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Assessment of Transitional Justice in South Korea
South Korea used criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, and reparations to address past abuse of state power. Truth commissions stand out as the most frequently used option, with at least ten commissions. Since most truth-seeking efforts have been made in a period of less than ten years, it is too early to make a strong statement about the impact of these efforts. However, three of them - the Jeju Commission, the Suspicious Deaths Commission, and TRCK - stand out as prominent cases in terms of their extensive mandates, the number of reported victims, the authorities and resources of the commissions, the social debates and controversies these commissions created, and the media attention these commissions drew throughout their truth-seeking and reporting process. In this section, I explore both the achievements and problems of the transitional justice process in South Korea, focusing on the truth commission experience.
Truth commissions in South Korea have revealed the systematic and gruesome nature of the abuse of state power. New documents and testimonies
were discovered and previously unknown aspects of civil massacres revealed. For instance, the Jeju Commission revealed that 80 percent of victims were killed by state agents.97 Most victims were in their teens and twenties, but 12 percent were civilians under the age of 10 (5.8 percent) or over the age of 60 (6.1 percent).98 The percentage of children and aged victims clearly indicates the indiscriminate nature of the killings. The TRCK also confirmed civilian massacres during the Korean War, such as the nationwide preventive detentions and summary executions of former communists immediately after the outbreak of war.99
These civilian massacres have not been entirely unknown in South Korean society. After democratization, individual scholars, local newspapers, associations for victims, and local activists and research organizations have continuously published reports and carried out awareness campaigns. Truth commissions and official reports have given an official status to the facts of civilian massacres and confirmed information that was previously private by establishing the facts in a public forum. Rumors and conjecture about civilian massacres during the war are no longer simply opinion or anti-government agitation: the facts are now established in several official government documentations.
Truth commissions not only revealed the truth of individual cases, but also revealed the systemic nature of state abuses. For example, the Suspicious Deaths Commission confirmed systemic human rights violations under the authoritarian regimes and further identified two key causes of suspicious deaths.100 First, state power was misused to protect and prolong the regime rather than to serve the public good. Second, government bodies responsible for monitoring and protecting the citizens’ basic
political and civil rights not only failed to fulfill their mission, but also acquiesced to government abuses and were even involved in concealing, distorting, and manipulating the truth related to suspicious deaths.
With the release of the report, truth commissions also released various policy recommendations, and this resulted in some visible achievements and policy changes. The Jeju Commission suggested seven policy recommendations: that the government issue an apology, declare a memorial day, use the report to educate students and the general public, establish a memorial park, provide essential living expenses to bereaved families, support excavations of mass graves, and continuously support further investigation and commemoration projects. Similarly, the TRCK came up with three comprehensive recommendations in 2009. It recommended that the government enact a special law to make reparations to the victims, establish a permanent research foundation to continue the investigative work and promote reconciliation, continue to unearth mass-murder sites, and collect and properly bury the remains of victims.
In quite a few cases, official apologies were issued. For example, in the Jeju case, President Roh Moo-hyun made an official apology immediately after the release of the report, which marked the first apology issued by the head of state regarding past abuses of state power. Moreover, Roh visited Jeju on April 3, 2006, participated in a memorial service for the victims, and issued another apology for the events. The TRCK also recommended that the government apologize - as of 2010, fifty- two official apologies have been issued to individual victims. Most apologies were issued by the local police chief and low-ranking military commanders, but in one case President Roh issued an apology to Ulsan victims.
Official governmental records, history textbooks, and major encyclopedia entries now reflect these changes by incorporating the findings of the commissions. Politicians and public officials are more cautious, and use terms and vocabularies reflecting a more balanced and neutral understanding of what happened in the past. Simple denial or ignoring of the past abuses is no longer a valid or legitimate response. A recent incident that occurred in the course of the National Assembly election illustrates the power of commission activities. The ruling Saenuri Party nominated Lee Young-jo as a candidate for Gangnam district, the party’s traditional stronghold. After a few days, however, the party had to withdraw its nomination over the controversies triggered by Lee’s use of terms like “rebellion” or “revolt” when referring to the Jeju 4.3 events and the Gwangju democratic movement.
In addition, although still far away from being perfect, several victims cleared themselves of the past false convictions. The TRCK recommended retrials in forty-two cases, with eighteen victims having cleared their names of false convictions. Several individual victims filed lawsuits against the government for reparations, and some of them have been successful in receiving awards of large damages. In the Jeju case, a minimum level of monetary subsidy was selectively given to the victims and their family members who had been suffering economic hardship and physical and mental illness.
Memorials have been built, and museums are now full of remains, documents, art, and sculptures containing the collective memory of the dark past. For instance, the Jeju Commission has been engaged in three key commemoration projects. The earliest commemoration project was mainly focused on creating a memorial park and museum. At the same time, the commission launched a long-term excavation project in 2006 to discover mass graves and find the remains of victims. By 2010, eight out of 151 mass graves had been unearthed, with the remains of more than 400 victims discovered so far. Similarly, the TRCK launched the exhumation of thirty-nine mass graves in 2007, and the remains of the dead provided sufficient evidence of indiscriminate killings to draw national and international media attention.
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