- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2000

The alleged mass killing of innocent refugees by American soldiers during the Korean War has quickly captured headlines in both countries. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung called for full disclosure of what happened at No Gun Ri after meeting with U.S. Army Secretary Louis Caldera in Seoul Tuesday.
"The No Gun Ri incident is a sensitive issue, but all truth should be clearly brought out so that South Korea-U.S. relations should not be damaged and will instead be enhanced," he said.
Is it necessary to open this Pandora's Box? Recall the raw emotions that erupted over the investigation of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. Then, as now, coverage of the tragedy by major newspapers and television fostered a national angst over a war that Americans wanted to forget. Opening that Pandora's Box was necessary and for the same reason, this one is too: to remind people of the sadness of war.
At the young age of 8, I witnessed the tragedy of war at my home near the village of Nogun-Li, Choongchung North Province of South Korea. My house was targeted by U.S. bombers after my family fled because it became a post for North Korean troops. My father, a South Korean government official, fled to Pusan, the southernmost port city. At the time, North Korean soldiers considered a southern government official a prize kill. Women who were captured were raped at gunpoint and many others were killed. My family and friends sought refuge in the mountains. Each night I asked the Lord to give us peace, the end of the war.
Fifty years later, while returning to my homeland to teach at the University of Seoul, I first heard about the investigation. I recalled the torment and fear on the faces of my countrymen. Associated Press reporters who first disclosed the events of 50 years ago performed their jobs professionally, but cannot really understand the horror of that war. Nevertheless, I hope a cooperative investigation by both U.S. and Korean governments will uncover the truth.
When U.S. soldiers first set foot upon Korean soil, they had no way to distinguish between South Korean refugees and North Korean infiltrators. A U.S. army general was taken prisoner by the North in the midst of confusion in Taejon, just 25 miles from No Gun Ri. I myself sometimes find it hard to distinguish Koreans from Chinese or Japanese, let alone tell the difference between North and South Koreans. Identifying the two was especially difficult for U.S. troops because many North Korean soldiers were disguising themselves as South Korean refugees. As the enemy crossed the dividing parallel, the only way to differentiate between North and South Korean was through lengthy interrogation. On the battlefield, it is always hard to distinguish between friend and foe. I feel that if I were placed in the shoes of one those U.S. infantrymen, I would have acted the same way.
The living relatives and survivors of the No Gun Ri massacre are seeking compensation for their pain and suffering: $100,000 per victim. Is this fair? I think not. How can anyone place a precise monetary figure on the value of a person's life? Life cannot be bought or compensated by money, for there is no measure for the pain and agony of war. War is war. The U.S. soldiers came to the peninsula with the altruistic motive of rescuing a nation whose sovereignty was jeopardized, not to harm its citizens. To now demand restitution for civilian casualties would dishonor the memory of the Americans who died in Korea so that others might live in freedom.
When I visited the Harry Truman Library in Independence, Mo., I learned of one American father who had lost his son in the Korean War. When his son was awarded a medal posthumously, the father returned it to the president. Truman kept the medal in his drawer until his death. I can understand the president's agony and the father's pain. Many American soldiers lost their lives in the Korean War. Is there any compensation that, over the years, has eased their parents' pain?
Still, a formal apology from the U.S. government for the deaths of innocent Koreans and the construction of a memorial would be an appropriate act.
I have been fortunate to grow up in a free Korea. If there were no U.S. intervention in the Korean War, I would have learned the communist totalitarian beliefs and practices under the regime of Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. I'm very lucky to have come of age in a free and democratic society.
Having experienced war firsthand, it pains me to see the killing of my countrymen overlooked and unrecognized. Fact-finding should bring the alleged massacre to the forefront. But demanding payment from the U.S. government to the families of the victims is shameful. One million South Koreans were killed by North Korean soldiers. Who will compensate these victims? North Korea still threatens South Korea and justifies the war as an attempt to liberate the South from U.S. imperialism. South Korea has already received America's offering: prosperity, freedom and democracy.

Yearn Hong Choi is a former assistant for environmental quality in the office of the U.S. defense secretary and is currently a professor at the University of Seoul Graduate School of Urban Sciences.

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