Rite for the Wronged

Symbolic Tribunal Tries U.S. for Crimes in Korea

Despite the intention of a contingent to deliver the judgment to Capitol Hill on Monday, it seemed highly unlikely that the "sentence"—that the U.S. immediately withdraw all forces from South Korea, pay reparations to both Koreas, and fully disclose records of any atrocities—would garner a response. But organizers said they hoped this first tribunal would spark an international movement to demand accountability for atrocities perpetrated by the U.S.

Indeed, the importance of the event showed in the least tangible ways, as strangers connected across generational and language barriers through a shared understanding of history and justice. The survivors who were able to give public testimonies served as validation and rallying points for those who have hidden their stories and for opponents of the U.S. military presence in Korea.

"America was a savior, like Moses," recalled Soobok Kim, who was wounded in a U.S. air raid that decimated his southern Korean hometown when he was a child. "We learned Americans were angels. We took for granted their killings. We learned that way and we thought that way." But later, Kim says, "I tried to put all the true things together—Nogun-ri, Maehyang-ri, my story—and I concluded to myself, these are not isolated incidents. These things are related to U.S. power."

Civilian survivors of the Korean War honor those killed by the American military.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Civilian survivors of the Korean War honor those killed by the American military.

A brief, spare ceremony to honor those who died at American hands mingled the scent of incense with solemn drumbeats and conjured tears. At times, heavy emotion filled the hall, perhaps giving non-Koreans a sense of what han, a word much mentioned in connection to the tribunal, meant. An elusive term described as a mixture of deep sorrow and frustrated rage, han, one organizer said, defines a nation perpetually colonized by foreign powers and a population continually deprived of justice.

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