The Korea Herald, October 112, 1999



One of my cousins—a son of my father’s sister—who was the owner of a small clothing store on Chongno 4-ga was shot and killed by South Korean army troops on a Seoul street shortly after the capital was recaptured from the North Koreans during the Korean War in September 1950. 

    His summary execution took place just outside Tongdaemun gate after my cousin’s neighbors pointed him out, quite wrongly, to South Korean army soldiers as a Communist sympathizer. 

    A polio victim, he limped in the right leg, and because of that, he had been conspicuous in the market and a familiar figure among fellow merchants and customers as well as his neighbors. 

    After the North Korean forces captured Seoul on June 28, 1950, the capital city plunged into utter confusion and chaos.  Most stores were closed and people scurried all over the city to buy daily necessities. 

    It was amid the insidious fear and uncertainty that merchants on Chongno, who had formed a loose and informal association, were divided into two groups, one wanting to keep their stores closed for the time being while the other insisting on doing business as usual. 

    My cousin belonged to the second group, which came to be regarded by the opposing group as an organization of Communists and their sympathizers.  But to this day, I am certain that the decision of that group to keep their stores open was purely commercial and had nothing to do with ideology. 

    Nevertheless, there had apparently developed hard, if not hostile, feelings between those two rival groups during the three months of the North Korean occupation of the city. 

    I was a middle school student at the time but old enough to know my cousin was not a Communist.  Nor had he collaborated with them.  Yet, when Seoul was recaptured by the South Korean and U.N. forces in September, it was a time for many people, including those in the other group, to settle the score. 

    Thus, merely on the strength of the accusing fingers of his fellow merchants that accompanied the shout:  "That lame man was a Communist collaborator!" my cousin was executed unjustly and without any chance to defend himself. 

    I traced the memories of my cousin back a hazy, distant half-century when iread the press reports on an alleged massacre of hundreds of refugees by American forces at Nogun-ri and the proliferating charges by relatives of those who had allegedly been killed in similar incidents in other parts of Korea during the war. 

    But even before the alleged massacre at Nogun-ri was brought to light, I was convinced that there were hundreds of thousands of people who were killed individually, like my cousin, or in groups during the fratricidal war. 

    Most killings occurred as a result of misunderstanding, wrong assumptions, accusations and counter-accusations over who were Communists or anti-Communists as North Korean forces swept down the peninsula and then were pushed back by the U.N. forces. 

    For example, I heard that some people in a village in North Chungchon Province prematurely came out of their houses to celebrate the return of the South Korean forces only to be machine-gunned down by retreating North Korean soldiers. 

    That kind of incident also worked the other way around in the early stages of the war, as frontline fighting became blurred with the flow of refugees getting in the way, making the already confusing situation worse. 

    When things were so chaotic and confusing even to us Koreans, you can easily imagine what kind of hellish situation that the unprepared, hastily deployed American troops had to face.  They could have easily gotten into a panic as they had no way of communicating with the Koreans. 

    Now, you might think that I have been working up to this point to offer some kind of apology for – or at least an explanation to try and understand what happened to – the American troops who are alleged to have killed innocent people at Nogun-ri. 

    But no, I am one of those who want to see a thorough investigation of the allegation conducted jointly by the Korean and U.S. governments.  But I also hope that no one comes to a hasty conclusion or, above all, tries to whip up anti-American sentiment because of the alleged incident. 


The writer is a former reporter at the Associated Press.  He has been contributing articles on political, economic and social issues in Korea to various publications. –Editor