Civilian Survivors Recall the Pain of Wartime in Korea
Half a century after his face was disfigured and his vision ruined by a bullet allegedly fired from a U.S. bomber, Hwang Kye-Il says he wants an apology and compensation for his pain and suffering.
Hwang, a 58-year-old tenant farmer from Jangji-ri, a village at the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula, is part of a South Korean delegation that visited Los Angeles on Thursday as part of a North American tour to put a human face on what they maintain were the intentional killings of civilians by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War.
“The incident stole my sight and also took away most of the rest of my life as well,” Hwang said Thursday at a Koreatown news conference arranged by a coalition of human rights groups. “Because of the large scar on my face, I could not attend school. I was constantly teased by my schoolmates.”
Cases of civilian killings first received widespread publicity 18 months ago when Associated Press exposed a 1950 massacre at the South Korean hamlet of No Gun Ri. In January, then-President Bill Clinton expressed regret to victims and their families for the incident in which U.S. troops fired on civilians cowering under a railroad bridge, killing an undetermined number. A U.S. report compiled after 15 months of research and interviews found no evidence that the soldiers had been ordered to shoot.
Since then, critics have called that report a cover-up and have located what they contend are 160 other sites of atrocities, including Hwang’s village, during the 1950-53 war. They are touring the United States and Canada to mobilize public support for victims.
The delegation’s latest effort will culminate in New York on June 23 at the Korean War Crimes Tribunal, an independent inquiry by a panel of jurists from around the world. Though the tribunal’s finding will not be binding, it will lend credibility to the issue, said Cho Hyun-Ki, a member of the delegation.
The group held a forum last night at Loyola Law School near downtown Los Angeles and leaves for New York today.
“For half a century, I did not utter a word about what had happened to me,” Hwang said.
But now, he said, he realizes that unless he speaks up, victims will take their pain to their graves without the wider world knowing much about the injustices.
Hwang recalled that about 2,000 refugees were in a field of tall reeds on Aug. 20, 1950, when suddenly, he saw a U.S. plane overhead. Minutes later, four military planes descended, bombing and gunning down villagers, he said.
“Refugees had gathered there because they thought it would be safe because there weren’t any North Koran soldiers,” Hwang said.
A bullet from the plane wounded his father in the chin and eye. Then, another hit Hwang’s face. He is blind in his left eye and the slight vision in his right eye is failing.
When he was 17, his parents sold a parcel of their meager farm land to pay for plastic surgery for him. But even after three operations, his doctor could not get rid of all the scars, he said.
He has been victimized by his own people, too, he said. During the authoritarian regimes’ “purification” programs of the 1970s and 1980s, he was rounded up along with criminals.
“I told them my scars were from the war, but they didn’t believe me,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “They said I had to be a criminal to have scars like that. There was no way a powerless person like me could fight back.”
Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran who has been helping the Korean War victims with their tour, strongly disputes the Pentagon’s conclusions that Korean War incidents such as the one in which Hwang was wounded were not intentional. At Thursday’s news conference, he handed out copies of what he said is a U.S. military memo of July 25, 1950, directing that “we strafe all civilian refugee parties that are noted approaching our positions.”
“This incident [involving Jangji-ri] was simply an example of a formal policy,” Willson said. “To North Americans, everybody is the enemy [in a war], especially if they don’t look like a European.”