhaps nobody has changed the course of history as much as the historian.” The question asked by many is, if history is distorted and events glossed over, how will future Korean leaders learn the mistakes of the past so as to aim for a better and brighter future?

In the course of the weekend I learned many disturbing things. First, the Internet is almost silent on the Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine Massacre. What is published is a few short blog entries on the mine and massacre and few the articles put out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea in 2010. Not much else exists in English. More surprising is the lack of information regarding almost all Korean War civilian massacres in Korea. According to Wikipedia, the list of civilian massacres in North Korea is one, and in South Korea eighteen; the Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine Massacre, with its 3,500 victims, is not in the list, and yet, according to Na Jeong-tae, vice-president of the Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine Bereaved Families Association, 114 such bereaved families associations exist regarding civilian massacres in South Korea. The silence is deafening.

The Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine Bereaved Families Association wants reconciliation. They want investigations on the war crimes as to the reason of the illegal killings; they want their fathers, uncles, brothers or other family members from the massacre to have their names cleared of “red” slurs, and their own tarnished names to be simultaneously restored. They seek funding to finish the excavations and ceremoniously bury their relatives. They also want the bereaved families registry to be reopened so other families can join and be bonded through spirit and share in the catharsis of healing together. However, seeing no hope for change at the moment, Na Jeong-tae, who was able to receive only four years of education, said, “I live crying tears of blood.”

I wouldn’t call my weekend exciting and certainly not entertaining, but what I gained from going to the Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine was knowledge that most Koreans are not likely to have, especially if the Korean government does not acknowledge its own historical past. I listened to the voice of a marginalized people, and I came away with an understanding of family and truth as being treasured values as opposed to what seems to drive society nowadays: economy and politics. I think I can say that the time spent learning this obscure history and meeting four members of an effectively silent group, was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had in Korea. Meaningful because people spoke from their hearts about their experiences to survive, and they learned to endure despite the pain of being marginalized and emotionally suppressed. I liked feeling their strength because it is this strength of enduring that built Korea into the nation it is today.

written by Cheryl Magnant MA, MA