Of truth and reconciliation

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Of truth and reconciliation

Nam Jeong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.  
 
We often refer to past successful models to solve ongoing challenges. But they turn out to be unworkable on present problem as past conditions and today’s cannot be the same. President Moon Jae-in wants to benchmark the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) model to get to the bottom of lingering questions around the Gwangju Democratization Movement.  
 
Attending the 40th memorial service to commemorate the victims of the May 18 Gwangju movement, Moon said, “The path to forgiveness and reconciliation will open if they [people who gave the orders to shoot] speak the truth.” A Blue House official said the president had the South African TRC model in mind.  
 
The TRC was formed in February 1995 as a transitional justice model to thoroughly investigate human rights violations committed during the Apartheid period. The fact-finding body’s goal was successful by going after the offenders regardless of the statute of limitations and granting amnesty to those who made full factual disclosure. Through its radical mandate, the commission obtained 21,000 testimonies and investigated 7,500. Of them, 840 were pardoned. Moon seems to believe that those with confidential information about the Gwangju atrocities could come forward upon the promise of pardon.  
 
But the TRC mechanism won’t likely work this time. The conditions of South Africa and Korea are hugely different. The TRC was formed a year after Nelson Mandela became the first black — and democratically elected — leader in the African nation. The white population had been hugely fearful for their lives. Those who had committed cruelties towards the black people found it safer to admit to their crimes and seek forgiveness. Their crimes would have been uncovered because there were many witnesses and victims who could testify against the white elites.  
 
 President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech to the people in Gwangju, South Jeolla, on the 40th anniversary of the May 18 Democracy Movement. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech to the people in Gwangju, South Jeolla, on the 40th anniversary of the May 18 Democracy Movement. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

But four decades have already passed since the civilian uprising and massacre in Gwangju in 1980. Documentary evidence would be near impossible to uncover. The memories have become blurry. The truth on who had authorized the shootings, who ordered arms to be fired from helicopters and whether people were buried alive were investigated multiple times. There had been numerous fact-finding activities — the National Assembly hearing in 1988, a prosecutorial probe in 1995 and the Ministry of National Defense’s internal investigation in 2007, to name a few. But little new has been uncovered. Who amongst the graying offenders would willingly make mea culpa after all these years? South Africa had clear incentives. But there is little to offer here.  
 
A new TRC would also be redundant as there is already the May 18 Democratization Fact-Finding Committee that has been active since January. Yet Moon wants to revive a Korean equivalent of TRC, whose life ended in 2010. The law does not allow creation and operation of presidential commissions with overlapped feature and function.  
 
But the Moon administration is still intent on launching a new version of the TRC in December. The first commission with 180 members spent about 60 billion won ($48.6 million) for four years and seven months. The amount is enough to cover full semester tuitions for 2,000 university students annually.  
 
The TRC model was effective in 20 other African countries that had been under dictatorship. It mostly served well to break from the past, provide closure to the suffered and bring social unity. But in some states like Uganda, social conflict and political oppression worsened. If Moon pushes ahead with the launch of the second TRC without further review and outside opinion, he could come under fire for political abuse.  
 
JoongAng Ilbo, May 26, Page 30 

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