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 …


Prior to its first democratically elected government taking office in 1988, the Republic of Korea endured a peculiarly harsh twentieth century. The first decade saw Korea’s last dynasty struggle futilely to modernize amidst the specter of growing Japanese interference. From 1910 until 1945, the nation suffered through the traumatic and humiliating period of Japanese colonization, emerging upon Japan’s defeat in World War II only to face the division of the country into North and South Korea and the incredibly destructive Korean War of 1950-1953. The post-Korean War period was characterized by political divisions, human rights abuses, and economic growth, presided over by a series of authoritarian rulers: Syngman Rhee (1948-1960), Park Chung Hee (1961-1979), and Chun Doo Hwan (1979-1988). The democratic transition started in 1987 with Chun Doo Hwan’s decision (in the face of massive protests) to hold free elections. With Korean progressives dividing their votes between two candidates, Chun’s close associate Roh Tae Woo won the majority and became the first president of Korea’s democratic era.

In the quarter-century since Roh’s inauguration in 1988, Korea has slowly but steadily embarked upon a transitional justice process in an attempt to make sense of its troubled modern history. Starting in 1988, the National Assembly held hearings on the 1980 Gwangju Massacre, the largest incidence of state violence in the post-Korean War era.[1] This eventually resulted in compensation being paid to the victims and their families. After Kim Young Sam came into office in 1993, the focus turned to reforming the military and other institutions that had been complicit in the human rights abuses of the authoritarian era. By the end of Kim’s administration, public pressure was building to put on trial those leaders that had been most instrumental in suppressing dissent and committing acts of corruption. This led, in 1997, to trials of Chun Doo Hwan, Roh Tae Woo, and six other military leaders on charges of military insubordination, subversion of the constitutional order, and corruption. Chun and Roh were convicted, but were soon afterward pardoned and released from prison. This has been the only criminal justice element of Korean transitional justice to date.

In the years since Chun and Roh’s trial, and especially during the Kim Dae Jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo Hyun (2003-2008) administrations, truth commissions have become the transitional justice mechanism of choice. Some of these commissions were incident-specific bodies with relatively little coercive power that examined particular abuses or massacres of the authoritarian era. These commissions investigated the Geochang Massacre,[2] the Jeju April 3 events,[3] the Samcheong Reeducation Camp,[4] and the No Gun Ri massacre.[5] Other commissions looked further back in history at aspects of the Japanese colonial experience. These included the Commission on Truths of Anti-Nation Activities and Pro-Japanese Acts under Japanese Rule, the Commission on Confiscation of Properties of Pro-Japanese Collaborators, the Commission on Truths of Damages of Japanese-forced Emigration, and the Commission for Identifying Truth Regarding Servitude under Japanese Colonial Occupation. Still other commissions were specific to a particular institution, with the National Intelligence Service, the National Police Bureau, and the Ministry of Defense establishing their own truth commissions. As a rule, these commissions were small, weak, and essentially victim-centered. They rarely recommended punishment for offenders and in fact generally refrained from publicizing the names of those found to have committed abuses. Rather, the focus has been on revealing the truth surrounding individuals’ victimization and rehabilitating their reputations.

In 2005, this trend of issue-specific truth commissions was interrupted with the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea, which had the much broader mandate of examining anti-Japanese movements during and after the colonial period; efforts by overseas Koreans to promote Korea’s national prestige; massacres from 1945 until the end of the Korean War; human rights abuses committed by the Korean government during the authoritarian era; and human rights abuses, terrorist acts, or massacres committed by anti-Republic of Korea elements during the authoritarian era. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report on December 31, 2010, after having investigated 11,175 claims submitted by the public, 75 percent of which were verified.[6]

There have been fewer official truth commissions established since conservatives regained power with Lee Myung Bak’s 2008 inauguration. However, new commissions have been established to look at attacks on Buddhists in 1980 as well as forced emigration during the Japanese occupation and the abduction of South Koreans by North Korea during the Korean War. Transitional justice in general, and truth commissions in particular, remain an important part of Korean political discourse, with many on the left pressing for renewed examination of the authoritarian era and Japanese occupation.[7] In the face of conservative reluctance to renew examination of these periods, a number of private sector initiatives have developed, some of which are called “truth commissions,” to investigate and report on these periods.

Looking back at the past 25 years, one of the most notable aspects of the Korean experience is the long-lasting importance of truth commissions to Korean political discourse. Unlike most countries, which have established one or at most two short-lived truth commissions to look at relatively recent events, Korea has established at least fifteen public truth commissions to date (depending on how one defines “truth commission”) with the prospect of new commissions a real possibility. This raises the question: what accounts for the sheer durability of transitional justice as a political issue in Korea? The remainder of this essay will propose three potential answers to that question, from the perspectives of culture, politics, and justice.

From the cultural perspective, any examination of the Korean truth commission experiences must take into account the importance of familial reputations in Korean Confucian culture. The honor of one’s ancestors has been—and to many still is—a critical element of one’s place in society, and it has long been the state’s role to ensure that honor and disgrace are properly meted out to those who were active in prior regimes. Dating back hundreds of years, the government appointed theoretically independent committees to draft histories of the previous regime, called silloks. These silloks were largely concerned with rehabilitating or disgracing reputations and grew to play an important role in legitimizing monarchs during Korea’s strongly Confucian Chosun dynasty (1391- 1910).[8] As one historian notes, “[c]ampaigns were frequently waged by aggrieved descendants for the posthumous redress of punishment to their ancestors. And in like manner, the posthumous punishment of deceased enemies by the contemporary ruling group was regarded as a matter of prime importance. Old scores were settled in the pages of history.”[9]

The second potential factor for the enduring relevance of truth commissions in political discourse relates to Korean partisan politics after the democratic transition. At the risk of oversimplification, the partisan divide of the democratic era has closely mirrored the regime supporter-regime opponent divide of the authoritarian era. The major conservative party has been seen as the ideological successors of the authoritarian regime of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan. In fact, the first democratically elected president, Roh Tae Woo, was Chun Doo Hwan’s closest confederate, while the current president, Park Geun Hye, is Park Chung Hee’s daughter. Many liberals would go a step further and say that the conservative party is also the political and ideological inheritor of those Koreans that collaborated with Japanese imperialists during the colonial period. Meanwhile, the major liberal party is seen as the organizational continuation of the democratization activists that struggled against (and suffered from) the authoritarian regime’s brutality prior to 1988. Major opposition figures such as Park Won Soon and Moon Jae In—as well as past leaders such as Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun—were in fact prominent opponents of the authoritarian leadership.

One result of this partisan divide is that there has always been a political reason for liberal leaders to highlight (or bring to light) the atrocities of the authoritarian era. Simply put, by showing the abuses of Park Chung Hee and other authoritarian leaders, truth commissions serve to embarrass Park Geun Hye and the other perceived ideological descendants of the authoritarian regime in the conservative party. This is not to suggest that Korean truth commission proponents are only seeking partisan gains; of course, there are many other good reasons to establish commissions. However, political motivation should not be underestimated. As one commentator noted, “[r]ectifying past wrongs became an important agenda item of the progressive government in order for it to consolidate its support while weakening the moral basis of the conservatives.”[10]

Finally, it is necessary to look at the role justice plays in societal reconciliation. This is in fact one of the most contested and complex questions in the field of transitional justice. Many have made the case that in order to achieve individual reconciliation in a society, more than truth commissions are necessary.[11] These observers argue that there should also be some type of punishment for the perpetrators of serious human rights abuses, or at the very least the perpetrators should be forced to forfeit their ill-gotten gains. In Korea, however, the retributive element of transitional justice has clearly taken a back seat and, aside from the conviction (and rapid pardons) of Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, there have been no significant criminal trials of wrongdoers. Many of the worst offenders have held on to their ill-gotten gains from the colonial and authoritarian periods, including most notably Chun himself, who has managed to live a life of luxury while owing the state  millions due to his corruption convictions.[12] With so little retribution against the wrongdoers, it is only natural that many Koreans continue to view the past as an unhealed wound that still requires attention even if the political will to prosecute is absent.

It is difficult to draw lessons from the Korean transitional justice experience for transitions in other regions of the world, such as the Arab world as it deals with the effects of the “Arab Spring.” One can note, however, that two of the proposed factors for the popularity of truth commissions in Korea do not seem to exist prominently in the post-Arab Spring world. Middle Eastern countries have different religio-cultural traditions than Korea, and so far these countries seem more likely to evolve a partisan divide between Islamists and liberals rather than between proponents and opponents of the ancien regime. The record is more mixed on retributive measures for major human rights abusers; Hosni Mubarak has been put on trial in Egypt (although as of this writing his continued trial is very much in doubt), and Muammar Qaddafi was murdered in Libya. However, Tunisia’s former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was granted refuge in Saudi Arabia, and there have been no trials yet of Ali Abdullah Saleh or his supporters in Yemen. What the Korean experience does show, however, is that transitions, even those that are by all measures successful, are not necessarily quick. Sometimes dealing with the past can remain a significant political issue for a generation to come.

[1] In the Gwangju massacre, Chun Doo Hwan ordered Korean troops to brutally suppress anti-government protesters in the southwestern city of Gwangju, leading to several hundred deaths and providing inspiration for the Korean democratization movement of the 1980s.

[2] The Geochang Massacre refers to an episode during the Korean War when the South Korean army killed several hundred unarmed civilians in Geochang, South Gyeongsang Province.

[3] The Jeju April 3rd events refer to a series of leftist uprisings and brutal counterinsurgency actions undertaken between 1948 and 1954 on Cheju Island, which caused an estimated fifteen to thirty thousand deaths.

[4] The Samcheong Reeducation Camp was set up by military leaders from 1980 to 1981 to detain and discipline individuals considered by the regime to be harmful to society, including potential rebels and regime critics.

[5] No Gun Ri is a village in North Chungcheong Province where a large number of Korean civilians were shot and killed by U.S. military forces during the Korean War.

[6] Yong-Jick Kim, “Remembering the Almost Forgotten Killings: The Civilian Victims in the Korean War,” Symposium on Transitional Justice and Beyond in Korea, 14 November 2010 (St. Louis, MO).

[7] See, e.g., Jae Gul Lee, “We Need a Second Term of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (in Korean), Naeil Sinmun, 23 July 2013, News/politics/ViewNews.asp?nnum=722067; Kyung Man Park, “Special Act to Investigate the Truth Regarding ‘Jang Jun Ha’s Mysterious Death’ will be Pushed Through,” (in Korean), Hankyoreh, 14 August 2013,

[8] Hang Nyeong Oh, “The Meaning of Ritual Practices in the Compilation of the Choson Sillok,” The Institutional Basis of Civil Governance in the Choson Dynasty (Seoul: The Academy of Korean Studies, 2009), 161, 162.

[9] James Palais, “Records and Record-Keeping in Nineteenth Century Korea,” Journal of Asian Studies 30 (1971): 583, 584.

[10] Dae-Kyu Yoon, Korean Development of Democracy and Law (Seoul: Korea Legislatio Research Institute, 2008), 181.  

[11] See, e.g., Eirin Mobekk, “Transitional Justice in Post-Conflict Societies–Approaches to Reconciliation,” After Invention: Public Security Management in Post-Conflict: From Intervention to Sustainable Local Ownership (Geneva: Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, 2005), 261, 272-73.

[12] “Prosecutors Dig Up W6 Billion Worth of Ex-President’s Assets,” Chosun Ilbo, 22 August 2013,


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