Looking for No Gun Ri
IN SEPTEMBER OF 1999, the rest of the world finally heard what the inhabitants
of a tiny Korean mountain village had long sought to make known: that
in early July of 1950, hundreds of Korean refugees - men, women and
children – had been shot by U.S. soldiers under a railroad trestle
bridge near the village of No-Gun Ri. During the Korean War, any locals
attempting to flee south were considered potential North Korean spies.
The truth of the events at No-Gun Ri — and up to twenty other
similar incidents — remained hushed up by the South Korean government
for almost 50 years, and the U.S. Army had long denied that American
troops were anywhere near No-Gun Ri at the time of the alleged massacre.
When I first heard of the AP report that raised this issue, while teaching
at a large university in South Korea, I expected many of my Korean friends
and students to share their reactions. Surprisingly, no one seemed to
even know anything about it. I set out to find for myself the village
no one was talking about.
THE WOMAN WHO RUNS THE TRAVEL AGENCY on campus first tells me there
is no such place. Since my Korean pronunciation may still not be up
to par after a year and a half here, I try to describe the place for
her in "Konglish" pidgin, nouns in Korean, verbs in English,
even pantomiming some shooting. Her eyes widen. "Oh," she
breathes, "how terrible!" When her husband — surely
no older than she — returns to the office, she addresses him by
the same respectful title that my students use with me.
"Ssongsaengnim," she calls, "No-Gun Ri odissumnikka?"
(Where is No-Gun Ri?)
He smiles, and pulls open a file cabinet drawer literally bursting with
provincial maps. A few of them flop onto the dusty floor as he pulls
out the one he's looking for and spreads it on the counter. He points
out a tiny dot north of the small town of Taejon, about 250 kilometers
south of Seoul. I confirm train times (twice a day; early morning and
late afternoon), pay for my ticket, bow and depart.
Outside on the quad, the senior class is holding a karaoke
contest. The Japanese word karaoke however is taboo; the proper Korean
word is noreban. Japan’s WW II invasion and occupation of Korea
is still recent history here, and while the 2002 soccer World Cup is
already being promoted wildly in South Korea, no mention is ever made
of the fact that it will be co-hosted by Japan.
Many guidebooks warn of the inevitability of tear gas on South Korean
university campuses, claiming that Korean students' political activism
is famous throughout Asia, and that campus protests are common, often
met with violent suppression by the authorities. This may have been
true ten years ago, but the last time I tried to talk with my senior
class about Korean reunification, they only wanted to discuss "something
interesting, like fashion."
Days later, while waiting on the Seoul Station platform for the 10:30
train to the village I am seeking, it occurs to me that this kind of
political apathy is probably quite normal in young adults who have just
completed a more rigorous high school curriculum than most North Americans
could imagine. Up to 18 hours a day are spent in preparation for the
all-important entrance examinations, which determine whether, where
and what Korean students will end up studying for their university degrees,
thereby deciding their future careers too. In addition, all young men
must serve a minimum of 26 months
in the army, a constant reminder that South Korea is still officially
Just as I had begun to despair over the virtual media black-out on the
No-Gun Ri incident, it became big news again. Edward Dailey, a former
U.S. soldier, visited South Korea to publicly apologize for his own
role in shooting civilians at No-Gun Ri. Photos of him in tears, and
embracing Korean survivors, even appeared in our small English newspaper.
Following his example, I am bringing ten red roses — all I could
find at Seoul Station this morning — as my offering.
AFTER TWO HOURS AND TEN MINUTES of being the only foreigner on board
the train — children pointing me out happily and adults offering
me soft drinks and dried squid — I read the signs for Hwangang
and get off. The compartment's redolence of fermented cabbage and dried
seaweed is swept from my lungs by a strong breeze. The scenery —
low brown mountains, thin trees, fields scattered with winter straw
— has changed little from Seoul to here, and I know it remains
the same as far south as Pusan.
The stationmaster immediately recognizes the name, No-Gun Ri, and beckons
me outside. I expect him to point the way. Instead, he bounds with amazing
agility downstairs to a narrow street, and only looks once to see that
I am following him. After a few minutes at a half-jog we come to a bus
stop where several people are waiting, among them three young girls
in middle-school uniforms. The station-master says a few words to them,
and they look at me with big eyes, half scared, half curious. He waves
me over to them, smiles, and leaves. They whisper to each other. How
do they feel about the task they have been assigned? I try to smile
winningly. They herd me onto the bus, insist on paying my fare, and
seat me near a window. All three huddle together on one seat near the
I feel a sharp poke in my back. An old man behind me has noticed my
flowers. "Odikaiyo?" he asks, (Where are you going?),
and seems surprised when I understand and respond. Alas, my pronunciation
causes him to shake his head in bewilderment. Taking out notebook and
pen, I write the characters for No-Gun Ri in what must look to him like
a child's handwriting. After a moment he nods emphatically and launches
into a monologue I desperately wish I could understand, forming a small
circle with his thumb
and index finger. Abruptly he points to two arched trestle tunnels in
the distance, over which runs a railway track. The girls look at me
anxiously - is it time to get off? Apparently so. With only a few seconds
to hop off, I jump down just behind the girls, and the bus roars away.
All that surrounds me are scrubby fields. I take a narrow gravel path
that soon gives way to dirt; the arches are still far enough away to
appear the length of my finger on the horizon. The girls follow me,
though they hang back, remaining barely in earshot until we are there.
The arches are high; about three stories, I'd guess. A train rushes
along the top, and as my eyes return to ground level I see what the
old man was trying to tell me - he was indicating the size of the bullet
holes. I enter the first tunnel, and silently start counting. There
are thirty-three holes in this one, all cemented over; some on the outside
have been circled in fading white paint.
Walking through the tunnel, I try to imagine how many people it could
have held. More than seventy or eighty seems impossible, unless there
were many children. As I ponder, a family pulls up in a Japanese car
— a grandfather, a father, and two boys, with a tour guide who
leads them down the tunnel pointing out various features with an air
of authority. I try to catch some words, but they come too low and fast.
Unsure what to do with the roses I have brought, I lay them next to
a sign driven into the ground. No one appears to have any reaction to
my gesture. It is simply there, like this new aluminum sign.
US and Korean sources have estimated the number of people who died at
No-Gun Ri between three and four hundred. Apparently U.S. soldiers were
unable to distinguish North Koreans from South Koreans by appearance;
this amazes many South Koreans, who feel that the differences are obvious
The tour guide is now speaking about the sign; I listen intently. When
he finishes, the father turns to me and asks, in American-accented English,
"Do you understand the meaning of this sign?"
"Chokum," I respond. (A little). He offers to translate
for me what the guide says.
"Until recently, the bullet holes remained in their original, unrepaired
state. Five days before the first AP coverage of the massacre, our government
repaired this place." He gestures towards the patched bullet-holes.
So I missed seeing the real thing by a matter of months. I wonder how
likely it was that the timing of the clean-up was coincidental. The
Korea Herald has openly suggested that such hasty repairs after an interval
of half a century could indicate a last-ditch effort to cover up the
atrocity. Earlier reports by the Korean media of civilian massacres
at Waegwan, Masan, Uiryong, Haman, Yechon, Changnyong, Sachon, Iksan
and Tanyang had gone unacknowledged, as had the 1998 presentation of
a paper by a Chungbuk University professor on his findings regarding
No-Gun Ri. According to The Korea Herald, even in the 1970s,
"some villagers were summoned by the police and reprimanded for
sharing over drinks their memories of the unforgettable incident"
at No-Gun Ri.
My translator breaks into my thoughts: "He says that if you want
to see the other tunnel, you can walk with us. It takes maybe five minutes."
What tunnel is that? "Another tunnel," he says, almost nonchalantly.
The grandfather calls the boys and they run after us up the hill.
up, we stop at the opening of what I first think is only a sewage drain,
then I realize that this is the "other tunnel." The guide
confirms what I have read: the shooting started with airplanes strafing
from above. When ground troops began shooting under the railroad trestle,
hundreds of refugees scrambled up the hill and tried to hide in this
narrow space. Anticipating them at the other end of the crawlspace,
the U.S. soldiers fired directly inside, blocking the opening with bodies.
Those who were able to retreat ran back down under the trestle and were
The old man fumbles in his pocket and draws out a state-of-the-art Fuji
camera. Unblinking and expressionless, standing rigidly still, the boys
wait patiently for the flash. Taking a photograph is always serious
business, and no one smiles for the camera. The chatter of the girls
below reaches us even here, and I am struck by how quiet this place
OUR TOUR AT AN END, I bow and thank the father as formally as I can.
As we walk back, he offers me a ride to the train station. I remember
my Korean manners — refuse all offers the first time — and
protest that I will be able to get a taxi. He is kindly insistent, so
we all climb into the little Suzuki.
Happily, rather than the usual questions about my age and marital status,
he turns the conversation to himself. He owns a company that produces
foreign language cassette tapes used in guided tours at Korean tourist
sites. Having a business branch in the U.S., he has formed a clearer
idea than most Koreans about U.S. culture and people.
"This kind of killing can be performed by any race, in any country,"
he says. "Anyone is capable of it, anywhere, at any time."
I tell him that many American people feel shame over what happened at
No-Gun Ri, though in my heart I wonder how true this is. In the months
to come, once Edward Dailey's misinformation about his involvement is
uncovered — his military record indicates that he could not have
been there at the time, and he has a history of mental illness —
U.S. attempts to cast doubt on the entire claim of a civilian massacre
at No-Gun Ri will bring this conversation back to me.
Without any air of antagonism, the businessman continues that now "many
countries hate America." I wait to hear what he has to say; unlike
most of my students, his perceptions of the U.S. are based not solely
on movies, but on his own firsthand experiences travelling between the
two cultures. The U.S., he feels, is an "international gangster,"
motivated by only its own welfare, acting without consideration for
other nations. I silently wish he would ask how old I am, where my husband
We swing into the parking lot in front of Yongdang station. Our conversation
seems to have left my new acquaintance with no ill-feeling; perhaps
he is happy simply to have spoken his mind. I thank him as best I can
in both languages, and though my head is down in mid-bow, I glimpse
him giving me a me a thumbs-up as he says, "Good luck!"
It's a customary farewell, and yet I cannot help wondering, as they
drive off, "good luck" with what? My attempts to delve into
Korean culture? My imminent return to the U.S., and the re-acculturation
process I will surely undergo there? In a week and a half I will pack
what few belongings I have not already shipped, and fly home for what
may be the last time.
SEVERAL MONTHS LATER, when I have more or less settled back into the
pace of suburban Chicago shopping, traffic, food, and manners, I learn
that the Korean government has announced plans to develop a "Korean
War Tour." Inspired by the popularity of its top tourist attraction,
the DMZ at Panmunjom, South Korea now plans a series of bus tours to
various sites of battles and other strategic points of the war. The
trestle bridge at No-Gun Ri, along with the rebuilt bridge at Waegwan
and other areas with a similar history, will not be included on the
held by the author
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