Monday, November 30, 2009

The National Guidance League incident

The New York Times has an article about recent findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
In the opening months of the Korean War, the South Korean military and the police executed at least 4,900 civilians who had earlier signed up — often under force — for re-education classes meant to turn them against Communism, the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission announced Thursday.[...]

Although the panel has reported on similar civilian massacres in the past, the announcement Thursday represented the first time that a state investigative agency confirmed the nature and scale of what is known as “the National Guidance League incident” — one of the most horrific and controversial episodes of the war.

The anti-Communist and authoritarian government of President Syngman Rhee had set up the league to re-educate people who had disavowed Communism in the months before the war, and forced an estimated 300,000 South Koreans to join. At the time, the government was facing a vicious and prolonged insurgency by leftist guerrillas.

But the commission reported that many of those who joined the league had never been Communists. They either were swept up because they had provided food or other aid to Communists hiding in the hills, often at gunpoint, or were required to join by local officials seeking to meet a government quota for the number of Communists being re-educated. In some instances, the panel said, peasants were lured into joining with promises of bigger rice rations. [...]

On Thursday, the commission unveiled old government documents that contained partial lists of league members who had been killed. Documents showed that the police kept surveillance on the league members’ relatives as late as the 1980s to ensure that their children did not get government jobs, the panel said.
The article goes on to look at how it was covered up after the war, and how even in recent years people were reluctant to talk to the commission. It also mentions that the commission’s term ends next spring and is unlikely to be renewed by the Lee Myung-bak administration. Which is too bad, as much of the commission's work has been useful (though I disagreed with it looking into the colonial era, mainly because of the way it was being used politically (investigating Koreans who served in the Japanese army down to the rank that Park Chung-hee held, for example) and because the ROK didn't exist then). As for the rest, I think it's great that details about, for example, the Silmido incident were turned up, or in related investigations by the Supreme Court, that those executed on trumped up charges in the Inhyeokdang case were retried, found not guilty, and their families were compensated. Other such cases are here.

While taking into account how these findings can be used for political ends, I can only see a state taking responsibility for its past crimes and mistakes as a good thing.

(Hat tip to Tom Rainey-Smith)


Antti Leppänen said...

For the sake of comparison, the Finnish Government established an investigation on deaths and killings during the 1918 Civil War (Wiki) exactly 80 years after the fact in 1998. This resulted in a database with some 35,000 names. My grandmother's older brother's data is here (the interface is in English but data in Finnish).
The impetus for the investigation was a book by a history professor on the decisive Battle of Tampere in spring 1918 and its bloody aftermath, which caused a huge debate.

In that light, I don't fault the Korean government for being late on the issue, but it really should be conducted in a non-partisan manner. The 1918 issue is still contentious here (as can be seen from the reception of the book mentioned above), but at least a scholarly investigation without any partisan strife could be carried out without any trouble.

(By the way, Finnish Security Police ceased the surveillance and cataloging of Communists simply for being Communists only in early 1980s.)

Jo Jung-rae has a vivid description of the Guidance League killings in Taebaek Sanmaek: people tied together and lead to a ravine and mowed down with machine guns there. Don't know, however, if the depiction was in the original 1980s' edition or was it added afterwards. Jo says in the preface that additions have been done in the later editions as a consequence of political changes since the book first came out.

ZenKimchi said...

You'd think it would put a dent in the Korean habit of blaming others for their own tragedies. It's that very fact that's the red flag as to why the commission is being decommissioned.

matt said...

Interesting comparison. Actually, I didn't know anything about the 1918 Civil War. I imagine several lifetimes could be spent studying the effects of the Russian Empire's collapse, both internally and the external forces that tried to involve themselves.

I agree about the need for it to be non-partisan, which is one reason I see the colonial period as being off limits. In fact, I can't help wondering if the 'collaborators' who had their land taken might one day be compensated by a future state investigation.

It's interesting that Taebaek Sanmaek was altered later - so was Samdae, which received a more hopeful ending after liberation.

As far as nation building goes, a constructed mythology of outsiders doing harm is far more useful for promoting unity than focusing on the facts of history, which would betray so many divisions and unresolved abuses. So I imagine it's both the potential for division that uncovering these cases has, as well as the politics of Lee or his supporters, some of whom may well have been on the 'giving' ends of such incidents.