KWANGAMRI, South Korea — On a heavily forested hilltop behind this village, investigators are excavating the long-buried history of the South Korean men, women and children who cowered in a trench as their own country’s troops mowed them down during the Korean War.
It is a race against time. The investigators, from the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are tapping into the memories of a dwindling number of survivors as they pursue their mission of examining some of modern Korea’s most traumatic moments. They also face the possibility that their mandate, which expires next year, could be ended or drastically curtailed under the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak.
What they are finding as they dig up the remains at Kwangamri, 280 kilometres south of Seoul, is physical evidence that backs up once-suppressed stories of atrocities during the 1950-53 war.
In February 1951, the hills around this village were teeming with refugees caught up in the fighting between South Korean government forces and Communist guerrillas who aided the invading troops from the North. Some villagers had collaborated with the guerrillas. Others said they had been forced, at gunpoint, to accompany guerrillas who feared that the villagers would otherwise tell the South Korean army where they were. Still others were simply fleeing the advancing troops.
February 20, the outnumbered guerrillas had retreated from the village, and South Korean soldiers had taken their place. What followed, survivors say, was wholesale carnage in which government soldiers assembled civilians and shot them as they begged for mercy.
“We were all families — old people, parents and children,” Moon Man-seop, 76, said in an interview. “When the soldiers ordered us to jump into the trench, my instincts told me to crawl to the bottom. An old man on top of me was trembling and weeping.”
Moon was shot three times, he said, and pretended to be dead for two days amid the dead and dying, one of only two people who emerged alive after the troops left.
The military’s combat report for that day recorded “1,005 enemy personnel” killed versus three South Korean soldiers. But survivors maintain that most of those who died here were unarmed civilians, including hundreds who survived the initial attack but were rounded up on this hillside and summarily executed on suspicion of being Communist sympathizers.
Fifty-eight years later, investigators have so far unearthed the remains of 108 people from the trench, a quarter of them women and children. Many were found with their hands tied behind their backs or necks, as Moon described in testimony before the truth commission. One was a child clutching marbles.
During the decades of anti-Communist authoritarian rule in South Korea, there was little public discussion of such killings. Grieving families’ attempts to dig up the dead for proper burial were punished as treason.
But as the country’s fledgling democracy strengthened throughout the 1990s, the calls for investigations mounted. And the revelation in 1999 that United States forces had shot and killed unarmed civilians near the South Korean hamlet of No Gun Ri during the war inspired increasing numbers of South Koreans to come forward with tales of atrocities. (The Pentagon later acknowledged the deaths, but said they were a result of confusion and fear.)
In 2005 the liberal government of President Roh Moo-hyun set up the truth commission to investigate civilians’ claims of massacres by the South Korean and United States armies and by Communist forces.
South Korea’s commission — which cannot compel testimony, prosecute or award compensation — has since confirmed more than 50 mass killings of civilians (out of 1,222 reported by victims’ relatives) during the Korean War and has located 168 mass graves. But hobbled by budget constraints and a lack of political support from Lee’s administration, it expects to have excavated only 13 of them before its term expires in April.
“When we interview witnesses and survivors, we find more burial sites,” said Noh Yong-seok, the commission’s chief excavator. “They are countless. These bones know no ideology. But our political situation doesn’t allow them to have a proper resting place.”
When Noh’s team began digging at various sites in 2007, it was cracking open one of the most divisive chapters in South Korea’s modern history.
In the first chaotic months of the war, the South Korean military and the civilian police hastily executed thousands of political prisoners and people suspected of being leftists to prevent them from aiding the invading North Korean forces.
There was brutality on both sides. The commission has confirmed 23 mass killings by Communists in the South. Leftist guerrillas attacked the police and slaughtered right-wing villagers, contributing to a chain of revenge killings fuelled not just by political ideology, but also by personal grievances and local feuds.
“What South Korea now does with these ruins of the 20th century will surely have huge implications on how the country will define its identity in the new century and its moral standing in the regional and world community,” said Heonik Kwon, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics and a former adviser to the commission.
April, the commission expects to have recovered the remains of 1,700 civilians, a small fraction of the more than 100,000 civilians, including about 20,000 political prisoners, it estimates were executed by South Korean forces during the war.
“Our realistic goal is to investigate representative cases and render an indirect and symbolic resolution to all the other cases of mass killings,” Ahn Byung-ook, president of the commission, recently told reporters. “Our aim is not to punish the perpetrators, but to resolve the grievances of those who suffered injustice amid the madness of the war.”
Shortly before he stepped down as president last year, Roh offered the first government apology, for 870 deaths confirmed in Ulsan, in the south. But rightist veterans groups attacked commission members as “Communists.”
Under the law that established the commission, its term may be extended by two years, but there is doubt that this will happen, given strong political opposition from the conservative-dominated government and parliament, which appoint most of its top officials and control its budget.
During the presidential campaign last year, members of Lee’s party said the group’s activities threatened social harmony in the South and could strain South Korea’s alliance with the United States. Recently, a government official who requested anonymity because of the delicacy of the subject said the government wanted to halt the group’s work or force it to merge with other investigative bodies. The victims’ families say a merger would severely hinder the commission’s ability to investigate their claims.
For now, Korean citizens remain deeply divided over the group’s work.
Lee Soon-chang, 77, who had a role in wartime killings that he said were justified, complained recently that the commission vilified the military “while turning Communists into patriots.”
“They say these people were executed without trial,” he said. “But what trial? It was wartime.”
Lee said that in October 1950, when he was a right-wing militiaman in Koyang, north of Seoul, he escorted men and women, detained by pro-government villagers on suspicion of being Communist collaborators, to a hill where the police executed them in groups of five and pushed their bodies into an abandoned mine shaft.
Local leftists slaughtered 45 of his comrades with bamboo spears the month before, he said.
Lee Byong-soon, 76, whose father was among those executed in Koyang, said he and his uncle went to the mine shaft hours after the killings and were able to take out one person who was still alive. “But my uncle could not find my father amid the jumble of dead and dying,” he said.
“The day my father was killed, I saw him being led out of the police station at the end of the line,” he said. “I still see him.”
On a heavily forested hilltop behind the village of Kwangamri, South Korea, investigators are excavating the long-buried history of the South Korean men, women and children who cowered in a trench as their own country’s troops mowed them down during the Korean War. It is a race against time. The investigators, from the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission are tapping into the memories of a dwindling number of survivors as they pursue their mission of examining some of modern Korea’s most traumatic moments. They also face the possibility that their mandate, which expires next year, could be ended or drastically curtailed under the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak.