South Korea needs to accept its dark past too

Co-Gwangju-5-18-Memorial Park (6), by Jacques Beaulieu via Flickr

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defence last week ended decades of tight-lipped denial when it issued a long-awaited apology for rapes committed by martial law troops during the pro-democracy Gwangju uprising of 18 to 27 May 1980. Speaking on behalf of the military establishment, defence minister Jeong Kyeong-doo cited the inflicting of “unspeakable, deep scars and pain” on “innocent women” by soldiers undertaking a violent crackdown on protests against a military coup led by general Chun Doo-hwan.

For Seoul, the apology may have put the issue to rest. The events of 1980 and their repercussions, however, have only served to shed light on South Korea’s unsavoury past: one riddled with acts of violence against its own people, and across the South China Sea deep into Vietnamese borders. These acts stand in blatant contradiction to the country’s carefully maintained narrative as the victim of foreign aggression throughout the centuries.

With left-leaning incumbent President Moon Jae-in declaring the truth about Gwangju a campaign issue in 2016, could this narrative finally undergo change and victims – both domestic and foreign – be served real justice?

The horrifying events of the 1980 Gwangju uprising have been buried in silence for the longest time. That they were brought to the wider world at all was thanks to a German reporter, Jürgen Hinzpeter, on site during the violence. As the Chun Doo-hwan military dictatorship oversaw the killing of 200 people, though believed to be up to three times as much, Hinzpeter was one of the few foreign correspondents on the scene as South Korean media was muzzled by the state. His footage was eventually broadcast around the world.

During the military’s crackdown of the protests, demonstrators and passers-by were beaten to death, bayoneted, tortured, disembowelled and riddled with bullets. Women’s bodies were found with mutilated breasts and genitals, and a high school student gang-raped by paratroopers on her way home from school. At the same time, the junta insisted it was tackling “vicious rioters” and “communist agitators”, with the military there for the people’s protection.

Given the degree of the violence the Korean military inflicted upon its own people, it is understandable that last week’s apology simply is not enough for the victims: justice will be served only when the perpetrators are brought to trial. “Unless those responsible are brought to justice and duly punished, a million apologies would be meaningless,” says key witness Kim Sun-ok, whose claims that she was raped by an interrogator prompted the launch of formal investigations into the violent events of 1980.

Indeed, almost four decades after the events of the Gwangju Massacre, not one person has been convicted of the murder of civilians. Five defendants had their homicide convictions upheld at the 1997 trials on the 1979 coup and 1980 massacre, namely security commander Chun Doo-hwan, martial law commander Lee Hee-seong, Minister of National Defense Ju Young-bok, deputy Army Chief of Staff Hwang Young-si, and special forces commander Chung Ho-yong.

However, the Supreme Court acquitted them of charges in connection with the fatal shootings of 26 people between 21 and 24 May, following the martial law command to exercise “self-defence rights”. Of the 165 people confirmed killed between 18 and 27 May, the deaths of 147 were ruled to be simply “acts within the rebellious uprising”.

The idea that the perpetrators of the 1980 rapes might soon be brought to trial is likely a pipe-dream, even now. Such a move, after all, would open a Pandora’s box of the South Korean military’s past, forcing broader allegations into the international spotlight and the government to confront another issue it has thus far managed to ignore: war crimes of Korean troops throughout the Vietnam War, including the widespread rape of civilians.

South Korea’s involvement in the War formed a key element of US president Lyndon Johnson’s wartime strategy, and was a convenient means of expanding the war effort while avoiding an American public increasingly weary of the conflict. For the Vietnamese, however, the rotation of more than 320,000 Korean troops in and out of the country brought a new wave of violence – one with ripples that have stretched into the communities of today.

Korean soldiers are accused of raping and sexually assaulting countless Vietnamese women during their deployment to the war-torn country, with tens of thousands of young adults of mixed Vietnamese-Korean ancestry, labelled the Lai Dai Han, an inconvenient testament to the violence bestowed upon the population. Today, they live on the margins of Vietnamese society, forced aside by persistent social stigma.

Like their counterparts in Gwangju, the Lai Dai Han and their ageing mothers are fighting for recognition from the South Korean government, thus far without success. For the majority of South Koreans, their country’s involvement in the Vietnam War is still a forbidden topic of national conversation.

These two developments signify pivotal events in South Korea’s history. The defence ministry’s apology to South Korean victims is no doubt a step in the right direction. But is does not absolve South Korea of the need to conduct a critical re-evaluation of its own past to one that not only includes its own victimisation, but its role as perpetrator as well. In order for justice for all victims of South Korean military violence to be served, Seoul needs to face up to, and accept, responsibility for its past deeds.