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Filling the Silent Space

Filling the Silent Space

One of the standing committees on South Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission documents Korean War deaths including mass killings of some 100,000 South Koreans by their own military, police and allies. Dong-Choon Kim of Sung Kong Hoe University discussed the work of the committee he leads earlier this quarter at UCLA.

Margaretta Soehendro Email MargarettaSoehendro

Our work will contribute to the social compromise within Korean society and in the future, national reunification.

Before and during the Korean War, South Korean forces and rightist groups massacred approximately 100,000 of their own people who were suspected of being rebels, communists, or North Korean sympathizers, according to Dong-Choon Kim, who heads a standing committee on the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission's estimate also includes cases in which South Korean civilians and refugees were killed in U.S. ground and air attacks.

Under successive governments and amid 2 million total deaths in the war, these stories have been long suppressed.  Kim, an associate professor of sociology at Sung Kong Hoe University and a former UCLA visiting scholar, discussed the work of his committee at a lecture sponsored by the UCLA Center for Korean Studies on March 31, 2009.

"The Korean War massacres and its sentiment have been regarded as, even now, very sensitive, and for some Koreans, unpleasant and uneasy tasks to delve in," Kim said.

Formed in 2005, the commission also has standing committees that focus on human rights abuses under the authoritarian government and military regime and on the independence movement under Japanese occupation. Although a government agency, Kim said, the commission has roots in the work of civic groups, intellectuals, lawyers and activists.

Between the ouster of U.S.-supported President Syngman Rhee in 1960 and the military rule of 1961–87, bereaved families had one year to speak out and demand that the government investigate the mass killings. Surviving relatives held public bereavement ceremonies and formed the National Association of the Bereaved Families of the Korean War Victims, which exhumed and properly buried victims' remains.

After the 1961 military coup, leaders of the association were arrested and cemeteries demolished. Even fictional accounts weren't tolerated during the "long silence," Kim said, and family members of those massacred suffered "guilt by association" throughout the military rule.

"If your father was killed as a communist suspect, you and your brother, your sister, even your son and daughter, may be regarded as a communist sympathizer," Kim said.

Although the demise of the military regime gave South Koreans the opportunity to speak out, the lasting trauma of loss, denial and persecution has prevented families of victims from telling their stories. Kim said that many surviving family members don't want to discuss their victimization or that they are concerned about residual stigmatization and its effect on their children.

Victims included political prisoners, members of the Bodo League, also known as the National Guidance League, suspected North Korean collaborators, and innocent civilians and refugees caught in combat operations. The case of the Bodo League members was especially tragic, Kim said, because few of them had any communist allegiance by the time they were being targeted.

"We try to find the commanders and perpetrators and conditions, contexts, backgrounds of the mass killers. This is to satisfy the Korean people's right to know about their past, about the most tragic chapter of the Korean War," Kim said.

In response to questions from the audience, Kim said the committee had no first-hand research or information on North Korea's mass killings and no jurisdiction there.

"The task we are facing is very difficult to handle... but our work will contribute to the social compromise within Korean society and in the future, national reunification of Korean society in general," Kim said.

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