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Korean War Propaganda Leaflet Collection at the Library of Congress

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(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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Comments (12)

  1. This sounds like an interesting collection. However, my view is that the U.S. should have stayed out of Korea just as we should have stayed out of Vietnam. We think that just because we are white that we have a right to push Asians and Africans around. Let’s clean up our own house first.

  2. I have an intercepted Morse code letter from the Chinese to Russia regarding Stalin’s Death. My father was in the Korean war, has since passed. I assume he took this with him after typing it. Any interest?

  3. My father-in-law John Nelson served in the Korean War and was an artist drawing leaflets for the propaganda campaign. I would love to know how to get him to a place where he could look and maybe recognize some of the leaflets he had drawn he’s 92 now living in Savannah Georgia

  4. Hi Diane – thank you for the comment. The Library’s Korean War Propaganda Leaflet Collection has been scheduled for digitization in the near future, although we do not yet know when it will be completed. Once digitized, the leaflets will be freely viewable online on the Library’s website. In addition, this collection is accessible by appointment in the Asian Reading Room of the Library of Congress. Please contact Korean reference staff through the Asian Division’s Ask a Librarian, https://ask.loc.gov/asia, in order to make arrangements prior to visiting.

  5. Has this collection been digitized yet? I would like to view it, not from the US so unable to visit the library.

  6. William,that is an astonishingly ignorant take on the Korean War. Take a look at how the people of North Korea currently suffer. That is what was in store for South Korea. We likely would have lost Japan to the Communists as well at some point if we had given up our foothold in that region. Working race into this equation is frankly bizarre as this was the first U.N. police action which saw so many nationalities and ethnic groups come together and fight alongside the native ROK. Please, at least make an attempt to learn some history before commenting in the future.

  7. My dad served in Korea in 1951 with a First Calvary Artillery unit. He collected many leaflets that he saved. What are my options in making these public.

    • Dear David,
      Thanks for your message! You can contact a Korean reference librarian about donating to the Library using our Ask-a-librarian service at this link: https://ask.loc.gov/asia.
      And thanks for reading!

  8. “the U.S. should have stayed out of Korea just as we should have stayed out of Vietnam. We think that just because we are white that we have a right to push Asians and Africans around. Let’s clean up our own house first” Have you ever been to Korea? Not only look at South Korea, one of the most successful enterprising nations I have ever seen. Ask the people about the war & what would have happened if the USA hadn’t stepped in. If we hadn’t, S Korea would be a basket case nightmare like North Korea. Ask the Japanese w nukes pointing at them from NK. And bringing race into it… all this from the successful marxist propaganda of the 60s.

  9. Prior to the 1980s, South Korea actually had a LOWER per capita standard of living than North Korea did. Granted, that has changed a lot since then. But throughout the fifties, sixties, and early seventies, South Korea was still a poorer country than North Korea with about the same amount of repression as North Korea.

    As for the U.N. troops who fought along side the U.S. and South Korea, they were merely token troops for window dressing.

    The U.S. dragged the U.N. into that war to be a RUBBER-STAMP for Truman, Acheson, and company. The Korean Peninsula was already bogged down in a civil war for five years before Truman sent in the first ground troops in the summer of 1950.

    Both Koreas wanted to forcibly annex each other. Just as you had pro- and anti-communists among the Korean populace, you had other Koreans who simply wanted a UNIFIED government under either South or North Korean (either anti- or pro-communist) control JUST so long as the peninsula was reunified. This explains why some Koreans could vascillate between either one of the two Koreas’ dictatorships depending on who was winning at any particular time.

    On a final note, one cannot understand the Korean War without understanding the legacy of Japanese imperialism and the U.S.’s pro-Japanese bias. Truman, MacArthur, and Company viewed the Japanese as honorary whites while viewing all Koreans, whether anti- or pro-communist, whether South or North, as racially inferior “gooks”. “Gooks” is the terms that most U.S. soldiers used in referring to any Korean.

  10. The U.S. was better at killing and torturing unarmed P.O.W.’s and at killing large numbers of civilians, especially North Koreans, mostly from the air than from the ground.

    More on the Japanese imperialist legacy: the Korean Peninsula had both Korean pro-independence fighters and those who collaborated with the Japanese and Nazis. When the Soviet Union decided to declare war on Japan in August of 1945 shortly before the Japanese surrender, the Koreans who trained on Russian and Manchurian soil were anti-Japanese. In contrast, the U.S. threw in its lot with the pro-Japanese collaborators–some of whom served in the Japanese-occupied Philippines where they took part in the death march that the Japanese forced on U.S. POW’s during the Second World War. Because these Japanese who abused the U.S. POW’s were anti-communist, however, the U.S. chose not to punish them for their crimes against U.S. WW2 personnel. More to follow.

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