Uncovering the Hidden Histories of the Korean War: An Interview with the Standing Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Korea, Dr. Dong-Choon Kim

Uncovering the Hidden Histories of the Korean War: An Interview with the Standing Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Korea, Dr. Dong-Choon Kim

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(This interview was conducted on March 27, 2009. The interview took place in Korean and was translated by the interviewer. For Dr. Dong-Choon Kim’s accompanying paper, click here. For a video of the U.C. Berkeley conference on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, click here. For the announcement of the TRC conference, click here.)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Korea (hereafter TRC) was founded in 2005 by the South Korean National Assembly in response to petitions by bereaved families. It was established as an independent body to investigate past wrongs including cases of unarmed civilians and political prisoners massacred before and during the Korean War. An estimated 100,000 South Koreans were massacred as the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950. The U.S. and the current South Korean governments have been reluctant to fully acknowledge the findings of the Commission because the evidence unearthed raises doubts about the official narrative of the Korean War as an honorable war that Americans engaged in to defend Korea’s freedom — a “call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met,” as inscribed in the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the first of its kind in northeast Asia. The establishment of the TRC represents a dramatic change from the silence that was imposed by past authoritarian regimes in South Korea about massacres committed by U.S. forces and the South Korean police and military before and during the Korean War. But the four-year mandate of the Commission is set to expire in April 2010, if it is not renewed to continue its important work.

The work of the TRC was introduced recently to the American public in a speaking tour organized by the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea to various American college campuses, which included events at Lewis & Clark College, UC Berkeley, UCLA, NYU, Columbia University, and Boston College, culminating in a panel presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in Chicago on March 27, 2009. After the panel, I caught up with Professor Dong-Choon Kim, one of the Standing Commissioners of the TRC, to learn about his involvement with the TRC and his reflections upon his work as his term is coming to an end in November of this year. He is also Professor of Sociology at SungKongHoe University in Seoul, Korea, and has authored numerous books on the Korean War and social movements in South Korea. Among them, The Unending Korean War (Korean title: War and Society) has been translated into English, published by Tamal Vista Publications in 2000.

[Suzy Kim]: How did you get involved with this kind of work?

[Dong-Choon Kim]: The year 2000 was the 50th anniversary of the Korean War and a conference was organized on the theme of war and human rights, which led to legislative activities on behalf of victims of the Korean War. I became the Secretary-General of the non-governmental organization that was organized at this time, the Pan-National Committee for Truth Concerning Civilian Massacres Before and After the Korean War (한국전쟁전후 민간인학살 진상규명 범국민위원회). In February 2004, we submitted legislation to clear the records of those convicted as “leftists” before and during the Korean War, but it failed to pass the National Assembly. However, during his presidential address on the anniversary of Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule on August 15, 2004, then President Roh Moo-hyun addressed the need to set the record straight on Korea’s contentious past. This came at a time when the mandate of the Presidential Commission on Suspicious Deaths (대통령소속 의문사 진상규명위원회) investigating the mysterious deaths during the democracy movement of the 1960s through the 1980s was coming to an end, which resulted in the coming together of those interested in shedding light on the mysterious deaths with those investigating civilian massacres during the Korean War through the formation of the Pan-National Committee for the Clarification of the Past (과거청산범 국민위원회). I was working as the Executive Committee Chairperson of this organization when legislation establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Korea was passed on May 3, 2005. I was nominated by President Roh as one of the commissioners, and the Commission was officially established on November 2, 2005.

[Suzy Kim]: How has this work with the TRC affected you personally and professionally?

[Dong-Choon Kim]: Because there had never been a commission with such a broad mandate instituted by the government to look at its own past mistakes, I really had to start from scratch in terms of setting up guidelines for methods in investigations as well as administrative procedures, which were enormously challenging. While those coming into the commission as civil servants saw the commission as part of the administrative branch because that was where our funding came from, those of us without civil service backgrounds really saw the commission as a special, independent instrument created for the purpose of examining the governments in the past. For many providing oral testimonies, this really is their last chance because they are now quite elderly. Feeling situated at a very historic moment, I have presided over the collection of oral testimonies from approximately 20,000 people, but I’m not so sure yet how best to preserve these materials for the future.

[Suzy Kim]: How widely does the South Korean public know about TRC’s work? How are the South Korean people reacting to TRC’s work?

[Dong-Choon Kim]: There isn’t much interest in South Korea, especially with the current economic crisis, and our mandate doesn’t include public education. So, there is little funding to publicize and distribute the public reports of the commission. There’s been some media coverage based on our press releases, but generally you don’t see the kind of public rage that we saw with the prosecution of former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, in 1996, for the Kwangju Massacre. There may be a sense of fatigue among ordinary Koreans about the successive projects of uncovering the past, although such attitudes have been largely instigated by the conservative press. Ideally, there should be documentaries, educational materials, scholarly publications, artistic and cultural productions as a way of coming to terms with the past uncovered by the TRC, but we don’t see that.

[Suzy Kim]: Could you tell us about your experience of engaging with the American public during the speaking tour in the US?

[Dong-Choon Kim]: I think the tour has been generally quite successful, and the events have been attended very well. As the Korean War itself has been relatively unknown to the public in the U.S., let alone the civilian mass killings during the war, people were generally very surprised by my presentation.

[Suzy Kim]: What is the most important message you would like the American public to take away from the work of the TRC? What is the role of the American public, if any?

[Dong-Choon Kim]: The TRC is an institution set up by the South Korean government, and therefore makes recommendations to the South Korean government. The TRC has uncovered many cases of civilian massacres committed by American forces during the Korean War, and has urged the South Korean government to address the U.S. government with its findings related to civilian victimization by the U.S. troops. But ultimately, the American government must conduct additional investigations and provide redress concerning such crimes when it receives our recommendation. There was just too much damage to simply dismiss as “collateral damage.” In that sense, the Korean War wasn’t just a “Korean” War but was also an “American” War. In Vietnam, the Vietnam War is called the “American War” and yet the American people don’t recognize this American War as American. The Korean War was the prelude to the Vietnam War, and to the current wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. The American public has a responsibility to have historical awareness of the Korean War to be able to put subsequent conflicts into perspective. The work of our commission may provide a chance for the public in the U.S. to reflect on what the U.S. has done to the Third World in the name of liberty and democratization.

[Suzy Kim]: What are the ways in which the investigations of the TRC challenge the main narrative of the Korean War?

[Dong-Choon Kim]: The main narrative of the Korean War describes the hostile North Koreans invading the peaceful South in an attempt at a communist take-over with the support of the Soviet Union, thereby prompting a potential Third World War, until the United States came to rescue Korea’s freedom. However, what you see through the detailed and rich cases investigated by the TRC is that practices deployed during the Korean War originated in the [Japanese] colonial period, and were reinstituted by the American occupation in the ensuing Cold War. Summary executions, preventative detentions, peremptory inspections, and martial law were mechanisms used during the colonial period. Although such practices were abolished by law upon liberation, this was only on paper and the practices continued to be used by the military and police under the US occupation. The massacres were not the result of antagonisms between the left and right, but were the result of fostering pawns and agents [among the Korean population], which began under colonial rule. Those who worked with the Japanese colonial police and military became the South Korean police and military, and some of them acted as perpetrators of massacres, in addition to those who fled the North. Anti-communism brought these disparate elements together in common cause as many of those who fled the North became chiefs of police and military personnel in the South hunting down alleged communists.

[Suzy Kim]: Most of the emphasis on the TRC’s work seems to be on finding the truth. So, what about reconciliation? How is the TRC pursuing reconciliation?

[Dong-Choon Kim]: To be honest, we have not yet been able to devise concrete measures or tools to achieve reconciliation. But reinstating the victims’ honor and performing memorial services for the dead as part of reconciliation can happen only after truth is uncovered. One possibility is that the TRC can provide a forum to bring together the victims and perpetrators once they are identified, and to offer official government apology to the victims and their families. In that way, the confirmation of the truth and the official recognition of the victims may provide the first steps for reconciliation. But true reconciliation can only be reached when perpetrators can provide heartfelt apologies to their victims.

[Suzy Kim]: How would you like to see the issue of massacres before and during the Korean War resolved? How should the work of the TRC be continued and concluded?

[Dong-Choon Kim]: The primary role of the TRC should remain to verify what really happened at the time of the incidents that have been filed with the commission. Like Chief Joseph says “It does not require many words to speak the truth.” Unfortunately, Korea has not seen this applied often in past years under authoritarian rule. No arbitrarily imposed political agenda should hinder these stories from coming out any longer. The victims and their families have already suffered enough, and we cannot simply keep on veiling them and leaving them out of history. What we do, hopefully, can provide an initial step towards the truthful reconciliation between the victims and perpetrators, thus achieving social justice in the long term, and I hope history will be able to reflect this in the future.

Suzy Kim is a Fellow at the Korea Policy Institute. She is currently a visiting professor of history at Boston College. Before joining academia, she worked at MINKAHYUP Human Rights Group as the international secretary in Seoul. She continues her human rights advocacy work as the Korea Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA. Her current research focus is North Korean social history, particularly mass mobilization in everyday village life from 1945 to 1950.

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