Institute on Religion and Democracy
November 28, 1999
In September the Associated Press reported a story that was 50 years old but still horrifying. In late-July 1950, inexperienced U.S. Army troops allegedly massacred several hundred South Korean civilians hiding under a railroad bridge at a hamlet called No Gun Ri.
Fearing North Korean infiltrators, U.S. troops supposedly opened fire indiscriminately on men, women and children. The AP story relied on testimony from surviving victims and from a dozen veterans of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment.
The story resulted from a campaign by the U.S. National Council of Churches and the equally left-leaning National Council of Korea to expose the alleged atrocity. In November, the U.S. church council flew five of the victims to its General Assembly meeting in Cleveland, where a church service of "reconciliation" and a press conference generated nationwide publicity.
Whatever the political biases of these church councils, the massacre, if true, deserves exposure and investigation. But the campaign by the church councils would have more integrity if they acknowledged the overall justice of U.S. participation in South Korea's defense and the abysmal human rights record of Stalinist North Korea, in times of both peace and war. Instead, the church councils are portraying No Gun Ri as a typical episode during five decades of U.S interference on the Korean peninsula.
The NCC was always liberal but not always far-left. In 1952 it commended the U.S. and the United Nations for "resisting aggression" in Korea. Ten years later, the NCC published a booklet noting that North Korea had perpetrated countless atrocities, many of them aimed Christian clergy. But the 1960's radicalized the NCC, which began to identify with Marxist liberation movements and aim its harshest criticism at the U.S. and its Cold War allies.
During the 1970's and 1980's the NCC condemned human rights abuses in South Korea while largely ignoring the far more severe oppression in the totalitarian North. The NCC launched a campaign for Korea's reunification that ignored North Korea's still aggressive aspirations while faulting the U.S. for Korea's division. Denouncing "virulent anti-communism," the NCC opened relations with the Korean Christians Federation, a church group operated by the North Korean government.
And the NCC condemned "hostile and inflammatory rhetoric" aimed at the North Korean regime. The NCC urged U.S. military withdrawal from Korea while asking the U.S. to open full diplomatic relations with North Korea without demanding any concessions on security or human rights.
Just as the U.S. church council does not really represent most American church members, the Korean church council is similarly out of touch. Korean churches of all denominations are known for their deep faith and conservatism. But the Korean church council is inter-linked with the U.S. and World Council of Churches. Its leaders accordingly share the anti-U.S. bias of the international ecumenical movement, which tends to emphasize leftist politics over faith.
The Korean church council assembled a dossier on the No Gun Ri incident and through the NCC submitted it to the U.S. Defense Department for comment. Last March, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary John McLaurin III responded to the NCC that the days of 26-29 July 1950 were a time of "great stress and chaos with U.S. Army units conducting a fighting retreat against the invading North Koreans and facing heavy odds."
A multitude of refugees, limited visibility, the communist practice of infiltrating disguised as civilians, and the limits of air and artillery coordination "combined to make very real the danger of potential civilian casualties," McLaurin admitted. But he insisted there was no evidence showing U.S. Army involvement with the death of villagers at No Gun Ri. The South Korean Government has similarly denied the No Gun Ri story.
Not pleased by this rebuff, the church councils resorted to publicity. Following the Associated Press story, the Defense Department agreed to an investigation. Meanwhile, the NCC organized a media event at the celebration of its 50th anniversary in Cleveland, diverting media attention away from debt and division within the NCC. The event was supposed to have fostered reconciliation between five Korean survivors and three U.S. Army veterans.
Instead, reporters discovered that only one of the three veterans was actually at No Gun Ri. And none of the veterans offered any apologies. They agreed the U.S. should launch a complete investigation. But one veteran spoke for all when he said, "I apologize for nothing I did, nothing. They expect it from me, and they're barking up the wrong moon." The Koreans seemed dissatisfied with the result after telling their own horror stories of watching loved ones shot down.
"Reconciliation can't be achieved in one day," said outgoing NCC General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell, who quickly shut down the press conference. In a joint statement, the U.S. and Korean church councils charged, "The history of our two nations has not been without deceit, especially when national security is said to be at stake." And they complained that the absence of cooperation from both governments "raises troubling questions about the unchecked power and lack of accountability of the military in both countries."
During a worship litany in Cleveland, Campbell said: "With heavy hearts, we as American Christians confess our complicity and indifference to the suffering of the Korean people across these many years." For her, No Gun Ri is evidence of pervasive U.S. exploitation of the South Korean people. The U.S. and Korean church councils want reparations and apologies from the U.S. Government.
One of the U.S. veterans and several Korean survivors told reporters how their Christian faith had helped them find peace and solace since No Gun Ri. But spiritual peace is not a chief focus for the U.S. or Korean church councils, where politics takes the fore. The survivors of No Gun Ri deserve justice. But the NCC's effort to exploit them on behalf of its own skewed political vision merits no commendation.