Is Time Running Out to Dig Up S Korea's Mass Graves?

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On a cold February night in 1951, South Korean troops moved swiftly to take a communist guerrilla stronghold on Bulgap Mountain, at a county called Hampyeong in the Korean peninsula's southwest corner. By the time they scaled the ridge, the rebels had fled. That's when the bloodshed began. Suspecting the villagers in the area had helped the enemy, the soldiers made them kneel in a trench, then shoved sharpened bamboo sticks down their throats and shot them.

Nearly 60 years later, excavators working for South Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission have been unearthing remains there and at 11 other mass graves from the Korean War. By piecing together and acknowledging the massacres, they say, South Koreans can finally put a dark chapter in history to rest — and the evidence can help victims seek compensation from the government. The commission, however, does not have the power to arrest the perpetrators.

But time is running short, and the group, formed in 2005 under the liberal administration of Roh Moo Hyun, has run into political opposition. Starting in December, conservative President Lee Myung Bak, the National Assembly and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will appoint the group's new leaders, who could choose to not renew its controversial mandate or diminish it. That wouldn't be a surprise; in the past two years, victims have lost three separate lawsuits demanding compensation from the government. "I lost my family at the hands of the government, but they have not compensated me at all for my suffering," says Jung Jung Hee, 76, who barely survived another massacre, also near Bulgap, during the war. "It's so unfair."

From 1950 to 1953, communist forces from North Korea and the military-run South fought one of the bloodiest civil wars of the 20th century, leaving more than 2 million civilians dead. Troops from both sides carried out mass executions. But after the Korean War ended, a succession of military dictators through the 1980s in the South suppressed the accounts; those who suggested South Korean forces might have executed innocents — and even family members who exhumed their relatives for proper burials — were harassed or arrested for being communist sympathizers.

For decades, historians have relied on written and oral accounts to pinpoint the killings, but it wasn't until the commission began gathering forensic evidence in 2005 that the scope of each massacre became clearer. The South Korean military, for example, claimed in reports that more than 1,000 "communist guerrillas" were killed at Bulgap Mountain that night in February. But the excavation tells a different story. Investigators found 133 intact skeletons bending their knees and clutching their fingers behind their skulls — 21 were under 16 years old and nonmilitary artifacts like toys and hairpins were found, indicating the people were civilians not involved in the fighting. "As we can see, the military reports were manipulated," says Park Sun Ju, chief of the excavating team. The group has also investigated American carpet bombings used to rout communist forces during the war, a practice it claims killed thousands of civilians...

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