[Author's note: This article was originally published in the journal, The Humanist, in July 2000.]
South Korea's capital, Seoul, and its other large cities are metropolises teeming with new cars, high-tech gadgetry, and a thriving middle class striving to be taken as a serious player on the global economic stage. About four hours south of Seoul by train and then by bus is the tiny village of No Gun Ri.
Tucked in the serene Korean countryside of rice fields and modest grape groves, surrounded by hills hardened by invasions and time, No Gun Ri looks like a picture-perfect postcard, complete with clear streams, quiet villages, and fields hosting magpies and white herons. But this usually tranquil scene has been agitated of late with searing reports of the horrible events that took place near this hamlet fifty years ago.
My journey there began last fall, after the release in September 1999 of an Associated Press story quoting U.S. veterans who said they had firsthand knowledge of a massacre at No Gun Ri in the early days of the Korean War. I knew immediately that I had to go, but the genuine reasons for this compulsion took longer for me to understand. In some strange way I felt a responsibility for the atrocity that occurred there; I felt at once both a perpetrator and a victim.
Korea had been my home for two important years of my life, some twenty-five years ago when I served there as a Peace Corps volunteer. I had always found the Korean people to be welcoming, generous, and respectful. Indeed, the Confucian ethic, which underpins Korean society, provides clear principles for living one's life based on those same values. So with a business trip to Korea already in the works, I decided I would find a way to visit No Gun Ri.
It is November 1999. Overhearing us ask for directions to the village, a middle-aged woman at a bus-stop grocery stand begins talking excitedly. Park Young Chun, a college student and my escort and interpreter, explains to me that she is passionately describing her experience as a young child at the massacre. "The Americans kept shooting with machine guns," she says. "My mother died wrapping me and my sister in her arms trying to save us. They just kept shooting."
Abruptly our bus arrives. After grabbing the last two empty seats in the back, I realize that around me is a small group of college students from Seoul who are also headed to No Gun Ri to study what happened during the last week of July 1950. The controversy is only now emerging beyond the walls of denial and politics, largely because U.S. soldiers and officers have come forward to lend credence to the previously unheard voices of a small group of survivors who for years were afraid to tell their story.
Chung Koo Ho, one of the survivors, now sixty-three, would later tell me, "We couldn't tell our story. During the 1960s and 1970s they would have called us communists and sent us to prison if we spoke of the incident." Today Chung grows grapes in his village but he tells the harrowing story of the days and nights that followed the betrayal by U.S. soldiers of their promise of safety to the 500 villagers who followed them south and east away from the rapidly advancing North Korean forces.
After riding the bus for ten minutes, my interpreter, the students, and I get off and find ourselves standing beside a picturesque tree-lined country road alongside a train track. Following the students, Park and I cross the road and are greeted by a young guide who obviously has made arrangements to meet the students. Appearing to be in his mid-twenties, I wonder how the guide could possibly understand the story of No Gun Ri--so long hidden, so deep a scar.
|The double tunnel at No Gun Ri|
|Koreans fleeing No Gun Ri area. The U.S. army had claimed|
that North Korean infiltrators were in their midst.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
But he does. Dispassionately, he shows us the double tunnel where hundreds of South Koreans, including women and children, are said to have been machine-gunned repeatedly over a period of days. He points out the bullet-riddled walls and the plaster applied throughout one side of the tunnel by the South Korean government during the 1970s in an attempt to conceal evidence of the massacre. Apparently, the South Korean government--a recipient of countless millions of dollars in U.S. aid and military support--did not want to risk any controversy with the U.S. government over the events that happened.
In fact, U.S. and Korean officials had visited the site just weeks before us. Public pressure had recently led to an investigation and an accounting of what really happened. These officials had already spoken with Chung, who has joined fellow survivors for the past six years in peppering President Clinton, the Korean government, and the United Nations with letters demanding a full investigation.
Beyond the tunnels lies the actual village of No Gun Ri--a traditional Korean community lined by rice paddies and nameless streams. Park and I smell wood burning, suggesting that lunch is being prepared somewhere on the other side of the walls that surround the villagers' houses. A woman holding the hands of her two young grandchildren is standing near outstretched mats covered with rice, drying in the sun. We ask her about the massacre and she tells us that everyone in the village fled those fateful days of 1950 in fear of the advancing North Koreans. They all fled south toward Daegu city.
She, too, tells us of tragedy. She says North Korean soldiers pressured her husband to tell them the best routes for traveling south. Unable or unwilling to tell them the information they requested, they shot him in the throat. He survived, she says, but he was never the same. He died "not himself" in the 1960s. The woman points to the hillside where we were standing only minutes before. "There were bodies all over that hill," she says. "When we returned to our village we found them and gave them a proper burial."
We give her some pears and candy to show our appreciation and, in the Korean tradition of generosity, she insists that she prepare lunch for us in her home. It is during the meal of rice and kimchee that we first learn of Chung, who lives in a village down the road from No Gun Ri.
Chung welcomes us to his modest home. He is curious about our interest and asks for some sort of identification. I hand him one of my business cards, and this somehow legitimizes our meeting. Over the next few hours, his story takes me through waves of emotions. How can a man who lost so much--his mother, most of his neighbors and friends--be so understanding? How can his eyes meet mine free of hostility?
Several days earlier I had spoken with one of my Korean clients about No Gun Ri. I told Jae Woo Bae, a forty-two-year-old human resource manager at a high-tech company, that I planned to visit the village. He told me:
"We Koreans have the power of forgiveness and generosity. The beauty of this generosity is that it will prevent another reoccurrence of No Gun Ri. Korean people have a long history and we're accustomed to accepting events as fate. We're also accustomed to forgetting other peoples' faults. I strongly believe that many Koreans do not have negative or vengeful feelings about this event. They accept this as an unavoidable mistake."
At Chung's home we sit cross-legged on the floor of a small room. Around us are photos of Chung's family--children and grandchildren--some of them dressed in traditional clothing. The pulsating fluorescent ceiling light adds to the solemnity of our meeting. Chung proceeds to tell his story of No Gun Ri: the story of a thirteen-year-old boy in a war-torn country almost fifty years ago.
July 25, 1950. The U.S. soldiers came to his village of Ha Ga Ri to warn its inhabitants that the North Korean army was approaching from the north. Speaking through a Japanese interpreter, they promised the villagers safety if they would come with them. About 500 villagers heeded the warning and left. A small group of forty or fifty walked south on their own over the hills toward Daegu. Later Chung came to learn that this latter group walked to safety. The far larger group, including Chung and his family, followed the soldiers that evening along the road to No Gun Ri. Amidst much noise and confusion--most of it coming from the fighting in the north--the soldiers stopped the group and had them rest for the night.
July 26. In the morning light, Chung remembers, the group was surprised to find five villagers had died. He believes they were frightened and may have tried to run off in the night and were shot by the soldiers guarding the group.
He says the soldiers directed the South Koreans to begin walking eastward again, this time about three kilometers closer to No Gun Ri. At around noon, the U.S. soldiers directed the group to cross over the train tracks and stand around a hill not far from the double tunnel that, to this day, welcomes you when you approach No Gun Ri from the west. The soldiers checked all of the villagers' belongings, confiscating their farm tools, knives, and other items they had brought along, largely for cooking purposes.
Then sometime over the next several hours, Chung remembers two to five fighter planes appeared overhead. The villagers had grown accustomed to the sounds of U.S. planes, which took off from a nearby airfield, but they were almost always used for observation purposes. This time, however, the planes and the soldiers--who had separated from the group--opened fire on the villagers, killing perhaps 100 of them.
According to recent AP accounts, U.S. commanders had told soldiers that armed North Koreans were moving south disguised in the white clothing of Korean peasants. But, according to Chung, his group of villagers was totally unarmed and had already been searched by the U.S. soldiers, so arguing mistaken identity is not valid.
Later that afternoon, Chung tells us, the soldiers returned. Villagers still alive were dispersed into several tunnels, large and small, that ran under and along the railroad tracks. The soldiers were commanded by radio to shoot everyone now cowering in the tunnels for safety. He recalls that machine-gun fire rained into the tunnels intermittently throughout the night. Several people, including Chung's father, somehow managed to escape that evening, eluding the gunfire and fleeing along a stream adjacent to one tunnel.
July 27-28. At some point, Chung recalls, his Korean language teacher--who was also in the tunnel struggling to survive the attack--cried out to the soldiers: "Why are you killing Korean people?" Chung says a soldier yelled back that they were just following orders. Chung remembers to this day the teachers' cries of anguish. He also recalls that it was now mostly women and children still alive in the tunnels, fighting to survive the continuing onslaught. They were hungry, thirsty, and wanted to drink from the stream but were afraid because it flowed red from the carnage.
Over a two-day period the machinegun fire intermittently rent the air, because, Chung says, the soldiers were withdrawing and returning periodically. It was sometime during this period, he believes, that his mother died trying to protect her children with her body.
July 29. During the night, after the soldiers had withdrawn a final time, Chung tells us, North Korean soldiers came and "rescued" the few people who were still alive. Only twenty to thirty of the original 450 who began the trek to "safety" four days earlier had survived. They were told by the North Korean soldiers to return to their village but to move only under the cover of darkness.
It's late now. Chung has told his story. I ask him what he and his group of letter-writers want. "I'd like the U.S. government to officially apologize to us," he said. "I hope they will give us enough money to build a memorial for the victims. And maybe," he continues, "they will provide us with some financial compensation. Our lives have been very difficult."
We stand. I bow politely, though clumsily. What does one do, what can one say after hearing a story such as this? I tell Chung I will tell his story in the United States, and he thanks me.
Chung Koo Ho, our host, escorts us outside, and we step back into our shoes, removed before entering the house, as is the custom in Korea. As we begin to depart, he turns and, reaching into a box on the wooden porch, hands us bunches of grapes wrapped in white paper. "These are a gift for you," he says. "These are grapes from our village."