No Gun Ri: What they're saying

Experts grapple with reports that the U.S. committed war crimes during the Korean War.

Published October 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Evidence emerged this week that U.S. Army soldiers might have committed war crimes against South Korean civilians during the Korean War.

According to an Associated Press investigative report published Wednesday, American soldiers shot repeatedly into a crowd of South Korean refugees in July, 1950, and killed as many as 300. The operation's apparent aim was to eliminate North Korean operatives disguising themselves as peasants.

AP's investigative bombshell included interviews with survivors and Army soldiers who claim they participated in the massacre. Hours after the report dropped like a bombshell on Washington, Defense Secretary William Cohen said the Pentagon would investigate "any substantive information" about the alleged events, and President Clinton said Cohen "wants to get to the bottom of it."

The Associated Press account was the first most Americans had heard of No Gun Ri. Even many experts on Korean history had never heard of it, despite a dogged campaign for redress conducted by apparent survivors. For 50 years, it seemed, No Gun Ri had been forgotten.

Salon News spoke to stunned Korea experts about their reaction to the No Gun Ri report.

Kim Choe, correspondent with the Korea Central Daily in Los Angeles:

Korean Americans are stunned those things took place during the war. Historically, the Korean government has not been willing to take any initiative to investigate these matters. The current government, even if it has had some limitations, is more open to exposing these stories to the general public. But until now most of the people haven't heard anything like this.

Mark L. Keam, attorney, Korean American Coalition board member:

It's shocking. If it did happen, it would be outrageous. But I understand that in the reality of being in a warlike situation there could be another explanation. The older generation of Korean Americans and the survivors of the war knew about this, but many of them feel that this is water under the bridge. Many didn't talk about it. But a lot of the younger generation feels that, even if this happened 50 years ago or 100 years ago, a human rights violation is still a human rights violation. I think we owe it to history to get to the bottom of this.

Lt. Col. Russ Oaks, Army spokesman:

There is nothing in the official record that substantiates the claim.

Bob Manning, Council on Foreign Relations fellow:

Remember, this was at the beginning of the Korean War. The war took everybody by surprise. Among the troops, there is a certain lack of familiarity with the culture and the people. And you have this dilemma where [the Americans] were worried about North Korean infiltrators. As horrible as it sounds, it's the kind of catastrophe that happens in the fog of war.

Don Oberdorfer, Korean War veteran and author of "The Two Koreas":

In my time as a correspondent, I never came across information about this. But I was a war correspondent for many years, and I can tell that this story is well-researched and probably true. If it did happen, it's a blot on American history.

I served in Korea as a lieutenant for eight months. I was on a troop ship going to Korea as the armistice was being signed. Our instructions at the time were to be very protective of the citizens. At the beginning of the war, it was a much more fluid situation, like Vietnam. That's when civilians get most endangered because, in a war of movement, troops are moving back in forth through civilian areas.

I was at a meeting this afternoon with a bunch of Korean scholars and nobody even mentioned it. So I brought it up and said I deeply regret it.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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