Home Law Transitional Justice in the Asia-Pacific
Addressing Abuses under U.S. Occupation
Because the Jeju and Yeosu Suncheon events started as communist uprisings, addressing these events was extremely difficult under anticommunist
regimes. Victims and their families had to remain silent because any actions to address civilian deaths were deemed a breach of the National Security Act and the Anticommunism Act. The National Commission for the Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju 4.3 Events (Jeju Commission) was established in 2000 to investigate and reveal the truth, to identify victims, and to restore the honor of the victims of the Jeju 4.3 events. The special act mandated the commission to finish its investigation in two years and to prepare a report within six months of the end of the investigation. The commission spent two-and-a-half years collecting 10,594 documents and conducting interviews with 503 victim survivors, police and military personnel, scholars, lawyers, and politicians. The special act granted the commission the right to request confidential government files and to conduct interviews with victims and relevant witnesses.
The report documented four categories of human rights violations: civilian massacre, disappearances, torture cases, and suffering related to guilt by association. The report confirmed systematic massacres by the military and police and found evidence of indiscriminate and sweeping arrests, torture, illegal detention, and summary executions. The report included the suffering of the victims’ relatives, who received unfair treatment in employment, promotion, and international travel under the military regimes. By March 2011, the commission reported that 15,100 victims had been identified, among whom 10,729 (71 percent) had been killed,
It took another ten years to address the civilian deaths of the Yeosu Suncheon revolt. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Republic of Korea (TRCK), received individual applications from victims and announced state responsibility for 1,340 civilian deaths. The commission also made a statement that this number underrepresented the total number of victims, because in many cases whole families had been exterminated with no one left to apply for victimhood. The commission also reported that although the revolt was suppressed within a week, sporadic guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency operations continued for about two years, causing frequent civilian deaths.
Addressing civilian massacres during the Korean War The first attempt to address civilian massacres during the Korean War came after 700 villagers in Geochang, South Gyeongsang province, were murdered by the Korean army in 1951. Immediately, the special investigation commission composed of lawmakers and government ministers was set up, and a special military tribunal was opened. Three army officers were convicted of murder and cover-up, but all were pardoned by President Rhee Syng-man. Families of victims could not even collect the remains of the dead for three long years and were constantly under surveillance and threat. Because of the Geochang case, which set precedent, victims of other severe massacres nationwide remained silent under the Rhee regime.
The second attempt came after Rhee’s resignation in 1960. Families of victims nationwide formed associations to represent their demands, and this led to the institution of the special congressional commission in I960.67 The commission comprised nine lawmakers headed by Choi Cheon. The purpose of the commission was to conduct preliminary factfinding for further legislation.68 Although expectations were high, a cursory nationwide investigation ended in just two weeks without further developments. The failure of the commission was mainly due to the timing of its institution. Although Rhee Syng-man stepped down, the Fourth National Assembly, created under Rhee, still consisted of many members who were responsible for the massacres.69 The head of the commission, for example, had been the police director of the most heavily affected area at the time of the war.70
Even worse, these initial efforts encountered a severe backlash with the military coup of Park Chung-hee in 1961. Many who led the victims’ association were arrested and sentenced to death or life imprisonment.71 Any evidence of massacres such as monuments or mass graves was destroyed by the military police.72 The coup marked the beginning of thirty-two years of consecutive military and authoritarian regimes, and all discourses or attempts to bring justice to past atrocities were completely suppressed.
An important breakthrough came with the inauguration of the first civilian president, Kim Young-sam, in 1993. President Kim’s constituency was Gyeongsang province, and he promised to investigate the Geochang
massacre. In 1997, a special commission was set up to investigate the massacre and identify victims. The commission acknowledged the responsibility of the military and identified 548 victims and 785 family members. However, no further actions were taken beyond this investigation, except for a few subsequent commemoration projects. Families of victims brought a series of lawsuits against the government for monetary compensation, but they ended without success in 2008.
Interestingly, although the special act was designed to address other cases, the commission’s work had not reached beyond the Geochang case. Victims who had been hit hard by the backlash after the coup in 1961 were extremely cautious and slow to raise their voices under the Kim administration. There was a reason for this. Although elected as the first civilian president, Kim gained power by a merger of his party with the old ruling party. Thus, it took another decade for victims and families to create the National Association of the Bereaved Families of the Korean War in 2000. With their fervent activism and the support of President Roh Moo-hyun, the TRCK was created in 2005.
The TRCK had the mandate to investigate and reveal the truth about human rights violations and a few other past events. Although victims of the Korean War massacres led the movement to establish the TRCK, the ruling party had to include additional categories of investigation in the course of negotiation with the opposition party. Thus, the Framework Act stipulated five main categories of investigation: domestic independence movements under Japanese colonial rule; overseas independence movements or cases that enhanced the national prestige; civilian massacres; human rights violations by the state; and human rights violations perpetrated by the enemies of the state. The commission was mandated to investigate, at the request of the victims and their family members, individual cases of human rights violations.
Since 2006, the TRCK has published seven interim reports twice a year. The final report was released in December 2010. The commission attributed 82 percent of the 9,609 petitions regarding wartime massacres to state agents (the police, the military, and rightist groups associated with the state) and only 18 percent to the North Korean military and leftist groups. The commission identified several patterns of massacres: nationwide preventive detentions and summary executions of former communists and their supporters immediately after the outbreak of war; retaliation against alleged communist collaborators with the North Korean occupational force; killings of civilians during the rooting-out of communist guerrillas during and after the war in the southern provinces of Jeolla and Gyeongsang; and killings of civilians by indiscriminate U.S. bombings.
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