Truth Commissions in South Korea: Lessons Learned

By Hun Joon Kim | Senior Lecturer - Griffith University - Australia | Dec 20, 2013
Truth Commissions in South Korea: Lessons Learned
Jeju Island, where the Jeju massacres took place.

This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “Pathways to Transitional Justice in the Arab World — Reflections on the Asia Pacific Experience.” The series explores the pursuit of transitional justice in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, and how such efforts could be informed by past and ongoing justice processes in Asia-Pacific countries. See Resources …


 

South Korea has launched various transitional justice measures since democratic transition in 1987, with truth commissions being employed most frequently. With at least ten truth commissions established to date, South Korea has been a leader in such initiatives in the Asia Pacific region. This paper analyzes two of South Korea’s most prominent truth commissions―the Jeju Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)―in an effort to answer why some truth commissions succeed while others do not.

A truth commission is an official government body temporarily set up to investigate a past history of human rights violations. I define the success of a truth commission by how much of the commission’s policy recommendations are implemented. The recommendations of the Jeju Commission have been particularly well implemented, while those of the TRC appear to be faring less well. What accounts for this difference? This paper reviews several reasons that have been offered and suggests an alternative.

Between 1948 and 1954, a communist-led uprising on Jeju Island in Korea and the subsequent counterinsurgency campaign by the new anticommunist government resulted in an estimated 15,000 deaths. In 2000, the Jeju Commission was established to investigate the massacres and restore the dignity of victims and their family members. The commission offered seven recommendations: (1) the issuance of an apology; (2) the declaration of a memorial day; (3) the use of the report to educate students and the public; (4) the establishment of a memorial park; (5) the provision of essential living expenses to bereaved families; (6) support for excavations of mass graves; and (7) continuous support for further investigation and commemoration projects. As of 2013, the government has started to implement all of these recommendations.

Immediately after the release of the report in 2003, President Roh Moo-hyun made an apology to the victims and families. This was significant in that it marked the first apology issued by a head of state in South Korea regarding human rights violations caused by state violence. In addition, the descriptions in government documents and history textbooks have changed. Most textbooks have departed from the previous characterization of the events as a communist rebellion and provide a more neutral understanding of human rights violations. A minimum level of subsidy was also selectively given to the victims and their family members who had suffered economic hardship and physical and mental illness. In accordance with its recommendations, the Jeju Commission has likewise been engaged in three commemoration projects. The earliest commemoration project mainly focused on creating the memorial park and museum. However, both victims and activists saw the limitations of these projects and pushed for a major revision of the law in 2007 to include further commemoration activities, specifically through the establishment of a permanent foundation. The Jeju Foundation was created to promote peace and human rights by, first, maintaining the museum and memorial park, and second, by conducting additional investigations. The commission also launched a long-term excavation project in 2006 to discover mass graves and find the remains of victims. By 2013, eight out of 151 mass murder sites had been unearthed, and the remains of over 400 victims had been discovered.

The TRC was created in 2005 to investigate and reveal the truth about human rights abuses, violence, and massacres that had occurred in Korea since 1910. The TRC recommendations have fared less well than those of the Jeju Commission. The TRC made three policy recommendations in 2009: that the government and National Assembly enact a law to make reparations available for victims; that the government establish a permanent foundation in order to continue the investigative work of the TRC and promote reconciliation; and that the government continue to unearth murder sites and collect and properly bury the remains of victims. None of these recommendations have been implemented, and the prospect for future implementation is not bright.

Yet the TRC also made recommendations for individual cases. Overall implementation of these recommendations has been reported to be quite good.  According to the TRC’s final report, 361 out of 855 recommendations (42 percent) were implemented. However, a closer look reveals that almost half of implemented recommendations involved measures that required very little effort, such as placing the TRC’s report in government offices (117 cases) or supporting and participating in memorial services (55 cases). The TRC also recommended that the government apologize for 179 individual cases and, as of this writing, only 52 apologies have been issued. Such apologies were issued mostly by local police chiefs and low-profile military commanders. Further, most apologies were not apologies in a strict sense, as they merely expressed officials’ “regrets” or “condolences” while delivering an address at a memorial service. One area where the TRC’s recommendation was more successful was in cases of retrial. The TRC recommended retrials in 42 cases, with 18 victims clearing their names of false convictions. In addition, several individual victims filed lawsuits against the government for reparations, and some have been successful in recovering large awards.

What accounts for the differences between the Jeju Commission and the TRC with respect to implementing recommendations? Scholars have offered several explanations that focus on the built-in weaknesses and limitations of the TRC, which, they argue, hindered the TRC’s work and obstructed the implementation of its recommendations.

The first explanation offered is that the law creating the TRC was a result of political compromise, thereby creating innate constraints for the TRC. According to this claim, the conservative party tried to weaken the TRC by failing to give it sufficient power. Yet, a similar political settlement underlies the law that created the Jeju Commission. Although victims and activists demanded that the Jeju Commission be granted more powers to enhance its effectiveness, such as the power to search and seize, to issue warrants, or to request retrials, none of these were given. In addition, the Jeju Commission faced several crises and challenges throughout its tenure. Opponents, mainly retired military and police personnel and conservative elites and organizations, attempted to frustrate the commission’s activities and accomplishments from the beginning.

Second, TRC commissioners complained that although the TRC was empowered to request access to government files, the TRC did not have any enforcement power when the government branches or organizations rejected such requests. While this certainly imposed a serious constraint, the Jeju Commission faced precisely the same problem. In fact, the TRC was more powerful than the Jeju Commission in that it had the power to issue warrants and fines if a person failed to comply with its requests. Moreover, the TRC had more resources than the Jeju Commission, with a total annual budget of $76 billion and approximately 240 residing staff, including 147 investigators. By contrast, the Jeju Commission spent less than $10 billion and employed a mere 60 residing staff, including 20 investigators.

The third claim is the strongest. It argues that the TRC’s effectiveness was fundamentally undermined by the changing political context. Specifically, while the TRC started its work under the progressive Roh Moo-hyun administration, which fully supported the commission’s activities, it finished under the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration, which denied the commission’s core value. The effectiveness of the TRC’s activities was compromised, it is said, by President Lee’s nomination of a new TRC president and other commissioners who were less enthusiastic about truth commission activities. There is certainly some truth to this, as state officials became uncooperative with TRC requests after the regime change. The TRC also had its budget cut significantly and, although the TRC had the right to request an extension of its mandate for up to two more years, its new president requested only two months and hurriedly closed down the commission.

Nevertheless, I do not consider this the critical cause of the TRC’s inability to implement its recommendations for two reasons. First, the TRC operated for two full years under the progressive Roh administration and another two years under the conservative Lee administration. The Jeju Commission had a two-year mandate, and almost every truth commission around the world ceases operation within two years. The TRC thus operated over a longer period than average commissions and had two full years under the supportive regime.

Second, the Jeju Commission continued to operate successfully even under the Lee administration. In 2008 it published a white paper on its activities, and in 2012 it designated 4,000 more victims and approved $12 billion for commemoration projects. The new administration attempted to frustrate the implementation process but was unsuccessful, largely because of strong resistance from victims and civil society. Thus, simply saying that the TRC’s activities were frustrated by the new administration is not convincing.

A more fundamental reason must be sought to account for the different implementation result of the Jeju Commission and the TRC. This is a critical difference between the two commissions and provides a lesson for countries in the Middle East that are considering establishing truth commissions after democratic transition. There are two factors, one internal and one external to the commissions.

First are the different kinds of “truth” pursued by the two commissions. While truth commissions are created to investigate the truth, there are different notions of truth: factual or forensic truth, personal or narrative truth, social or “dialogue” truth, and healing and restorative truth. The TRC, despite being modeled after the South African TRC, was designed to focus on the factual or forensic truth of individual cases. The Jeju Commission, in contrast, decided to create a comprehensive and historical truth in addition to the individual truths of particular cases. The Jeju Commission’s final report thus had a single historical story to tell to society, while the TRC report on individual cases lacked that master narrative. For the TRC, every truth existed as a set of fragmented facts without a strong narrative that connected the individual cases. In order to have an impact on society as a whole, individual truth and comprehensive truth must be combined. This failure, I believe, constitutes a fundamental difference between the Jeju Commission and the TRC and explains why their respective recommendations have been implemented to different degrees.

Second, in the Jeju case, local advocacy networks and civil society participation were the most important factors in the process, facilitating favorable domestic and international conditions, taking advantage of the positive factors, and fighting hard against constraints and obstacles. Two and a half years was not a sufficient amount of time to investigate the 50-year-old massacres of 30,000 civilians, but it was made possible because the Jeju Commission effectively used existing local support. The commission also benefited from consistent local attention. The local news media closely followed the investigation and review process, and local groups demonstrated the organized power of victims and activists whenever obstructions arose from conservatives or a deadlock occurred within the commission. Indeed, local activists and victims struggled hard to achieve their goals not only before and during the truth commission process but also after the Jeju Commission released its report. This struggle and attention empowered local activists and politicians to further pursue the effective implementation of the commission’s recommendations.

Due to the efforts of civil society, the Jeju Commission was able to create a permanent memorial and research foundation. Activists and victims had to struggle for over eight years to revise the special law to achieve the legal basis for this institution. The permanent foundation can continue the work of the truth commissions, that is, investigation, commemoration, excavation, and reparations. Having a permanent institution is highly important because truth commissions are temporary, so their work and legacy can be continued in the permanent institution.

Examinations of past events that have deeply scarred and divided a society are always difficult, more so when those events are more than 50 years old and consecutive military and authoritarian regimes have systematically concealed the truth about them and have intentionally destroyed evidence. At the same time, premature truth-seeking efforts made under a weak and insecure democracy can end in failure. The key is to recognize the importance of local advocacy networks and civil society in the success of implementing policy recommendations. Countries in the Middle East can use the varying degrees of success of the Jeju Commission and the TRC to guide their own commissions, being sure to allow civil society actors a central role in the process.