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Shadow Lingers Around Korean War Commemorations

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

There can be few South Koreans who would doubt the events of June 25, 1950. For most of the rest of the world, the message is clear: North Korea mercilessly attacked its southern political foe, sparking the devastating Korean War that claimed the lives of millions, most of them civilian.

If that is a version of events accepted as a near universal truth – Pyongyang continues to peddle an account that says the North was attacked – then there are other more sinister chapters of the conflict whose truth remains concealed from the people of the South.

Of the millions killed during the three-year war, thousands of civilians in the South are said to have been summarily executed without trial, most because they were suspected of collaborating with the communists.

Amid the commemoration events taking place in South Korea this year to mark the 60-year anniversary since the war broke out, the closure of the body set up to investigate atrocities that took place during some of the country’s darker moments lies on the horizon.

Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a government body, was set up in 2005 by the left-leaning Roh Moo-hyun government to investigate civilian massacres, human rights abuses and unlawful use of authority over the last 100 years. Later this year, it will cease to exist.

Some of the more potent incidents occurred during the Korean War at the hands of South Korean military and police as well as that of the North, according to accounts. The alleged involvement of U.S. forces in some of the cases has been another recurring bone of contention.

In some quarters, as many as 200,000 civilians are believed to have been killed unlawfully during the campaign. The commission has investigated thousands of petitions and dug up mass graves. However, other sources consulted - who support the aims of the body - dispute that figure, believing the victim count may run into the tens of thousands at most.

The organization’s current president, Lee Young-jo, was quoted recently as saying many of his countrymen believe money could be better spent elsewhere than by digging through the country’s past. Others see the closure as a victim of a polarized political system – the view that it is a leftist-inspired tool to indict the right – with the right-wing Lee Myung-bak government said to be suspicious of its activities.

The bombshell announcement late last year by the body that South Korea had been responsible for murdering thousands of its own citizens during the opening stages of the war with the North “was a landmark moment in the painful journey to historical truth,” said Korea Times columnist and author Michael Breen.

Many also suffered at the hands of the Japanese when they occupied the peninsula for 35 years until the end of WW II in 1945, while others were victims of the later military dictatorships that ran the South.

As the U.N. entered the war on the side of the South and pushed the North Koreans back beyond the pre-June 1950 38th parallel – the de facto border set up to divide the Soviet-backed North from the US -supported South after the Japanese were ousted – and further north to near the Chinese border, there were victims of another kind.

Korean War historian Andrew Salmon, author of the book “To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951,”was told by one British veteran of the difficulties they faced as North Korean and Chinese soldiers – by then fighting in support of the North – disguised themselves as civilians. “We opened fire into the mass. We did not want to take a chance on anything or anybody,” the man said.

A veteran from Britain’s Middlesex Regiment, who was part of the push north, told Asia Pacific Business & Technology Review in a recent interview that Chinese and North Korean soldiers “were all wearing white pyjamas. There were refugees on the way going up and refugees on the way coming back. You did not know who was who.”

Salmon says the commission’s root problem is the lack of a neutral voice. “Given the extreme divide in Korean society since liberation in 1945 and given the atrocities committed by both sides during and after the war, I think this commission’s work is essential,” he said.

“However, the question is whether the commission can be staffed by parties who do not have their own ideological bias.”

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