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Two-million civilians slaughtered. Anthrax and plague bombs dropped on unknowing populations.

This could only be the work of -- Saddam Hussein? Pol Pot? Idi Amin?

Actually, it is the U.S. armed forces that stand accused of these atrocities.The victims were Korean and Chinese. The date: 1950-53.

These revelations are part of Korea: The Unfinished War, a remarkable miniseries inspired by the 50th anniversary of the armistice that halted the Korean War. It will run as a four-hour special this Sunday on the public channel TVOntario (to be repeated in one-hour segments from Monday to Thursday).

The series is the work of Brian and Terence McKenna, who as documentary film makers are no strangers to military controversy. Witness their several television series that roused the anger of Canada's veterans: Dieppe, War at Sea and -- in a class of its own -- The Valour and the Horror, which alleged that Canadian airmen deliberately massacred civilians during the bombardment of Germany in 1944. A group representing 25,000 veterans attempted a half-billion dollar lawsuit (later thrown out of court) against the McKennas and their producers.

The veterans will like the Korea series much better since it is full of admiration for the more than 35,000 Canadians who went to Korea. But the allegations against the Pentagon, based on declassified U.S. government documents showing that soldiers and airmen were ordered to napalm villages and machine-gun columns of refugees, have created some discomfort in the United States.

"The Nixon library [in California]invited me to preview the film there," says director Brian McKenna. But when the library found out what the film was about, "I never heard from them again. There is no chance this series will be broadcast in the United States."

The Korean War is still a sensitive subject, especially since North Korea has admitted possession of nuclear weapons and U.S. President George Bush has named it as part of the "axis of evil" and threatened military action against it.

That threat, strictly speaking, is redundant, since the U.S. never signed a peace treaty with North Korea after the 1953 armistice. The Korean War is, says McKenna, "technically, still continuing." Today, 1.1-million North Korean soldiers face 600,000 South Korean and 37,000 U.S. soldiers across a bristling frontier.

The seeds of the Korean War were sown after the Second World War when Russia and the United States divided the Korean peninsula into two states and installed extreme versions of their competing ideologies. Kim Il Sung's highly repressive Communist state north of the 38th parallel confronted Syngman Rhee's right-wing capitalist regime in the south.

Each state actively planned to invade the other, but the North attacked first. In June of 1950, it rolled the South Korean army back down the peninsula and seized the capital city of Seoul. U.S. president Harry S. Truman, determined to prevent a Communist victory, ordered American troops into the battle. Eventually, a U.S. force of nearly 300,000 pushed into North Korea and approached the Chinese border.

This was the beginning of the true Korean War. Four-hundred-thousand Chinese soldiers rushed across the border and inflicted what McKenna calls "the worst defeat the U.S. army ever experienced." Only with the help of large armies sent by its allies, including Canada, was the U.S. able to stop the Chinese advance at the 38th parallel -- where the war had begun.

"The scale of it was incredible," says McKenna. "It really was the third world war. There were over a million men fighting, and over three-million dead civilians. The artillery bombardments were beyond anything seen in the Second World War. . . . They used so much napalm that even Churchill was shocked."

As in their earlier war documentaries, the McKennas have mixed archival footage with reenactments using professional actors. (Brian and Terence McKenna share the narration.) A particular twist in the Korea story is that they had to find Chinese actors to play the roles of Du Ping and Peng Duhai, the generals who led the Chinese army. They also decided to fill out the story of Yo Chun Do, an aged North Korean doctor who is interviewed on camera, by hiring an actress to play her as a young woman.

The problem was, Chinese-Canadian actors wanted nothing to do with the project. "They wouldn't get involved. They'd say that I just don't understand the situation." He surmises that they feared reprisals against family and friends back in China.

Meanwhile, the McKennas sought direct help from Beijing. They needed to shoot scenes in China, and they wanted to use Chinese soldiers. But the Chinese government was ambivalent. "We did shoot in Beijing, but the government refused to let us shoot with war veterans who had agreed to work with us. They're proud of how well they did in Korean War, which they see as a war against the United States. But they felt that right now was not a good time to annoy the United States." As a substitute, he used Chinese students from Montreal, dressed them in replica uniforms and filmed them in the Laurentians, "which actually look a lot like the hills of Korea."

For scenes involving Canadians in Korea, he hired present-day Canadian soldiers, mostly veterans of peacekeeping duties in the Balkans. "If those scenes feel right, it's because those guys have been in battle."

Of the several Canadian veterans of the 1953 war who figure prominently on camera, McKenna's favourite is a charismatic Québécois named Charly Forbes. "Of the hundreds of vets I've interviewed, he's the most eloquent, the best of what this country is. He brings you right into the horror and gives you a Shakespearean sweep: the comedy, the courage, the drama, and you see war footage of the young Charly bleeding right in front of you as today's Charly tells the story."

He also relied on Charly to tell him when the reenactments of battles looked real and when they didn't. "When we started doing these projects, we pioneered the use of actors addressing the camera. But we keep trying to find new ways of blending them in."

This time, the McKennas built sets of sand bags and munitions crates and let the actors, who always speak authentic passages written by soldiers at the time, crawl through them as they enact the words. Lisa Moore, a young National Theatre School graduate who memorably plays Marguerite Higgins (the only woman correspondent in the Korean War), speaks her lines from the back seat of a beat-up combat Jeep.

The McKennas also paid for a trip back to Korea for several elderly Korean-Canadians, so they could visit the places where they had experienced the war as children. Myung Cook stands in the street where her father, taken by Communist soldiers, told her to turn around and run home: she never saw him again. Her husband Ed goes to his old village, where his father ordered him to take poison if the soldiers entered their house. The Communists killed a million South Korean civilians.

When the Canadian divisions arrived, says McKenna, the American commanders ordered them straight into battle. But the senior Canadian officer, Colonel Jim Stone, knew that his green soldiers would be slaughtered, as other Canadians had been at Dieppe, and refused the order. Instead he took his men into the hills for six weeks of combat training, and when they finally entered the war they proved more redoubtable than many of the U.S. and British units around them.

"The Canadian government had already learned not to let inexperienced Canadian soldiers be marched to their death to solve the U.S. crisis of the moment," says McKenna, alluding to the recent pressure from Washington that Canadians should join in the attack on Iraq.

McKenna's take on the conflict is not especially friendly to the United States, even though he is well aware of the horrors of the current despotic regime in North Korea. "To visit North Korea is like visiting another planet. It's a totalitarian tribe with an Orwellian control of the entire country."

But North Korea's paranoia, and its giant standing army, is in his view partly a relic of the bombing unleashed by the U.S. Air Force 50 years ago. Fearing a humiliating defeat, the American government authorized the use of jellied gasoline bombs, eliminating large populations on the chance Chinese soldiers might be hiding among them. Until the end of the war, China had virtually no air force, and so U.S. bombers cremated hundreds of thousands of civilians unopposed.

"The Americans have simply forgotten all about this, but North Korea hasn't. Every hotel in the country has photographs of these atrocities on the walls. It's an ongoing trauma."

The U.S. government has now admitted to these massacres, but continues to deny that it used germ warfare in Korea. Early allegations of such warfare were made by a Canadian missionary, James Endicott, who visited sites of anthrax and encephalitis outbreaks in 1952. The Canadian government silenced Endicott with threats of treason charges. His son Stephen recounts the story in the fourth episode of the series, visiting a North Korean museum where bomb casings, feathers infected with laboratory-produced anthrax and the testimony of captured U.S. pilots are on display.

CBC, which usually produces McKenna war documentaries, at first refused to fund this project. Rudy Buttingnol at TVO agreed to fund it as a TVO exclusive. Then, according to TVO sources, CBC realized that the 50th anniversary was coming up and demanded the McKennas bring the project back to them. It remains a TVO exclusive.

TVO also had to negotiate with the Canadian Television Fund, which threatened to withdraw its support because some individual episodes lacked sufficient Canadian content. "The CTF read the script line by line," says McKenna. In one episode, where a U.S. marine movingly recounts his experiences, McKenna deftly arranged to have him tell the story on camera to a Canadian veteran. "But the Television Fund people said it still wasn't Canadian enough. So TVO intervened to argue that all four episodes should be evaluated as a single film." The funding finally came through.

For McKenna, the most moving thing about the series is that it got made just in time. It's so late in the day that surviving veterans were hard to find. "Ed Cook, for example, he had cancer, but he went to Korea with us anyway. He wanted his children to know the story. A lot of them felt that way. They'd had this searing experience of war and they wanted to make sure their children do not forget it."

The four episodes of Korea: The Unfinished War air tomorrow night on TVO starting at 8 p.m. Single episodes will be repeated Monday through Thursday at 10 p.m.