I’m not a history person. I stopped paying attention to that class some time in High School, and never really learned the basics of how our current world came to be. Because the word “history” was synonymous in my mind to thick textbooks and dates I had to memorize, I’m kind of embarrassed at how little I now know as an adult.
But last weekend my housemates and I made a trip to a place called No Gun Ri, or노근리 Peace park, in Hwanggan-myeon, South Korea. On the way inside, I was confronted by a sculpture of a protestor holding a sign that read “The US must apologize and compensate”. I know the list of America’s sins is long, but I was intrigued as to what stories this museum had in store for us. Further inside was another sign that caught my interest “The restoration of human right is the fruit of sweat and sacrifice of so many people. Peace is given to those who strive to cherish it”.
Did I believe that? Was peace only given to those who strive for it? What does that mean in regards to an all-just sovereign God who oversees human injustices like wars and hate crimes? Is peace then not granted to those who don’t take it upon themselves to strive for it?
We sat down to watch a short film that fleshed out some of these questions about the No Gun Ri massacre.
In July 1950 (less than a lifetime away from today, so people who were alive then are still alive today) a bloody massacre took place where my friends and I were standing. American troops (allies with S.Korea, but at odds with N.Korea) stationed in Korea early during the Korean war went into a village in South Korea, and advised the entire community to pack up and leave to somewhere safe. So, hundreds of people packed up their kids, food, bare necessities and left home and fields to follow the American allies. The next morning, the now-refugees woke up to find their American guides gone, with other American soldiers telling them to take a railroad path, after searching them and their belongings.
While resting on the tracks, a military aircraft began to bomb them. Soldiers shot’s mixed with plane fire
A plaque on the wall of the museum displayed a laminated copy of the orders from military captain: “No refugee to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children.” Another read “All civilians seen in the area are to be considered as enemy and action taken accordingly.”
I didn’t know what to think after hearing such a story. My mind was numb trying to imagine myself in such a situation, then realizing I didn’t want to.
One of the few who survived the massacre, Chung Eun-yong, spent his life trying to tell the world about the injustices that happened that summer. His efforts are why we know about it today. His children were both killed that day, as he and some other young men left the tunnel early so the remaining crowd (women and children) would less threatening. It didn’t work.
My housemates and I walked outside in the rain toward the tunnels, where hundreds of remaining bullet holes were circled with bold white paint. I traced a jagged hole with my finger, barely able to grasp what it meant. The tunnels were completely stone, heavy with history. Later we learned that most of the bullet holes were covered up by a thick layer of concrete curtsey of the South Korean government, in an effort to keep as positive a relationship with their US allies as possible.
But this is not entirely about the finger pointing. Though justice is important, and I believe God has the last and final say as sovereign judge; countless countries have committed evil acts during wartime. When war is the only option left, both sides have already lost.
In the long car ride back home, amidst the whir of unanswerable questions in my mind, one in particular bobbed to the surface. “Why didn’t I learn about this in school?” “Why do only a couple versions Korean textbooks mention it either?”
Currently in Korea, the government has decided to create a monopoly on textbooks by eliminating the 6 different history textbooks schools can choose from at the moment (published by 6 different companies) and replacing them with just one Ministry of Education-endorsed textbook. It’s not certain yet that the No Gun Ri massacre will make it in these new government-issued textbooks, which means a whole generation of high school students will have to learn about this outside their classrooms (an average school day is 16hrs) or not at all.
Before coming to Korea, I remember good friend of mine, James, turned to me once and said “History isn’t factual. It’s all opinion. Every war, every battle, every description of a person is more or less someone else’s observation. Winners write the textbooks.”
What a terrifying thought.