U.S. President Bill Clinton on Thursday expressed deep regret for the death 50 years ago of dozens of South Korean refugees shot by U.S. troops near the village of No Gun Ri.
The expression of regret, however, fell far short of the formal apology and admission of guilt some Korean officials had sought. It followed a 15-month investigation into the Korean War incident on July 26, 1950.
"On behalf of the United States of America, I deeply regret that Korean civilians lost their lives at No Gun Ri in late July, 1950," Clinton said in a statement in which he offered his condolences to those who had lost loved ones.
U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen later released a report from the Army's Inspector General on the incident, which determined that U.S. soldiers killed or injured an "unconfirmed number" of Korean refugees as they withdrew under pressure in the vicinity of No Gun Ri.
"The passage of 50 years has reduced the possibility that all of the facts can be known about the tragic incident that took place in the vicinity of No Gun Ri in South Korea," Cohen read from a prepared statement.
The incident occurred in the chaotic first days of the Korean War with ill-equipped and badly prepared U.S. forces in retreat from the North Koreans.
"In the early weeks of the war, U.S. troops were young, under-trained and unprepared for the battle tactics of the North Korean forces," said Cohen, who refused to take any questions after reading his statement.
In a Statement of Mutual Understanding agreed by the United States and Korea, the Koreans reported an "unverified" number of 248 civilians killed, injured or missing.
NO EVIDENCE OF MASS GRAVES OR REMAINS
The report said the U.S. team believed the number to be much lower than the Korean claim and said an aerial reconnaissance photograph of the area taken on Aug. 6, 1950 showed no indication of human remains or mass graves.
While neither side could agree on the numbers killed, the joint statement spoke of "diligent and conscientious" bilateral efforts to find out what had happened and Clinton highlighted strong ties between the two nations.
"As we honor those civilians who fell victim to this conflict, let us not forget that pain is not the only legacy of the Korean war," the president said.
Cohen said in its review of events at No Gun Ri, the Army had interviewed over 150 U.S. citizens and examined more than one million documents in a bid to uncover what had happened.
At no time did the report acknowledge outright that U.S. soldiers were responsible for the killings but it did highlight the persistent North Korean policy of infiltrating refugee groups with the aim of breaking lines of defense.
NO COMPENSATION TO BE PAID
Charles Cragin, principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, said the North Koreans had a history of posing as civilian refugees and then attacking military forces from the rear.
"Refugee population control was a major challenge," Cragin told reporters after Cohen read his statement.
No compensation will be paid to the families of refugees but Cohen said as a "symbol of our deep regret", the United States would build a monument in honor of those Korean civilians who died in the war and set up a scholarship fund.
Cragin said some lawyers for some of the victims families had approached the defense department for compensation but the Pentagon did not believe this was the type of case where payments would be made.
"Unfortunately in the fog of war and in war, innocent civilians die," he said.
Asked whether any legal action would be taken against U.S. troops involved in the No Gun Ri incident, he said the U.S. team found nothing that "rose to the level of criminality".
"It was the loss of life by civilians who found themselves in the middle of a battlefield during a combat action when a U.S. military force was withdrawing under pressure," he said.
The events at No Gun Ri first came to light in September 1999, in reports by the Associated Press that later won the Pulitzer Prize.
Since then, however, the picture of what occurred has grown confused. Although all sides accept the incident took place, a key source for the Associated Press reports admitted that he had fabricated his account.