Again offering his regrets to the people of South Korea, President Clinton said Friday the United States has "done our best to do the right thing" in the No Gun Ri incident. He insisted the Army has not "whitewashed" its conclusion that American soldiers were not ordered to kill civilians at No Gun Ri during the Korean War.
Mr.Clinton still did not offer an apology, as No Gun Ri survivors and family members had hoped, and told reporters he believes the regrets he extended are sufficient.
"I don't think there's any difference in the two words," Mr. Clinton said. "They both mean we are profoundly sorry for what happened and things happened which were wrong."
Some survivors and family members denounced the Army's finding as a "whitewash." Mr. Clinton said he specifically ordered against that. He also said he discussed the report with President Kim Dae-jung on Thursday evening.
"I certainly told the investigators I didn't want the investigation whitewashed," Mr. Clinton said. "We did our best to find out what happened, and to determine the facts as best we could. ... We've done our best to do the right thing."
Rejecting Mr. Clinton's expression of regret and offer of a $1 million memorial and a scholarship fund, survivors said they would take their case for compensation from the U.S. government to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.
"Clinton wants to put an end to the No Gun Ri incident, but it's not over," Chung Eun-young, chief spokesman for the survivors' group, said in Seoul.
"Any final report that does not deal with the responsibility of commanders has a serious defect," Chung Koo-do, another spokesman for the survivors' group, said. "It can't be construed as anything other than a Pentagon attempt to whitewash the massacre."
But in a telephone conversation, President Kim Dae-jung thanked Mr. Clinton for expressing his "deep regret" over the killings and for his efforts to resolve the matter before he leaves the White House next week, Kim's office said Friday.
Reversing its previous stance that U.S. troops were not involved at No Gun Ri, the Army acknowledged Thursday that "an unknown number of Korean civilians were killed or injured" by small-arms fire, artillery and mortar fire and strafing by U.S. warplanes at the hamlet in late July, 1950.
The 300-page report said Army investigators were unable to determine how many people died, and there was no way, five decades later, to hold any individuals responsible for what it said was "not a deliberate act."
"If we could have found the smoking gun, it would have been in this report...If there was a place to fix command responsibility, this report would have done so," said Lt. Gen. Michael Ackerman, the Army inspector general who led the 15-month inquiry.
The findings were greted with skepticism and anger in South Korea.
Not allowed to interview U.S. veterans on their own, Defense Ministry officials said they "could not find out whether there were orders to shoot refugees, what such orders exactly said (and) where such orders originated."
Members of a panel of outside experts appointed by the Pentagon to monitor the Army inquiry expressed general satisfaction with the result, and praised The Associated Press for first revealing the No Gun Ri details in a story that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
Donald P. Gregg, former ambassador to South Korea and chief spokesman for the eight-member group, said No Gun Ri "was not a good show, and we thought the report owned up to that fairly directly."
He said the Army had done a poor job earlier of looking into the allegations, and "it was the AP's report that caused them (the allegations) to be looked at more definitively."
Another panel member, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor, said the No Gun Ri killings resulted from "a failure of leadership" by American officers.
"My conclusion is that the American command was responsible for the loss of innocent civilian life in or around No Gun Ri," Trainor said in a letter to Defense Secretary William Cohen that he released Thursday. "At the very least, it failed to control the fire of its subordinate units and personnel. At worst, it ordered the firing."
Don Oberdorfer, a Korean War veteran and journalist-turned-academic, said "the whole situation about orders remains murky."
"There is suggestive evidence in the AP report and in the statements of some (GIs) ... that at least they believe there were orders that pertain to this," he said.
Cohen told a Pentagon news conference that "neither Americans nor Koreans should bury this history." Nonetheless, he said, the Korean War was fought in a just cause, and saved South Korea from being taken over by the North Koreans.
Charles Cragin, who helped oversee the investigation, said U.S. soldiers were acting out of fear that North Koreans disguised as refugees were infiltrating their lines.
"Soldiers were not aiming at innocent civilians for the purpose of killing innocent civilians," Cragin said. "What they perceived was a threat to themselves."
In explaining the killings, the Army said U.S. soldiers "were not ordered to attack and kill civilian refugees," although some veterans interviewed by Army investigators said they received orders to "stop civilians" and some believed this permitted the use of deadly force.
The Army cited "conflicting statements and misunderstandings" about whether orders were given, but its investigators concluded that no oral or written orders were given to "shoot and kill" South Korean civilians at that time.
In its 1999 report, the AP quoted veterans and Korean survivors as saying a large numbe of refugees were killed by U.S. troops over a three-day period at No Gun Ri. Ex-GIs spoke of 100, 200 or simply hundreds killed. The Koreans said 300 were shot to death and 100 died in a preceding air attack.
Among ex-GIs interviewed by the AP, about 20 recalled orders to shoot; a dozen said they either fired on refugees or were witnesses. Other veterans said they didn't remember, or declined to talk about No Gun Ri. One said he didn't recall orders, but had fired on his own.
The AP also found wartime documents showing at least three high-level Army headquarters and an Air Force command ordered troops to treat as hostile any civilians approaching U.S. positions. At the time, U.S. forces were in retreat, and thousands of refugees fled for their safety as the North Korean army advanced south.
Two days before the No Gun Ri incident, the 8th Cavalry Regiment communications log instructed: "No refugees to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children."
"What befell civilians in the vicinity of No Gun Ri in late July, 1950 was a tragic and deeply regrettable accompaniment to a war forced upon unprepared U.S. and Republic of Korea forces," the investigative report concluded.
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