CIA record confirms US ‘completely destroyed’ Seoul’s Haebangchon in 1950 bombardment

Posted on : 2024-06-26 17:31 KST Modified on : 2024-06-27 10:57 KST
A newly uncovered document and photo confirm that areas housing many civilians in Seoul were targeted for a bombing campaign by the US in the early days of the Korean War
A photo of the area surrounding Yongsan Station in Seoul taken by the US Air Force on Aug. 25, 1950. The photo, the only known one of its kind, shows pits where bombs landed in the locomotive depot and switchyard of the ruined Yongsan Station. (courtesy of Jeon Gab-seang)
A photo of the area surrounding Yongsan Station in Seoul taken by the US Air Force on Aug. 25, 1950. The photo, the only known one of its kind, shows pits where bombs landed in the locomotive depot and switchyard of the ruined Yongsan Station. (courtesy of Jeon Gab-seang)

After arriving on the Korean Peninsula in the early stages of the Korean War between July and August 1950, the US Air Force conducted large-scale bombing on central Seoul.

This carpet bombing involved dropping several dozen tons of bombs on areas occupied by the North Korean People’s Army between June 28 and 29 of that year, including Yongsan Station and its neighboring areas, as well as former Japanese military bases in Yongsan and Seobinggo. This rendered the areas in question unusable.

The Yongsan Station area, railway infrastructure, and Yongsan military base section were utterly devastated by four to six rounds of aerial attacks that continued through September 1950, including one on July 16 in which 47 B-29 heavy bombers dropped incendiary munitions on the station area and the railway’s locomotive depot and switchyard.

In 2022, the US National Archives released videos and key photographs from the Yongsan bombings to the press. Recently, it was confirmed through official US Central Intelligence Agency reports that the Haebangchon area northeast of Yongsan Garrison was also annihilated by the series of bombings at the time.

Currently located in the Huam area in Seoul, this neighborhood was at the time home to many civilians who had fled North Korea after the peninsula’s liberation.

In a seminar on the topic of “Urban Bombing during the Korean War and Reconstruction” held on June 22 by researchers on Yongsan’s modern and contemporary history at the Appenzeller/Noble Memorial Museum in Seoul, Sungkonghoe University research professor Jeon Gab-seang presented on the topic of “US Air Force Bombing of the Seoul and Incheon Areas during the Korean War.”

For the first time ever, his presentation made public a CIA intelligence report on the situation in Seoul during the KPA occupation in 1950, as well as the history of bombing and related damages.

Discovered by Jeon at the US National Archives in Maryland, the report was listed as having been drafted on Sept. 15, 1950.

A CIA intelligence report from 1950 that confirms that the area known as Haebangchon (
A CIA intelligence report from 1950 that confirms that the area known as Haebangchon ("liberation village" in the document) in Seoul was decimated due to US bombing. (courtesy of Jeon Gab-seang)

The report described the total devastation of Haebangchon — then populated by many who had left North Korea — along with military infrastructure in the Yongsan area, including munitions factories, an artillery school, the Choson publication office, and army dependent housing in the Samgakji area during US Air Force strikes on KPA bases and supply facilities established in storehouses in the Seobinggo area and former Japanese military bases built in Yongsan during the 1910s.

The report added that the Seoul Station and the Sindang and Seobinggo neighborhoods were “partly destroyed” — but Haebangchon (listed under its literal translation of “liberation village”) was the only civilian community cited as having been “completely destroyed.”

“Haebangchon appears to have been combined with the bombing targets because of its location northeast of Yongsan Garrison and its status as a midpoint on the way to the Seobinggo munitions depot,” Jeon suggested.

“As with the bombing of Wolmi Island during the Incheon landing in September 1950, this was likely to have been in violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, which strictly bans the bombing of areas with large civilian populations during wartime,” he added.

The bombing of Haebangchon is described in fragmented form in “Before History” (2018, Changbi Publishers), a memoir originally published in 1993 by Seoul National University history professor Kim Seong-chil that included both second-hand reports and his own memories of witnessing the horrors while living in Seoul’s Jeongneung area during the war.

While the public became generally aware of the attacks with Kim’s eyewitness accounts of “thousands of innocent casualties due to indiscriminate bombing,” no official documentary records were previously known of. The discovery of the CIA report is considered significant in that it substantiates these circumstances as fact. 

In his presentation, Jeon said that US forces later conducted an extensive survey of the damage alongside the UN administrative authorities and the Korean government in September and October of the same year. On Nov. 14, the UN Command sent a document titled “War Damage Survey Report — South Korea” to the US Army G-4, but the focus on infrastructure damage and estimated costs of reconstruction without any accounting for human casualties prompted suspicions that the US intentionally did not carry out a survey of loss of life, Jeon pointed out. 

Jeon said that the acquisition of official documents that describe bombings that killed civilians 70 years ago in the heart of Seoul was significant, while likening the bombings to those currently being carried out by Israel against civilians in Gaza and Russia against urban populations in Ukraine. 

In addition to the report, Jeon revealed an aerial photo taken in the wake of the carpet bombing in July 1950 that he discovered at the US National Archives. The photo shows the area surrounding Yongsan Station and the adjacent garrison and illustrates in detail the scale of the bombardment, with hollow pocks marking where munitions detonated.  

While photos of the flames and smoke that engulfed the area surrounding Yongsan Station after it was bombarded had previously been made public alongside video footage in 2022, this photo is the first to show clearly from a bird’s eye view the destruction wrought on the area as seen in August, just after the bombing. 

By Roh Hyung-suk, culture correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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