More than a half-century after hostilities ended in Korea, a document from the war's chaotic early days has come to light -- a letter from the US ambassador to Seoul, informing the State Department that US soldiers would shoot refugees approaching their lines.
The letter -- dated the day of the Army's mass killing of South Korean refugees at No Gun Ri in 1950 -- is the strongest indication yet that such a policy existed for all US forces in Korea, and the first evidence that that policy was known to upper ranks of the US government.
"If refugees do appear from north of US lines they will receive warning shots, and if they then persist in advancing they will be shot," wrote Ambassador John Muccio, in his message to Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
The letter reported on decisions made at a high-level meeting in South Korea on July 25, 1950, the night before the 7th US Cavalry Regiment shot the refugees at No Gun Ri.
Estimates vary on the number of dead at No Gun Ri. US soldiers' estimates ranged from under 100 to "hundreds" dead; Korean survivors say about 400, mostly women and children, were killed at the village 160km southeast of Seoul. Hundreds more refugees were killed in later, similar episodes, survivors say.
The No Gun Ri killings were documented in a Pulitzer Prize-winning story by The Associated Press in 1999 that prompted a 16-month Pentagon inquiry.
The Pentagon concluded that the No Gun Ri shootings, which lasted three days, were "an unfortunate tragedy" -- "not a deliberate killing." It suggested panicky soldiers, acting without orders, opened fire because they feared that an approaching line of families, baggage and farm animals concealed enemy troops.
But Muccio's letter indicates the actions of the 7th Cavalry were consistent with policy, adopted because of concern that North Koreans would infiltrate via refugee columns. And in subsequent months, US commanders repeatedly ordered refugees shot, documents show.
The Muccio letter, declassified in 1982, is discussed in a new book by US historian Sahr Conway-Lanz, who discovered the document at the US National Archives.
Conway-Lanz, a former Harvard historian and now an archivist of the National Archives' Nixon collection, was awarded the Stuart L. Bernath Award of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations for the article on which the book is based.
"With this additional piece of evidence, the Pentagon report's interpretation [of No Gun Ri] becomes difficult to sustain," Conway-Lanz argues in his book, Collateral Damage.
The Army report's own list of sources for the 1999-2001 investigation shows its researchers reviewed the microfilm containing the Muccio letter. But the 300-page report did not mention it.
Asked about this, Pentagon spokeswoman Betsy Weiner would say only that the Army inspector general's report was "an accurate and objective portrayal of the available facts based on 13 months of work."
Said Louis Caldera, who was Army secretary in 2001 and is now University of New Mexico president, "Millions of pages of files were reviewed and it is certainly possible they may have simply missed it."
Ex-journalist and Korean War veteran Don Oberdorfer, a historian of Korea who served on a team of outside experts who reviewed the investigation, said he did not recall seeing the Muccio message. "I don't know why, since the military claimed to have combed all records from any source."