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Addressing Human Rights Violations under Authoritarian Regimes

Two kinds of human rights abuses under the military and authoritarian regimes drew national attention after democratization: first, massive deaths and injuries of protestors in 1980 Gwangju; and second, systematic deaths and disappearance of opposition leaders and activists. Soon after Chun Doo-hwan stepped down, a nationwide focus was given to the Gwangju massacre, for which Chun and then-incumbent Roh Tae- woo bore responsibility. The first initiative came from President Roh, who set up a presidential advisory commission to promote reconciliation after democratization.[1] The commission officially acknowledged that the Gwangju uprising was a pro-democracy movement but opposed any forms of punishment or truth seeking in order not to disrupt national unity.[1] In response, lawmakers set up the congressional commission and held seventeen hearings by summoning 67 relevant persons, including Chun.[1] It was the first time in South Korean history that a former president had been brought into a public hearing and questioned.

Despite the sensation, the congressional commission suffered innate limitations, partly due to the lack of power to enforce reluctant perpetrators to testify in public and partly due to the lack of political will of Roh and his ruling party.[4] The cases were not transferred to the court for further prosecutions, but the reparations law was enacted in 1990.[5] This marked the first national legislation stipulating reparations to the victims of state violence. A total of US$175 million in individual reparations were made to 4,537 victims.[6]

However, demands for truth and justice constantly increased under the Kim Young-sam administration, and human rights lawyers filed several lawsuits against Chun and Roh, as well as their subordinates, on the charge of murder and other offenses.[4] After intensive investigation, the Seoul district prosecutorial office acknowledged the crime of general murder in the course of suppressing Gwangju protestors in May 1980.[8] The office nevertheless decided not to prosecute the case, claiming that acts of the military coup of December 12, 1979, and the hard-line suppression of protestors were highly political decisions, which did not fall under its legal jurisdiction.

Both elites and the public vehemently protested against the decision and, at the same time, information about hidden assets of Roh was disclosed.[8] President Kim Young-sam, who was initially against the criminal prosecutions of two former presidents, finally supported the special act, which removed the statute of limitations and provided an opportunity for retrial of those who had been falsely convicted.[10] Both Chun and Roh, along with the fourteen other generals, were convicted but later pardoned by President Kim Young-sam, with the consent of the then-presidentelect Kim Dae-jung, as a token of forgiveness and reconciliation.[11]

Another widespread abuse of state power - the deaths and disappearances of students, activists, and politicians - received attention under President Kim Dae-jung. The Presidential Commission on Suspicious Deaths (Suspicious Death Commission) was created in 2000 and served two terms until 2004.[12] The commission was set up to investigate and find the causes of deaths suspected to have been carried out directly and indirectly by government agents. The commission aimed to find the causes of suspicious deaths, especially in cases where suicide or accidental deaths were falsely alleged. In 2002, the commission concluded its first term, but because many cases were left unresolved, it began a second term in 2003.

In addition, between 2004 and 2005, the police, the Ministry of Defense, and the National Intelligence Service (formerly known as Korean Central Intelligence Agency) established an internal commission to investigate past human rights violations.95 In 2005, the TRCK also investigated remaining cases of suspicious deaths and disappearances. In 2006, a special commission was set up to investigate suspicious deaths that had occurred within military ranks.96

  • [1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission Republic of Korea, vol. 1, The History andActivities of the Commission & Policy Recommendation, pp. 4-5.
  • [2] Truth and Reconciliation Commission Republic of Korea, vol. 1, The History andActivities of the Commission & Policy Recommendation, pp. 4-5.
  • [3] Truth and Reconciliation Commission Republic of Korea, vol. 1, The History andActivities of the Commission & Policy Recommendation, pp. 4-5.
  • [4] Cho, “Transitional Justice in Korea: Legally Coping with Past Wrongs after Democratization,” p. 581.
  • [5] The Special Act for the Reparations for the Persons Concerned with the GwangjuDemocratic Movement (Law No. 4266 of 1990).
  • [6] Han, “Kwangju and Beyond: Coping with Past State Atrocities in South Korea.”
  • [7] Cho, “Transitional Justice in Korea: Legally Coping with Past Wrongs after Democratization,” p. 581.
  • [8] Cho, “Transitional Justice in Korea: Legally Coping with Past Wrongs after Democratization,” p. 582.
  • [9] Cho, “Transitional Justice in Korea: Legally Coping with Past Wrongs after Democratization,” p. 582.
  • [10] The Special Act Concerning the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Movement (Law No.5029 of 1995).
  • [11] Truth and Reconciliation Commission Republic of Korea, vol. 1, The History andActivities of the Commission & Policy Recommendation, pp. 5-6.
  • [12] The Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths was created by the SpecialAct on the Investigation of Suspicious Deaths (Law No. 6170 of 2000).
 
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