WASHINGTON — A yearlong Pentagon investigation has concluded that American soldiers panicked and fired into a crowd of unarmed refugees near the South Korean village of No Gun Ri in the early days of the Korean War, but it did not find conclusive evidence that the troops had orders to shoot civilians, a Defense Department official and others involved with the inquiry said.
The Pentagon's still-unpublished draft report, based on more than 100 interviews with U.S. veterans and on a review of more than a million pages of documents, would be the first formal acknowledgment by the U.S. military of its involvement in the massacre at No Gun Ri.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered the investigation after the Associated Press reported the massacre in a September 1999 article that won a Pulitzer Prize. In spring, however, one of the key sources for the AP story was found to have fabricated his account, and some other veterans quoted by the news agency acknowledged that their memories may have been faulty. Those revelations called into question whether U.S. soldiers actually shot "hundreds" of civilians on orders from their superiors, as some of the veterans originally asserted.
The draft report says Army investigators were unable to determine exactly how many civilians died after members of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment, in the midst of a chaotic retreat and fearing that North Korean infiltrators were passing through their lines, opened fire on refugees under a railroad bridge on July 26, 1950.
Members of a panel of outside experts advising the Pentagon on its inquiry were briefed on the agency's conclusions last week. U.S. officials began discussing the findings with representatives of the South Korean government in Seoul on Tuesday, with the aim of preparing a memorandum of "common understanding" about what happened at No Gun Ri. Release of the final report is expected within the next six weeks, and perhaps sooner, depending on the talks in Seoul.
The report is already generating controversy: One member of the advisory panel, former Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-Calif.), said Tuesday that he strongly disagrees with the hazy conclusion that there may or may not have been orders to shoot the refugees.
McCloskey, a Korean War veteran, said the Pentagon was too quick to dismiss the testimony of U.S. veterans who recalled such orders.
In addition, the panel of eight outside advisors is sharply divided over the issue of financial compensation for the families of those killed at No Gun Ri. Some members believe that the U.S. should at least make a gesture of atonement, such as constructing a memorial.
The U.S. government's position on compensation is unclear. Over the past year, officials have declined to answer questions about it, saying the facts must first be determined.