Convicted of war crimes during WWII, 80-year-old Korean tells his story

Posted on : 2007-03-14 15:16 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Lee Hak-rae was hired as a prison guard in Southeast Asia by Japanese military
Former prison guard Lee Yeong-gil
Former prison guard Lee Yeong-gil

Lee Hak-rae was born in 1925, in Boseong, South Jeolla Province. He has two younger siblings. His father, a poor farmer, hoped to give him a modern education and so he was sent to elementary school, which he almost graduated. He could not even dream of advancing to secondary school. His first job was at a shipyard in Yeosu, and his second was at a lumberyard. Yet young Hak-rae could not endure the heavy labor.

Thus he applied to a job under a rich Japanese family that owned many fishing ships, for work as a household servant. Before long, he found an opportunity to work at the Boseong Post Office, first making stamps, and later transferred to the registered mail division. Under the name given to him by the Japanese colonial government in Korea, Hiromaru Kakurai, he had a plan to order lecture transcripts from Waseda University and study on his own.

One day, however, he lost a registered envelope containing the gathered wages of one conscripted miner in Hokkaido. He paid the money from his own pocket and then quit post office work, taking a brief rest at home. It was the spring of 1942. One day, the local mayor summoned him. "They’re hiring prison guards at a POW camp in Southeast Asia," the mayor told him, urging him to seek employment there. The contract was for two years, with a monthly salary of 50 Won. At the time, he thought to himself that if he got the job, he could dodge the forced conscription that was bound to take him away otherwise. Thus, his employment decision was made somewhere in the gray zone between individual volition and outside pressure. A few days later, he took the exam for the job and passed.

In an interview with Hankyoreh 21 newsmagazine on February 27, Lee reflected upon that moment as one of the high points of his life. At the age of 15, he departed for Southeast Asia. Such began the journey of Lee Hak-rae, a journey that would lead to his receiving a death sentence in an Australian military tribunal for abuse of Allied prisoners.

His death sentence having been commuted, Lee is now over 80 years old and back in South Korea. He reflects on his death sentence as being "unjust." Though there have been assertions made in favor of granting some mercy to those Korean class B and C war criminals who were conscripted under the Japanese, there has yet to be any in-depth discussion of the trials through which they were sentenced. With the help of the Republic of Korea’s Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization Under Japanese Imperialism, Hankyoreh 21 procured and analyzed the trial transcripts of Korean class B and C war criminals. The Truth Commission is charged with searching out the trial documents for those Korean "war criminals" punished in England, the Netherlands, the U.S., and China in order to shed light on the subject.

Lee was tried twice by military tribunal. The original charges against him for prisoner abuse were dropped when the 1st Australian War Crimes Section found his role not important enough to warrant punishment. Thus he boarded a homebound ship, but was arrested once more in Hong Kong, when the vessel docked for fuel. At his second trial, he was given a death sentence, which was thereafter reduced to a 20-year term. The official court document from his second trial, procured by Hankyoreh 21, is entitled "War Crimes Proceeding of Military Tribunal: Korean Guard Hiromura Kakurai."

The tribunal records are comprised of a summary of the martial trial proceedings, a recommendation for a reduced sentence made by the Australian Army’s legal affairs department, a transcript of the proceedings, and the testimonies of POWs. The trial was held in Singapore, from 18 to 20 March 1947. Lee was accused of crimes against humanity that occurred while he was overseeing the construction by forced laborers of a railroad at Hintok connecting Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar).

"I cannot deny that the prisoner camp conditions were deplorable," said Lee. Food, medicine, and clothes were not properly provided, and many forced laborers lost their lives due to wounds and diseases that went untreated. In the month of March 1943 alone, a full quarter of the 800 Australian prisoners were hospitalized. One hundred died. For good reason, the Australian military prosecutors could not forgive the Japanese for putting their men through hell on Earth. They were eager to pursue those responsible for the deaths of their comrades, but in their fury were not about to lend an ear to the plight of a youth caught up in the gears of the imperial war machine.

Lee served as a supervisor of the prisoners at Hintok. As a civilian hired by the Japanese military, he was lower down on the chain of command than a private. However in the trial proceedings, he had somehow been transformed into the "Camp Commandant." The reason for this was that the military prosecutors took the testimony of the prisoners at their word, without an objective investigation into the situation. Most of the Australian prisoners did not know Lee’s Japanese name. Instead, they gave the various guards nicknames, which in the case of Lee was "lizard." The origin of this name is unknown.

It is surmised that the testimonies of imprisoned officers Richard Allen and Reginald Houston played a key role, as they stated that Lee was the officer in charge of the prison labor camp. Perhaps with some unease, the prosecutor admitted there was uncertainty regarding Lee’s official position, but that in actuality he had assumed the position of officer in charge.

According to testimonies of prisoners at the time, Lee was often at odds with the Australian army surgeon and Lieutenant Colonel E. E. Dunlop as he tried to meet the demands of the Japanese engineer corps to deploy laborers. Dunlop insisted that wounded soldiers not be used. The prisoners soon developed an animosity toward those Koreans directly overseeing them. Soldier Austin Pipe recounted that "lizard" was responsible for sending prisoners to work on the railroad, and others recalled that Lee had assaulted Dunlop. But other prisoners testified that Lee was among the gentler of the guards and had not assaulted Dunlop. For example, Captain Richard Allen testified that he could not recall Dunlop ever having been attacked by Lee, and that Lee was less brutal than the other guards. However, the vast majority of the testimony was unfavorable toward Lee. In order to sort out the war criminals, Australian investigators took pictures of the prison guards and showed them to the POWs. Those suspected of war crimes were then arrested and put on trial. There were no cross-examinations. Lee admitted to slapping those who disobeyed the rules, but denied taking any other harsh measures. It was difficult to gauge just exactly how much authority was granted to the Korean youth.

Lee was 20 years old when he was put on trial, and fearful of what lay before him. He feigned ignorance before the judge, and damaged his trustworthiness by insisting that daily labor was limited to five-and-a-half hours. Though his lawyer insisted the charges be dismissed on account of his not being Japanese, the judge rejected this argument - also backed up by the testimony of a Japanese colonel named Ishi - that as a Korean civilian, Lee’s actions were merely the product of his Japanese superiors’ wishes.

"I went to Southeast Asia in a situation of duress and was given 35 Yen a month," said Lee as he concluded his testimony, fighting back tears.

When the trial resumed a short while later, his sentence was pronounced. "Hiromura Kakurai, please rise. The Court sentences you to death by hanging."

The circumstances were similar for other Koreans convicted of being war criminals. The trial of Jo Mun-sang, run by Australian officials at a courtroom in Sumatra, was conducted in a comparable fashion, and led to Jo’s hanging.

 who was sentenced to 9.5 years in prison after the second world war
who was sentenced to 9.5 years in prison after the second world war

Jo was born in 1921 to an elite family in Kaeseong and attended Gyeongseong Imperial University in Seoul. He served as a translator between the Japanese soldiers and the English-speaking POWs. As Jo was a devout Christian, the prosecutor posited that it would have been right to display compassion toward the weak in accordance with Christian doctrine. To this, Jo replied that the military left no room for individual conscience or religious faith. The written testimony submitted to the court on his behalf stated an acknowledgment of his having committed heinous acts. This testimony, however, was written by an English officer, and strayed from Jo’s actual words. He signed the document, however, believing it an accurate translation of his statements.

The nickname of Park Jeong-gun, a native of Yeongil in North Gyeongsang Province, was "Arry." The reason is that his Japanese name was Arai Hideo. He had been a member of the boxing club at Nihon University in Osaka. POWs testified that "Arry" would punch those working under him on the Siam-Burma Railway. When the Australian prosecutor asked if he truly had committed such acts, Park responded that he did not beat the weak prisoners. Park testified that there were many prison guards named Arai, but his protestations were to no avail. He received a sentence of 20 years. At this point, there is no way of verifying whether it was he or a different Arai who beat the prisoners.

Born in Kaeseong, Gyeonggi Province, Kim Jong Yeon’s Japanese name under Korea’s occupation was Kanemiya Shoren. His trial lasted from 4 August until September of 1948. His nickname was "Snake eye," and indeed, his picture found among the trial documents reveals a pair of serpentine eyes. NCO E. T. Nell testified that Kim was more brutal than the other guards, testimony that earned him a 12-year prison term.

Though he had never learned English, Lee Hak-rae knew enough to figure out what "death by hanging" meant. The instant he received his sentence, his vision went black and he felt all energy slip away from his body. After receiving his sentence, Lee Hak-rae was moved to a cell in P-Hall at a prison in Singapore. For the next eight months, he watched as soldiers and servicemen of the old Japanese empire were taken off one by one off to the gallows. (For most others, the waiting time before execution was 3 months.) "In the end, only Lim Yeong-jun and I were left. Before long, it was only myself. [Lim was executed 18 June 1947.] But look at me, I’m still alive to this day."

An argument between Lee’s lawyer and the Australian prosecutors was the reason for the delay in his execution. As the war tribunal generally did not allow for appeals, Lee’s lawyer had to file a petition and have it confirmed by the court. His lawyer referenced the fact that the same charges against Lee had previously been dismissed, and the Australian judge could not help but recognize this. The judge thus decided to commute Lee’s sentence to a prison sentence commensurate to that of others convicted on similar charges. The judge gave his final verdict on October 20, 1947, and Lee was notified two weeks afterwards, on November 7, that he would live.

There were few who welcomed him upon his release. His homeland viewed him with suspicion as a pro-Japanese collaborator, and the Japanese ostracized him for his Korean ethnicity. Thus, his struggle continues to this day. "If only for the sake of my fallen comrades," he said, "I hope that our honor will be one day restored." Beneath the sunlit sky, his moderate Jeolla Province accent was as distinct as ever.

By Gil Hyeong-yun

Translated by Daniel Rakove

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