The commission, from its inception in 2005, uncovered the truth about the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians at the hands of South Korean police and soldiers and invading North Koreans. However, it failed in more than five years to bring reconciliation. One reason for this failure is that it ceased functioning before investigating all the reported massacres during the1950 – 1953 war.
“The past remains a political minefield in South Korea,” according to journalist and researcher Choe Sang-hun. “Digging into South Korea’s tumultuous recent history remains a sensitive and painful task riddled with controversy,” said Choe, who won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting on the massacre by US soldiers of South Koreans huddled under a bridge in the village of Nogunri in 1950.
“Pro-democracy activists who struggled against the past military dictators and took power under former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Tae-woo saw the task of peeling back the long-running cover-up as a hallmark of their mandate,” he said. “But conservatives who took pride in defending the nation from communism saw these efforts as a leftist political maneuver to discredit their reputation.”
During liberal rule from 1998 to 2008, in which Kim and Roh served successive five-year presidential terms, Koreans had the chance to uncover what former commission member Kim Dong-choon called “the dark side of the Korean past.” Kim Dae-jung during his presidency encouraged the formation of the commission, formed as a government agency during Roh’s tenure.
The commission’s leadership from the outset was divided among standing commissioners representing liberal and conservative views, but conservatives dominated after the inauguration in February 2008 of Lee Myung-bak.
The commission’s deadline was April 2010, but the investigations were extended until June. Some commission workers stayed on until the end of 2010.
Kim Dong-choon, also a sociologist at Sung Kong Hoe University, believes the commission needed two more years to visit massacre sites that will probably never be excavated. The commission did exhume 13 sites, but “there are many more that we must study and research,” he said.
Kim said the legacy of suffering lives on among the families of victims. “They still have some economic and psychological difficulties. Some communities were totally disorganised.” As for why the commission’s activities were not extended, he points out that conservative officials “don’t want to make this kind of incident known to the Korean people and to other people.”
Estimates vary as to how many civilians were killed. Kim said that between 100,000 and 200,000 people died at the hands of South Korean police and soldiers as North Korean forces moved south in 1950. He believes the total killed by North Koreans was “less than half the number.”
Lee Young Jo, the commission’s last president, disagrees, estimating that South Korean and North Korean forces each killed about 150,000 civilians. Nor does he believe that the commission ended its work prematurely. He pointed out that the body’s mandate was to review petitions of families, and that it completed all 11,000 cases that it was asked to consider.
The courts ordered state apologies in many cases. In the most infamous one, in which eight people were hanged in April 1975 for a plot made up by the Korean intelligence service to form a revolutionary party, a court in January 2007 absolved them all, awarding $67 million to family members.
The investigation also revealed the failure of US officers to stop the executions of South Koreans, though some witnessed and reported what had happened. The US issued just one “regret,” which was for the slaughter of civilians at Nogunri, following a press report revealing the massacre in 1999.
Choe said it was a “disgrace to the South Korean political leaders and media” that the truth came out at so late, though he added that “the fact that South Korea has launched the commission and let it do what it has done, despite all its controversy” is proof that the situation in the country has improved since the era of dictatorship ended in 1987.