THE GHOSTS OF NOGUN-RI
by Stephen R. Schuit
Today, Nogun-ri is a peaceful place.
Korea’s capital, Seoul, and its other large cities are metropolises teeming with new cars, high-tech gadgetry and a thriving middle class striving to be taken as a serious player on the global economic stage. About four hours south of Seoul by train and then by country bus service, I found the tiny village of Nogun-ri. Tucked in the sweet Korean countryside of rice fields and modest grape groves, surrounded by hills hardened by invasions and by time, Nogun-ri looks like a picture-perfect postcard. Here the countryside still claims clear streams, quiet villages and fields hosting magpies and white herons that find tranquility in the rice paddies of late autumn.
But Korea is aglow in a far different phenomenon this fall, the revelations of the horrible events that took place at Nogun-ri early in the Korean War almost 50 years ago.
After she overheard us asking for directions to Nogun-ri, the woman at the grocery stand next to the bus stop began talking excitedly. Park Young Chun, my escort and interpreter, suddenly realized this woman was passionately describing her experience as a young child at the massacre. Park was about to begin his own personal, emotional journey. Yesterday for Park, Nogun-ri was just another current event. Today he was translating personal horrors experienced by his country-people for a curious visitor from the United States.
"The Americans kept shooting with machine guns," the woman said. "My mother died wrapping me and my sister in her arms trying to save us. They just kept shooting…."
Abruptly our bus arrived. After grabbing the last two empty seats in the back I realized that around me was a small group of college students from Seoul also headed to Nogun-ri to study what happened during the last week of July 1950. The controversy is only now cascading over the walls of denial and politics largely because an aging U.S. Korean War veteran, Ed Daily, has come forward to speak the truth and give credibility to the previously unheard voices of a small group of survivors, who for years were afraid to tell their story.
Chung Koo Ho, one of those survivors (you’ll meet him later), told me, "We couldn’t tell our story. During the 1960s and 1970s they would have called us communists and sent us to prison if we spoke of the incident." Today, Chung grows grapes in his village, but he tells the harrowing story of the days and nights that came after the American soldiers’ promise of safety if the villagers followed the soldiers as they traveled south and east away from the rapidly advancing North Korean forces. On July 26, 1950, about 500 villagers left his hamlet located several miles west of Nogun-ri.
After riding for 10 minutes we got off the bus and found ourselves standing along a pretty tree-lined country road lying alongside a train track. Following the students, we crossed the road and were greeted by a young guide who obviously had made arrangements to meet the students. The guide, a young Korean man, appears to be in his mid-20s. I wonder how he could possibly understand this story—so long hidden, so deep a scar. He does. Dispassionately, he shows us the double tunnel, the site where, according to the reports, hundreds of Koreans, including women and children, were machine-gunned repeatedly over a several-day period. He points to the bullet-riddled walls and to the plaster placed throughout one side of the tunnel by the Korean government during the 1970s in an attempt to conceal the evidence of the massacre. Apparently the South Korean government, a recipient of countless millions of dollars in U.S. aid and military support, did not want to risk any controversy with the U.S. government.
U.S. and Korean officials were at this site just weeks earlier. The pressure is mounting for an investigation and an accounting of what really happened at Nogun-ri. These officials had already spoken with Chung, who with his group of fellow survivors has, since 1994, been peppering President Clinton, the Korean government and the United Nations with letters demanding a full investigation.
Beyond the tunnels lies the small village of Nogun-ri itself—a traditional Korean village lined by rice paddies and nameless streams. Park and I smelled wood burning, a suggestion that lunch was being prepared somewhere on the other side of the walls that surround the villagers’ houses. A Korean grandmother holding the hands of her two young grandchildren was standing near outstretched mats covered with rice drying in the sun. We asked her about the massacre. She told us that everyone in the village fled those fateful last July days in fear of the approaching North Koreans. Everyone was fleeing south in the direction of Daegu city.
She too had experienced tragedy; North Korean soldiers had pressured her young husband to tell them the best routes for traveling south. As he was unable or unwilling to give them the information they requested, they shot him in the throat. He survived, she said, but he was never the same. He died "not himself" in the 1960s.
The grandmother pointed to the hillside where we were standing only minutes earlier. "There were bodies all over that hill," she said. "When we returned to our village, we found them and gave them a proper burial."
We gave her some pears and candy to show our appreciation and in the Korean tradition of generosity she insisted that she prepare lunch for us in her home. It was during that meal of rice and kimchee that we first learned of Chung, the survivor, who lives in a village down the road from Nogun-ri.
The road to Chung’s home began for me several months ago as news of the "alleged" massacre at Nogun-ri was first carried in a series of Associated Press wire stories. I knew immediately that I had to go there but the genuine reasons for this compulsion took longer for me to understand. In some strange way I felt a responsibility for this atrocity. Strangely, I felt at once both a perpetrator and a victim of this terrible tragedy. Korea had been my home for two important years in my life some 25 years ago when I served there as a Peace Corps volunteer. I had always found the Korean people to be welcoming, generous and respectful. Indeed, the Confucian ethic, which underpins Korean society, provides clear principles for living one’s life based on those same values. With a business trip to Korea already in the works, I decided I would find a way to visit Nogun-ri.
Chung Koo Ho, now 63, welcomed us to his modest Korean home. He was curious about our interest and asked for some sort of identification. I handed him one of my business cards. That somehow legitimized our meeting and over the next few hours his story took me through waves of emotions. How could a man who lost so much—his mother, most of his neighbors and friends, be so understanding? How could Chung’s eyes meet mine free of hostility?
(Actually, the answer had been given to me several days earlier when I had spoken with one of my Korean clients about Nogun-ri. I had told him that I planned on going there. "We Koreans," he said, "have the power of forgiveness and generosity. The beauty of this generosity is that it will prevent another reoccurrence of Nogun-ri. Korean people have a long history and we’re accustomed to accepting events as fate. We’re also accustomed to forget other people’s faults. I strongly believe that many Koreans do not have negative or vengeful feelings about this event. They’ll accept this as an unavoidable mistake.")
Chung and I sat cross-legged on the floor of a small room with Park Young Chun, the interpreter. Around us were photos of Chung’s family—children and grandchildren—some of them dressed in traditional Korean clothing. The pulsating fluorescent ceiling light added a heavy mood to our meeting. Chung proceeded to tell the story of Nogun-ri: the story of a 13-year-old boy in a war-torn country almost 50 years ago.
On July 25, 1950, the U.S. soldiers came to his village to warn villagers that the North Korean army was approaching from the north. Speaking through a Japanese interpreter, the soldiers promised the villagers safety if they would come. About 500 villagers heeded the warning of the Americans and left the village of Gae-ri. A small group of villagers (about 40 to 50) walked south on their own over the hills—toward Daegu. Later Chung would learn that this group walked to safety. The far larger group, including Chung and his family, departed with the U.S. soldiers and walked during the evening along the road to Nogun-ri. Amidst much noise and confusion, most of it coming from the fighting in the north, the soldiers stopped the group and had them rest for the night.
In the morning light of July 26, Chung remembers, the group was surprised to find that five of the villagers were dead. He believes they were frightened and may have tried to run off in the night and were shot by the U.S. soldiers who were guarding the group.
The soldiers directed the Koreans to begin walking eastward again, this time about 3 kilometers closer to Nogun-ri. At about noon the Americans directed the group to cross over the train tracks and to stand around a hill not far from the tunnel that welcomes you when you approach Nogun-ri from the west. The soldiers checked all of the Koreans’ belongings, confiscating their farm tools, knives and other items they had brought along with them, largely for cooking purposes. Sometime within the next several hours, between two and four fighter planes appeared overhead. Chung said that the villagers had grown accustomed to the sounds of U.S. planes that took off from a nearby airfield, but they were, he added, almost always used for observation purposes. By this time the soldiers had disappeared. Suddenly the planes and soldiers opened fire on the villagers, killing perhaps 100.
(This account remains puzzling. According to AP research accounts, U.S. commanders had told soldiers that armed North Koreans were moving south disguised in the white clothing of Korean peasants. These villagers, according to Chung, were totally unarmed and had already been searched by the U.S. soldiers.)
Later that afternoon the soldiers returned. Villagers still alive, maybe 350 in number, were dispersed into several tunnels, large and small, that ran under and along the railroad tracks. Chung claims that the soldiers were commanded by radio to shoot all the civilians now cowering in the tunnels for safety. He recalls that machine gun fire rained into the tunnels intermittently throughout the night. Several people, including Chung’s father, somehow managed to escape that evening, eluding the gunfire and fleeing along a stream adjacent to his tunnel.
Chung recalls that at some point over the next two days one of his teachers, who also was in the tunnel struggling to survive the machine gun fire, cried out to the American soldiers, "Why are you killing the Korean people?" Chung says a soldier yelled back that they were just following orders. Chung to this day remembers her cries of anguish.
Chung also recalls that it was now mostly women and children still alive in the tunnels as the onslaught continued. They were hungry and thirsty and wanted to drink from the stream that ran through their tunnel but were afraid because it flowed red from the carnage. Over a two-day period the machine gun fire remained intermittent because, Chung says, the soldiers were retreating and returning periodically. It was sometime during this period, he believes, that his mother died trying to protect her children with her body.
During the night of July 29, after the U.S. soldiers had retreated for the final time, North Korean soldiers came and found the few people who were still alive. According to Chung, only 20 to 30 of the villagers who began the trek to "safety" four days earlier had survived. They were told by the North Korean soldiers to return to their village, but to move only under the cover of darkness.
It was getting late. Chung had told his story. I asked him what he and his group wanted. "I’d like the U.S. government to officially apologize to us," he said. "I hope they will give us enough money to build a memorial for the victims. And maybe," he continued, "they will provide us with some financial compensation. Our lives have been very difficult."
We stood. I bowed politely, though clumsily. What does one do after hearing a story such as this? I told Chung I would tell his story in the United States. He thanked me.
Chung Koo Ho escorted us outside and we stepped back into our shoes, as is the custom in Korea. As we departed he turned, reaching into a box on the wooden porch and handed us bunches of grapes wrapped in white paper. "These are a gift for you," he said. "There are grapes grown in our village."
[About the author: Stephen Schuit, of Peaks Island, served with the Peace Corps in South Korea from 1973 to 1975. As a partner in The Greenshoe Group, a management consulting firm, his work occasionally takes him back to South Korea. He has developed a lasting bond with the country and its people, he said. Recent reports of a massacre of civilians by U.S. troops in the Korean village of Nogun-ri early in the Korean War prompted his return earlier this month. "I had to go there," he said, explaining that he felt a responsibility as an American with such strong ties to South Korea. On the 27-hour plane trip back to the United States, Schuit organized the notes he had made of impressions and interviews with survivors of Nogun-ri.]