Atoning for Murder of Own Citizens
By Michael Breen
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a governmental body, confirmed last week the long-held suspicion that South Korea murdered thousands of its own citizens in the opening months of the 1950 to 53 Korean War.
Through methodical excavation of burial sites, forensic examination and interviews with eyewitnesses, the Commission said it had verified 4,934 of what some researchers suspect may have been over 100,000 unlawful executions without trial on this side of the DMZ.
Add the killings during the left-right struggles on Jeju Island and elsewhere even before the start of the war and it becomes apparent that South Koreans were more brutalized in the early days of the republic by their own authorities than under the previous 36 years of Japanese rule.
Yet 60 years later, the suffering of the Japanese period is closer to the surface. The smallest wrong comment inflames nationalistic sentiment and seems to bring the memories flooding back. The more recent murder of Korea's own, however, is forgotten.
That is a consequence of education.
Although widely known by foreign troops who occasionally intervened to stop police massacres, the war crimes by the Syngman Rhee government against its own citizenry are little known in Korea because they were covered up.
In place of this shame, nationalistic governments taught children to point the finger of accusation for Korean suffering elsewhere: at North Korea which also conducted mass executions, at Japan for the 1910 to 45 occupation, and at America, for dividing the country and looking the other way when South Korean leaders misbehaved.
For good measure, the authorities classified families of their own victims as potential enemies until the late 1980s to keep any from gaining a voice.
Last week's government admission to the massacres did not make much impact. The story was tucked away on the inside pages and passed most people by.
Those who did read it tend to interpret it in terms of the old violent left-right argument or, since democracy, the liberal-conservative divide. The Commission, which was formed under the previous administration of Roh Moo-hyun, is seen as being on the left, and the present government of President Lee Myung-bak as on the right and therefore uncomfortable with the Commission's recommendation of an official apology and compensation for families.
But this is the wrong narrative. The fact is that police and army intelligence officials, acting under orders, undertook mass Gestapo-style executions of civilians all over the country in mines and purpose-dug ditches.
These actions can be explained. The authorities may have feared, and not without good cause, that leftists would welcome the invading communist forces. There may have been no time for trials. They may have panicked. They may have taken revenge in some cases for leftist atrocities. The leadership may have been primitive in its understanding of individual rights.
But whatever the analysis, the fact is it happened and was covered up. South Koreans were lied to and encouraged to blame outsiders for their troubles, a shallow habit that is the hallmark of the weak and undeveloped, and completely at odds with Korea's true status as one of the world's leading industrial nations in economic terms and increasingly in democratic terms.
This is a contradiction that modern South Korea, as it steps towards the inevitable reunification with the communist North, needs to come to terms with.
It can do this through a process of uncovering the truth and acting in the interests of reconciliation. It is only through this cycle of repentance and forgiveness that this chapter can be closed
Until it is, South Korea will continue to be ill at ease with itself.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.