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Time running out on South Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission

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SEOUL, South Korea — A controversial South Korean commission is in a race against time.

In four months, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up by South Korea in 2005 to investigate wrongs committed against its citizens by the government, will be disbanded. That means possibly thousands of incidents, from executions to the wartime killings of refugees, may remain uninvestigated, and South Koreans wrongly accused of crimes against the government may lose their only chance to clear their name. Advocates say the commission’s research is vital to the country. In addition to clearing individuals, the commission has investigated or is investigating more than 11,000 claims of atrocities, including civilian deaths from U.S. military operations in the Korean War.

In all, the commission estimates that as many as 100,000 South Koreans died at the government’s hands. In a high-profile ruling issued in November, the commission announced that South Korean soldiers and police executed nearly 5,000 people during the Korean War, fearing they would cooperate with invading North Korean soldiers.

“I think the work of this commission is extremely important because this country has some very serious issues with itself,” said Michael Breen, author of “The Koreans” and “Kim Jong Il: North Korea’s Dear Leader.” “There’s a lot of guilt and a lot of unpleasantness surrounding its formation. There’s a lot of cases of it brutalizing its own people.”

South Korea was run by military dictatorships until the 1980s. Its history before then was marked by a series of bloody coups, massacres and sham trials of suspected communists and other dissidents.

Advocates say the commission is being shuttered because current President Lee Myung-bak and his conservative ruling party are uncomfortable with the scrutiny of the country’s past.

“The (Lee) government seems to have inherited it reluctantly from the previous government and would like to see it shut down,” Breen said.

The commission’s new president says it hasn’t been cost effective and should cease work in April, as planned when it was created. Lee Young-jo, appointed as the commission’s president last month, said 240 researchers spent about 20 billion won — or $17.79 million — and made final reports on just 300 cases during the past four years.

“Has the commission’s work been effective and productive?” he said. “No, absolutely not.”

Much of the commission’s politically charged work has been ignored by the South Korean government, which has rarely issued apologies for past atrocities, observers say. The commission, whose 15 members are appointed by different branches of the government, can recommend that government agencies or individuals make apologies or compensate their victims but cannot force them to do so.

But Kim Dong-choon, who served as the commission’s head researcher until his four-year term ended last month, said its work is important.

“To me, the definition of an advanced society is that the government or schools or media pay attention to these people’s cases and try to relieve their pains,” he said.

He said many case files sit untouched by the government because Lee Myung-bak’s main concern is North Korea, not addressing the country’s past. But the commission’s investigations still help the government build credibility with a public that has had little faith in its leaders because of its past “unimaginable” human rights violations, he said.

Park Tae-gyun, a professor at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of International Studies, said he expects the government to disband the commission or scale back its work, even though it has succeeded in remaining politically neutral in its investigations. He said the commission has been caught in a “power struggle,” with conservatives accusing liberals of turning the commission’s findings into weapons to attack them.

One such conservative is Lee Ju-cheon, a history professor at Wonkwang University and representative of the New Right Union, a right-wing political advocacy group. He said the commission has been run by left-wingers who oppose the Lee administration, not unbiased scholars.

“What they have done has brought split opinions and conflict to the nation,” he said.


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