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May 18 Facts

Gwangju Massacre Fact-finding - the Incomplete Mission

Choi Young-Ju
Senior Researcher of May 18 Memorial Foundation.
After having amended the Constitution and formally adapted a democratic system through civil uprising, the political imperative Korea faced in 1988 was to unveil truths of the numerous human rights violations committed by the military regime and the illegitimate power seizure and to punish those who were responsible for the crimes. This was the demand of the time, namely “transitional justice” that breaks with the wrongs of the past, strengthens democracy, and fosters social advancement. And it is the case even now.

The first national level truth unveiling body was the May 18 Democratic Uprising Truth Unveiling Special Committee (Gwangju Special Committee, hereafter) that had been in action between June 1988 and January 1990. The Gwangju Special Committee was launched under a strong demand from the opposition parties after the ruling party, the Democratic Justice Party, had lost its majority at the 1988 general election. The Roh Tae-woo administration, not different from the 5th Republic of Chun, perpetuator of Gwangju Massacre, strongly felt that it needs to put some distance from its predecessor in order to attain the political and moral upper hand.

Beginning July 8, 1988, the Gwangju Special Committee had 42 general meetings and 42 board meetings and 19 hearings with over 70 witnesses. It also had affiliated organizations: The Documents Screening Subcommittee, Korea-US Subcommittee, On-the-spot Inspection Subcommittee, Data Verification Subcommittee, Special Law Subcommittee, and Countermeasure Subcommittee.

The Gwangju Special Committee was faced with confrontation from the start in that different interests existed between the ruling party and the opposition ones and the administration’s legitimacy was directly connected with the Gwangju Uprising. Two warrants were issued for Chun Doo Hwan but he refused to comply and Choi Gyu-ha did the same. Later Chun grudgingly appeared at the National Assembly on December 31 in 1989 and answered preliminary inquiries but denied all the allegations concerning the Gwangju Massacre and proclaimed his innocence from the beginning to the end. William Gleysteen, the American Ambassador to Korea, and John Wickham, the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Commander at the time, were also asked to be present at the National Assembly but they refused and instead submitted written answers.

In the end, the Gwangju Special Committee came to a close without adopting a final report as well as not reaching any political, legal, and systemic agreement to follow up. Regardless of this, the Gwangju Special Committee had a significance as the first formal investigation done by a constitutional institute and the live-covered hearings, which had been held ten or so times offered a precious opportunity for Koreans to get to know about the Uprising. Furthermore, the massive amount of materials that had been collected through document verification, on-site verification, testimonies of victims and witnesses, and assailant interrogation greatly contributed to restoring the true nature of the Uprising, which had been labeled as a riot by impure elements, and served as source materials for truth unveiling activities thereafter.

The Gwangju Special Committee, however, had a fatal weakness - it played the role of a contributor to the incomplete truth unveiling activities of the last 38 years. It was especially so when seeing the situation from the viewpoint of “transitional justice’ in a country solidifying democracy after righting past injustice. Countries that had proceeded to democracy in the 1980s took steps to accomplish transitional justice as Truth Unveiling → Punishing the Responsible → Compensating the Victims and Restoring Honor → Social Integration, but the May 18 Democratic Uprising case took backward steps.

Before the truth had been fully discovered a damage compensation was hurriedly made and this was followed by money-related disputes and this tarnished the honor of the victims further. Truth unveiling work led by the National Assembly failed to cast light upon the Uprising at the microscopic political, historical, and cause-and-effect angle. As a result, the Gwangju Special Committee was unable to point out the perpetrator and also failed to secure worthy proofs to be used to punish the perpetuator in the future.

This limitation was also the case at Chun Doo Hwan’s trials for treason that began in 1995. In other words, before the comprehensive truth unveiling process had been finished, the prosecution investigated and indicted Chun with cases that only meet the criminal prosecution criteria, and as a result, it ended up being an incomplete one. As the trial continued, the May 18 Democratic Uprising became de-politicized and ended up being a mere “unfortunate incident” that shouldn’t happen again. And punishing those responsible without truth unveiling led to a partial punishment where the grave crimes, crimes against humanity, for example, were not even mentioned for lack of legal grounds. And it was also impossible to form social, political, and legal spaces where punishing those crimes could be discussed.

The reason for the limitation of the Gwangju Special Committee is that Korea failed to secure a “Truth Committee” as an institution that was entitled to political independence and so the National Assembly, which is surrounded by different political interests, had to take the helm of the truth unveiling project. Argentina, Chile, and South Africa that relatively succeeded in bringing transitional justice had separate institutions with guaranteed durability as a rule to investigate state violence like the May 18 Uprising. But the truth unveiling work in Korea had been carried out at the National Assembly where political surrogates of both the perpetrators and the victims coexist. Thus, it was impossible to begin with to expect cooperation and agreement in such a confrontational space. It was well known that the Gwangju Special Committee had drifted about multiple times due to political interferences by the representative of the perpetrators, the Democratic Justice Party, and so the final report was also hindered from being adopted.

The reason for the failure of forming an independent truth committee and of unveiling the truth, even with the formidable June Uprising that started from the bottom, was that the procedural democracy in Korea was practiced as “pacted transition” which lacks the will to right the past and, as a result, couldn’t embrace the eagerness of the civil society. As seen during the presidential election in 1987 when the opposition parties were divided and seen with the merger of three parties in 1990, democratization without “righting the past” in the 80s and the 90s was the hurdle that obstructed Korea from proceeding to democracy and brought indescribable pains to the victims of the Uprising and Gwangju citizens.

Even though it is late coming “The May 18 Democratic Uprising Truth Unveiling Special Law” was enacted in February, 2018 and was to begin its work in September same year. The fact that an independent truth committee has finally established after 38 years tells us that Korea is still in the transitional period to democracy. When the truth of the atrocities committed by the military regime in Gwangju and human rights violations are fully revealed and the perpetrators take legal, ethical, and historical responsibility, Korea will finally achieve a true democracy. The endeavor to overcome the limitations of the Gwangju Special Committee will become an opportunity to meet with the historical calling of bringing democracy to Korea.