Six years after declaring the U.S. killing of Korean War refugees at No Gun Ri was “not deliberate,” the Army has acknowledged it found but did not divulge that a high-level document said the U.S. military had a policy of shooting approaching civilians in South Korea.
The document, a letter from the U.S. ambassador in South Korea to the State Department in Washington, is dated the day in 1950 when U.S. troops began the No Gun Ri shootings, in which survivors say hundreds, mostly women and children, were killed.
Exclusion of the embassy letter from the Army’s 2001 investigative report is the most significant among numerous omissions of documents and testimony pointing to a policy of firing on refugee groups – undisclosed evidence uncovered by Associated Press archival research and Freedom of Information Act requests.
South Korean petitioners say hundreds more refugees died later in 1950 as a result of the U.S. practice. The Seoul government is investigating one such large-scale killing, of refugees stranded on a beach, newly confirmed via U.S. archives.
No Gun Ri survivors, who call the Army’s 2001 investigation a “whitewash,” are demanding a reopened investigation, compensation and a U.S. apology.
Harvard historian Sahr Conway-Lanz first disclosed the existence of Ambassador John H. Muccio’s 1950 letter in a scholarly article and a 2006 book, “Collateral Damage.” He uncovered the declassified document at the U.S. National Archives.
When asked last year, the Pentagon didn’t address the central question of whether U.S. investigators had seen the document before issuing their No Gun Ri report. Ex-Army Secretary Louis Caldera suggested to The Associated Press that Army researchers may have missed it.
After South Korea asked for more information, however, the Pentagon acknowledged to the Seoul government that it examined Muccio’s letter in 2000 but dismissed it. It did so because the letter “outlined a proposed policy,” not an approved one, Army spokesman Paul Boyce argues in a recent e-mail to the AP.
But Muccio’s message to Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk states unambiguously that “decisions made” at a high-level U.S.-South Korean meeting in Taegu, South Korea, on July 25, 1950, included a policy to shoot approaching refugees. The reason: American commanders feared that disguised North Korean enemy troops were infiltrating their lines via refugee groups.
“If refugees do appear from north of U.S. lines they will receive warning shots, and if they then persist in advancing they will be shot,” the ambassador told Rusk, cautioning that these shootings might cause “repercussions in the United States.” Deliberately attacking noncombatants is a war crime.
Told of the Pentagon’s rationale for excluding the Muccio letter from its investigative report, No Gun Ri expert Yi Mahn-yol, retired head of Seoul’s National Institute of Korean History, suggested the letter was suppressed because it was “disadvantageous” to the Pentagon’s case.
“If they set it aside as nothing significant, we can say that it was an intentional exclusion,” he said.
Conway-Lanz called the Pentagon’s explanation “thoroughly unconvincing.”
“The Muccio letter in plain English says, ???Decisions were made,’? ” the historian noted.
No Gun Ri survivors said U.S. soldiers first forced them from nearby villages on July 25, 1950, and then stopped them in front of U.S. lines the next day, when they were attacked without warning by aircraft as hundreds sat atop a railroad embankment near No Gun Ri, a village in central South Korea. Troops of the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment followed with ground fire as survivors took shelter in twin underpasses of a concrete railroad bridge.
The killings remained hidden from history until an AP report in 1999 cited a dozen ex-soldiers who corroborated the Korean survivors’ accounts, prompting the Pentagon to open its inquiry after years of dismissing the allegations.
The Army veterans’ estimates of dead ranged from under 100 to “hundreds.” Korean survivors say they believe about 400 were killed. Korean authorities have certified the identities of at least 163 dead or missing.
No Gun Ri, where no evidence emerged of enemy infiltrators, was not the only such incident. As 1950 wore on, U.S. commanders repeatedly ordered refugees shot, according to declassified documents obtained by the AP. One incident, on Sept. 1, 1950, has been confirmed by the declassified official diary of the USS DeHaven, which says that the Navy destroyer, at Army insistence, fired on a seaside refugee encampment at Pohang, South Korea. Survivors say 100 to 200 people were killed. South Korean officials announced in February they would investigate.