Truth Commission: South Korea
Truth Commission: Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Duration: December 2005-December 2010 (five years)
Charter: Law No. 7542 (May 31, 2005)
Commissioners: 14 male, 1 female
Report: Public report
Truth Commission: Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Committee on Clearing Up Part Incidents for Truth and Reconciliation, 진실화해를위한과거사정리위원회)
Dates of Operation: The Commission started operations in December 2005 and closed its activities on December 31, 2010.
Background: Korea's contemporary history has been fraught with violence, war, and civil disputes. Japan occupied Korea from the beginning of the 20th century until Japan's defeat in World War II in 1945. Korea was split in two separate entities, North and South Korea. The United States and the Soviet Union administered the Korean Peninsula. In 1948, two independent governments were formed, each claiming to be the government of Korea as a whole. In 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea precipitating the three-year long Korean War. When the war ended, civil unrest and violence against the opposition and a military regime ensued for the following decades. Slowly, popular support for democracy continued to grow, particularly in the late 1970s after the government killed demonstrators and dissidents. In 1997, a long-time human rights advocate was elected President. Kim Dae-Jung established a first Truth Commission in 2000. When this Commission completed its work in 2004, the Parliament felt that a further, much broader Truth and Reconciliation Commission was needed to examine Japanese colonialism, the partition of the Peninsula, and decades-long anticommunist dictatorships. In 2005, the South Korean Assembly therefore enacted a law establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Charter: The Parliament enacted the Framework Act on Clearing Up Past Incidents for Truth and Reconciliation by Law No. 7542, May 31, 2005.
Mandate: The Commission was tasked to investigate incidents regarding human rights abuses, violence, and massacres occurring since the period of Japanese rule to the present time, specifically during the nation's authoritarian regimes. The mandate covered approximately one century and started with the beginning of Japanese rule over Korea and ended with the fall of the authoritarian regimes in South Korea. The Commission was tasked to screen petitions received by individuals, investigate and decide cases, and recommend measures to help establish truth and reconciliation.
Commissioners and Structure: The Commission had fifteen members: fourteen men and one woman. Eight members were appointed by the Parliament, four by the President, and three by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Mr. Lee Young-Jo led the Commission after the previous chairmanships of Mr. Ahn Byung-Ook and Gi-Yin Song. The Commission was reported to have 240 staff members and an annual budget of $15-20 million USD.
Report: The Commission issued a report in December 2010. The report has four volumes and was split into two electronic files, available (in Korean) on the Korean version of the Commission's Web site. Previously, in March 2009, the Commission released a preliminary report which is available in English on the Commission's Web site.
- The Commission received 11,174 cases based on petitions from individuals. The body confirmed 8,468 cases (76%), rejected 1,729, and sent another 957 cases to other instances or closed them because of insufficient information.
- The Commission found that during the Korean War, several mass killings of civilians were committed not only by the North Korean military, but also by South Korean and U.S. Armed Forces.
- The Commission attributed 82% of all petitions regarding wartime massacres to state agents (the police, the armed forces, or groups associated with the state) and only 18% to "enemies of the state".
- The Commission found that Anti-Japanese independence movements during colonial times were conducted at home and abroad.
- A large part of the petitions received by the Commission pertained to reports of civilians killed during the Korean War. Massacres by groups opposing the Republic of Korea were widespread. The Commission estimated that the data on 8,000 civilians killed during the Korean War represented only 5% of the actual number.
- Serious infringements of human rights occurred throughout the period covered by the Commission's mandate.
- The Commission recommended a policy of memorialization, by organizing events, establishing historical records and monuments, and furthering peace education.
- Follow-up laws on reparations to victims should be enacted. Victims should also obtain medical services.
- The Commission recommended that those falsely convicted obtain an opportunity for retrial.
- In 2008, President Ro Moo-Hyun made an official apology on behalf of the state for the massacres of the Korean War.
- A recommendation follow-up board was created in 2007 under the Office of the Prime Minister. This office was tasked to work on recommendations that the Commission made on individual cases.
The mandate of the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commissions is one of the few that explicity clarified the relationship between the Commission and national courts (see above Charter, Article 2, Paragraph 2). Previously, South Korea also established inquiry commissions to examine widespread violence and killings on Jeju (Cheju-do) Island in the late 1940s and the Geochang massacre in 1951, where the South Korean army killed approximately 700 civilian villagers for the alleged support of communists.
"Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Korea." (accessed June 1, 2011).
Hunjoon Kim "Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Republic of Korea," The Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice, ed. Lavinia Stan and Nadya Nedelsky (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, forthcoming).
Hayner, Priscilla B. Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of the Truth Commissions. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Kim Dong-Choon and Mark Selden, "South Korea's Embattled Truth and Reconciliation Commission," The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, March 7, 2010. Available at http://www.japanfocus.org/-Kim-Dong_choon/3313 (accessed May 12, 2011).
Ashley Rowland and Hwang Hae-Rym, "Time running out on South Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission," Stars and Stripes, January 19, 2010. Available at http://www.stripes.com/news/time-running-out-on-south-korea-s-truth-and-reconciliation-commission-1.98156 (accessed May 12, 2011)