Korea's bid for truth and reconciliation

An independent commission starts to examine abuses under Japanese occupation and military dictatorship.

Near the notorious former headquarters of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), investigators pore over a turbulent historical record - abuses of political prisoners, collaboration with Japanese occupiers, massacres of civilians in the Korean War.

The most ambitious effort so far to document who did what to whom in the past century, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up late last year, has begun to delve into a wide range of issues, beginning with betrayal during the anti-Japanese revolt of March 1, 1919, memorialized here as a national holiday.

"If all investigations are properly conducted, Korea can be born as a model country for human rights," says Lee Young Jo, one of three standing commissioners.

"If we have any lessons to learn from the past," he adds, "we should prevent similar things from taking place again."

Under a law enacted nearly a year ago, teams are reexamining collaboration during the Japanese colonial era (1910-45). They also are probing such episodes as the mass killing of civilians before and during the Korean War, and the torture and killing of political prisoners by KCIA interrogators under Park Chung Hee, who seized power in 1961, and his successor, Gen. Chun Doo Hwan, who came to power in a coup after Park's assassination in 1979.

It's hoped that this commission, named after one established by Nelson Mandela in post-apartheid South Africa, can come to more definitive conclusions than a dozen other panels formed in recent years to right past wrongs.

With nearly 200 people on its staff, it's the largest of any of them, has the most sweeping objectives - and is the first to begin operations during the presidency of Roh Moo-Hyun, who succeeded President Kim Dae Jung three years ago.

The real question, though, is whether all the soul-searching, the scrutiny of records, and interviews with perpetrators and victims can placate embittered critics on all sides. A corollary question is why none of the plethora of commissions is asking about human rights abuses in North Korea.

Kim Dong Choon, another standing commissioner and author of a lengthy study on killing of civilians during the Korean War, acknowledges "divisions in our society about North Korea" but says, "I have no idea about violations in North Korea."

The divisions in Korean society are mirrored inside the commission. Mr. Lee says he believes that South Koreans will have to come to grips with what goes on there in view of the horrifying tales told by increasing numbers of North Koreans who have escaped to China and now are refugees here.

"This government is very reluctant to bring up the matter of human rights in North Korea for fear of souring relationships with the North," he observes. "To be born as a model of human rights, South Korea should pay more attention to North Korea, too."

A former student activist at Seoul National University, Kim says that Koreans must first settle historical issues and promises to "try every means" to find the facts about "several massacres, including those by Korean military police and North Korean and American forces" during the Korean War.

Lee, who earned his doctorate in government at Harvard University and is on leave from his post as a professor at Kyunghee University, says, "Nobody will oppose the idea of settling past wrongs, but some think there are too many commissions."

Most of the other commissions, while not as large and powerful, remain in existence. The panel investigating the Kwangju massacre of May 1980 - when soldiers responded brutally to demonstrators for democracy - has won several hundred dollars each for the bereaved families of more than 200 young people slaughtered when soldiers recaptured the city.

Unlike the others, however, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is independent of any agency - including the Blue House, the center of presidential power, even though President Roh appointed the commission president. Roh, whose base is left-of-center, endorsed the idea of the commission in response to leftist demands for a thorough probe into practices that still send tremors of fear through society here.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS), as the KCIA is now known, has promised to cooperate, as have the defense ministry and the national police. The NIS has apologized for acts of torture that resulted in the deaths of as many 100 people during the presidencies of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan.

Earlier this month, in a landmark ruling, an appeals court upheld a ruling by a lower court to pay $1.8 million to the family of a Seoul National University professor who died while in 1973 while interrogators grilled him.

The NIS apology came years after the KCIA had claimed that the professor, "suffering from a guilty conscience," had leapt from a window in the KCIA office building after having confessed he was "a communist North Korean spy." A judge in the final ruling said it was "unpardonable" that "the truth was systematically covered up and a torture victim was labeled an enemy of the state."

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