Truth and Reconciliation Commission


South Korean TRC report (PDF)
1995-034 trc TRC2009Report

South African TRC (PDF)
1995-034 trc

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
This article is about discovering and revealing past wrongdoings. For other uses, see Truth Commission (disambiguation).

A world map showing all the truth and reconciliation commissions in Museum of Memory and Human RightsSantiago, Chile.

truth commission or truth and reconciliation commission is a commission tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by a government (or, depending on the circumstances, non-state actors also), in the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past. They are, under various names, occasionally set up by states emerging from periods of internal unrest,civil war, or dictatorshipSouth Africa‘s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by PresidentNelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu after apartheid, is popularly considered a model of truth commissions.

As government reports, they can provide proof againsthistorical revisionism of state terrorism and other crimes and human rights abuses. Truth commissions are sometimes criticised for allowing crimes to go unpunished, and creating impunity for serious human rights abusers. Their roles and abilities in this respect depend on their mandates, which vary widely. Often, there is a public mandate to bring past human rights violators to justice, though in some cases (such as Argentina after 1983 and Chile after 1990), abuses of human rights have gone unpunished under truth commissions due to threats of antidemocratic coups by the powerful parties who endure in the military. In this sense, the militaries in question, having ceded control to a civilian government, insist that the “price” of ending their own military rule must be full impunity for any of their past abuses. In some cases, such as the “Full Stop” law of Argentina that prevented prosecution of officers of the military junta, this impunity has been enshrined in law under the civilian government.

One of the difficult issues that has arisen over the role of truth commissions in transitional societies, has centered around what should be the relationship between truth commissions and criminal prosecutions.[1]




The National Commission for Forced Disappearances (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas) investigated human rights violations, including 30,000 forced disappearances, committed during the Dirty War. The report produced by the commission included individual cases on 9,000 disappeared persons. However, in most cases, the commission was only able to determine the status of those disappeared, rather than being able to name the victimizers.
The non-punitive Comissão Nacional da Verdade was approved in late 2011 by the Federal Senateand sanctioned by President Dilma Rousseff. The commission will last for two years and consist of seven members appointed by President Dilma Rousseff. Members of the commission will have access to all government files about the 1946–1988 period and may convene victims or people accused of violations for testimony, although it will not be mandatory for them to attend. After the end of the two years period, the commission will issue a report with its findings. The group will not have, however, the obligation to disclose everything they discover.
The Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a currently active (as of February 2011) commission investigating human rights abuses in the Canadian Indian residential school system.
The National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación) aims to help victims to recover from the armed conflict.[2]
The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión Nacional de Verdad y Reconciliación; “Rettig Report”) investigated deaths and disappearances, particularly for political reasons, under Augusto Pinochet‘s rule. The report was released in 1991. The National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture (“Valech Report”) also investigated human rights abuses from the reign of Augusto Pinochet. Released in 2004 and 2005, the commission differed from the previous one in that it investigated non-fatal violations of human rights, such as torture, and also covered children whose parents had disappeared or been killed. The report of this commission was used by the government of Chile to give out pensions and other benefits to survivors.
Czech Republic
The Office for the Documentation and the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism (Úřad dokumentace a vyšetřování zločinů komunismu) is a subdivision of Czech criminal police which investigates criminal acts from the period 1948-1989 which were unsolvable for political reasons during the Czechoslovak communist regime.
El Salvador
Established by the United Nations (instead of the Government of El Salvador), the establishment of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (Comisión de la Verdad) (United Nations)[3] was part of Chapultepec Peace Accords to end the Salvadoran Civil War. The commission investigated murders and executions committed during the war, including that of Óscar Romero. However, Romero’s murder has to this date not been prosecuted, mostly due to the post-war entrenchment of politicians from the Arena party formerly led by Roberto D’Aubuisson (who led the death squads that assassinated Romero).
Reconciliation and Unity Commission
National Reconciliation Commission[4]
Historical Clarification Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico)
Waki CommissionThe Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya
Truth and Reconciliation Commission[5]
Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER).
Truth Commission (Comisión de la Verdad)
Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación)
Institute of National Remembrance
In 2010, President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino announced that a Truth Commission will be formed to investigate unresolved issues concerning the previous administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. On July 30, 2010, a month after being sworn-in as the 15th President of the Philippines, Aquino signed Executive Order No. 1,[6] creating the Philippine Truth Commission of 2010.[7] However, the Supreme Court of the Philippines invalidated the executive order because of its apparent transgression of the equal protection clause for singling out the Arroyo administration. In his ponencia in Biraogo vs. Truth CommissionJustice Jose C. Mendozablatantly tagged Aquino’s Truth Commission “as a vehicle for vindictiveness and selective retribution.”
Sierra Leone
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Solomon Islands
Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Solomon Islands). On April 29, 2009, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was launched by the Government of the Solomon Islands. Its aim would be to “address people’s traumatic experiences during the five year ethnic conflict on Guadalcanal (1999-2004)“. It is modelled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. Its public hearings commenced in March 2010.
South Africa
After the transition from apartheidPresident Nelson Mandela and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu authorized a truth commission to study the effects of apartheid in that country.[8] The commission was simply called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
South Korea
Truth and Reconciliation Commission[9][10]
Sri Lanka
Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission

After an 18 month inquiry, the commission submitted its report to the President on 15 November 2011. The report was made public on 16 December 2011, after being tabled in the parliament.[11]

East Timor
Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (Comissão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliação de Timor Leste; 2001–2005); Indonesia-Timor Leste Commission of Truth and Friendship (2005–2008)
Uganda Commission of Inquiry into Violations of Human Rights (1986-1994)
Ukrainian National Remembrance Institute – founded by president Yushchenko in 2006
United States
Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GTRC)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See Lyal S. Sunga “Ten Principles for Reconciling Truth Commissions and Criminal Prosecutions”, in The Legal Regime of the ICC (Brill) (2009) 1075-1108.
  2. ^ [1] Colombian CNRR website
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Ager, Maila (June 29, 2010). “Davide named Truth Commission chief”Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved June 29, 2010.
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ “President Releases LLRC Report To Parliament, The UN And Public”The Sunday Leader. 18 December 2011. Retrieved 29 December 2011.


Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Facing Challenge of Truth Commissions. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Arnaud Martin, La mémoire et le pardon. Les commissions de la vérité et de la réconciliation en Amérique latine, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2009.

Robert Rotberg and Dennis Thompson, eds., Truth versus Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions. Princeton University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0691050720

External links[edit]


The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with what happened under apartheid. The conflict during this period resulted in violence and human rights abuses from all sides. No section of society escaped these abuses.

The TRC was based on the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No 34 of 1995 (pdf)

“… a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.
Mr Dullah Omar, former Minister of Justice

The TRC effected its mandate through 3 committees: the Amnesty Committee, Reparation and Rehabilitation (R&R) Committee and Human Rights Violations (HRV) Committee….more

The Register of Reconciliation gave members of the public a chance to express their regret at failing to prevent human rights violations and to demonstrate their commitment to reconciliation…more

The History of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)

What is the function of a truth commission? What role do truth commissions play in the bigger picture of transitional justice?
A truth commission can be a powerful tool for helping the process of reconciliation within a society trying to rebuild after genocide or mass violence. These commissions are open to the public and allow victims-or loved ones of victims-the opportunity to tell their story, as well as the chance, in some cases, to confront the perpetrators. These documented accounts then become public record, which help deter the possibility of future denial of the history. The South African TRC is a key example that shows both the remarkable potential, and limitations, of truth commissions.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is often the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about questions of justice in South Africa following apartheid. The TRC, however, was far from the first thing on the minds of the negotiators who reached the historic compromise.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is often the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about questions of justice in South Africa following apartheid. The TRC, however, was far from the first thing on the minds of the negotiators who reached the historic compromise.

The negotiators, former enemies, came together after preliminary talks to write an interim Constitution. The ANC (the party that took power) wanted “justice.” This probably would have taken the form of prosecutions along with reparations and other efforts. The former apartheid government wanted collective amnesty. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission became the creative means for responding to both needs.

Graeme Simpson of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation claims that the TRC was “almost an afterthought” as it resulted from a last-minute compromise, struck so late in the negotiation process that it had to be tacked onto the end of the interim Constitution, under the heading “National Unity and Reconciliation.” That “postscript” reads:

This Constitution provides a historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society characterized by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, race, class, belief or sex.

The pursuit of national unity, the well being of all South African citizens and peace require reconciliation between the people of South Africa and the reconstruction of society.

The adoption of this Constitution lays the secure foundation for the people of South Africa to transcend the divisions and strife of the past, which generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles in violent conflicts and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge.

These can now be addressed on the basis that there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization.

In order to advance such reconciliation and reconstruction, amnesty shall be granted in respect of acts, omissions and offences associated with political objectives and committed in the course of the conflicts of the past. To this end, Parliament under this Constitution shall adopt a law determining a firm cut-off date, which shall be a date after 8 October 1990 and before 6 December 1993, and providing for the mechanisms, criteria and procedures, including tribunals, if any, through which such amnesty shall be dealt with at any time after the law has been passed.

With this Constitution and these commitments we, the people of South Africa, open a new chapter in the history of our country.1

Dullah Omar was the new minister of justice following the 1994 elections. He knew that he had a responsibility to address the amnesty provision, but he was also aware that amnesty traditionally favored perpetrators. Human Rights groups outside of the South African government also voiced their concerns about the fact that a process focused on amnesty would not meet the demands of reconciliation or the needs of victims.

Omar went about setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that differed dramatically from previous truth commissions and from traditional tribunals. The South African TRC would attempt to balance the rights and needs of victims with the reality of a promised amnesty and its implications.

The TRC was also informed by the work of Dr. Alex Boraine, a former opposition member of Parliament who then became director of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (IDASA). Prior to the TRC, Boraine hosted two seminars that allowed a group of political leaders, civil society representatives and victims of apartheid to explore a truth commission approach. Present at these seminars was Patricio Aylwin, a former president of Chile who established the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in Chile in 1990.

The TRC, co-chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Dr. Alex Boraine, dealt with gross crimes against humanity and focused on the period between the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and 1994. Perpetrators had the opportunity to apply for amnesty for crimes committed during that period. The TRC would award amnesty if the individual could demonstrate a political objective and if they told the complete truth.

The South African TRC was unique because of this amnesty in exchange for truth formula. And it was unique, relative to other truth commissions, because it was widely covered by the media, sessions were open to the public and the records of the commissioners were turned over to the government and the public at large. A web site, was even built to provide easy access to decisions, press releases and media responses to the Commission’s work.

The TRC represented just one approach to transition, but it was a significant effort that received international attention. It also inspired the creation of truth commissions and other reconciliation vehicles around the world.


South Korea’s Embattled Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Kim Dong-choon and Mark Selden

An interview with Kim Dong-choon, recently retired Standing Commissioner of South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Since the formation of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to come to terms with the legacy of apartheid and colonialism, Commissions have sprung up in many countries that have sought to come to terms with painful legacies of colonialism, war, and internal strife. Nations with international and domestic traumas as diverse as Chile and Argentina, East Timor, and Sierra Leone have established TRCs.1

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, 1996

Few have dared to unearth the ghosts in the national closet associated with national division that gave rise to the Korean War and decades of dictatorship with the courage and commitment of Korea’s TRC. Established in 2005, and now on the brink of suppression following the 2009 election of President Lee Myung-bak, TRCK merits close study for its attempts to heal the wounds of the past and build a common future in a nation that remains politically divided not only between North and South, but also within the ROK.

The Commission will complete its original four-year mandate in April of 2010.  The former chair and one Standing Commissioner appointed by President Roh Mu-hyun finished their terms in December of 2009. Accordingly, President Lee Myung-bak appointed a new chair and standing commissioner, but the present commissioners have decided to extend their work only to June 2010, a decision which insures that many pending cases will be unresolved. With the appointment of a new chair and standing commissioners hostile to the spirit of the commission, as is the President of South Korea, a ban has even been issued on publication of the English text of the summary report of 2009 (See the full text of the report below).

The cover image on the banned TRC repot

This article presents that censored report in its English version as well as the Korean version, together with an interview with and an article by recently retired Standing Commissioner Kim Dong-choon, who took charge of investigating the Korean War massacres for the commission.

Interview with Kim Dong-choon

Kim Dong-choon

The achievements and the challenges of the TRCK

Mark Selden: What are the problems facing TRCK in the wake of the end of its four year term and the turnover in its leadership in December 2009?

Kim Dong-choon: The current leadership, including former Standing Commissioner Lee Young-jo who is the new president, holds different or even contradictory views from us about the necessity of the TRC. Where we stress the importance of bringing the commission’s work to a timely conclusion, with important work remaining to be completed, the present leadership seeks to bring its activities to a premature close. For example, although more than 75% of cases concerning repression of Korean civilians by the South Korean dictatorship and military have been completed, significant numbers of others remain incomplete. In particular, cases involving US bombing of civilians and other atrocities remain to be investigated and resolved. I understand that the new standing commissioner who assumed my position, for example, supports the legitimacy of US indiscriminate bombing during the Korean War. The single most important issue may be the framing of the Commission’s final report. With the Lee government bringing the TRC to closure this June, rather than granting a two-year extension as we proposed, I fear that the final report will not clearly reflect the core of the truth we have verified to date. The possibility exists that the final report will undermine many of the Commission’s most important findings.

Excavation work by the TRCK

Another difficulty facing the TRCK is the lack of support and cooperation from governmental institutions.  The police and the National Intelligence Service under the current Lee Myung-bak administration are uncooperative, a sharp contrast to our work with them during the previous Roh Mu-hyun administration.  The former government placed great weight upon the Commission, and regarded it as an important accomplishment.  Therefore, it required government agencies and other institutions to cooperate with the Commission. And in one important case regarding a wartime civilian massacre, President Roh visited Cheju Island to extend a direct apology. Non-cooperation by the police, military and intelligence will not only hamper the ability to investigate, it will also undermine attempts to reconcile victims through public rehabilitation ceremonies.

MS: What do you view as the Commission’s achievements and shortcomings?

KDC: I began to work on historical rectification issues more than a decade ago with civil society organizations prior to my appointment as a Standing Commissioner in 2005. The Commission’s goal was to create favorable conditions for achieving historical, political and legal justice through revealing long-suppressed truths. Like all other truth commissions throughout the world, our commission did not pursue justice through the legal system. Especially atrocities that occurred during the war may not be resolved exclusively by legal procedures. Given the massive scale of victimization of the Korean population in the course of the Korean War, one which took the lives of more than two million people, it was impossible to resolve civilian victimization issues through the courts. We sought instead to bring to light a counter-narrative through the voices of long-silenced victims, and through the investigation of official government and military records and unofficial records such as the press, but above all through citizen testimony. This was particularly challenging in a society which remains at war (there has been no peace treaty between North and South, or involving the US or the UN) and which anti-communism remains deeply entrenched. We can think of the airing of citizen grievances pertaining to the Korean War as a form of democratization from below, a new stage in achieving human rights in Korean society.

North Korean Premier Kim Il Sung prepares to sign armistice agreement on July 27, 1953. General Nam Il (right), head of the communist delegation at Panmunjom.

Truth or Justice?

MS: Might not some say that this was an approach that favors truth over justice in the sense that it failed to privilege compensation for victims?

KDC: From the outset of legislative activities we chose not to emphasize either compensation for victims or punishment of perpetrators (whether South Korean, North Korean or American). In part, this was a product of our experiments and experiences in the course of government-administrated attempts to deal with the past since the demise of the military regime in 1987. Viewed from another angle, however, it also reflected serious divisions within and between the Korean government and society. Under the circumstances, the first step, I thought, was fact finding without reference to compensation or judicial punishment. By airing the truth of the Korean War, determining what really happened and who were the perpetrators and victims, I hoped that social awareness about Korean War massacres and atrocities could be enhanced. This would make it possible both to provide a form of social punishment to perpetrators, including those named and those unnamed, while restoring the legitimacy of victims.

MS: What about government compensation to victims?

KDC: The Commission officially recommended that the government enact a special law to compensate victims, for example, payment of medical bills in case in which we verified mass victimization.  But in my view, establishing the truth and rehabilitating victims’ reputations was the primary task and the foundation for reconciliation.

In the 90s we had the experience of Kwangju victims seeking compensation. The result was to divide the victims among themselves—money became more important than establishing truth—and compensation issues overshadowed the very tasks of reconstructing the whole truth and punishing perpetrators.

During the Korean War, I found more than half of those who had fought for independence before 1945 were killed, mainly by those who had collaborated with the Japanese and then assumed positions of authority under the Americans after 1945. The U.S. occupation of Korea in 1945, and the Korean War, can be viewed as an extension of colonialism in the sense that the U.S created and supported the Rhee Syngman government. Like its predecessor under Japanese rule, Rhee’s was a regime maintained by foreign troops. The mass killings among Koreans can be understood as a postscript to colonialism. In this case, precisely identifying the perpetrators would not be very meaningful. In any event, the magnitude of the perpetrators’ crimes and the passage of time make it almost impossible to punish the perpetrators, nearly all of whom are, in any event, long dead. What can be done is restore the reputation and dignity of families that had long suffered injustice.

Who were the victims? Who the perpetrators?

If a massacre creates direct victims, we can also say that the survivors and family members of the victims also become victims.  The majority of these victims’ sufferings came from the discriminatory treatment they experienced as second-class citizens.  In some cases, property was confiscated, or educational opportunities were blocked, while some people were ostracized as “Reds.”  For thirty to forty years, these survivors and family members suffered in this way.

This victimization impacted not only family members, but also society-at-large. In other words, the massacres had far-reaching social effects.  The stigmatization of the family members as “second-class citizens” or “untouchables” became a cautionary tale for others, warning them of the consequences of acting against the government.  This situation reveals the underlying brutality of Korean society under the U.S. military-backed dictatorship.

Although it is important to recover the dignity of the family members, it is also imperative to reveal this history to Korean citizens in order to begin healing our society’s ills.  Given the severity of these social ills, it is imperative that we reveal past wrongdoings as a way to show that any wrongdoing will ultimately be uncovered. The potential impact of such a lesson would be profound.

Most important, in my view, is social punishment. In the case of the Commission’s reports, the names of individual perpetrators were all removed. This was written into the original law that set up the TRC. It represented a compromise between the parties at the time. The Commission was to reveal the processes and unearth the incidents, but not create a case for prosecution of individuals whose crimes were, for the most part, committed more than half a century earlier. In one case, when the Commission inadvertently revealed the name of a perpetrator, veterans sued the Commission President and the Standing Commissioners. The trial was eventually suspended with no punishment. In this case, since foreign media had provided the names, they were in the public domain.

MS: How have the media covered the work of the Commission?

KDC: We have had to contend with the fact that the biggest Korean newspapers have ignored or suppressed our important findings and resolutions. The conservative press fails to recognize the relationship between past wrongs and present injustices facing many Korean citizens and those of other countries. They lack sensitivity or historical consciousness of the common features in U.S intervention in the Korean War and current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of civilian victimization. Especially, the big three newspapers, Chosun IlboDonga Ilbo and Jungang Ilbo, were uniformly hostile and provided little coverage except to point out Commission errors. This remained consistent throughout. But TV, notably KBS and MBC, which were initially favorable to the Commission during the Roh Moo-hyun presidency, shifted following the election of Lee Myung-bak and ceased to cover our work. Only the Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang Daily, the progressive media, consistently followed our work.

MS: What can be said about changing historical understanding and social consciousness as a result of the Commission’s work?

KDC: The most responsible subject, the Ministry of Defense, has thus steadfastly refused to recognize their misdeeds. But we felt a little change in attitude among ordinary Koreans.  The most important results have been the changing views of historical tragedies in many local communities. This is partly a result of the fact that local media covered our work extensively. When a case is resolved, the Commission organizes an official memorial service involving the bereaved is held at the county seat. Such a service involves the Governor, the military, the police and other officials together with the victim families. In addition, a monument consecrates the victims. But it has not been possible to do this everywhere. In areas such as Cholla, the victims have recovered their dignity through such official recognition. But in other areas where local leaders are hostile to the Commission, this has been impossible.

The future of the truth and reconciliation movement

MS: What do you envisage as the future of the truth and reconciliation movement?

KDC: In a sense, we still stand at the initial stage despite having already accomplished much. By this I mean that it is crucial civic groups rather than government now take the leading role in dealing with the past. The current conservative government seemed to be using every means to roll back all achievements of the previous liberal governments.  In order to fully realize the goal of dealing humanely with the past, new kinds of movements will be needed.  We must urge government to implement the TRC’s recommendations of following-up measures; compensation, establishing a foundation, official apology, restorring the dignity of the victims, correcting governmental records,  human rights education, and rewriting Korea’s modern history.

The Forum on Truth and Justice, a newly formed citizens organization formed with the support of activists and former TRC staff, seeks to perpetuate and deepen the Commission’s work. The Forum will continue to investigate cases, release documents, and issue reports, though it will lack the official imprimatur of the TRC. With the TRC now closing its operations, it is not possible for former staff to use documents uncovered by the Commission. To do so would be to invite a lawsuit. But where statements by victims and perpetrators have been published, either by the TRC or by the press, these enter the public domain. It is also possible for victims to take legal action demanding release of statements gathered by the TRC. There have been a few court victories of this kind. In short, efforts are being made to continue the work of the TRC through citizen organizations.

The report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be found here.

Kim Dong-choon, professor of sociology at Sung Kong Hoe University, served as a standing commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Republic of Korea from December 2005 to December 2010. He is author of many works in Korean, and in English, including The Unending Korean War: A Social History, which has been translated into English, German and Japanese.

Mark Selden is a coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal. He visited sites of TRC investigation of massacres in South Korea in summer 2009.

This interview was conducted for The Asia-Pacific Journal.

Recommended citation: Kim Dong-choon and Mark Selden, “South Korea’s Embattled Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 9-4-10, March 1, 2010.


1 Wikipedia’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” entry offers a panoramic survey of the TRC phenomena with particular attention to South Africa.

– See more at:

Crimes, Concealment and South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Do Khiem and Kim Sung-soo

In the summer of 1950, at the start of the Korean conflict, the government of Syngman Rhee in the South ordered the massive execution of over one hundred thousand (perhaps two hundred thousand ) civilians simply suspected of being communist sympathizers. This war crime by any standard, civilized and uncivilized, has only been unveiled recently and officially by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Republic of Korea .

The TRC was established by the government of South Korea in 2005 and will issue its final report in 2010. It has received 10,907 petitions from individuals and organizations to investigate the history of the anti-Japanese movement during the colonial period and the Korean diaspora; the massacre of civilians after 1945; human rights abuses by the state; incidents of dubious conviction and suspicious death, including 1,200 incidents of mass civilian sacrifice committed by ROK forces and US forces (215 cases). In 2007 the TRC has excavated 4 among the 160 suspected mass graves. Then President Roo Moo-hyun has apologized to the citizens for the 870 victims confirmed at Ulsan. South Korea now has a new government and the TRC is currently fighting budget cuts and restrictions in order to complete its daunting and painful task.

Photograph of remains of some of 110 victims executed by ROK forces at Cheongwon. Released by TRC in 2007
Dr Kim Sung-soo is the head of the International Cooperation Team at the TRC. A historian by training and a graduate of the University of Essex (BA, MA) and Sheffield PhD (England), in this interview, Dr Kim speaks not in the name of the TRC but expresses his convictions and exchanges views as a citizen of Korea and a citizen of the world.
Dr Kim is the author of “Biography of a Korean Quaker, Ham Sok-hon

Đỗ Khiem

ĐK: In “Bad Samaritans”, Chang Ha-joon tells this anecdote. The economist was with Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Laureate, at the National Museum in Seoul, in 2003. Chang was lost in his thoughts, contemplating photographs of the Seoul of his childhood (late 50’s-early 60’s) when he heard a young woman standing behind him screaming:

“How can that be Korea? It looks like Vietnam!”

The recent history of Korea and the recent history of Vietnam draw many parallels. We can start with the 38th and the 17th (parallels). We both had to suffer an internal-ideological conflict, a civil- liberation- intervention-aggression war (a war by any name is a war and…bloody); and a partition which still lasts nowadays in the Peninsula.

Today South Korean pop culture and soap operas permeate Vietnamese society. Vietnam is a rare country which has relations, good relations, with North Korea while welcoming South Korea investors with open arms. We know nothing about this dark chapter of Korea’s history, the civilian massacres of 1950. I was shocked to learn only recently about its existence, its magnitude and the minutiae of its implementation. Hundreds of thousands of victims amount to millions involved in this tragedy if we include their friends and families. It also implies thousands of order givers and planners, thousands of executioners, and thousands of witnesses and observers. The dead notwithstanding, all these people have been silent for over half a century. The press has been silent for over half a century and the world has entirely ignored over five decades one of the most outrageous war crime of our time (and there have been many), a crime against humanity.

ĐK: When did you come to know about these crimes, not as a member of the TRC but as a person living in South Korea?

KSS: In 2001, I watched an MBC documentary, The Forgotten Massacre.” It was aired at 9:55 pm on April 27, 2001. The second part – “The Bodo League – The Dead and The Living” – was aired at 9:55 pm on May 4 of the same year.

ĐK: Munhwa (Culture) Broadcasting Corporation is better known in Vietnam for “All about Eve” (“Tình yêu trong sáng”)… Lee Cha-hoon’s film on the Bodo League, however, is groundbreaking in the true sense of the term as the crew of “Now it can be told” had to itself excavate the Gyeongsan Cobalt mine in order to document the massacre!

ĐK: Can you tell us what the Bodo League was?

KSS: It was a “rehabilitation” program and an organisation established by the South Korean government before the Korean War to keep track of those suspected of having leftist sympathies. The Bodo League was organized in 1949 under President Syngman Rhee. Authorities listed people suspected of Communist activities and forced them to swing to the right. The number of Bodo League members is estimated at 200,000 to 300,000.

“It was the state-led organization whose purpose was to put former, or “converted,” communists under constant surveillance. While it was declared that becoming a member depended on one’s free will, former communist or anti-government activists had no choice but to enter this watchdog group. However, in the course of time membership was not restricted to political activists; the authorities forced those who were even once involved in antigovernment organizations to register with the Bodo League at the village level. For example, the Bureau of Police ordered the head of the regional police station to fulfill a quota of members of the Bodo League. In addition, simple uneducated peasants were strongly persuaded to enter. Thus, eventually more than 70 percent of the Bodo League might have been comprised of innocent peasants who had no consistent political will or ideology.

‘Bodo’ literally meant “caring and guiding.” Originally, under Japanese imperialist rule, the policy put emphasis on the “caring” rather than the “detaining” because ex-political prisoners had difficulties in getting jobs and managing their family life. But we can not find any component of “caring” in the case of South Korea’s NGL. Earlier imperial Japan even organized the “The League for Serving the State” in order to re-orient and rehabilitate the released Korean political dissidents. Later a group of South Korean rightist prosecutors who had been educated under Japanese rule thought that such an organization would be useful for controlling left-affiliated political dissidents by structuring it to “preserve the national security and maintain law and order.” (Kim, Dong-Choon, The Wounds of War and Separation/ Dispersion and Massacre)

ĐK: What happened to its members in the summer of 1950?

KSS: The members of the Bodo League were arrested under orders of “preventive
detention” just after North Korea’s attack. Civic groups have claimed that the authorities killed Bodo League members amid worries that they would collaborate with the invading North Korean forces. The massacred civilians included 5,413 members of the Namno Party, a communist organization established in Seoul after Japanese colonial rule ended in 1945, including 3,593 Bodo League members, 1,897 activists in young communists’ groups, and 48 people who had never been involved in leftist activity. The truth commission said the actual figure could be larger, as it was drawn only from police data. Prof. Kim Dong-Choon, Commissioner of the TRC, estimates that at least 100,000 people were executed.

“According to the recollection of survivors, ROK military police and police reserves called up, the Bodo League members were detained ‘preemptively’ just after the outbreak of war, even though they did not plot any protest against the South Korean regime. The executions of political prisoners and ‘suspected communists’ may have been practiced without due process in every isolated valley of South Korea. Initiatedfrom Suwon and Inchon on June 28 of 1950, three days after the North’s invasion, the killings were separately practiced until about the end of August 1950. Now that several graves have been found, the pattern of killing across the country resembles testimony offered by survivors. The ‘traitors’ were confined in jail for several days, and finally were dragged to valleys to be shot.”
(Kim, Dong-Choon, The Wounds of War and Separation/ Dispersion and Massacre)

ĐK: When did you first hear rumors about massacres perpetrated against civilians during the war?

KSS: I had not heard anything before then. I was in the UK studying from 1990 -2000. I knew more or less as soon as I returned to Korea. Although my father was born in 1922 in North Korea and my mother in Seoul in 1932, they didn’t know about this until 2001.

ĐK: How was it possible that this was kept secret from the South Korean population?

KSS: I think that the victims and bereaved families were so afraid of further retaliation from the dictatorial regime and the perpetrators justified their behaviors as necessary to build a new state after 1945.

ĐK: I guess that spying on everyone and knowing everything, even the redundant and the superfluous, were part of the police culture then in South Korea.

To Koreans, the silence, the secrecy, the whisperings, the air itself must have been oppressive. To you, as a child, a teenager, a young man growing up under the military dictatorship?

KSS: Since I was born in 1960 in Seoul, I was quite aware of the oppressive character of the military regime in the 80’s. I presume that’s why I admired and was inspired by civil rights leader Ham Sok Hon. See also this. And this.

“I am immeasurably indebted to Ham Sok-hon himself. It will soon be eighteen years since I first met him, and over nine years since he died. But the longer I live the more I am conscious of how much I owe him. Specifically, it was he who inspired me to become an historian rather than continue as an engineer; to become a latitudinarian rather than a fundamentalist, a humanist rather than an evangelical and a romantic rather than a puritan. It was he who taught me to love and enjoy history and philosophy, and all the most important things I needed to learn about life and humanity. For me, he has been a window through to the Truth, Tao and God. I wish he could have lived to see this result of his inspiration and teaching. His memory and example have been with me ceaselessly as I live and work at it.1998 Sung-Soo Kim”

Ham Sook Hon
ĐK: I have looked with great interest at your PhD thesis on the “Gandhi of Korea.” You also provided the reader insight on Korean culture and background, i.e. the anecdote about the “Confucian” translation of the title of John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”! If South Korea is now a democratic society, the credit is due to pioneers like Ham Sok-hon and activists in the struggle against dictatorship, and not to some liberal whim of the military.

Likewise, I have read “excuses” for the 1950 Massacre invoking the state of war and the dire situation of retreating ROK forces. This would be considered a war crime in any state or situation, and considered a war crime by any standard, last but not least the “Yamashita standard” upheld by the US Supreme court in 1946, which led to the execution of General Yamashita, commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines.
The very people who long hid these crimes now say that it belongs to the past! If we follow that argument, there is no need for the TRC or any soul searching?

KSS: I think that human history or the past is like the root of a tree. We cannot expect a tree to flourish if we cut its roots. Equally, we cannot dream of building a bright future while we ignore our history. The TRC’s truth-finding activities are not only to settle the grievances of the individual victims, they also function as preventive measures against a recurrence of the same sort of incidents in the future. Its goal is to prevent a distorted past leading to a distorted present and future. Korea is the only country in Asia that reveals its shameful past to the public. However painful it may be, knowing the truth can help us build a better society in the future.

ĐK: The Jeju April 3rd incident occurred in 1948. There was no war yet. Jeju was an island protected by the 7th Fleet and there was no enemy army threatening. Nonetheless, some 30.000 local residents were massacred in a “pacification” campaign. Lt Colonel Kim Ik-ruhl (later Lt General), then commander of the ROKA 9th Regiment in Jeju, refused to carry out the orders of Korea Governor General Dean because Kim considered it a war crime under international law. He was replaced by a more obedient officer. General Kim categorically denounced these crimes in his memoirs. Can the Jeju incident be considered the start of what some call the “Satanic Era” in Korea?

KSS: Yes indeed! It is true that the Jeju Uprising was initiated by leftwing leaders as a protest against the killing of six innocent people by the police, but due to the frantic reaction and overwhelming discrimination of the army, police and rightwing groups against the people of Jeju, even ordinary people came to sympathize with the leftwing leaders. Correspondingly diehard paranoid rightwing groups even more ruthlessly persecuted those ordinary people. In this respect, the Jeju Uprising was a microcosm of the polarized left-right clash in the Korean peninsular in the 20th century.

According to AMGIK (American Military Government in Korea, which ruled S. Korea from Sept. 1945- Aug. 1948), “the program of mass slaughter” of the Jeju people was conducted of necessity. From AMGIK’s point of view, the massacre was vital to establishing a US-supported puppet government in South Korea. By doing so, AMGIK was able to establish a favorable capitalistic buffer state in South Korea against Soviet controlled North Korea. In this regard, Major General W. Dean of AMGIK and Police Chief Cho Byeong-Ok deliberately mis-described the Jeju Uprising as “externally inspired Communists rioting with the support of international Communist connections.” By doing so, they justified their violent suppression of the Jeju Uprising and contributed to the partition of the Korean peninsular.

From the beginning of the Uprising, AMGIK preferred instant suppression by bloodshed to any kind of peace treaty with the rebels. On April 28 1948 there was a peace treaty attempt between Kim Dal-Sam, leader of the rebels, and Kim Ik-Yeol of the 9th regiment, but the police, disguised as rebels, set fire to Orari village, providing AMGIK with an excuse to break off the negotiations[1] Any negotiations or attempts at a peaceful solution were terminated. Correspondingly, on May 6th, the moderate Kim Ik-Yeol was dismissed by AMGIK and hardliner Park Jin-Kyung took over.

Jeju citizens awaiting execution
In my view, the Jeju incident was the most serious violation of human rights involving the misuse of public power in contemporary Korean history. I evaluate the Jeju Uprising from the perspective of a human rights movement rather than as part of the national security or ideological spectrum. The Jeju Uprising was a shameful example of ‘the end justifies the means.’ Therefore, I emphasize that impinging on fundamental human rights cannot be justified in the name of any ideology or national security.

ĐK: Do we know (or suspect) other civilian mass executions before Jeju and is this also within the scope of the TRC investigations?

KSS: Not that I know of. The scope of the TRC investigations covers the following five areas: the anti-Japanese movement during the colonial period and the history of the Korean diaspora; the massacre of civilians after 1945; human rights abuses by the state; incidents of dubious conviction and suspicious death; reinvestigation of the above categories and other incidents as determined by the Commission.

ĐK: I understand the TRC is carrying on its work and new excavations are due this summer. Can you give us an update on this?

KSS: The new excavations will be launched in the beginning of July. This year we plan to excavate around 500 skeletons from 7 sites, and 500 other skeletons will be excavated from 7 other sites next year.

ĐK: Also, the Gwangju Democratisation Movement is a major event in the the democratization of South Korea. Is the massacre of 1980 part of the TRC duties?

KSS: No. Regarding the GDM please see this site.

ĐK: As Gwangju is more recent, the truth would be more easily established?
KSS: Yes and no, because not only victims and bereaved families are around but also the perpetrators are around, holding influential position and power in S. Korean society even today. Also ironically, procedural legality, which grew in Korean society after democratization, prevented the retrospective punishment of the perpetrators of the GDM under the old regime after the statute of limitations had expired. Documentary evidence recently made available under the US Freedom of Information Act suggests strong US complicity with the perpetrators, the military dictatorship of General Chun Doo Hwan.

ĐK: Thank you for your help here in shedding light on these events which have been unbelievably kept secret all these years. When crimes of such a magnitude are committed, truth is due to the whole world.

ĐK (born 1955), real name Do Khiem, is a poet, fiction writer, essayist and film maker. See the Wikipedia entry.

This article was posted at Japan Focus on August 1, 2008.

See also Heonik Kwon, The Korean War Mass Graves

Bruce Cumings, The South Korean Massacre at Taejon: New Evidence on US Responsibility and Coverup

Charles J. Hanley & Jae-Soon Chang, Summer of Terror: At least 100,000 said executed by Korean ally of US in 1950

– See more at:

Unearthing War’s Horrors Years Later in South Korea


Published: December 3, 2007
SEOUL, South Korea, Dec. 2 — Shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Kim Man-sik, a military police sergeant, received an urgent radio message from the South Korean Army’s Counterintelligence Corps: Go to local police stations, take custody of scores of Communist suspects held there and execute them.

The South Korea Truth and Reconciliation Commission

A government excavation team works in a cobalt mine near Daegu, southern South Korea.

The South Korea Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Prisoners before their execution by troops in Taejon in 1950. The state is aiming for compensation or services for the victims.

Mr. Kim complied. What he did and saw in those days is etched permanently in his mind.

“They were all tied together with military communications wire,” said Mr. Kim, now 81. “So when we opened fire, they all pulled at each other to try to escape. The wire cut into their wrists. Blood was splattered all over their white clothes.”

That Mr. Kim’s story has emerged after half a century is a testament to this nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled after the South African group set up in the 1990s to expose crimes and injustices committed during the apartheid era.

Unlike the situation in South Africa, where the truth commission started work soon after the collapse of the apartheid government, South Korea’s commission was not created for decades. During most of that time, the country was ruled by anti-Communist authoritarian governments that wanted to keep buried the history of violence against people who had been accused of being Communists. It was not until after President Roh Moo-hyun was elected that the country created the commission in 2005, starting a nationwide investigation to uncover the history of atrocities by each Korea.

Handicapped by a budget considered too small for such a vast task, the commission’s work has been slow. Beyond that, it can neither force people to testify nor offer immunity for testimony, so few veterans have been willing to come forward. Some victims have stayed away as well, unwilling to open old wounds between neighbors caught up in the ideological struggle decades ago. Still, the commission has made progress in confirming long-suppressed stories of mass executions and in recovering the remains of victims.

South Korean troops executed tens of thousands of unarmed civilians and prisoners as they retreated in advance of the North Korean invaders during the war, according to historians. The victims were often accused of being Communist sympathizers or collaborators.

The commission’s investigators have discovered the remains of hundreds of people — including women and children — who were killed without trial. They have also identified 1,222 probable instances of mass killings during the war.

The cases include 215 episodes in which survivors say American warplanes and ground troops killed unarmed civilians.

On Saturday, Lt. Col. Almarah Belk, a Pentagon spokeswoman in Washington, said she did not “have any information on investigations into new findings as it relates to deaths of Koreans during the Korean war by U.S. military action.”

In 2001, the Pentagon acknowledged that American soldiers shot and killed unarmed civilians near the South Korean hamlet of No Gun Ri in 1950, but said the deaths were a result of confusion, and even fear.

South Korean investigators in July began digging at 4 of 160 sites believed to have been used for mass burials, places that were off limits under the country’s authoritarian rulers. They have unearthed the remains of 400 people. Skeletons were found stacked on one another, with bullet holes in the skulls and hands still tied by rusting steel wire.

The remains confirmed witness accounts that the police often made victims crouch at the edge of a trench, their hands tied behind their backs, before shooting them in the head and pushing them in, said Park Sun-joo, who leads the excavation team.

“The fact that these bones have remained abandoned so long and so close to where we live means that our society is still at its barbarian stage,” said Kim Dong-choon, a commission member.

At one burial site, in Cheongwon, in central South Korea, 110 bodies have been found.

“I think they killed up to 7,000 people there,” said Park Jong-gil, one of the commission’s witnesses who said he saw the killings at Cheongwon as a teenager. “Every day for seven or eight days, I saw four trucks in the morning and three trucks in the afternoon coming loaded with people.”

In one of its strongest rulings so far, the commission said in July that killings in the village of Hampyong, in the country’s southwest, were “a crime against humanity.”

Chung Nam-sook, 80, one of the witnesses who spoke to commission investigators, said in a later interview that in December 1950, soldiers of the South Korean 11th Army Division stormed the village to hunt Communist guerrillas but instead attacked innocent villagers gathered in a field.

“They told us to light our cigarettes,” said Mr. Chung, who lived there. “Then they began shooting their rifles and machine guns. After a while, an officer called out, ‘Any of you who are still alive can stand up and go home now.’ Those who did were shot again.” Mr. Chung, who was shot seven times, survived by pretending to be dead under the heap of bodies.

The commission’s work showed that the war was particularly calamitous for civilians because the rival armies swept up and down the peninsula, with each side trying to determine who was on whose side.

In one 1950 atrocity, according to evidence presented to the commission, South Korean police officers intent on ferreting out Communists disguised themselves as a North Korean unit before entering villages around Naju, near Hampyong. When people welcomed them with Communist flags, they killed 97, the commission said.

As their town changed hands between the rival armies, historians said, villagers who had lost family members were quick to settle scores. More than 50 years later, families still hold grudges.

Despite the successes in uncovering mass killings, some victims and their relatives say they feel cheated because the commission was not granted the right to prosecute those who committed atrocities. Its mandate is to uncover the truth for the record, recommend corrections to textbooks and other records and aid reconciliation through compensation or services for the victims.

Ja Yong-soo’s father was among 218 victims of what the commission finally ruled last month to have been “unlawful killings” by Korean marines on the southern island of Cheju in 1950.

After being repeatedly ignored by previous governments, Mr. Ja and other victims’ relatives were rewarded last month when the commission finally ruled the killings unlawful. But any move to enact a special law to prosecute these atrocities is likely to set off protests by Korean conservatives. (The law would be needed because the statute of limitations has run out.)

“Many of those human butchers and their children are now rich and powerful,” Mr. Ja, 65, said. “What am I going to say when I die and meet my father in the heaven and he asks, ‘My son, what have you done to restore my honor?’”

Mr. Kim, the former soldier, admitted that he was in charge of executing 170 people at Hoengsong and Wonju around June 28, 1950.

He said some of those killed, the “Class A” group of active Communists, were “enemies” who had attacked police stations. “But those categorized as Class B and C were innocent peasants who were lured by the Communists’ promise to give them free land,” he said.

“Till today, I feel guilty for killing them,” he said. “I bow my head in contrition.”

Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Washington.

Time running out on South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Stars & Stripes
Published: January 19, 2010

RELATED STORY: Verifications of errant attacks fail to lead to U.S. acknowledgement

SEOUL, South Korea — A controversial South Korean commission is in a race against time.

In four months, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up by South Korea in 2005 to investigate wrongs committed against its citizens by the government, will be disbanded. That means possibly thousands of incidents, from executions to the wartime killings of refugees, may remain uninvestigated, and South Koreans wrongly accused of crimes against the government may lose their only chance to clear their name. Advocates say the commission’s research is vital to the country. In addition to clearing individuals, the commission has investigated or is investigating more than 11,000 claims of atrocities, including civilian deaths from U.S. military operations in the Korean War.

In all, the commission estimates that as many as 100,000 South Koreans died at the government’s hands. In a high-profile ruling issued in November, the commission announced that South Korean soldiers and police executed nearly 5,000 people during the Korean War, fearing they would cooperate with invading North Korean soldiers.

“I think the work of this commission is extremely important because this country has some very serious issues with itself,” said Michael Breen, author of “The Koreans” and “Kim Jong Il: North Korea’s Dear Leader.” “There’s a lot of guilt and a lot of unpleasantness surrounding its formation. There’s a lot of cases of it brutalizing its own people.”

South Korea was run by military dictatorships until the 1980s. Its history before then was marked by a series of bloody coups, massacres and sham trials of suspected communists and other dissidents.

Advocates say the commission is being shuttered because current President Lee Myung-bak and his conservative ruling party are uncomfortable with the scrutiny of the country’s past.

“The (Lee) government seems to have inherited it reluctantly from the previous government and would like to see it shut down,” Breen said.

The commission’s new president says it hasn’t been cost effective and should cease work in April, as planned when it was created. Lee Young-jo, appointed as the commission’s president last month, said 240 researchers spent about 20 billion won — or $17.79 million — and made final reports on just 300 cases during the past four years.

“Has the commission’s work been effective and productive?” he said. “No, absolutely not.”

Much of the commission’s politically charged work has been ignored by the South Korean government, which has rarely issued apologies for past atrocities, observers say. The commission, whose 15 members are appointed by different branches of the government, can recommend that government agencies or individuals make apologies or compensate their victims but cannot force them to do so.

But Kim Dong-choon, who served as the commission’s head researcher until his four-year term ended last month, said its work is important.

“To me, the definition of an advanced society is that the government or schools or media pay attention to these people’s cases and try to relieve their pains,” he said.

He said many case files sit untouched by the government because Lee Myung-bak’s main concern is North Korea, not addressing the country’s past. But the commission’s investigations still help the government build credibility with a public that has had little faith in its leaders because of its past “unimaginable” human rights violations, he said.

Park Tae-gyun, a professor at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of International Studies, said he expects the government to disband the commission or scale back its work, even though it has succeeded in remaining politically neutral in its investigations. He said the commission has been caught in a “power struggle,” with conservatives accusing liberals of turning the commission’s findings into weapons to attack them.

One such conservative is Lee Ju-cheon, a history professor at Wonkwang University and representative of the New Right Union, a right-wing political advocacy group. He said the commission has been run by left-wingers who oppose the Lee administration, not unbiased scholars.

“What they have done has brought split opinions and conflict to the nation,” he said.

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. R2ytO1v0b5bilK  |  July 16, 2013 at 9:51 am

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