Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

RIGHTS: Evidence Mounts of US “Massacres” of Civilians in Korean War

Susan Wood

NEW YORK, Jul 12 2000 (IPS) - Five decades have passed since the start of the Korean War, but accounts by both survivors and veterans of alleged US war crimes are only now gaining serious attention. A recent forum here on alleged US war crimes in Korea, timed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war, heard emotional testimony from eyewitnesses who described civilian refugees strafed by US planes, and the horror of seeing relatives literally blown apart. Hwang Gae Il, a 57-year-old South Korean labourer, gave vent to the “sorrow of half a century” as he described the US bombing raid that cost him an eye and took the lives of friends and neighbours. He recounted how, on the morning of Aug. 20, 1950, a US reconnaissance jet had flown low over a field where 2,000 refugees, including Hwang and his family, had taken shelter among the reeds. About 10 minutes later, Hwang said, four bomber jets approached from the south and began firing machine guns and dropping bombs on the people huddled below. “Dead bodies began to roll around,” Hwang said, through an interpreter. “People with no arms, broken heads and bleeding thighsthe sight cannot be described in words.” Hwang’s father tucked him under his arm and the two attempted to flee. But a machine-gun bullet blew off his father’s chin and went through the 7-year-old boy’s right eye. Luckily, the two survived. But Hwang said that his woundsphysical and psychologicalhave never healed. Tears flow constantly from his injured eye, he said, and his disfiguring scar has limited his opportunities in life. An estimated 5 million people, more than half of them civilians, died in the Korean War, which pitted the United States and South Korea against North Korea and China. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary on Jun. 25, Korea was frequently referred to in the US media as “the forgotten war.” Yet amid the wreath-laying and the talk of military honour and sacrifice, more and more reports were surfacing of massacres of Korean civilians at the hands of US troops during the 1950-53 conflict. Another witness at the Jun. 24 event, Kim Sun Joon, told a similar tale. His left arm was blown off by shrapnel on Aug. 10, 1950. Kim, then 10 years old, recalled how US warplanes had swooped down on a field where hundreds of villagers had gathered for safety, dressed in white to show that they were civilians. “The jet planes were flying so low that some kids even made eye contact with the pilots,” Kim said, through an interpreter. When the bombing and shooting started, everyone thought that it must be a mistake, Kim said. He could find no explanation for the carnage he witnessed. “Why were the US soldiers shooting at me? I was only an innocent child. Why were my relatives and neighbours dying for no reason?” the 60-year- old calligraphy teacher asked.

The Reverend Kiyul Chung, one of the organisers of the forum, said that the events related by the two South Koreans were not isolated incidents, nor were they the result of error.

“The US military took part in systematic killings of civilians,” Chung said. “The ground commanders asked the US Air Force commanders to consider all civilians as enemy forces.”

Chung, a Methodist minister, is secretary general of the newly formed Korea Truth Commission on US Military Massacres of Civilians, based in Washington, D.C. The Commission is calling for an “independent people’s investigation of U.S war crimes.”

The US Army Inspector General’s office is looking into allegations, reported by The Associated Press last September, that in July 1950 US troops opened fire with machine guns on South Korean refugees trapped beneath a bridge near the hamlet of No Gun Ri. So far, no results have been released, although Pentagon officials admitted to The New York Times in May that US troops had indeed fired on unarmed civilians and that hundreds had been killed.

Activists involved with the Truth Commission dismissed the official inquiry, however. “We can’t trust the Pentagon to conduct its own war crimes investigation,” said John Kim, a lawyer and president of the New York chapter of Veterans for Peace.

“It’s important for the American people to demand that Congress set up an independent commission of inquiry,” Kim said.

Scott Scheffer, a member of the International Action Centre, which co-sponsored the Jun. 24 forum, said that unlike the My Lai massacre, which took place during the Vietnam war, killings of civilians in Korea were never revealed to the US public.

The reason was that the Korean War took place during the era of anti-communist “witch hunts” spearheaded by the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, “so there was no anti-war movement,” he said.

Truth Commission members also pointed out that South Korean survivors of alleged massacres have struggled for 50 years to obtain an apology and compensation from the US government. But the allegations were suppressed by US-backed military regimes and dismissed by the Pentagon, they contended.

Now, however, the tide is turning, thanks to relatively greater democracy in South Korea, the impact of the No Gun Ri allegations, and moves toward normalised relations and eventual reunification between the two Koreas, the activists said.

In the wake of the No Gun Ri allegations, the Korea Truth Commission has tallied 60 reports of incidents in which US forces allegedly killed civilians indiscriminately. Thirty-eight of those incidents reportedly occurred in South Korea and the remainder in North Korea.

“Some experts estimate that 2 million North Korean and 1 million South Korean civilians were killed through indiscriminate bombing,” attorney Kim said, citing published sources.

He pointed to an Air Force document unearthed recently at the National Archives. The document, a memorandum written by an Air Force colonel, confirmed that the Air Force had complied with an Army request to “strafe all civilian refugee parties.” CBS News, which published the document Jun. 6 on its web site

(, stated that it constituted the “first hard evidence” that US troops received orders to kill civilians.

However, AP reported last December that, according to formerly secret Air Force documents, pilots were ordered to fire on “people in white” on suspicion that North Korean soldiers might be among them.

Survivors Hwang and Kim testified Jun. 24 that North Korean troops had not been seen anywhere near their villages, situated in southern Kyong Sang province, where US and South Korean forces had retreated in the early days of the war.

“The picture that emerged as we went from village to village was that the US military saw the civilian population either as enemies or as obstacles to be gotten out of the way,” said Deirdre Griswold.

A newspaper editor, Griswold was one of eight members of an international fact-finding delegation that travelled to southern Kyong Sang province in May.

“Many people had napalm burns, shrapnel and bullet wounds,” said S. Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran and long-time peace activist, who was also a member of the delegation. Willson drew parallels between Korea and Vietnam, contending that in both cases the United States intervened militarily in an Asian civil war to prop up a tyrannical but anti-communist regime.

The Truth Commission has formed a national committee in South Korea and is setting up commissions of inquiry at the provincial level. It is also investigating mass burial sites said to contain the remains of thousands of political prisoners executed without trial by South Korean soldiers and police in the early weeks of the war.

Declassified military documents show that US Army officers, including the top command, knew of the executions and did nothing to stop them, AP reported in April.

“True reconciliation will only come after the truth is told about these massacres,” the Commission’s Chung said.

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