SEOUL – On the morning of Tuesday, November 10, Jorja Elliott-Reyburn, a retiree from Boise, Idaho, arrived at a double road tunnel that runs through an embankment on low ground surrounded by the gentle hills of central South Korea.
The 72-year-old American was on a personal mission of contrition. The tunnel is where perhaps the darkest incident in the history of the US Army in South Korea took place.
Even on a sunny morning, the aged concrete of the structure, and the tunnels themselves, have a grim aspect. The place name, too, has a stark, hollow ring: Nogun-ri.
In July 1950, South Korean civilians sheltering in the tunnels – predominantly old people, women and children – were mown down in a storm of close-range automatic fire by US troops – the men who had come to defend their country from invasion.
Elliott-Reyburn knows about Korean War tragedies. Her father, Lieutenant James Elliot, went missing in action in the early days of the 1950-53 war. She has no memory of him – “only a picture.”
She hoped her visit might help heal scars, but admitted to nerves.
“I am a little apprehensive about how [my apology] is going to be accepted by the victims,” she told Asia Times as she drove toward the site. “Even though I lost my father, I cannot imagine having to witness my mother and father and my siblings being killed – that’s an atrocity beyond imagining.”
Remarkably, the atrocity was covered up until 1994. It took nearly half a century before survivors, journalists and researchers were eventually able to piece the story together.
Equally remarkably, despite a 2001 statement of regret from then-US President Bill Clinton, no official compensation has ever been paid. It is mired down in a controversy that has lingered for almost two decades.
At the killing ground
On Tuesday morning, Elliott-Reyburn’s apprehension proved misplaced. At the tunnel, she was greeted with somberness, but not anger, by a reception committee of local officials and elderly survivors of the massacre who held up a banner of welcome.
“It is a difficult event for all of us. The tragedy of Nogun-ri is something we will never forget,” she told the locals. “We are sorry for what happened.”
Director of the Nogun-ri Peace Memorial Chung Koo-do, whose mother was wounded and whose siblings were killed at the site, thanked the American retiree for her “difficult decision to come here.”
She was guided around the massacre site by 80-year-old Yang Hae-chan, who, as a 10-year old, had been in the tunnel. Yang pointed out bullet holes, now circled with white paint, from the American fusillade.
“People who were hit here were looking for food,” he told Asia Times, as he pointed out scars in the concrete next to the bridge. “They were shot with the intention to kill – [American troops] were shooting from 20 meters.”
To this day, Yang carries bullet wounds.
“A great number of civilians were killed in Nogun-ri,” Chung, whose mother was shot and who lost two siblings in the massacre, said. “It is an unacceptable truth to accept.”
Across the road, a memorial to the victims has been established. It features a tower of remembrance, contemporary photos of refugees and statuary inspired by the tragedy – screaming people; a woman holding a dead child; villagers evacuating the wounded on stretchers.
Both Elliott’s disappearance in August 1950 and the Nogun-ri massacre in July took place in the early, chaotic days of the Korean War.
Analysis of an atrocity
On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops invaded South Korea with the aim of uniting the country – a former Japanese colony that was divided at the very end of World War II by great power fiat – under the leadership of Kim Il Sung.
Seeing the invasion through a communist, or anti-communist, rather than civil war prism, Washington rallied to Seoul’s defense.
But the first GIs who deployed to Korea arrived from genteel garrison duty in the fleshpots of occupied Japan. They were physically untrained and mentally unprepared for combat in the austere hills, swampy paddies and thatched villages of Korea, a backward, alien country many soldiers had never heard of.
They were equally unprepared for the fierce drive of the North Korean troops, who were well motivated and well-armed with Soviet weapons.
As the “Red” advance speared southward, US units were overrun and scattered. A general was captured. Stories of North Korean brutality spread. And fear of guerillas in civilian attire infiltrating through US lines infected units.
In this ambiance of fear, chaos and retreat, harsh orders were given.
US orders displayed at Nogun-ri show that on July 25, aircraft were ordered to strafe civilians approaching US lines. On July 26, civilians in the combat zone were to be treated as hostiles.
These orders, and a dire combination of circumstances – chaos and decontrol, poor training and poor leadership, fear of a disguised enemy and, perhaps, racist attitudes toward a despised populace – coalesced at Nogun-ri.
The result was refugees were gunned down by pilots, and finally, while sheltering in the tunnel, more were shot dead by American infantrymen of the 7th Cavalry Regiment who stood face to face with their victims.
The massacres took place between July 25 and 29 in 1950. Given that numerous civilians had been killed in the days prior in US air attacks, there is, to this day, no fully agreed upon number of those slaughtered in the tunnels. Estimates range from 163-300.
44 years of silence
Following the visit to the site on Tuesday, and continuing on Wednesday, the Nogun-ri Global Peace Forum was held.
South Korean Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun pledged, in a video message, the government’s “continued interest in, and support of” the bereaved of Nogun-ri. The mayor of Hiroshima, Matui Kazumi, also sent official condolences.
Last week’s transparency contrasts with the opacity that prevailed for 44 years after the massacre.
What happened at Nogun-ri in 1950 would remain unknown outside survivors’ circles for decades. Postwar regimes in Seoul were unwilling to let disclosure of US atrocities potentially impact their alliance with Washington. The cries of Nogun-ri were silenced.
“Under the military regimes, we were forced to keep silent for a long time,” said Chung. “We had to spend blood and tears … we had to endure difficult times.”
“This should have been revealed after the war, but the term ‘Nogun-ri’ itself was virtually taboo,” said Kim Jong-cheol, a journalist with Korea’s leading left-wing newspaper, The Hankyoreh, who presented at the forum the media’s role in revealing the killing.
The earliest press account of the massacre did not reach the West. A North Korean reporter, embedded with the North Korean People’s Army, first reported on Nogun-ri in August 1950, Kim noted.
Charles Hanley, a member of an Associated Press investigative team that won a 2000 Pulitzer Prize for its work on the massacre, and the co-author of the book The Bridge at Nogun-ri (2001), told the forum, via teleconference, that a “high ranking US officer” had, in fact, tipped off US media in Korea.
In September 1950, the officer told a reporter that “a US regiment” had killed many civilians.
However – perhaps due to the supportive and patriotic nature of US war reporting at the time – nothing came of the leak. Hanley suggested that if Nogun-ri had been reported on at the time, the subsequent My Lai massacre in Vietnam might never have occurred.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, a veil of darkness continued to cover the incident: A 1977 novel about Nogun-ri was banned.
Only in 1987 did people-power protests transform South Korea into a full democracy. In 1993, former opposition leader Kim Young-sam – who, unlike the previous three presidents, had not been a general – was elected president.
The following year, 1994, the information dam surrounding Nogun-ri finally burst. That year, a book on the massacre was published. The shock information release ignited a storm of coverage, first in vernacular outlets, then in global outlets including CNN and AP.
Officialdom was forced to respond. In July 1994, survivors, including Yang, visited the US and delivered testimonies. “When I was growing up, I had my share of anger,” Yang, who testified about his experiences at the Pentagon, said. “We tried to find the truth, things that had been blurred.”
Official US fact-finding teams visited the tunnel and the surrounding area. But there are allegations of a cover-up in the US and 7th Cavalry records from July 1950 were found to have disappeared from archives.
Yet the evidence was overwhelming. On January 11, 2001, Bill Clinton wrote in a presidential statement: “I deeply regret that Korean civilians lost their lives in Nogun-ri in July 1950.”
The statement continued: “… although we have been unable to determine precisely the events that occurred … an unconfirmed number of innocent Korean refugees were killed or injured there.”
A payment of US$4 million, to be made in the form of a memorial and a scholarship fund, was proposed in Clinton’s statement.
However, it was not limited to Nogun-ri specifically, but to all US killings of civilians during the war – which may number as many as 200 different incidents, largely from air attacks. An association of Nogun-ri survivors made the “hard decision” not to accept the money.
“If all the victims of US soldiers in other cases were not investigated, that could have infringed the rights of the victims,” Kim said. “That was the reason to refuse the proposal.”
To date, no official US compensation has been paid to Nogun-ri. Nor have any prosecutions ever been aimed at the officers or men involved.
A family tragedy
Officialdom kept Nogun-ri silent until the 1990s; Elliott-Reyburn learned nothing about her father until the 1980s, for different reasons – familial reasons.
Her father, Lieutenant James Elliott, went missing in action on August 27 when US and South Korean troops were fighting to hold the North Korean assault at the Naktong River line in the southeast. She was two.
Her mother subsequently remarried. It was only after her stepfather passed away in 1987 that she and her brother learned about the existence of her late father. That knowledge propelled her to take an interest in the Korean War, and to associate with Korean War veterans’ and MIA groups.
In 2015, Elliott-Reyburn’s mother died. She and her brother visited South Korea and scattered her ashes in the Naktong – the line her husband had defended in the summer of 1950.
Jeon Yong-jin, a South Korean official who formerly worked with the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, masterminded Elliott-Reyburn’s recent visit.
“The victims of Nogun-ri have sufferings, but so do MIAs,” Jeon said. “I wanted to bring bereaved family members together.”
Jeon is hoping to raise funds to establish a monument to US troops lost in the surrounding area. During the 1950-53 war, more than 33,000 Americans were killed fighting for South Korea.
Accountability and reconciliation
“What happened was so tragic, it was such an atrocity … the way Clinton handled it was pathetic, and I think the Koreans and Nogun-ri deserve better,” Elliott-Reyburn said after her early meetings with Nogun-ri survivors. “If my apology helps, then I am happy to do it.”
She read out “the most heartbreaking letter I have ever written,” to victims. She also told Asia Times that she would widely share the stories she had heard from Nogun-ri with veteran and MIA groups in the United States. Her aim was to bring the long-ago massacre to the attention of the incoming administration.
“It is important to make the US government accountable,” Elliott-Reyburn said. “That needs to be done.”
Despite the horror of what happened, the elderly American’s visit was well received by victims who remain scarred, bereaved and haunted by the massacre. This year, the 50th anniversary of the mass killing, the elderly have reached some surprisingly philosophical conclusions.
“Because of the sacrifices of US soldiers we were able to achieve freedom and economic development,” Chung said. “For that, I am eternally grateful.”
“This was not an intended event,” Yang added, referring to the chaos and decontrol that prevailed at the time of the massacre. “We are both victims – Koreans and Americans.”
“It was soldiers who killed people, but also soldiers who helped people,” mused Chung. “It is the nature of war that things we cannot understand happen.”