Finding the Truth on Suspicious Deaths As To Deal with the Past
Finding the Truth on Suspicious Deaths As To Deal with the Past
Hwang, In Sung
Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths
The Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths was established by the government on October 17, 2000. Its purpose is to uncover the truth on suspicious deaths which occurred in light of the pro-democracy movement during the 30 years of military authoritarian rule. Following the June Demonstration of 1987, which paved the road toward realizing democracy in South Korea, the families of the victims and various civic organizations ceaselessly demanded investigations on the suspicious deaths for a grueling 12 years. This article is intended to, first, depict the origin of suspicious deaths in the political context prior to 1987 and the course of struggle undertaken by a small pool of people in search of the truth, and second, introduce the present activities of the Commission and present the merits of the Commission from the perspective of coming to terms with the past.
II. The Origin of Suspicious Deaths in the Political Context Prior to 1987
In the last half century, there were quite a number of political killings in South Korea. Many politicians were murdered in suspicious circumstances, and innocent civilians were massacred by the police and military under unwarranted political motives. Following the liberation from Japanese colonial rule, political and social divisions as well as the instabilities of the period, accompanied by the division of the country which resulted in the Korean War a few years later, primarily attributed to the happening of such killings. In particular, countless lives of innocent civilians were lost in the periods before and after the Korean War. This war was the outcome of a mixture between factors generated from the outside — the Cold War world politics of the late 20th century, as well as the inside of Korea — the ideological conflicts between the right and the left. Furthermore, the militaristic political and social culture created in the aftermath of the Korean War upset any attempts calling for the truth and providing reparation in respect to these deaths, for which reason they remained mostly unnoticed by the people.
Most of the suspicious deaths subject to the investigation of the Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths happened in the course of the peoples struggle to restore democracy in South Korea and to defy the illegitimate, oppressive political regime of Park Chung-hee, who came into power through a military coup d’ etat in 1961. Under Parks military regime, the fundamental rights of the people were denied in the name of national security and economic development when in actuality it was merely to stay in power and earn legitimacy through violent means. Furthermore, in response to the mounting mistrust and opposition of the people toward the illegitimate government, the government resorted to brutal force. In the 1970s, especially, Park took away the rights to vote and the rights to freedom of speech and assembly from the people with the intention to remain in power permanently. Anyone who raised his or her voice against such illegal practices was subject to constant government surveillance, ill treatment, and threats. The result was the loss of many innocent lives, many of which continue to remain as suspicious deaths. The mass-killings of innocent civilians and suspicious deaths of students, laborers, and intellectuals continued to occur into the 1980s.
Raising public awareness and forming group activities against these human rights atrocities were especially difficult with the intelligence forces continuously monitoring the families of the victims and controlling the media in their attempts to disguise or fabricate such atrocities. There were only small-scale attempts to find the truth mainly organized among the families and friends of the victims. The majority of the people, however, remained untold of the real stories.
Nevertheless, the 1987 June Demonstration, which was held throughout the nation over a three-week long period, succeeded in making the military government accept the need for democratization and acted as a catalyst for South Koreas gradual transition toward democracy. The families of the victims also made a collective appeal to the political community as well as to society as a whole demanding the truth of the suspicious deaths. From October 17, 1988 to February 27, 1989, members of the Bereaved Families Association demonstrated at the Korean Christian Building in support of further government investigation of suspicious deaths. On November 4, 1994, they submitted a petition for fact-finding to the National Assembly along with the signatures they had received from 100,000 people all across the country. The members of the Association continued their 422 Day Tent Demonstration from November 4, 1998 to December 30, 1999 in front of the National Assembly right up until the moment when the National Assembly passed the Act on December 28, 1999. The Act was promulgated in January 2000.
III. The Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths
A. An Independent Executive Body
The Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths in South Korea was set up by a presidential decree with the consensus of the National Assembly. It consists of 9 commissioners, who are directly appointed by the president, and a secretariat to provide them with administrative and investigation support. Its status as an executive body is necessary in order to be immune from any form of pressure from other government bodies, such as the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution, the military, the police, or the National Intelligence Service. Also, the Special Act To Find the Truth on Suspicious Deaths guarantees independence of the Commission by narrowly defining the circumstances in which commissioners become discharged from their positions. The commissioners are required to be impartial from any political influences. Thus, in a strict sense, the Commission is an independent and impartial government body that even the President cannot exercise leverage over.
B. Contributing Toward Promoting National Unity and Democracy
The Special Act To Find the Truth on Suspicious Deaths, which mandated the establishment of the Commission, prescribes in Article 1 that its purpose is to promote national unity and democracy by uncovering the truth about suspicious deaths which occurred during the democratization movement against past authoritarian regimes. In other words, the work of the Commission is to conduct investigations into suspicious deaths, suggest a social framework that forbids another failure in upholding democratic constitutionalism and peoples fundamental rights, and provide reparation to the victims.
The Commission believes this is the way toward promoting national unity and democracy and a significant step toward coming to terms with the past. In essence, the Commission has characteristics of a quasi-judiciary, administrative body equivalent to the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution in terms of its functions and powers. Also, it is vested with judicial power to decide the prospective recipients of rehabilitation, compensation, and other reparation measures based on the results of its investigation.
Suspicious deaths subject to the investigation of the Commission are limited to deaths which occurred in relation to the pro-democracy movement since August 7, 1969.
Although the actual cause of death is still in question, the government is suspected to be directly or indirectly involved in these suspicious deaths. The deaths of people who did not actively resist the military autocratic regimes, yet were victimized by the abuse of power of the government authorities were excluded.
The Commission is currently investigating whether or not the deaths can be connected to acts of crime such as murder, assaults, bodily injuries, illegal arrest and detention. As prescribed in its mandate, the Commission looks for facts involved, damages done to the victims, causes of death, the reasons for not being able to prevent the death or find the truth related to the death (Presidential Decree Article 23(3)).
The investigation authority the Commission is vested with is not compelling, unlike other investigation authorities. It does not impose any legal obligations on the individuals subject to the investigation, nor does it have the power to subpoena those who do not wish to comply. Only the voluntary collaboration from the individuals is expected for the purpose of finding the truth. For this reason, the Commission can do the following:
1. Request the submission of a written statement from petitioner(s), witnesses, or the petitioned;
2. Call petitioner(s), witnesses, or the petitioned to a hearing;
3. Designate expert witnesses or seek expert opinions;
4. Request the submission of documents or materials concerning the investigation from the petitioned or the institution, body, or organization he/she belongs to;
5. Conduct in situ investigations at a place or institution when necessary.
D. Provision of Reparation and Compilation of the Final Report
After making its findings on these suspicious deaths, the Commission has to refer them to the Democratic Movement Activists Honor-Restoration and Compensation Review Committee, which was separately established in 2000. Also, the Commission has to publicly announce all of the findings it makes in the form of a report. Not only the findings that prove the involvement of government authorities in causing suspicious deaths, but also findings on deaths whose causes still remain unfounded should be included in the report as well as recommendations to the government on what to do in regard to them and on measures the government should adopt in order to prevent the occurrence of suspicious deaths. From this perspective, the investigation activities of the Commission need to be carried out with the responsibility of coming to terms with the past and to consider complementary measures in mind rather than focusing on finding the truth on individual suspicious death cases.
E. The Term of Activity
The Special Act To Find the Truth on Suspicious Deaths prescribed the deadline to receive petitions as December 31, 2000. The Commission is to complete the investigation of each case of suspicious death within six months after the case is officially opened and when necessary, it can extend the period once for no more than three months with the approval of the President. Thus, the Commission in theory can exist until November 30, 2001 at the latest.
IV. Activities and Prospects
The Commission, which was established on October 17, 2000, organized its Secretariat with 80 employees including the investigators, who are dispatched from various government institutions such as the military, the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution, the police, and the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs as well as civic organizations. The number of petitions filed at the Commission as of April, 2001 is 80 and they are currently being investigated. From the early stage of launching its activities, the Commission encountered skeptical views of the families of the victims and the media for the lack of investigation authority, investigators, time, and enthusiasm to find the truth among the civil servants working for the Commission.
However, the Commission members are trying their best in doing their job and are aware that the institution they are working for is the first legitimately established truth commission to deal with the past ever since the Special Commission, set up in the wake of the liberation from the Japanese colonial rule to punish the pro-Japanese Korean collaborators, ended in failure. The existence of the Commission contains another significant meaning within itself in the Korean political history; it is a product of the corroboration between the government and the people to deal with the past.
Most of the cases that are currently being investigated have gone through a process of collecting testimonies from the petitioners and witnesses. Investigations targeting the alleged perpetrators and government institutions are to be soon carried out.
However, due to the fact that many of the cases occurred in the 1970s and 80s, there is not much information or evidence available for these cases which are 10 to 30 years old. With the presence of this difficulty, the Commission is geared more towards forming a collaborative social atmosphere that could draw the attention of the people on its activities, and thereby induce those people who know about or have information on suspicious deaths or were even involved in causing suspicious deaths themselves to come forward. Also, it makes efforts to learn the truth-finding experiences of other countries and to form cooperative relations with them.
The success of the Commission could not be achieved only through the efforts of the people who work for the Commission, but by society as a whole. Finding the truth about suspicious deaths is one of the responsibilities society has to carry at present in order to come clean with the wrongful past and to build a new bright future.
Suspicious deaths are not only merely incidents that occurred in the past; rather they are mirrors that reflect the period Korean people lived through. The government institutions also need to know that they are not subjects of the truth-finding investigations, but carriers of the investigations themselves. Only when they fully cooperate with the belief that this is the way to make South Korea a democratic human rights country can the truth-finding become real.
V. The South Korean Truth-finding Activity on Suspicious Deaths As To Deal with the Past
A. The Subjects of Investigation
As commented before, the ultimate objective of the Commission is to promote national unity and democracy. However, the subjects of investigation are limited to suspicious deaths related to the pro-democracy movement instead of overall human rights atrocities committed by the government authorities during the 30 year reign of the military regime such as surveillance, illegal detention, torture, and expulsion from work.
Furthermore, since the deprivation of the right to life of the people is considered one of the most egregious human rights violations, the exclusion of the deaths of people who were not involved in the pro-democracy movement from the scope of investigation may be deemed from a broad perspective, partial and inexhaustive in covering politically motivated human rights abuses.
B. Putting an End to the Wrongful Past
Dealing with the past primarily requires the truth about human rights atrocities inflicted on the people, for which punishing and forgiving the perpetrators as well as providing reparations to the victims can be applied for the purpose of knowing what happened and learning and remembering the lessons from it. However, the work of the Commission is only limited to finding the truth about narrowly-defined suspicious deaths. The remaining works are left in the hands of separate government institutions.
Consequently, each of the works necessary to deal thoroughly with the past in establishing social justice and bringing the nation together is being separately carried out inconsistently. Adequate distribution of authority lacks among these institutions. These all attribute to the shortness of efficiency and efficacy and function as a serious obstacle in raising public awareness of their importance and bringing the whole nation together in the process.
C. A Separate Procession In Dealing with the Past
There were several attempts made to underscore a break with the past record of human rights abuses. In 1948, right after the liberation from Japanese colonial rule, the Constituent National Assembly passed the Law to Punish the Traitors Against the Nation to bring the pro-Japanese Korean collaborators to trial and to establish social justice and public morals in building a new nation. Nevertheless, the Ad-hoc Committee To Punish the Traitors Against the Nation, whose establishment was mandated by the Law under the aegis of the National Assembly, had to close down without completing its work because of then President Seungman Rhees unwillingness to cooperate, or other interferences. The Committee was violently dissolved by the people subject to its investigation and the police in support of them.
The military regimes which came in power through coup d’ tat set up ad-hoc committees through illegal means to reveal the corruption of the previous government and thereby earn the trust and support of the people. But it was no more than an ostentatious gesture to legitimize the seizure of power unfounded in the constitution.
From then on, lawful attempts to come to terms with the past did not happen until 1988 when the National Assembly set up an ad-hoc committee to find the truth about the illegal activities of the Chun Doo-Hwan administration, whose term came to an end as a result of the June Demonstration of 1987. The government also enacted several laws. It passed the Law to Compensate the Participants of the Kwangju Pro-democracy Movement in 1990, the Special Act Related to the May 18th Pro-Democracy Movement in 1995, the Law to Provide Reparation and Compensation Related to the Democratization Movement in 2000 along with the Special Act To Establish the Truth Commission on the Cheju April 3rd Incident and To Provide Reparation to the Victims and the Special Act To Find the Truth on Suspicious Deaths.
The enactment of these laws was carried out for a rather short-term interval, irrelevant to one another, in a manner contingent on the political motives of or power relationships among different political parties. Therefore, the attempts to deal with the past in South Korea were not carried out in mainstream currents of society with active involvement of the people according to the master plan of the government, yet by individualized and unenthusiastic government affairs demanded by the victims and the civic organizations. In fact, it reflects the state of political realities South Korea currently faces. The democratic progression within the government is sluggish because of a coexistence between the government officials of the past autocratic regimes and the government officials who participated in the pro-democracy movement, ultimately compromising one another.
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