1950 letter shows US approved of killing Korean war refugees

Charles J. Hanley,Martha Mendoza
Tuesday 30 May 2006 00:00
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More than half a century after hostilities ended in Korea, a document from the war's chaotic early days has come to light - a letter from the US ambassador to Seoul, informing the State Department that American soldiers would shoot refugees approaching their lines.

The letter, dated the day of the army's mass killing of South Korean refugees at No Gun Ri in 1950, is the strongest indication yet that such a policy existed for all US forces in Korea, and the first evidence that that policy was known to upper ranks of the US government.

"If refugees do appear from north of US lines they will receive warning shots, and if they then persist in advancing they will be shot," wrote the ambassador, John J Muccio, in his message to the Assistant Secretary of State, Dean Rusk.

The letter reported on decisions made at a high-level meeting in South Korea on 25 July 1950, the night before the 7th US Cavalry Regiment shot the refugees at No Gun Ri.

Estimates vary on the number of dead at No Gun Ri. American soldiers' estimates ranged from under 100 to "hundreds" dead; Korean survivors say about 400, mostly women and children, were killed at the village 100 miles (160km) south-east of Seoul, the South Korean capital. Hundreds more refugees were killed in later, similar episodes, survivors say.

The No Gun Ri killings were documented in a Pulitzer Prize-winning story by the Associated Press agency in 1999 that prompted a 16-month inquiry by the Pentagon.

The Pentagon concluded that the No Gun Ri shootings, which lasted three days, were "an unfortunate tragedy", not a deliberate killing. It suggested that panicky soldiers, acting without orders, opened fire because they feared that an approaching line of families, baggage and farm animals was concealing enemy troops.

But Mr Muccio's letter indicates that the actions of the 7th Cavalry were consistent with policy, adopted because of concern that North Koreans would infiltrate via refugee columns. And in subsequent months, US commanders repeatedly ordered refugees shot, documents show.

The Muccio letter, declassified in 1982, is discussed in a book by the American historian Sahr Conway-Lanz, who discovered the document at the US National Archives.

"With this additional piece of evidence, the Pentagon report's interpretation [of No Gun Ri] becomes difficult to sustain," Mr Conway-Lanz argues in his book, Collateral Damage, published by Routledge.

In the army's 1999-2001 investigation its researchers reviewed the microfilm containing the Muccio letter. But the 300-page report did not mention it.AP

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