This past summer I visited the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington. This small, open-air memorial made me feel solemn and again thankful for the 1.5 million US men and women who served there during the three-year war.
I fully sympathized with the message inlaid on the granite wall: Freedom Is Not Free. Even though I was born in 1956, three years after the Korean War ended, my childhood shared the agony derived from the 35-year Japanese colonization and the later Korean War.
We were poor and not very civilized. Many Korean people wore white clothes mainly because of tradition and the lack of modern dyeing technology. We heard of a lot of dreadful stories about civilians being killed by North Korean soldiers, pro-North Korea regime groups, or sometimes even by South Koreans themselves.
But I have never heard that American soldiers killed any South Korean civilians.
Therefore the Associated Press Sept. 29 report on allegations that American troops killed hundreds of South Korean refugees in white under a railroad bridge near No Gun Ri shocked and embarrassed me. The report is convincing and seems to be true.
At that time, one month after the Korean War broke out, the hastily dispatched American troops were forced to retreat and the front line was just a few miles away. They might not have known that people in white in Korea were usually anguished and innocent civilians.
The American soldiers might have considered them threatening and troublemaking in an extremely tense and panic-filled war front. But they were mostly the old, women, and children.
The US always tries to avert or minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage in wars, as shown in the Gulf War and the recent Kosovo conflict. Former FBI director and Korean War veteran William Sessions said, "The American soldiers went not for conquest and not for gain, but only to protect the anguished and the innocent."
South Koreans believe that and appreciate it. However, this contrary and disturbing story should not be ignored or forgotten.
The No Gun Ri incident should be investigated and the truth should be recorded in Korean War history as a valuable historical lesson not to be repeated.
The victims should be consoled and commemorated. At last, on Sept. 30, Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered a new and thorough review of the incident. We welcome it.
I don't think the incident, even if it proves to be true, would lessen the well-deserved honor and respect given to the US veterans who sacrificed themselves for South Korea.
But the truth about No Gun Ri will enhance the integrity of the Korean War Veterans Memorial and American justice. The final report should be presented in conjunction with the special events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War next June.
*Kim Yong Geun, a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute in Indiana, is director of South Korea's Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Energy.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society