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[Viewpoint] Remembering Nogeun-ri

Disagreement between the families of the victims of and the government over a memorial park is a fight of peace versus remembrance.

May 23,2009
Remembering Nogeun-ri
The No Gun Ri tragedy took place from July 25 to 29, 1950, in the early period of the Korean War, under the Ssanggul-dari, or double-arch bridge, of the Gyeongbu Line in Nogeun-ri, Yeongdong County in North Chungcheong Province. While retreating, pushed by North Korean troops, U.S. soldiers fired machine guns randomly and mercilessly at South Korean refugees. It has been argued that the Americans were worried there could be North Korean soldiers hiding among the South Korean refugees. But firing on civilians, even during wartime, was certainly a crime. The number of fatalities confirmed at this point in time, stands at 226. Another 36 people were left disabled.

The cruel incident was covered up for nearly 50 years. It wasn’t that the families of the victims didn’t try to resolve their resentment. But their attempts to reveal the truth or restore the victims’ honor hit wall after wall, mostly because of the military rule that controlled the country for so long.

The case re-emerged in September 1999 when the Associated Press ran an in-depth report on the massacre. South Korea and the U.S. proceeded to conduct a joint investigation which resulted in then-President Bill Clinton delivering an official apology.

In March 2004, a special act examining the cases of the victims of the Nogeun-ri Incident and restoring their honor was established. Those who were disabled from the incident were compensated for their medical treatment and 19.1 billion won ($15 million) was set aside to build a park memorializing the incident. Construction on the park began last June.

But the government and the victims’ families have disagreed over several major issues, including how to name the park and whether an education center should be built within. The families want to name it the Park of History and Peace and the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, the government body in charge of the matter, says that Park in Remembrance of History is more appropriate. It is a fight of peace versus remembrance.

The families maintain that an education center with lodging facilities must be built in order to make Nogeun-ri a place where human rights are protected and peace, preserved. They also want to run a mid- and long-term lodging program for visitors and researchers from Korea and abroad.

But the ministry opposes the idea, saying it is not appropriate to have lodging facilities in the park because that is where the victims’ memorial tablets would be enshrined, and the lodging programs would only waste state funds on maintenance fees and labor costs.

I agree with the ministry. The Nogeun-ri Incident was certainly a cruel tragedy but it should be examined from the broader prospective of the Korean War, an even bigger tragedy. The Korean War was a terrible calamity involving the armies of South Korea, North Korea, China, the U.S. and the United Nations. Both South and North Korea killed innocent civilians across the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. army caused countless casualties on battlefields in our country. That was in order to protect Korea. We can’t simply maintain that U.S. participation in the war was part of its global strategy.

Peace and remembrance sound similar. But considering the characteristics of the Korean War as a whole, where culprits became victims and vice versa, the word remembrance seems more appropriate so as to ease the victims’ resentment and give their souls consolation.

The families of the victims want to build an educational lodging facility with a capacity of around 250 people, but the ministry has good reason to oppose the plan. There is a memorial park for the victims of the Geochang Incident, in which South Korean soldiers killed innocent South Korean civilians in an attempt to get rid of any remaining North Korean partisans after the war was over. But the park is not doing well because of a lack of visitors. There is no guarantee that a Nogeun-ri park will not waste money. We have seen too many cases in which local governments build grand facilities to fulfill their greed, only to waste taxpayers’ money.

It is also worrisome to think what teenage students will learn when they gather at the proposed education center. If the Nogeun-ri Incident is taught while, for instance, another massacre that happened in Daejeon only two months later is ignored, it will be of concern. In that incident, the North Korean army killed as many as 1,557 civilians. If the education center is used for biased, anti-American education, it will not be fulfilling its mission of education.

But I do hope that the conflict between the families and the government is resolved smoothly. There are16 committees for resolving suspicious deaths in modern history. Though many say there are too many committees whose missions overlap, I believe that they are worthwhile if only to provide some sense of resolution for the victims and their families.

We have the ability to remember and pay tribute to all victims, whether they were leftists or rightists - and we should.


*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun



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