Facing up to the past in S Korea

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 December, 2017, 12:48pm

On December 15, 1950, with the Korean war at its height, Private David Strachan of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers was put aboard a truck for an urgent mission.

Korean troops had been seen shooting civilians - including women and children - north of Seoul. A company of Fusiliers sped to the scene. 'We knew what we were going for, but a lot of us didn't believe the rumours,' said Mr Strachan. 'When we got there, it was true.'

Lines of civilians were kneeling in front of trenches; behind them, masked men with carbines were preparing to shoot.

A British officer demanded that the Korean in charge halt proceedings. The man responded by pointing a pistol at the Briton. The Fusiliers began to fix bayonets. The Koreans backed down, and further atrocities were prevented.

The killers, however, were not the North Korean enemy. They were members of the South Korean security forces - Britain's allies. The intervention of the Fusiliers, under orders from their brigade commander, Brigadier Tom Brodie, escalated into a diplomatic incident and was reported in the British press at the time.

Things were different in South Korea.

While massacres by communist forces - there were trenches filled with hundreds of dead civilians after the North Korean army's retreat from Seoul - received widespread publicity, those committed by South Korean forces were hushed up. Many stories have emerged only in the past 10 years of liberal rule in the country.

Today, the official body undertaking research into human-rights abuses committed both during the war and under the military regimes that ruled in Seoul until democratisation in 1987 fears for its future after the victory of conservative forces in presidential and parliamentary elections in December and April.

'Mainstream Korean society is not favourable towards us at present; our position is difficult,' said Ahn Byung-ook, the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 'The conservative media or government may take a position against us and we may have to cease our activities.'

While earlier ad hoc bodies carried out similar investigative tasks after the advent of Korean democracy in 1987, the commission itself was only established in 2005 under the Roh Moo-hyun administration - generally considered the most left-leaning government in South Korea's recent history. Today it has 15 commissioners, from the ranks of both activists and the state - the police, the armed forces, the prosecution and the judiciary - and 236 staff.

'We call ourselves a United Nations,' said Dr Ahn. 'We have not seen any [internal] conflicts, though as a coalition from various backgrounds, we are not as efficient as you might expect.'

In part modelled on similar bodies in Germany and South Africa, the commission was set up to look into alleged human-rights abuses by the government.

'Initially, the government was reluctant to establish this,' said Dr Ahn, a professor at the Catholic University of Korea. 'As you can imagine, it is not a proud thing to say to the world.'

The commission operates in response to public petitioners, but may also take an ex officio role. It has 10,925 cases on its books. Alleged perpetrators include South Korean military and civilian officials, members of the North Korean People's Army, and US forces in Korea.

The commission has uncovered no evidence of atrocities committed by Chinese forces.

Dr Ahn says the most shocking incident he is aware of was carried out during the retreat of North Korean troops in 1950. As they departed, they ordered South Korean leftists to kill 240 local rightists. The victims were locked in a small house near Seocheon and it was soaked in petrol and burned to the ground. Everyone inside was burned alive.

But the commission's largest case is connected to the 'Bodo League', an organisation established by the government before the Korean war to keep track of those suspected of having leftist sympathies. After the war broke out, Seoul ordered its members liquidated.

The case came to light in 2002 when a television documentary crew opened a sealed mine filled with bodies. The commission has, through searching police records and testimonies from witnesses, confirmed the massacre of 862 Bodo members near Ulsan in 1950.

As many as 100,000 league members may have been slaughtered nationwide, Dr Ahn says. The total death toll from the war, both north and south, is believed by historians to be about 2 million. Dr Ahn suspects that as many as 300,000 civilians were killed by their own government during the war years.

'Through our verification activities, we hope to be able to contribute precise statistics,' he said, though he concedes exaggeration can creep in, citing the 1980 Gwangju Massacre when pro-democracy activists armed themselves and battled Special Forces. At the time it was believed that up to 3,000 civilians died. While figures remain in dispute, most now agree that the real toll was between 150 and 300.

As Gwangju demonstrates, brutalities did not end with the 1953 ceasefire. With Korea ideologically polarised, successive authoritarian governments in Seoul, paranoid about Northern influence, committed a range of abuses in the names of anti-communism, nation-building and stability.

'Ordinary people were fabricated as spies - it was a reign of terror,' said Dr Ahn. 'Some people were investigated for six months, and tortured, then imprisoned for 10 to 15 years. When they left prison, they had to live hand to mouth; their friends and families stigmatised them, their lives were destroyed.'

Much of the commission's work has been in probing such cases. A number of retrials have occurred, allowing victims and family members to claim belated compensation for their sufferings.

Bitterness persists in many cases even if the commission clears victims' names. 'Gratitude-wise, they are very passive,' Dr Ahn said. 'Complaint-wise, they are very active.'

While the commission has uncovered a number of dark truths, just how much reconciliation it has engendered is questionable. 'Only a few perpetrators have made a formal apology. After we verify, they strongly resist, make excuses, or say it was inevitable,' Dr Ahn said. 'Up to now in Korean society, if you said 'anti-communism', it meant anything was forgivable; it was a panacea.'

With some alleged perpetrators having taken senior roles in the establishment, there are powerful interests opposed to the commission's work, Dr Ahn hints. 'Most of the perpetrators are either dead or retired, but their offspring are still influential in Korean society.'

This is what concerns Dr Ahn most. With the conservative government pushing for cuts in the civil service, he fears the commission will be defanged, downgraded or merged.

If this happens, Dr Ahn may become an ironic victim of the harsh ideological polarisation that has gripped the Korean Peninsula since the 1940s, and which was the force behind many of the worst abuses.

He characterises President Lee Myung-bak's administration as 'far right' while describing himself as 'liberal' and 'progressive'. Dr Ahn drafted the charter of the Democratic Labour Party, the most left-leaning body in the assembly.

'In Korean society, democracy only exists in school textbooks,' he said. 'We have a strong legacy of the Choson dynasty, Japanese colonialism and dictatorship.'

But the situation investigators face is a complex moral minefield.

Ben Delahunty, an American veteran who fought in the Korean war and served as a war-crimes investigator after it, recalled one famous atrocity, in which the South Korean mayor of Daejeon ordered the execution of thousands of allegedly left-wing prisoners.

'North Korea had invaded, the North Koreans were advancing - what are you going to do?' he said. 'They could not try them all, they did not have vehicles to evacuate them.'

It was no secret among UN troops that some of their number had committed massacres, such as the Nogun-ri incident in which GIs machine-gunned civilians they believed had been infiltrated by North Korean troops.

Mr Delahunty questions whether, in the confusion, the situation could have been better handled. 'What are you going to do? Atrocities were committed, but not deliberately.'

Now in his 80s, Mr Delahunty believes it is time for all parties to face facts. 'I would say, 'Bring out the truth'. It's like Japan denying the goddamned Rape of Nanking.'

Few have gained the closure achieved by David Strachan. After fighting at the battles of 'Happy Valley' and the Imjin River - two of the fiercest actions of the war - he suffered, for decades, from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

But the December incident when his unit halted a massacre still fills him with pride.

Speaking from his retirement home in Spain, he said: 'That was one of the best things I did over there.'