Bringing Justice to an Unjustified Past in Korea

Human Rights Dialogue 1.8 (Spring 1997): "Transitional Justice in East Asia and its Impact on Human Rights"

For five decades Korea was ruled by successive authoritarian political regimes that systematically violated human rights, perpetrating such crimes as the infamous massacre of pro-democracy protestors in the city of Kwangju in May of 1980. Yet, a number of countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, envy the Korean "developmental dictatorship" and its economic success. With the recent verdicts against two former presidents accused of human rights abuses and corruption, Korea now appears as a harbinger of democracy and justice for its neighboring Asian nations.

To be fair, although its democratic reforms have been limited, and criticized as such, the current Korean government has expressed a firm belief in the universality of human rights. And, perhaps as a strategy, we should accept and welcome these commitments, despite the strands of falsehood and hypocrisy that run through them, for they serve as promises to keep working toward continued democratization and the promotion of human rights.

The fact that sixteen former military generals, among them two former presidents, and the heads of the largest Korean corporations stood before judges was in and of itself an extraordinary and symbolic event in the country s constitutional history. Chun Doo Hwan, who ruled South Korea for seven years after his successful military coup in 1980, was accused of impunity and treason—for military revolt and his role in the massacre of May 1980—and corruption. His successor, Roh Tae Woo, who ruled until 1992, was charged with impunity, treason for military revolt, and corruption. Chun was originally sentenced to death and Roh to over twenty years in prison. In these decisions the court made it clear that even the president is not above the law and must be held responsible for illegal acts. It administered a political catharsis that symbolized the end of South Korea s authoritarian past, a monumental event for instituting democracy and the rule of law. The lesson will hopefully act as a preventive warning against any future abuse of power.

Nonetheless, Asian neighbors who see the trial as a potential model of transitional justice will be disappointed to learn the truth of the story. The trial was, in the view of many Korean citizens, a mere political show. The defense attorneys of Chun and Roh portrayed the trial as political revenge. Without a doubt, the purity of the legislative justice of the trial was undermined by the impure political motivations of the current president, Kim Young Sam. In fact, if Roh s secret assets, totaling millions, had not been revealed in the midst of national protests calling for punishment of those responsible for the Kwangju massacre, President Kim may not have taken actions to disassociate himself from the corrupt past and prepare legal grounds for the trial of Chun and Roh. Even then, Kim ignored a popular judgment and mandated the very same prosecution that had previously decided not to arraign the former presidents for their abuse of power to sign the new indictment, a signal of the limited scope of the trial and the justice it could bring.

The process of investigation and trial revealed little of the whole truth about past wrongdoings. If Chun is guilty so are his many accomplices who played important roles in his seizure of power and establishment of an authoritarian regime. But many officials holding key public positions today were once members of the renowned State Safeguard Legislation Council, a major power source for the military faction that led Chun s coup d état. At the same time, there are a great number of victims who have never been compensated, such as the 8,601 public officers and employees of state enterprises wh were forced to resign or the 38,259 victims of Samchung Training Camp who were arrested, detained, and put to forced labor without any due process, or the 717 journalists who were dismissed for reporting the truth. Then there are those who were tortured and unjustly jailed, and those families whose loved ones died or disappeared inexplicably during the twelve years (1981–92) that Chun and Roh ruled. They are still waiting for a truth inquiry, investigations, compensation, and retribution. These are the legitimate rights of Korean citizens, and the state has the duty to uphold them.

The victims of the Chun and Roh regimes maintain that only the principal offenders have been brought to justice while there are many field commanders who led the massacre, who have never been indicted. Under pressure from the opposition party led by Kim Dae Jung, whose power is based in the Kwangju area, the Roh government created the Kwangju Democratic Movement Related Persons Compensation Act of 1990. The Act was intended to provide financial compensation to victims but has not been seriously implemented, and few victims actually received their due compensation. Citizens demands to erect monuments and appoint a national holiday to mark the massacre also went unfulfilled. Many of those who engaged in treason and the killings in Kwangju, not to mention other human rights violations after the military coup, have not been held accountable for the crimes, and some still remain in public office.

Full reparation—including exposing the complete truth about the ill deeds of the past, appropriate measures for victims such as apology, financial compensation, punishment of those responsible, restoration of honor, and prevention of recurrence—is needed. Without these steps, Korea cannot become a model for other countries in pursuit of human rights, development, and democracy.

The future rests first on how we finally conclude the trial. After succeeding in getting Chun s death sentence changed to life imprisonment and reducing Roh s prison term, the defense has again appealed to the Supreme Court to reduce the sentences, while the prosecution is seeking reinstatement of the original ruling. A final verdict is due in April; the convictions are expected to stand. It is not a secret that President Kim s popularity may be diminished if he gives further amnesty to Chun.

It is superficial to think that the ills of a dictatorial system will vanish with economic growth, or that justice can be achieved by a trial alone. Demands to right the wrongs of the past will not cease. The modern Korean pattern of allowing the powerful to exploit history for their own benefit should stop; wrongdoings must be addressed in their times rather than brought out of the closet years later.

When considering the past thirty years of single-minded economic development and popular resistance in Korea, along with their enduring consequences, the Korean model no longer seems an exemplary precedent. Before us are problems that cannot be solved by indices of economic growth, by increases in personal income, or by show trials. The practices and institutions related to human rights violations continue. Corruption and authoritarianism in politics is institutionalized. The political neutrality of the courts cannot be guaranteed. Business and political interests are hopelessly entwined. Labor relations are deteriorating. A loss of humanism and a declining quality of life is felt by many.

It is certain that these problems, which are rooted in people's minds and in social structures, cannot be fully solved within one or two generations. It is up to the Korean people to make the trial more meaningful and their significance more permanent. Past victims should have access to more complete reparation. Perpetrators should be brought to court or purged from their positions. The suffering must be remembered and memorialized in textbooks, by monuments, and in the minds of the people. Ultimately, it is the Korean people not the court that will determine whether the trial of the former presidents goes down in history as a showy "Trial of the Century," or as an important episode in a continuing transition to greater democracy and justice.

Read More: Human Rights, Justice, Torture, Transitional Justice, Transitional Justice, Asia, East Asia, South Korea

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