I sat down in a row of chairs with our Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) waiting for the memorial service to begin. The sun was warm, but our chairs were covered by tent canopies so the several-hundred people gathered there could enjoy the shade. The speaker, Yang, Hae-Chan expressed some frustration, “Some are asking us to forget what happened. How can we forget when we still have the scars? When some were made orphans? When some were disabled? We shouted, ‘We are civilians!’ but the soldiers continued shooting. We have only been having this memorial for 19 years, but I don’t know how to console my fellow survivors.”
On June 2nd, we attended the annual memorial for the victims of the No Gun Ri Incident where the YAVs learned about an unsavory event during the Korean War of 1950. Before moving to Korea as a mission co-worker, the only Korean War massacres I had heard or read about involved North Korean forces and served as legitimation for how horrible they were and how necessary it is for us to continue fighting them.
This story, however, involved US forces coming upon a village as they moved south away from the oncoming North Korean forces. On July 23 US soldiers told the villagers of Jugok-ri to evacuate in preparation for the coming North Korean forces. As the village packed up, most physically capable young men left early so that the main village party would seem less of a threat to US soldiers; unaware of what would happen to their families before they met again. The remainder eventually headed south to a second village where they met another group of US soldiers who asked that they move once again. On July 26th, they were stopped by another division of US soldiers who searched their belongings for weapons and then ordered them up onto rail tracks. One soldier was seen radioing a message and soon several US fighter planes swooped in to strafe and bomb the village group.
The villagers left the rail tracks and headed to a bridge near the No Gun Ri village under which to hide. US soldiers set up a perimeter on both sides of the bridge and began firing into group under the bridge. The attack lasted for three days and four nights, ending on July 29th. Some of the villagers, including Yang Hae-Chan the speaker mentioned above, survived under the bridge by covering themselves with the dead bodies of others hoping the US soldiers would assume everyone was dead. With this and other methods some of the villagers lived to tell their versions of the story, such as the wife of Chung, Eun Yong.
As South Korea suffered under decades of dictatorship after the Korean War, the survivors were forced to keep their stories to themselves. Whenever the subject of such incidents came up, the official response of South Korean officials was to label the entire village as “communist” thus legitimizing such immense force. Even after the war ended, the survivors continued to suffer ostracization in their communities. Nonetheless Mr. Chung felt his Christian faith calling him to bring the truth to light, and he tried collecting stories from the few willing to speak to him. He petitioned the US government in 1960. The US responded by saying, “There were no US soldiers present at that location at that time.” When military dictator, Park Chung-Hee took over South Korea, he made it illegal to mention any wrongdoing of the US military. Refusing to give up, Mr. Chung wrote a fiction novel based on the actual story.
Once military dictatorship fell to democratization protests and a degree of democracy opened opportunities for appealing to the government, with the help of a journalist publishing his story, he was finally able to pressure the South Korean and US governments to hold an investigation of the incident. Unfortunately, the two militaries could not agree on a joint investigation. They released separate reports and finally admitted that US soldiers killed non-combatants under that bridge near No Gun Ri. However, the US stopped short of admitting any mistake was made and simply expressed regret that civilians were killed. Officially, the fault still seems to lie with the villagers. The South Korean government’s Committee for the Review of No Gun Ri Incident Victims and Restoration of Honor eventually confirmed at least 226 victims died either on the rail tracks or under the bridge from the attack.
I appreciate the words of Mr. Chung’s son, Chung, Koo-Do, who said this was not a matter of declaring anyone in the US to be evil monsters, even the soldiers who fired the guns. “We are still happy that the US military stopped North Korea from conquering us. This is one friend telling another friend, hey you made a mistake when you were trying to help us. Somehow we must repair our relationship by revealing the truth.” Chung, Koo-Do describes his father’s vision as wanting to unite the soldiers who were there with the remaining villagers so that they could hold a service of healing, where the villagers are no longer remembered as a threat, and the soldiers can be released from their guilt by forgiveness. He explains that both he and his father have been driven by Christ’s call to reconciliation. They also have begun hosting conferences on education around peace and human rights, teaching others make sure such horrible events do not take place again. On of our YAVs, Dia Griffiths later reflected, “Here are men and women whose lives were completely broken. But their tragedy does not begin and end with their story. Their strength as they tell their stories of pain and use their empathy to create seeds of peace and justice in the world beyond themselves is reshaping my understanding of hope.”
The villagers of No Gun Ri and the soldiers are running out of time as both are getting older. Even with those already gone, bringing the truth to light can heal lingering wounds on both sides. The last General Assembly passed an overture, number 12-01 On Acknowledging and Reconciling for Killing Korean Civilians in July 1950. This kind of step helps bring us closer to reconciliation.
Through your support we are helping to connect these relationships and issues to US Presbyterians for opportunities of raising awareness and cultivating reconciliation. We thank you for coming on this journey with us through your financial gifts, reading our letters, and praying for us. If you are considering joining us, we welcome you! It is a journey filled with painful stories, but we also believe it is filled with hope!