South Korean Justice

Prisoners of war are driven to their execution in a harrowing image from 1950.

Picture Post, who took this shot. The guard standing at the front is about to hit one of them with his rifle butt. If they have had any trial it was summary and almost certainly they will be executed shortly. It will have been enough for them to have been denounced by someone as unreliable, potential communists, either after North Korea invaded on June 25th, or in the months before that.

Korea had been a colony of Japan for 35 years up to 1945. Soviet forces were already there in strength at the end of the war, but they agreed with the US that the country should be divided into two spheres of influence along the 38th Parallel. In the north, Kim Il-sung emerged with Soviet backing as dictator (and founder of a ruling dynasty). In the south, the Americans backed Syngman Rhee, not least because, as a long-term exile in the US, he was known to them and spoke English. He was ruthlessly repressive from the start, determined to eradicate leftists. Once the Soviets and the Americans had gone, both leaders announced their ambitions to take over each other's fiefdoms, but while the Soviets had left armour and artillery for Kim, the Americans left none in the south. This accounts for the rapid advance of the North Koreans and their 400 tanks in the early weeks of the war, until they controlled all but a small area around the port of Pusan at the southern end of the peninsula. The South Korean and US forces opposing them were by now under the aegis of the United Nations, which found itself fighting its first war.

Picture Post reporter James Cameron was a witness to what was going on. He protested to the US and the UN but got nowhere, even though, as he wrote in his memoirs, he was denouncing the 'wrongness of method not because I was morally against the UN, but because I was seriously and not just sentimentally for it'. Moreover it was happening in a back area, 'remote from any military emergency … Leaving the moral issue quite aside, I felt it was a form of psychological idiocy that ill became a war ostensibly undertaken in the name of collective international principle'.

Soon after, General MacArthur, the US commander, launched his masterstroke, the seaborne landings at Incheon, 200 miles behind enemy lines, and the war entered a new phase. But it was not the end of the episode for Cameron or Magee and Bert Hardy, the Picture Post photographers. The outlines of the story had already found their way into both The Times and the Daily Telegraph when Cameron filed his own version, 'a journalistic essay of elaborate moderation', at Picture Post, a magazine with a progressive editorial line. Yet, with the issue in which the pictures and story were to appear already on the presses, the proprietor, Edward Hulton, demanded its removal, although he had already seen it in proof. Whatever his reason, it was a futile gesture because a proof immediately found its way to the communist Daily Worker and the details were soon spread far and wide. The Picture Post editor, Tom Hopkinson, was sacked and Cameron resigned. It marked the beginning of the end for a proud and pioneering magazine; in the 1940s it had been selling a million and a half copies but it ceased publication in 1957, having 'drifted into the market of arch cheesecake and commonplace decoration'.