The Work of the TRCK: Uncovering the Hidden Stories of the Korean War
By Dong-choon Kim, Associate Professor, Sung Kong Hoe University/Korea Colloquium Series
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
2:00 PM - 3:30 PM
10383 Bunche Hall
Very few are aware that an estimate number of 100,000 South Koreans were massacred as the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950. Some of the victims were left-winged or were sympathizers of the North Korean regime, but the majority of the victims consisted of converted leftists or innocent civilians who were rather ignorant of their standings. The U.S. and South Korean authorities have kept secret this terrible chapter of the War, arguing that revealing thereof would risk national security and South Korea’s legitimacy. As a result, the saddest chapter of Korea’s modern history has remained a public secret, even to elders in their 70s or 80s who experienced the War.
When U.S.-supported Rhee Syungman lost power through the students’ uprising in 1960, the bereaved families poured onto the streets and asked for truth verification of the mass killings during the war. They exhumed the victims’ remains and built a joint cemetery after organizing ”The National Association of the Bereaved Families of the Korean War Victims.” In response to the ever-growing number of petitions from bereaved families, Korea’s National Assembly hurried to set up ”the Special Committee on the Fact-finding of Massacres.” The 5.16 Coup in 1961 however hushed these voices by arresting the leaders of the association. And by prosecuting the leaders of the bereaved family association and demolishing the joint cemetery they built, the military government sent out a clear message: anyone who brings up the issue of truth verification on the deaths during the war would be regarded as communist, and thereby considered a threat to the state. For about 27 years of military regime from 1961 to 1987, any sympathetic discourse on raising awareness on massacres during the Korean War was subject to prosecution. The bereaved families suffered severe discriminations. Systematically estranged from civil society and politics, they were often put under incessant surveillance by the police and the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA).
South Korea’s political atmosphere from 1953 onward was heavily influenced by the frantic McCarthyism in the US, and this atmosphere has resulted in society’s collective amnesia over Korean War mass killings committed by the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States troops. Politicians and major media under the authoritarian regimes were reluctant to cover or even mention the incidents of civilian mass killings by South Korean troops during the war. Authorities and the media have never attempted to investigate the truth or listen to the heartbroken pleas from the victims. Major media instead just copied foreign based news sources whenever the relevant news soared up, e.g., the AP’s report on “Nogunri Incident.” The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not officially comment even after the release of the U.S. government’s “Nogunri Report,” which argued that the incident occurred in the midst of a combat situation and tacitly legitimized the mass killings by American forces.
It was widely viewed that the victims of massacres have been killed three times by the South Korean authorities; first, their lives were taken at the actual incident between 1948 and 1953; second, they were killed again when their bereaved families’ requests for the truth verification of the disappearances and/or killings of their beloveds were unanswered; and last but not the least, the victims were killed once more when their bereaved family members were branded as “reds” or “commies,” and became subjects of the guilt-by-association. The systematic alienation of these bereaved families lasted almost until the late 1980s. As painful as the holocaust denial to the holocaust victims and their families, the bereaved families of the massacres during the Korean War also have suffered from outright denial from the state as well as the feudal-typed authoritarian regimes’ political repression of “guilt-by-association.” The “guilt-by-association,” was effectively used to exclude alleged political opponents and remove the very foundation of their subsistence in modern Korean society. In this sense, the uniquely formed governing system utilizing “guilt-by-association” under the authoritarian regimes again deepened the hurt the victimized families had borne in their hearts.
The forced amnesia in such a strong McCarthyism-esque political atmosphere that grew under the military dictatorships hushed the survivors and the victims’ families from revealing their long untold stories. The political and financial hardships the survivors had to endure were often considered even greater than the pain of actually losing their beloved ones. After half a century, these survivors have not yet completely recovered from the trauma and terror of witnessing some of the most brutal acts the mankind could possibly commit upon other human beings. Unspeakably inhumane treatment and atrocious trauma the survivors experienced have been nightmares for many of them, which were deeply etched in their hearts for decades.
The prevalent public negligence and silence widely spread throughout the United States and Korea are not just the results of simple passage of time, but the result of collective amnesia forced by the state that were frantic about McCarthyism in both nations. Raising awareness of the untold stories of the Korean War would be the responsibility of scholars and journalists. It is essentially that such stories ought to be investigated and verified by an official institution given with an appropriate authority, to thereby be known to the public. This is precisely what the Commission was mandated with. Reinstating the honor of the victims and carrying out the memorial services for the dead can be followed only after truth verifications are completed by the Commission.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Republic of Korea is tasked with answering the questions that the bereaved families have asked for a long time. What the bereaved families have repeatedly requested over decades include: 1) the identification of the perpetrators and 2) the perpetrators’ intention to commit the atrocities. The Commission has been also expected to settle the grievances that the bereaved families have suffered, and provide guidelines to write the history in accordance with its truth-findings so as to prevent any future repetition of such atrocities and abuses.
The systematic oppressions of the past authoritarian regimes barred the stories of the massacres during the war from being told and infringed the people’s right to freedom of speech, a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the international human rights law of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). There is a strong voice among experts that the numerous human rights violation cases would have been prevented if only the atrocities of the war were told before.
The work of the Commission has been focused on the above-mentioned two highly demanded requests from the bereaved families and the civil groups. However, the Commission is still encountering widespread public negligence, i.e., the result of major media being still heavily influenced by the government. The petitioners are now asking for substantial and visible results of the Commission’s mandates, and how to answer those remains our duty.
Dong-Choon Kim is an associate professor of sociology at Sung Kong Hoe University in Korea. He is currently serving as a standing commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Republic of Korea (TRCK).
He got his PhD from Seoul National University (1993). The research areas that he has focused are historical sociology of Korean politics, working class formation and the Korean War. He also has acted as an organizer of progressive academic movements since the 1980s and have participated several civil movements in South Korea. In 2004, The Hankyoreh (Korea's progressive newspaper) nominated him as a member of '100 people who will lead Korean society. He was awarded the 20th DanJe Prize (단재상) in 2005 by his academic achievements and activities.
Since 1999, he wrote articles on Korean War Massacres and has organized concerned intellectuals and victims’ families to settle the problem of massacres committed by South Korean authorities during the Korean War (1948-1953)
He has written several academic articles and books including Social Movement in 1960s of Korea (1991), A Study of Korea's Working Class (1995), Shadow of Modernity (2000), War and Society(2000), Engine of America-Market and War(2004). Among them, War and Society, is translated into Germany, Japanese, and English (English title is The Unending Korean War)
Open to the public.
For more information please contact
Sponsor(s): Center for Korean Studies