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Lee Hak-rae, who has died aged 96, was the last surviving Korean war criminal from World War II. He joined the Japanese army at the age of 17 and was sent to guard POWs in Thailand. Photo: Reuters

Last Korean war criminal to serve in Japan’s World War II army dies, without securing apology or compensation from Tokyo

  • Lee Hak-rae, who was born in South Korea under Japanese colonisation, was convicted of war crimes for his abuse of Allied POWs in Thailand
  • He was the last member of a group of war criminals calling for an apology for being forced to serve in the Japanese military, as well as compensation and pensions
The last Korean to be convicted of war crimes after serving in the Japanese military during World War II has died without receiving the apology and compensation he insisted Tokyo owed him for his suffering. Lee Hak-rae, 96, died on Sunday.  
Lee was born in 1925 in what is now Jeollanam-do in South Korea, but was raised as Japanese as the Korean peninsula had been colonised by Japan since 1910. He took the name Hiromura Kakurai and joined the military at 17, eventually being sent to Thailand to guard Allied prisoners of war being forced to construct the Burma-Thailand railway for the planned invasion of British-held India. 

He was posted to the POW camp at Hintok, which provided labour for the notorious stretch of the line known as Hellfire Pass. Around 100 of the approximately 700 Australians working at the site died, mostly of overwork and illnesses such as dysentery and cholera, although the physical abuse they experienced was also a contributing factor.

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Interviewed in 1988, Lee said he had never abused prisoners in his charge and that he had been frightened of them because of their stature. 

That claim was undermined by the diaries of Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, the Australian army colonel who served in the Medical Corps and was captured at Java in 1942. In one passage, Dunlop wrote that he had become so incensed at the brutal treatment by “The Lizard” – the nickname the POWs gave to Lee – that he found a length of wood and hid alongside a jungle path he knew Lee would be taking. His intention was to kill Lee and conceal the body in the undergrowth, but he changed his mind after realising that he and other POWs would be held accountable for Lee’s death.

In 1988, Lee was shocked at this revelation and said he had no idea of how close he came to death that day. 

Three years later, he travelled to Australia for a reunion of Burma railway survivors and, for the first time in almost 50 years, met Dunlop. Lee apologised and later presented him with a gold watch inscribed with the words “No more Hintok”.

After Japan’s surrender in 1945, 321 of its colonial subjects were convicted by Allied military courts of war crimes, many of which involved the mistreatment of prisoners. Twenty-three Koreans and 26 Taiwanese were ultimately executed. 

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Lee, who was arrested in Thailand and returned to Japan, was sentenced to death by hanging for his abuse of POWs in his charge. Survivors recounted that Lee was infamous as one of the most brutal guards at the camp and had a reputation for assaulting prisoners on the head with a length of bamboo and would force patients in the camp hospital out onto the railway line if more labourers were required. Lee’s sentence was subsequently commuted on appeal to 20 years in prison and he was released in 1956 after serving 11 years. 

By that point, Japan had already signed the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, under which Koreans who had fought for Japan lost their Japanese nationality, along with their rights to claim a military pension. Considered traitors in Korea, thousands were similarly unable to claim financial support from their now-independent homeland. Lee remained a South Korean national with permanent residency rights in Japan.

Fearful of the hostility they would face if they returned to Korea, most chose to stay in Japan, where a group of former foreign war criminals set up a support organisation, known as Doshinkai, in 1955. Lee, who operated a taxi company in Tokyo, later became head of the group and, eventually, its last surviving member. 

Their aim was to obtain an apology from the Japanese government for forcing them to serve in the military during the war and to demand compensation for the “damage to their reputations” and for the pension and other payments they were unable to claim.


75 years ago, Japan signed its surrender in Tokyo Bay, ending WWII in Asia

75 years ago, Japan signed its surrender in Tokyo Bay, ending WWII in Asia

The group filed legal requests each time a new government was installed in Tokyo, but made no progress. Speaking at a Doshinkai meeting in October 2014, Lee said, “It is a difficult situation and I would like to ask for public support. I ask that our honour be restored very soon.” 

At the time, their demand was met with scorn by former POWs. Arthur Lane, a bugler with the Manchester Regiment who was captured at the fall of Singapore in February 1942, said the troops from Japan’s colonies were the worst abusers.

“The Japanese guards were bad, but the Koreans and the Formosans were the worst,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “These were men who the Japanese looked down on as colonials, so they needed to show they were as good as the Japanese. And they had no one else to take it out on other than us POWs.”

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Lane, who died in 2016, said he played his bugle at hundreds of burials while he was on the “Death Railway”. 

“That’s why I have no sympathy for this group’s claims,” he said. “These men volunteered and they all knew exactly what they were doing. And they mistreated us because they wanted to please their masters and knew they could get away with it. They joined up for kicks, when Japan was winning the war, and they took advantage of that for their own enjoyment,” Lane said.

“They won’t get an apology or compensation from the Japanese government,” he added. “I think a more fitting result would be to have them taken out and whipped for what they did to us.”

Lee was admitted to hospital after falling at his home in Tokyo on March 24, breaking a leg and sustaining a head injury. His family said a private funeral will be held.