Spring 2002

Graphic leaflets rained down from the sky

During the Korean War, graphic leaflets rained down from the sky, full of threats and promises.

On 12 July 1952, American warplanes, following orders from UN Headquarters, Far East Command, Psychological Warfare Section, dropped 50,000 leaflets warning North Korean civilians to leave their homes or die. ‘Obey this warning and you will live’, goes the translation of this Korean language flyer. ‘Leave this area immediately. Take your families with you. Warn your friends to do the same. If the Communists force you to remain in the danger area, send your women and children to safety.’

How many people heeded this airborne communication is not known. The leaflet was just one of dozens designed to force civilians who were in battle zones – and Chinese military personnel who were fighting in the Korean theatre – to flee, surrender, and otherwise disrupt strategic efforts on the ground.

This rare collection of low-tech communications might have seemed quaint a year ago: artefacts from a bygone era before war became so lethally precise. But in light of the recent bombing of Afghanistan, these primitive missives are curiously contemporary in how they represent a continuous effort to reach populations that have no access to mass media. Similar messages have been dropped in the campaign against the Taliban.

The goal of this psychological effort during the Korean conflict by the First Radio Broadcasting and Leaflet Group was threefold: to avoid extensive civilian casualties; to leave doubts about the enemy’s ultimate motives; and to encourage defections from the military and militia ranks. Towards this aim, the graphic design was unambiguous and utilitarian. Some flyers with maps highlighted target areas along roads and railway routes, while others showed destroyed facilities under dire headlines such as ‘You Were Warned’. Although raining leaflets may have been less lethal than raining bombs, it was no less frightening to realise that the United Nations’ air attacks were inevitable.

Fear was a principal weapon, and every avenue into the psyche was exploited. For example, one graphic leaflet, printed in red and black and showing a photograph of four Chinese soldiers (picture 6) with an X striking out one of them, announces a ‘secret plan’ to eliminate 100m Chinese. ‘Will you be one of those sacrificed? One out of every four is to be killed!’ The text explains that famine will take these lives because the Chinese Communists are refusing American food aid.

Comic strips were employed in addition to written warnings. Some illustrated the injustices perpetrated by Communist occupiers. Others were simple instructions on how to surrender to UN troops, who would distribute food and administer medicine. In one leaflet, directed at North Korean forces, a cartoon shows soldiers discussing a UN Safe Conduct Pass, then destroying their rifles and walking towards the nearest UN Forces Headquarters by the open road with upraised hands. Another leaflet informs the North Korean soldiers that they are merely clearing a path for Chinese Communist troops, and are thus being placed in greater danger than their Chinese allies.

The safe conduct passes, issued in 1951, printed in Korean and English, provide instructions to UN soldiers as to the good treatment guaranteed to any soldier who ceases fighting. Another ‘Good Treatment’ leaflet further promises warm clothing and cigarettes for all. And ‘you will all be given the opportunity for health-restoring recreation’.

It is not clear how many hearts and minds these leaflets affected, but it was an inexpensive way to make tactical profit.