Former hunter of collaborators recalls his workCHEONGJU, North Chungcheong
Chung Chull-yong, 79, remembers the day when the Korean collaborators won.
Mr. Chung is the last surviving member of the Special Investigation Commission for Anti-Korean People’s Activities, which was created by the nation’s first National Assembly in 1949 to identify those who had worked with the Japanese during colonial rule.
On June 6, 1949, he recalls, “I went to work with my usual two special security officers in the morning, and something was in the air. The guards on duty did not greet me, so I remember joking to them for not saying, ‘Good morning.’”
When he entered his office in downtown Seoul, five police officers awaited him. Two pounced on his security guards, taking them away. Two others took his gun and the permit papers that he possessed as one of the investigators on the commission.
Mr. Chung and his security officers were hauled out into the backyard. With his arms folded behind his back, Mr. Chung sat there with his fellow commission members. His security officers were led away, while he and other investigators were allowed to return to their offices.
“We tried to resume work, but how could we? That was the day the commission died and the collaborators rejoiced,” says Mr. Chung.
After 55 years, the commission, known by its Korean acronym “banminteukwi,” is facing renewed public attention after National Assembly members recently presented a bipartisan measure that would create another commission to identify colonial-rule collaborators.
A diminutive man who describes himself as a poet and a writer, Mr. Chung now lives in Cheongju. Until now, he hasn’t publicly talked about his experience on the original commission.
“I did not see the need. I regretted that we did not accomplish what we set out to do, and I was also ashamed,” Mr. Chung says.
Now that he is writing an autobiography, he’s decided to talk. “Everybody dies once. I want to prepare for that day by recounting my life,” Mr. Chung says.
A native of Cheongju, Mr. Chung was working at the Daejeon branch of the New Korea Company, which dealt with post-liberation land ownership, when a family friend asked him to join the Special Investigation Commission for Anti-Korean People’s Activities. He hesitated at first because he did not have expertise in criminal law or in investigations, but eventually accepted.
On Jan. 5, 1949, he was inaugurated with 44 other members and some 20 security officers. He was given a gun and 10 permit papers that allowed him to travel uninhibited during the chaotic post-liberation period in South Korea. He could travel at night despite a curfew, enter government ministries, access government documents and enter entertainment outlets.
The commission made some progress during its eight-month run, issuing 682 arrest warrants and making 302 arrests.
Mr. Chung recalls his first arrest, of a famous Korean writer on Feb. 7, 1949: “I asked Lee Kwang-su how he felt as I was taking him over to the police station. Mr. Lee, after a while, said, ‘We could have become citizens for the [Japanese] Emperor if liberation had come a year later.’ I lost all my respect for him as a writer then and there.”
The commission briefly shared the same building with the Syngman Rhee government before the commission moved to its office in Euljiro, downtown Seoul.
“I remember seeing President Rhee for the first time in the building. He was typing, and the first lady, Francesca, was helping him. I thought at that time, ‘A president so hard-working, surely we could entrust our country.’ I had deep admiration for him,” Mr. Chung says. “I never thought he would dissolve the commission.”
The collaborators were mostly police and government officials who had served with the Japanese colonial governments, a group that was incorporated into a new Republic of Korea government by the U.S. military government and by the Rhee administration.
But the first National Assembly was made up of independent-minded legislators, who believed that collaborators should be purged. They ran into frequent resistance from President Rhee, who was focused on fighting communists.
The June 6, 1949 raid had been ordered by President Rhee, who said he was removing the security officers within the commission, and not the commission itself. But the commission soon shut down in September 1949, after 13 legislators who had lent their support to the commission were branded as communists and arrested.
Mr. Chung lost his job and fled from one house to another. Soon afterward, the Korean War broke out.
After the war, he led an ordinary life, out of public view. Having graduated from Cheongju Commercial High School, he worked as a bookkeeping clerk in various companies in Seoul and Daejeon.
The administrations that took power after the Korean War did not seek out the former commission members, nor did they attempt to find the Japanese-rule collaborators. The push for economic growth prevailed over everything else.
In the meantime, Mr. Chung didn’t tell his family or his colleagues at work about his position on the commission because of “frustration,” he says, explaining that he felt a mix of embarrassment and regret that the group did not complete its goals.
Officials from both the governing Uri Party and the opposition Grand National Party have approached him recently about the new investigation, although he dismisses any possibility of involvement. Even though he would like to see his old commission’s work completed, the renewed move to identify collaborators has him concerned.
“I want to stress this: Do not politicize this issue,” Mr. Chung says. A devout Christian, he urged understanding, redemption and forgiveness.
“Collaborators and independence fighters are living together now. The former should understand and share the privileges that they had monopolized, and the latter, forgive. Essentially, we were a weak nation, going from Japanese colonial regime to a U.S. military regime and then an anti-Communist Rhee administration,” he says. “Our people should know that.
However, Mr. Chung says the inquiry should go ahead, despite the political risk.
“Because we did not do our job back then, this has come up again. If we don’t get it right this time, it will resurface 50 years or 100 years later,” he says.
by Kim Ji-soo