The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Korea was established on December 1, 2005 and sought to address incidents and human rights abuses in Korean history that occurred between 1910 and 1993.
Background History and Context
In 1910, Korea was invaded and colonized by Japan. After its liberation in 1945, the Korean peninsula was divided into the Soviet-supported North and the U.S.-supported South by ideological conflict, which led to the Korean War and transformed Korea into one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world . During the Korean War, actions to serve the political causes of each side transpired as human rights violations and executions. These abuses and tragedies live in Korean memory, and, before 2005, had never been fully addressed.
In 2005, the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to prevent these past wrong-doings from adversely affecting current Korean society by “bringing to justice pro-Japanese supporters during the colonial era, revealing the truth behind massacres during the Korean War (including before and after the conflict) in order to restore honor to the victims, and verifying the facts of massacres and human rights abuses during Korea's democratization period so as to bring historical justice and truth” .
Problems and Purpose
During the war’s initial stages, both sides participated in the executions of political prisoners and possible dissenters; however, “the South Korean military, police, and right-wing groups ignored judicial procedures during the executions,” and their victims were not given trials, official accusations, or reasons for their executions . The Korean government has explained that the executions were conducted as “reprisals against North Korean communists for killing innocent South Korean civilians,” however, the victims’ families requested answers after sixty years of silence .
They called for the enactment of the Special Act on Unveiling the Truth on the Massacres of Civilians as a form of restorative justice. In 2005, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea was formed to investigate illegal massacres before and after the Korean War, human rights violations, and other historical incidents .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Commission acted as a government entity independent of any ministries, and, as such, was able to independently conduct its investigations . The Commission was reported to have 240 staff members and an annual budget of $15-20 million USD.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The Commission was comprised of fifteen commissioners who would serve two-year terms with the possibility of reappointment, while the Commission would operate for four years . Eight members were recommended by the National Assembly, four members were appointed by the President, and three members were nominated by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Korea .
Methods and Tools Used
The purpose of the Commission was to “foster national legitimacy and reconcile the past for the sake of national unity by honoring those who participated in anti-Japanese movements and by exposing the truth through investigation of incidents of human rights abuses, violence, and massacres” .
To effectively conduct its investigation, the Commission focused on a number of areas of interest:
- Anti-Japanese movements during Japanese rule
- Koreans residing abroad and their efforts to protect Korea’s sovereignty
- Massacres occurring from August 15, 1945, to the Korean War period
- Incidents ranging from August 15, 1945, to the end of the authoritarian regimes
- Terrorist acts, human rights abuses, massacres, and suspicious deaths from August 15, 1945, to the period of authoritarian regimes
- Other incidents deemed historically important and necessary for investigation
During investigations, the Commission would ask relevant institutions for data on-site . Then, the Commission would hear statements from persons involved or witnesses .
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The Commission received 9,600 petitions for massacres during the Korean War period from 1950 to 1953 . Sixteen cases regarding the independence movement against Japan and the history of Korean expatriates in colonial times were investigated. A total of 196 cases regarding groups opposing the legitimacy of the Republic of Korea were investigated. Among 7,802 petitions, 1,461 cases regarding massacres were investigated, and an additional fifty-six cases were categorized under the human rights violations category .
The Commission initiated the process of the exhumation of massacre sites in 2006, and, for the first time in fifty-seven years, the remains of massacre victims were unearthed . The exhumations took place at 168 of the most probable locations of massacres, and thirty-nine sites were selected for excavation . By 2013, eight murder sites had been unearthed.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Although the main objective of the Commission is to reveal the truth, it also sought to make recommendations to the government. This includes the offering of an apology to the victims and bereaved families, restoring the honor of victims by establishing a memorial, the compensation of victims, and the taking of preventative measures .
Truth and Reconciliation: Activities of the Past Three Years. Republic of Korea: Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2005.
 Truth and Reconciliation: Activities of the Past Three Years (Republic of Korea: Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2005), 5.
 Truth and Reconciliation: Activities of the Past Three Years, 5.
 Ibid, 7.
 Ibid, 8.
 Ibid, 14.
 Ibid, 13.
 Ibid, 22.
 Ibid, 39.
 Ibid, 31.
 Ibid, 35.
 Ibid, 36.
 Ibid, 31.
The first version of this case entry was written by Sarah Slasor, McMaster University.