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The burden of guilt in post-unification Korea

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In Brief

A new law will allow the South Korean government to take a higher profile approach to North Korea’s human rights abuses.


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Yonhap news reported that the law, to come into effect in early September, facilitates plans to establish a centre tasked with investigating the North’s human rights abuses. The centre would also provide support to civic groups working on these issues.

The new law is partly a response to increasing international scrutiny of the South Korean approach to North Korea’s human rights problem. The move can be seen in the context of the continued salience of reunification as an official policy objective on both sides of the 38th parallel.

In a speech marking the 71st anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan, South Korean President Park Geun-hye tied the issues of reunification and human rights together. Real Korean independence, Park stated, ‘would be building a unified Republic of Korea where all of our 80 million people can enjoy freedom and the gift of human rights’.

Planning for reunification is deeply embedded in the historical narratives of North and South Korea. Both states engage in rhetoric on the inevitability and desirability of overcoming the tragedy of the 1948 division.

Reunification planning tends to focus on the economic, military and political costs and benefits. Yet this preoccupation with the material aspects overlooks the manifold and volatile social challenges likely to emerge from any reunification scenario. Specifically, a unified Korea would have both shared and separate experiences of violence, human rights violations and trauma to overcome.

The ways in which societies choose to address, process and represent memories of the past vary widely and have a profound effect on the future of those societies. The German example shows both the time and effort required to work through collective trauma.

In April 1945, US troops entered the outskirts of an unassuming southern German town named Dachau. As they advanced through the green fields and into the town, the soldiers were struck by the normality of the scene that greeted them: a sunny spring day; villagers out in their Sunday best, waving and calling out greetings. Surprise turned to horror when they entered Dachau concentration camp, where bodies awaiting cremation were piled high.

Over the coming weeks the American liberators had every Dachau villager view the workhouses, the emaciated, the dead and the dying. There was supposed to be no space for denial of the industrialised murder.

The monumental weight of the Holocaust has continued to exercise a strong effect on the German collective imagination. The post-war years were characterised by a silence on the events of the Second World War. Lina Jakob, researcher on trauma and guilt in post-war Germany, explains that successive generations of Germans have felt different levels of accountability for the Holocaust. The third generation, some fifty years after the event, have been most active in addressing the past in Europe. The impact of collective guilt on the psyche of the German nation has not been lost on observers of the Korean Peninsula.

The international community now has in-depth knowledge about North Korea’s six major labour camps. Author David Hawk’s satellite pictures, a growing corpus of testimony from North Koreans who have fled their country, and evidence from ‘citizen journalists’ point to the North Korean government incarcerating between 80,000 to 100,000 of its citizens for ‘political crimes’ without due process.

South Korean politics remains deeply split over North Korean human rights. This largely stems from a perception that the South Korean government has failed to account for abuses toward its own people during dictatorial rule (1962–87) and the democratisation period.

Kim Dong-choon, former standing commissioner of the now defunct South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told us of the complexities of victimhood and the search for accountability among South Koreans coming to terms with events such as the Gwangju Massacre in 1980 or the civilian killings that took place before and during the Korean War. ‘Those living prior to 1987 don’t talk about government misdeeds because it is counter-cultural to do so’, Kim said. ‘There is a stigma attached to the dictatorship, and parents don’t want to end up victimising their children’.

The silence surrounding state violence in both Koreas echoes the inability of ordinary Germans to discuss their relationship to the atrocities in their own past. But as with the German case, silence does not mean that events fade from the collective memory. Feelings of guilt and trauma continue to exist under the surface. These emotions often emerge suddenly, unexpectedly and very personally.

In preparing for a post-reunification scenario, how should Koreans — victims and perpetrators — and the international community consider the guilt and responsibility for past excesses? South Korea is beginning to explore this complex question in addressing the findings of the 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.

South Korean civic groups are now thinking about the application of transitional justice mechanisms as part of preparing for what might lie beyond a divided Korean Peninsula. These include criminal prosecutions as well as truth and reconciliation commissions.

The introduction of human rights legislation aimed at the North is also an opportunity to reflect on a legacy of atrocities in South Korea. To dispel future accusations of hypocrisy, it is important that South Korean society examines closely its capacity to deal with its own past. South Korea must learn from the successes and failures of its own efforts at transitional justice since the movement to democracy. Such work will play a vital role in building a united society firm in its ambition to ensure such atrocities are never repeated.

Markus Bell is a lecturer at Sheffield University’s School of East Asian Studies. Follow him on Twitter @mpsbell.

Sarah Son is a postdoctoral research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and Research Director at the Transitional Justice Working Group in Seoul.

3 responses to “The burden of guilt in post-unification Korea”

  1. Thanks for an informative as well as distressing analysis of these issues. I took a course on Korean history and politics about a year ago at a major, highly regarded public university. It was taught by an experienced ‘expert’ on the topic. But the state sponsored violence in South Korea, which was supported by the USA, was not even mentioned! There is a lot of work to be done, indeed.

  2. I believe the authors are trying to create a moral equivalence between North and South Korea, which is to put it mildly extremely foolish. The South has been a democracy for 30 years and the North has been a living hell hole unprecedented in human history. The Kim Regime will allow no form of dissent their are no churches or civic organizations that exist in North Korea to oppose the Kim’s. In fact the vast majority of the people are little more than slaves of the Kim’s. The Gwangju killings took place when Jimmy Carter was President, does anyone in their right mind think that Carter would condone the killing of civilians. If one is going to make a charge when needs to cite their facts. Twenty to 25% of the people of South Korea are leftist that one could say are pro North Korea. The see the North as the real Korea and the South pro American uncle Tom state. From 1997 to 2007 the left was in power in the South and instituted the Sunshine Policy where the South gave the North between 7-10 billion dollars in aid and may kept the North from collapsing. And for this aid they received nothing, yet the left claim it was a successful policy. If Kim lashes out before his regime falls and kills millions of South Koreans, they will have paid for their own murder. When the Regime falls and I believe they are near their end, trying to repair the damage to North Korea will be almost an impossible task. You will have an entire country with PTSD where the moral fabric of the society has been ravaged beyond the power of words to describe. Add to this the money to begin to build the infrastructure of a modern society will begin at 100 billion and grow like the Pentagon budget. And to end on a happy note the left may win the Presidential race next year in the South and billions more will flow into the pockets of the Kim’s.

    • South Korea was a democracy in name only when you look at how it had its own dictatorship for a long time back up by the USA. People were not allowed to criticize the government and the government did not tolerate strikes by the workforce.

      Ms. Bell and Mr. Markcus are right that the South Korean government will eventually have to face up to its own massacres and torture of its citizens plus letting the South Korean wealthy people and corporations becoming too powerful.

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