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Transitional Justice in South Korea

Hun Joon Kim

KOREA'S RECENT HISTORY HAS BEEN MARKED BY AN EXtremely dynamic process, with multiple political transitions: Japanese colonialism (1910-1945), the U.S. military occupation (1945-1948), the Korean War (1950-1953), the dictatorship of Rhee Syng-man (1948-1960), a short-lived democracy (1960-1961), a military coup and subsequent dictatorship by Park Chung-hee (1961-1979), the assassination of Park and the brief moment of the Seoul Spring (1979), another coup by Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo and the authoritarian rule under Chun (1980-1988), and finally, democratization in 1987.1

Since democratization in 1987, various transitional justice measures have been adopted in order to address the vast array of past human rights violations. Criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, and reparations have been used, with the latter being the most frequently and consistently employed choice. Nevertheless, research on South Korea has lagged noticeably behind that for other countries. Apart from a handful of articles and monographs on the 1980 Gwangju massacre,[1] [2] there are few English-language articles on this aspect of South Korea.3 Even within Korean academia, there has not yet been a thorough study of this issue,4 partly because these processes have occurred fairly recently, and also because most of these massacres have been a result of still ideologically controversial conflicts.5

The purpose of this chapter is to provide both a comprehensive analysis of state violence and transitional justice in South Korea and an indepth analysis of its achievements and problems, focusing on the truth commission process. In the first section, I provide an overview of the repressive past in Korea between the beginning of Japanese colonialism in 1910 and democratization in June 1987. Given the understudied nature of the case, I provide a comprehensive overview of state violence over the last century to stimulate academic study of South Korea. Figure 1 summarizes the history and political transitions in South Korea from 1910 to 2012. In the next section, I examine how these human rights violations have been addressed using various policy measures. I then examine both the achievements and problems associated with the process. I conclude with a few observations on recent changes and possible further policy implications.

Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3 (2005);George N. Katsiaficas and Kan-Chae Na, South Korean Democracy: Legacy of the Gwangju Uprising (New York, NY: Rout- ledge, 2006).

  • 3 For rare exceptions, see Gi-Wook Shin, Soon-Won Park, and Daqing Yang (eds.), Rethinking Historical Injustice and Reconciliation in Northeast Asia: The Korean Experience (London, UK: Routledge, 2007);Kuk Cho, “Transitional Justice in Korea: Legally Coping with Past Wrongs after Democratization,” Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal, Vol. 16, No. 3 (2007).
  • 4 For rare exceptions, see Deuk-jung Kim, “ Ppalgaengi”-ui Tansaeng: Yeosun Sageon- gua Bangong Gukga-ui Hyeongseong [The Birth of the “Reds”: The Yeosun Events and the Formation of Anticommunist State] (Seoul: Seonin, 2009);Dong Choon Kim, Jeonjaeng-gua Sahoe [War and Society] (Seoul: Dolbaegae, 2000);Jung-seok Seo, Cho Bong-am-gua 1950-nyeondae (ha) [Cho Bong-am and 1950s, Vol. 2] (Seoul: Yeoksa Bipyeong, 1999).
  • 5 Dong-Choon Kim, “The Long Road toward Truth and Reconciliation,” Critical Asian Studies, Vol. 42, No. 4 (2010), p. 550.
History and political transitions in South Korea, 1910-2012

Figure 1. History and political transitions in South Korea, 1910-2012

  • [1] For Korean names, the surname is written first followed by the hyphenated given name(e.g. Rhe Syng-man).
  • [2] Gi-Wook Shin and Kyung Moon Hwang (eds.), Contentious Kwangju: The May 18thUprising in Korea’s Past and Present (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003);In-Sup Han, “Kwangju and Beyond: Coping with Past State Atrocities in South Korea,”
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