Rite for the Wronged

Symbolic Tribunal Tries U.S. for Crimes in Korea

"The GIs took away my arms and hands," said Oak Hee Lee of North Korea, describing the tragedy she suffered as a child during the Korean War. American soldiers, she said, shot off both her hands when they caught her foraging for food for her family. Afterward, she recalled, "The GIs put me in a truck and drove to a nearby village. I screamed and yelled and cried for Mommy." The GIs blindfolded her, tied her to a wooden bench, and, "after they cut off my left arm, they started on my right," she said through tears. She didn't know whether they had used "a saw or a knife."

Her videotaped testimony detailed one of many atrocities committed by the U.S. military that were highlighted in a one-day "tribunal" in New York City last weekend. The hearing was held to bring international attention to a half-century of alleged abuses ranging from wartime genocide to individual acts of violence to imperialist influence over the South Korean government and economy.

An estimated 3.5 million Korean civilians died during the three-year war, and countless others, like Lee, were victims of horrors more commonly associated with the Vietnam War. Worse, as eyewitnesses testified at the June 23 gathering, many of the casualties came at the hands of their supposed protectors from America. And organizers of the event, dubbed the Korea International War Crimes Tribunal, insisted that with 37,000 U.S. troops still stationed in South Korea, and U.S. economic and political priorities still dominating the region, abuses continue, largely unreported.

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.

Lacking any official power, the mock trial sought to denounce the accused—the U.S. government and its military leaders—through public censure. But the event was more than a mere stunt; the presence of over 25 South Korean war crimes survivors and former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, who served as chief prosecutor, lent the day a formal air. That the U.S. government had denied visas to a group of elderly North Korean survivors, and South Korean authorities had barred some properly documented delegates from boarding a flight bound for New York, organizers said, indicated the event's import.

As the first such gathering of its size—several hundred people from the U.S. and abroad convened at the Interchurch Center on the Upper West Side—the tribunal's agenda was packed with more issues than could possibly have been covered in the one allotted day. A sweeping 13-page indictment, authored by Clark, gave a sense of the vast scope of the project:

"The U.S. government has acted at all times to provoke tension and threats between the ROK [South Korea] and the DPRK [North Korea] . . . trained, directed and supported the ROK in systemic murder, imprisonment, torture, surveillance, harassment and violations of human rights . . . made civilian and civilian facilities the direct object of attack . . . used prohibited weapons capable of mass and indiscriminate destruction including bacteriological, chemical and germ warfare, [and] napalm . . . committed a range and magnitude of violent acts against northern Koreans calculated to destroy them in major part that was genocidal by intention."

Participants—civilian war survivors, researchers, a U.S. congressman, and a former U.S. military intelligence officer—sought to lend some specificity to the broad allegations. Cases for U.S. culpability ranged from an argument about the American military's role in the bloody suppression of a 1948 grassroots independence movement on the southern island of Cheju to a discussion of environmental and political problems at Maehyang-ri, South Korea, a present-day farming community that is also, like Vieques, home to a U.S. military bombing range. A 250-page companion report details other issues, based on eyewitness accounts, interviews, historical documents, and declassified U.S. military records.

The testimony of survivors was grimly convincing. Kyo Soon Lee, a petite, grandmotherly woman, took off her shoe to show the audience a gnarled stump of flesh where a foot should have been. "I was shot in the leg [during a U.S. air raid] and lived with my ankle like this for the past 50 years," she said. "All I want is this: Since my foot is mangled, either return it to the way it was before, or I deserve compensation."

Chang Keun Lee, who survived a U.S. bombing raid in southern Korea, recalled, "When we saw those two planes, it was a welcome sign for us. We raised our Korean flags and were waving hello in appreciation. . . . But what was this? Those we had so welcomed were dropping hundreds of bombs on those who were greeting. Because of that bombing, I lost both my mother and father."

The tribunal report describes numerous other incidents that occurred during the war and since. One of the most recent and well-known is the 1992 killing of Yun Kum-i, a 26-year-old South Korean woman who was sexually assaulted with a soda bottle and an umbrella handle. In April 1993, U.S. army private Kenneth Markle was sentenced to life in prison by a South Korean court for the murder; the sentence was reduced on appeal to 15 years. South Korean government records show that U.S. military personnel committed over 50,000 crimes, many of them sexual assaults, against natives between 1967 and 1998, according to the report. Convictions under national law are rare, the report argues, because of a jurisdiction agreement that contains loopholes for the U.S. military.

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."

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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