Korean War Refugees in Signal Corps Films

The displacement and violence of the conflict that would ultimately become the Korean War began years before the invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. As Soviet troops entered the Japanese-occupied Korean peninsula from the north and America and its allies entered from the south, the two parties agreed in 1945 to establish sectors divided by the 38th parallel. All talks to reunite the Koreas and hold a national election fell apart.

Amidst the chaos and intermittent violence, massive numbers of people became displaced. National Archives Record Group 111, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, contains many films related to American occupation of South Korea and the subsequent Korean War. Series 111-ADC in particular includes several films of refugees.

As tensions between North and South grew in the prelude to war, massive numbers of refugees entered South Korea across the 38th parallel. Film 111-ADC-6600 depicts the arrival of a train of refugees at Baik Chung, South Korea on April 24, 1947. The newly-arrived refugees were sprayed with DDT, presumably as a delousing agent, and received inoculations.

111-ADC-6600, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/20374

South Korea, still devastated by long Japanese occupation, struggled to house all the new arrivals. A tent city formed at Kaesong. Kaesong was part of South Korea at that time, although it ultimately become one of the few locations in Korea to change hands with the armistice of 1953. Footage of refugees at Kaesong can be found in 111-ADC-6541.

111-ADC-6541, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/20315

The situation on the peninsula changed drastically in 1950 when North Korean forces invaded and overwhelmed the Republic of Korea. In a highly controversial move, South Korean forces blew up the strategic Hangang Bridge while refugees were crossing it to prevent northern forces from crossing. The Han River became an obstacle to refugees, as seen in 111-ADC-8601. Refugees wait in a December snow to cross, with the destroyed bridge seen in the background.

111-ADC-8601, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/22366

The border between areas held by North and South fluctuated wildly in the early part of the war. 111-ADC-9039 depicts refugees on March 7, 1951 in Chorwon County, which is now divided between the two Koreas. They are loading into trucks owned of the 65th Infantry Regiment, from Puerto Rico.

111-ADC-9039, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/22804

When the Korean War concluded with an uneasy armistice on July 27, 1953, many people were permanently displaced by the division of the peninsula. Let us conclude with a 1960 film, 111-LC-44092, depicting completed and under-construction housing developments for refugees in Seoul.

111-LC-44092, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/28210

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