Doubts About a Korean 'Massacre'
American soldiers allegedly slaughtered hundreds of innocent refugees at a place called No Gun Ri. A new review of the facts challenges that claim
On Sept. 29, 1999, the Associated Press published a lengthy story about a dozen American veterans who said they had either witnessed or participated in a massacre of South Korean refugees in the very early days of the Korean War. The AP report indicated that the shooting, which may have killed more than 200 South Korean refugees near the hamlet of No Gun Ri, came on direct orders from U.S. Army commanders. That would make the incident the second-largest reported killing of civilians by U.S. forces in the 20th century, after the slaughter of some 500 Vietnamese in the village of My Lai in 1968.
The allegations of a massacre at No Gun Ri were nothing new: Families of the alleged victims--and even some Koreans who claimed to have survived the shooting--had been accusing the American military of covering up a massacre there for years. And there is little doubt that something terrible did happen there--in the confusion of war, some refugees were shot by American soldiers.
What was new in the Associated Press story was the statements by the American soldiers and officers. Before the AP account, no American at No Gun Ri had ever spoken publicly about killing large numbers of refugees, seeing any of his colleagues do so, or receiving orders from higher-ups to kill innocent noncombatants. A review by U.S. News, however, raises substantial doubts about the accuracy of the new accounts. A dozen veterans were cited by the AP in its account, nine of whom were quoted. But military records and sources provide new evidence that three of the men quoted may not have been at No Gun Ri at the time of the alleged massacre. Five others, re-interviewed by U.S. News, do not support the thesis of the AP story. Of those, three said the statements they gave the wire service were misconstrued or taken out of context. A fourth veteran said there was some brief firing, possibly by a machine gun, and that there was not a large number of people in the culvert. The fifth vet said he fired his machine gun into the tunnel full of refugees but that no one ordered him to do so.
"These guys were inconsistent when we talked to them at the time," says Charles Hanley, one of the reporters on the AP team that conducted the investigation of No Gun Ri. "They were all over the map . . . but we have approaching 50 sources who confirm that a large number of civilians were killed by American forces at No Gun Ri." In a statement released last week after a Web site for veterans named Stripes.com posted a story questioning the AP's reporting on No Gun Ri, the wire service issued a statement saying that "we continue to report developments in this story as vigorously as the original accounts."
When the AP broke it, the No Gun Ri story generated enormous attention. Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered the Army to investigate to "determine the full scope of the facts surrounding press reports of civilian deaths" at No Gun Ri. The Army's inspector general launched an exhaustive investigation, which is still underway. And last month, the team of Associated Press reporters who broke the No Gun Ri story was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, journalism's highest honor.