Reflection on the Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine Tour


On the 9th October 2016, I joined the ISC on a journey to the Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine. However, this tour was more somber in nature, as this mine was the site of a civilian massacre that took place during the Korean War.

The Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine was originally a place to extract cobalt during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Then during the Korean War, it was used as a place to kill and dump the bodies of those who supported North Korea or those who were suspected of doing so. This dark part of Korean history was concealed from the public for a very long time until the story started to become uncovered. This then lead to the excavation project where the remains of those who were killed were extracted. It is believed that 3500 civilians were killed at the site of the Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine.

Upon arriving in Gyeongsan, we met up with Choi Seung Ho, the journalist in charge of the Gyeongsan newspaper. He is also the one who was instrumental in covering the story of the civilian massacre since it first came out.

We went to Gyeongsan market, one of the oldest marketplaces in Korea. We all shared lunch at a family-owned beef soup restaurant where Choi began explain the narrative behind the 60 year old market place. Initially, the market place was the economic center of Gyeongsan. However, when urbanization started to take place in Korea, young people decided to leave Gyeongsan for the more modernized cities. The market then became quiet and resulted in some shops closing down. However, I also learned that the marketplace now has its own little economy, keeping everything local. As I walked through the marketplace, it seemed delightful to see how life was like before Korea went through modernization. Yet at the same time, the empty shops also left a haunting impression on me, prompting me to imagine what used to be there.

We then proceeded to Choi’s office where we learned about how the investigation of the civilian massacre started. He initially showed us some photos that documented the various stages of the investigation. I was moved upon seeing the solidarity in some of these photos but also sad to realize how deeply concealed this incident was. There were also political cartoons that showed the issue of private ownership over the land where the Cobalt Mine is located. There were previous plans to turn the land into a golf course, which was depicted in some of the cartoons. It was quite hard to see how the private ownership of the land hampered the excavation project. Choi then gave us copies of two books – one that had photos documenting the excavation project and another that features all the political cartoons surrounding this incident. I was floored to be able to get these books for free but at the same time, I was also feeling the deep tragedy of this incident.

Following that, we proceeded to the actual site of the Gyeongsan Cobalt Mine. There were a few sites such as the vertical mines and the horizontal mines. Parts of the mine were also inaccessible due to private ownership by a local hospital. We all had to do some steep hiking to get to all of these sites which definitely put me out of my comfort zone. At that point, I realized that I was starting to become deeply immersed into learning this part of Korean history. It was unique, experiencing this as a foreigner and knowing that there are so many Korean nationals that don’t know this much about this incident.

We were able to enter one of the horizontal mines where everyone had to wear hard hats due to the initial small tunnel. We learned more about the excavation project as we got deeper and deeper into the mine. I couldn’t believe that I was actually in a site where so many remains were found. We also saw remnants of human skin in some places. It was definitely an experience that wasn’t for the faint-hearted.

Upon exiting the mine, we then continued to the place where the remains were being kept. A moment of silence was observed before entering the room. Choi took out a plastic pouch that contained some dental prosthesis. He pulled out what appeared to be a dental bridge made of gold, then told us about the status of people who had gold teeth. They were intelligent and of upper class, and were also suspected of being North Korean sympathizers.

It was a bit emotional seeing all those bones not being matched up with the bodies to which they belonged, but divided into their separate parts, alongside those same parts of other people. I wondered how many people were inside one container. To me, I didn’t just see bones – I saw humans – and I wondered when and how they got there. In a way, I felt for those bereaved families who wanted some closure. And so it was a big reminder that although this project has come a long way, it is still in progress and it won’t stop until all the questions have been answered.

written by Mary Joyce de Joya