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Korean War Propaganda Leaflet Collection at the Library of Congress

(The following is a post by Sonya Lee, Reference Specialist, Korean Collection, Asian Division)

An American leaflet bomb is loaded during the Korean War. The container holds 22,500 leaflets. Official U.S. Army Photograph, from the All Hands collection at the Naval History and Heritage Command.

The Korean War Propaganda Leaflet Collection in the Asian Division of the Library of Congress provides a unique look into an aspect of that conflict that is often overlooked: psychological warfare. The aim of psychological warfare, or psywar, is to gain an advantage over one’s enemy by exploiting doubt and fear about their chances of victory. During the Korean War (1950-1953), one of the primary means of influencing North Korean troops and civilians was the production of propaganda leaflets, called ppira (삐라).

Less than a day after U.S. President Harry Truman decided to send American troops to aid the UN and South Korean forces on the Korean Peninsula, the first ppira were designed, printed, and dropped from an aircraft over the battle area. Frank Pace, then United States Secretary of the Army, strongly endorsed psychological operations, encouraging his men to “bury the enemy with paper.” Pace believed that the Korean situation offered a special opportunity for highly profitable exploitations of psychological warfare (Stephen E. Pease, “Psywar: Psychological Warfare in Korea, 1950-1953,” Harrisburg: Stackpole Bucks, 1992, p. 17). Leaflets were designed at the Operations Research Office, founded in 1948 by the U.S. Army and managed under contract by Johns Hopkins University. They ranged in size from 3×5 inches to the size of a newspaper, and were delivered most often by aircraft in a special bomb with a hinged side that blew off after a predetermined amount of time.

This leaflet’s text reads: “Communists force you into a third winter of war!” (Korean Collection, Asian Division)

This leaflet from North Korea aims to discourage the South Korean army. The text reads in part: “Children are crying over their dead mother as a soldier tries not to hear their cries.” The North’s message is that the poor in South Korea cannot even get proper medical care, which should make them question why they are protecting a society full of pain and resentment. (Korean Collection, Asian Division).

This example of a Safe Conduct Pass produced by UN forces is accompanied by instructions in English on how to properly treat any North Korean or Chinese soldiers who willingly surrender. (Korean Collection, Asian Division)

“Free World” Special Issue, titled “Communists Reject Peace!” Pictured is General William K. Harrison, head of the Korean Armistice Delegation, no date, 1953, p. 1. (Korean Collection, Asian Division)

How many ppira were dropped during the war? According to statistics from the Report of the Far East Command, approximately 120 million leaflets had been printed and scattered across the Korean Peninsula by November 1950. The production of leaflets continued to increase throughout the duration of the conflict, reaching over 1 billion in January 1952 and more than 2.4 billion by the time of the armistice in July 1953. (See Yi Im-ha, “Chŏk ŭl ppira ro mudŏra : Han’guk Chŏnjaenggi Miguk ŭi simnijŏn” [“Bury an enemy: American psychological warfare during the Korean War”], Sŏul : Ch’ŏlsu wa YŏnghŭI, 2012, p. 69).

During the Korean War, ppira, loudspeakers, and radio operations were deployed to meet three main military objectives, namely, weaken the effectiveness and resistance of the North Korean and the Communist Chinese People’s Army; provide more detailed information about the war to the people of North Korea, including warnings to civilians about imminent bombings; and bolster the morale of the South Korean forces.

The Korean War Propaganda Leaflet Collection was donated to the Library in 1994 by the late Gordon K. Ellis (1926-2013), who served as an American army lieutenant during the Korean War. The collection at the Library may be divided into four groups:

  • Part 1: Leaflets produced by South Korea and UN allies that targeted the North Korean Army and Communist Chinese forces
  •  Part 2: Leaflets produced by the North Korean Army and the Communist Chinese forces targeting UN troops and South Korean civilians
  •  Part 3: Examples of the Safe Conduct Pass (안전보장 증명서), a typical form of ppira produced by both sides, designed to urge the enemy to surrender with promises of favorable treatment
  • Part 4: Free World (자유세계) newspaper leaflets, produced by US-led forces, which served as a major source of news regarding the war and world events for civilians caught in the war zone

Even after the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, both sides to the conflict continued to send millions of propaganda flyers by balloon, using higher quality paper with photographs or caricatures printed on it. Both North and South Korea stopped spreading leaflets in 2004 as a result of an agreement reached in 2000, fifty years after the Korean War first broke out.

The Korean War Propaganda Leaflet Collection is available onsite in the Asian Division Reading Room for registered readers to study. To view this collection, please contact Korean reference staff through the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian form prior to visiting the Library.

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