NO GUN RI, South Korea (PNS) — War lives on in the pain of its survivors and their families long after the violence ends.
Members of a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) peace delegation saw the pain in the eyes of more than a dozen South Koreans who were forever changed by the impact of the massacre at No Gun Ri. During July 26-29, 1950, in the early days of the Korean War, South Korean refugees, mostly women and children were killed by a U.S. air attack and by small weapons fire by the U.S. 7th Calvary Regiment under the railroad bridge there. They were fired on from both ends of the tunnel for three days. Although estimates vary on the number of deaths, the peace foundation estimates between 250-300 people were killed.
The peace delegation traveled to South Korean November 1-8, in response to Overture 12-01 and Commissioner’s Resolution 12-13, adopted at the PC(USA) General Assembly 222 (2016) in Portland, focusing on the reunification of the Korean Peninsula and the need to build upon the increasing momentum toward peace.
In a service at the No Gun Ri Peace Memorial, attended by survivors and families as well as PC(USA) church partners, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, pledged that while the church cannot apologize for the government of the United States, it will be steadfast in its commitment to urge the U.S. government to admit it’s wrongdoing and compensate survivors and their families.
“Our presence here today is to witness to the truth about our own nation’s dismissal of the No Gun Ri massacre,” Nelson said. “It is clear we are a nation that is ashamed of its occurrence, however, it seems more convenient to ignore its repercussions.”
In 2001, President Bill Clinton issued a formal statement about No Gun Ri and offered regrets for the deaths of civilians, but no acknowledgment of U.S. involvement and no formal apology. He did pledge to build a memorial near No Gun Ri and endow a scholarship as a living tribute.
Nelson’s sermon also offered hope through faith. “Jesus, the son of Almighty God, faced an undeserved punishment by unrepentant government rulers and military officers leading to his execution. He was falsely accused of a crime he did not commit. Buried in a tomb, the world thought he was done, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, he lives with us even now. This is the hope we have been promised. This is the power that overcomes our disappointment with the actions of powers and principalities. This is the hope upon which we stand and give resonance to the power of our God who hears our cry and promises to wipe away every tear.”
A focal point of the ceremony was a long blue and white cloth in front of those assembly called “the river of tears.” Near the end of the service, members of the delegation and Korean church partners and No Gun Ri survivors and family members, took a piece of the cloth and draped it around one another’s neck and exchanged wordless hugs of reconciliation.
For the Rev. Earl Arnold, this was a particularly moving moment. He and fellow pastor, the Rev. Ed Kang of the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery were the originators of the overture in Portland and participated in the peace delegation. They worked to create the overture after a visit to No Gun Ri in 2015.
Arnold said he had several “deep, wordless encounters” with family members throughout the day. While looking at a replica of survivors walking beside a cart laden with their possessions in the memorial’s main plaza, he was approached by a woman who spoke little English. “Neither of us spoke the other’s language, but she indicated to me that her father ‘papa’ had been one of the refugees who walked to No Gun Ri.”
He said, “proving the Lord works in mysterious ways,” she was the person with whom he exchanged scarves and hugs at the ceremony. “That was a powerful moment for me, being in personal contact with someone whose loss I had only read about and asking forgiveness for grievous injury caused by countrymen when I was only six years old.”
Prior to the service, Nelson and the Rev. Robina Winbush, the Rev. Jose Luis Casal and the Rev. Mienda Uriarte, staff of the Office of General Assembly and World Mission, dawned white gloves and placed a flower arrangement at the foot of the memorial. This gesture was followed by a tree planting ceremony and the placement of a stone that reads: “We plant this tree to remember the victims and their bereaved families of the No Gun Ri incident and hope for healing and reconciliation of the Korean Peninsula.”
Casal participated in the tree planting ceremony. “In this place, we were vividly reminded of the cruelty of war. Cruelty is just that, cruelty — and it is never justified. We came to ask forgiveness and express solidarity with the families of the victims. We came to witness the reality and announce the truth to our church and to the world. We came to say, forgive our cruelty.”
Also participating in the ceremony was Chung Koo-Doo, director of the peace park. His father, Chung Eun-Yong, survived but lost his two children at No Gun Ri and he became a lifetime advocate for exposing the truth about the massacre. Although Chung Koo-Doo was born after No Gun Ri, he has faithfully carried on his father’s work.
During the tree planting, a single yellow butterfly hovered throughout the ceremony. Some of the family members attending noticed it and said they believed it was the spirit of Chung Eun-Yong, happy to witness the apology offered by the Presbyterians. The yellow butterfly is seen by many as a symbol of transformation and renewal.
Chung Eun-Yong approached Associated Press reporter Charles Hanley about the incident at No Gun Ri. In 1991, Hanley wrote a series of investigative articles exposing the U.S. military involvement and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for best investigative story. In 2001, he wrote a book, still in print, called The Bridge at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare from the Korea War.
A list of resources about the Korean Peninsula is being developed for the PC(USA) by the Rev. Unzu Lee, working for World Mission’s Asia-Pacific office. Members of the delegation will report on their progress to General Assembly 223 (2018) in St. Louis.
by Kathy Melvin, Presbyterian News Service