At the beginning of the Korean War, US Army ground troops of the 7th Cavalry executed civilian refugees over the course of four days. Fifty years after the fact, the world is learning about the massacre and trying to understand how crimes against humanity could occur, even during times of war.
Background to the Korean War: 1945-50
Japan’s 35-year colonization of the Korean peninsula came to a close with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that capped World War II. Japan, preparing for its inevitable removal from the peninsula, sought to install a temporary governing structure in Korea. The approach of the Soviet military from the north led the colonial government to believe that the peninsula would ultimately come under Soviet control. While long years of colonization had produced undercurrents of wide-ranging political sentiments, the conservative Japanese ultimately tapped a popular leftist, Yo Un-hyong, to oversee a temporary administration, predicting that his leftist leanings would win a Soviet nod. On August 15, 1945, the day of Japan’s surrender to the Allies, Yo accepted the colonial government’s proposal. His contacts and popularity aided him as he quickly set up a Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence (CPKI). By September, the CPKI had formed the Korean People’s Republic (KPR) and within three months had established offices countrywide, from the township level on up. It was a far more vigorous and popular governing force than the Japanese had expected, but they had been left with hardly a choice in the matter, having freed their political prisoners and acceded to other demands made by Yo, just to convince him to take the job.
The Soviet and US leaderships agreed to jointly accept the Japanese surrender in Korea and to each oversee one half of the peninsula—divided at the 38ºN parallel—during a transitionary phase of no set duration. Communist Koreans accompanied the Soviet party to this task in the north, where they influenced the leftist KPR administration. On the other hand, the US team (with few Korean personnel) arrived later in Seoul, and were greeted by Japanese officials’ rumors that Korean communists planned upheaval and sabotage. So, with little understanding of the changes already begun by the KPR, such as guidelines for land redistribution and labor reforms, the US Army broke up the KPR’s nascent networks in the south to set up its own government. To make matters worse, the US invited Korean officials who had been complicit with Japanese colonial rule to participate in the new Army-led government. The move put them directly at odds with the KPR (whose policies, such as land redistribution, sought to eliminate the inequities of the colonial period), and with the public-at-large (who viewed the reinstated officials as cronies and collaborators of the Japanese). Though the reinstated officials claimed to be democrats in a newly established political party, the US track seemed rather to be leading back to foreign, conservative colonial rule in an increasingly divided Korea.
In 1947, with the Soviet-US Cold War intensifying, with no progress made toward Korean reunification, and with hope snuffed out for its joint trusteeship (envisioned as being shared between the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, and China), the UN, at the urging of the US, established a temporary commission to supervise elections in Korea. However, the Soviets barred the UN-initiated election in the north, and so in 1948, in the south, Syngman Rhee, an exiled septuagenarian devotee of independence and a forty-year resident of the US, was elected the first president of the Republic of Korea (ROK). In the north, the Soviets followed up by supervising a separate election naming Kim Il Sung, a glorified thirty-six-year-old hero of anti-Japanese guerilla warfare in Manchuria and a supporter of the Soviets, the first premier of the new Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Both governments claimed sole legitimacy to govern Korea, and this would become the discordant North-South duet for the next 50 years.
Early Weeks of the Korean War
By the end of 1949, both the Soviets and the US had withdrawn from Korea’s political scene, leaving the cleft nation to its own devices. In the south, leftist guerillas were quashed; in the north, Korean communists arrived home from the civil war in China; and along the 38°N parallel, the armies of the two sides often skirmished. On June 25, 1950, war erupted when North Korean forces, backed by the Soviets, invaded all along the 38°N parallel. South Korean and US forces rapidly retreated southward. By August, North Korea would have nearly the entire peninsula under its control. The arrival of UN forces in the south and later Chinese reinforcements in the north would wrest control back and forth. By the time of the reluctant truce signing on July 27, 1953 (Syngman Rhee swore he would unite the country or die trying), South Korean casualties would total 1.3 million, and North Korean casualties, 1.5 million.
In the weeks shortly after June 25, the speed of the North’s advance and of the South’s retreat left a wake of violence and devastation. Full knowledge of the events of those weeks can never be had.
Early on, political prisoners and, invariably, civilians were executed en masse by both sides. Seoul fell to the North by early July. South of Seoul, ROK forces killed 1,800 political prisoners (South Korean leftists) at Taejon, to prevent their collaboration with the advancing North. On July 20, North Korea seized Taejon in a siege that killed upwards of 5,000 South Korean civilians and around 60 US and ROK soldiers. In turn, southeast of Taejon at Dokchon, retreating ROK soldiers and police executed up to 2,000 South Korean leftists without trial, an atrocity photographed by US soldiers. (Soon afterward, US ambassador John Muccio urged Syngman Rhee to stop the mass executions). Disorganized, urgent retreats were incendiary. Many massacres were recorded; far more were, and still are, alleged.
Guerilla fighters aided the North substantially throughout the conflict. Around 3,000 guerillas died within the first month, and by the end of the war, 67,228 guerrillas would die. In comparison, 58,809 ROK soldiers, 33,629 US soldiers, and 3,330 UN soldiers were killed by war’s end.
It was amidst these circumstances of rapid movement and volatility that US troops killed Korean civilians at Nogun-ri.