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South Korea panel acknowledges mass executions in 1950

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission says South Korean authorities massacred at least 4,934 civilians suspected of being North Korean sympathizers.

November 27, 2009|By John M. Glionna

Reporting from Seoul — Shedding new light on a long-suppressed chapter of the Korean War, a government commission acknowledged Thursday that South Korean soldiers and police executed about 5,000 suspected North Korean sympathizers during the early months of the conflict.

In the first acknowledgment of the death toll, the so-called Truth and Reconciliation Commission said South Korean authorities rounded up and massacred at least 4,934 civilians during the summer of 1950.

Evidence of the atrocities was hidden for decades under the military-backed authoritarian regimes that ruled South Korea until the nation embraced democracy in the 1980s.

The commission in 2005 began investigating the civilian executions, interviewing several people who took part in the killings during the first phase of the 1950-53 war. It also reviewed photographs of mass, makeshift graves.

News of the commission's finding was treated almost nonchalantly in South Korea, carried as an inside story by several of the nation's major newspapers.

"The country should have paid attention to this case consistently, but so far it has not," said Kim Jeong-ho, 62, whose father was among the victims.

Still, historians here said they believed the findings would have a cathartic effect on the nation.

"One hidden piece of our tragic history in the 1950s was revealed. We should not repeat this miserable history, and this case will do good for the unity and integrity of the society," said Park Sun-joo, a history professor at Chungbuk National University who heads the excavation project of the commission.

He said he hopes the government will build a memorial to the victims.

Many victims were reportedly associated with the National Guidance League, created by the South Korean government to re-educate suspected communist sympathizers.

To meet strictly enforced membership quotas, officials often pressured apolitical farmers into joining the group, using promises of rice rations or other benefits, the commission said.

The panel also found that the executions were carried out based on "decisions and orders" from the "highest level" of government.

Kim said that family members of the victims faced discrimination for decades after the war.

"It is beyond description -- the social prejudice and mental anguish that we have been through," he said.

Commissioners also included several recommendations, including that the government offer an official apology as well as pass legislation to compensate victims' families.

Park, the historian, said the government should also pursue prosecutions.

"A high court has said the statute of limitations on this killing case has passed," he said.

"But personally, I don't think the judiciary should view this case that way: It is a crime against humanity."

But Kim disagreed.

"Even if there are some offenders still alive, I simply do not want to see them punished," he said.

"Not only is it legally tough to prosecute them, but it is more appropriate that families of victims and offenders meet . . . and reconcile with each other.

"For the sake of social unity, it is right to make a reconciliation."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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