[Exclusive] Truth commission chief says No Gun Ri was ‘collateral damage,’ not illegal massacre by US troops

Posted on : 2024-05-30 17:07 KST Modified on : 2024-05-30 17:44 KST
The comment has sparked outrage among commissioners, with some calling it a violation of international law and calling for Kim Kwang-dong to resign from his position as commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Kim Kwang-dong, the chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea, speaks to reporters on May 27, 2024. (Kim Young-won/The Hankyoreh)
Kim Kwang-dong, the chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea, speaks to reporters on May 27, 2024. (Kim Young-won/The Hankyoreh)



“I don’t regard the No Gun Ri massacre as having been illegal.” 

“OK, you’re saying it wasn’t illegal?” 

“I regard it as collateral damage in wartime.” 


Kim Kwang-dong, the chairman of Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, described the No Gun Ri massacre as being an example of “collateral damage” in a closed-door plenary meeting of the commission, the Hankyoreh has learned. 

The incident at No Gun Ri is one of the best-known civilian massacres carried out by American troops during the Korean War. Even though the incident was the subject of a fact-finding investigation mandated by a special law, the government official in charge of investigating traumatic incidents from the past has flatly denied the illegality of the massacre. 

One of the commissioners at the meeting reportedly said the chairman “ought to step down” because of that remark. The president of a group of bereaved family members demanded that the chairman “immediately apologize.” 

The Hankyoreh learned on Wednesday that Kim had addressed the No Gun Ri massacre during a discussion of civilians killed by soldiers and policemen in Hampyeong County during the Korean War in the commission’s 79th plenary session, which was held behind closed doors on Tuesday afternoon. 

Kim remarked that if a victim of the Hampyeong incident identified as “K” had fled to Mount Gunyu, which was a guerilla stronghold, and then died during a punitive operation by the police, he probably shouldn’t receive official recognition as a victim. Lee Sang-hee, a commissioner recommended by the opposition party, countered that “K” had been killed while he was fleeing, just like the victims of the No Gun Ri massacre. When Lee asked if it was acceptable to massacre civilians during a war, Kim remarked that those killed in the No Gun Ri massacre weren’t victims of an illegal act but rather collateral damage. 

The No Gun Ri massacre was an incident in which 250–300 Korean refugees were killed by submachine fire and bombing and strafing by US warplanes on the railroad tracks and in a railroad tunnel in the area of Haga Village, Yeongdong Township, and Nogeun Village (also written as “No Gun Ri”), Hwanggan Township, both located in Yeongdong County, North Chungcheong Province. The massacre occurred between July 25 and 29, 1950. 

Yang Hae-chan, 84, lost his grandmother, mother and several siblings to US bombing on the railroad tracks during the massacre. Today, he’s the president of the association of No Gun Ri victims’ families. 

Yang told the Hankyoreh, “They brought out women, children, the elderly and the infirm, promising to bring us to shelter, and then killed us over the course of five days. How could that have been spontaneous or collateral? How could such a massacre take place over that time period unless it were intentional? Kim Kwang-dong needs to stop running his mouth and immediately apologize to the victims’ families.” 

“Collateral damage” is the expression the US has used to describe massacres carried out at the hands of American troops at No Gun Ri and many other places around the world. In a word, the idea is that civilian deaths are unavoidable in wartime. 

Yang Hae-chan, the president of an association of families of victims of the No Gun Ri massacre of July 1950, points to bullet traces left by US troops from the incident on Oct. 20, 2020. (Oh Yoon-joo/The Hankyoreh)
Yang Hae-chan, the president of an association of families of victims of the No Gun Ri massacre of July 1950, points to bullet traces left by US troops from the incident on Oct. 20, 2020. (Oh Yoon-joo/The Hankyoreh)

On Jan. 12, 2001, the US Army and the Korean Ministry of National Defense released a joint statement after conducting separate investigations into the No Gun Ri massacre. The statement acknowledged that US troops had killed or injured an unknown number of refugees near No Gun Ri in the last week of July 1950, but made no mention of the illegality of that act. 

Whereas the Korean Defense Ministry’s report detailed the events of the massacre and the number of victims, the US Army’s report neither specified the number of deaths nor addressed whether orders had been given to kill the refugees. 

Peter McCloskey, former US congressman and one of eight civilian experts who served as advisers for the report, criticized the Army’s report as a “whitewash.” 

Following the enactment of a special law on the No Gun Ri massacre in 2004, a committee was established under the prime minister’s office to identify and rehabilitate victims of the No Gun Ri Incident. That committee has officially recognized 228 victims over the course of three reviews in 2005, 2008 and 2022. 

Then US President Bill Clinton gave a statement in 2001, saying, “I deeply regret that Korean civilians lost their lives at No Gun Ri.” The US government also offered to build a memorial and establish a scholarship fund for children of the victims, but the victims’ families rejected that offer. 

Lee Ok-nam, a commissioner nominated by the ruling party, tried to cover for Kim during the plenary session on Tuesday while the Hampyeong victim was being compared to the refugees killed at No Gun Ri. “A single sentence about someone’s death by the police during a punitive operation wasn’t enough to give official recognition in our initial review, nor is it enough now,” Lee said. 

Lee Sang-hee responded by saying, “If the deceased were unarmed civilians, we need to officially recognize them as victims even if they were killed in combat. The chairman just said that the massacre of unarmed people at No Gun Ri wasn’t illegal but was collateral damage. That remark is a serious violation of international law.” 

Heo Sang-su, another opposition-nominated commissioner, said, “Collateral damage needs to be predicated on military necessity. In that respect, the chairman ought to step down.” 

In cases of civilian massacres by the South Korean police or military during the Korean War, Kim is said to be less interested in giving massacre victims official government recognition than in asking whether the victims were subversives working against the authorities. 

“When it comes to civilian massacres by the police and military, you get the sense that Kim is trying to take the police or military’s side and treat them as collateral damage,” said one source connected with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

Kim has been criticized for controversial remarks on several occasions. He said in a lecture at Youngnak Presbyterian Church on June 9 of last year, “We pay out 132 million won per person killed by soldiers and police officers who were fighting the aggressors and trying to end the war and restore peace. This is the first time I’ve seen anything so unjust in Korea.” Then in a meeting with a group of victims’ families in Yeongcheon on Oct. 10, he remarked that “people can be killed without a trial in wartime.” 

Recently, Kim deferred granting official recognition to 13- and 14-year-old civilians killed in Jindo whom he characterized as “assassins” based on completely baseless police investigation logs. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission moved in the plenary session on Tuesday to officially recognize 46 victims (from 37 cases) of the killings in Hampyeong. Even “K” was included in the final tally, despite Kim’s reservations. 

These 46 individuals were residents of Sonbul and Singwang townships of Hampyeong County who were illegally killed between April 1949 and February 1951 by soldiers with the 20th Regiment of the 11th Division of the South Korean Army and by policemen from the Hampyeong Police Department and precinct offices under its jurisdiction. The reasons given for the killings included being suspected of treason and being related to left-wing activists. 

By Koh Kyoung-tae, senior staff writer 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr

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