Korea’s new truth commission chairperson’s past denialist attitudes cast shadow over tenure

Posted on : 2022-12-13 17:11 KST Modified on : 2022-12-13 17:11 KST
The new chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has said that N. Korean involvement in the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 was a “possibility” — a claim which has been shown to be groundless
Kim Kwang-dong, the newly appointed chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea (courtesy of the TRC)
Kim Kwang-dong, the newly appointed chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea (courtesy of the TRC)

Kim Kwang-dong, the newly appointed chairperson of the second Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is expected to become the subject of controversy after revelations that he showed historical negationist attitudes in his past publications, including his insistence that accounts of shooting from helicopters during the May 1980 Democratization Movement in Gwangju were “falsehoods.”

Kim recently began his official duties after an inauguration ceremony on Monday.

At an autumn policy symposium held by the Korea Hayek Society (now the Market Economy Society) in October 2020, Kim presented a paper titled “The State’s Fascistic Controls on Historical Attitudes.”

In it, he strongly criticized the “fascistic” nature of a law presented before the National Assembly in 2020 to ban distortions of history, claiming that its aim was to “deliberately distort history in one direction while using the brute force of power to punish those who hold different views.”

The problem was the example he cited, as he insisted that accounts of gunfire from helicopters were “falsehoods” — even after they were shown to be true through multiple past investigations by state institutions.

“On several occasions, President Moon Jae-in has claimed that machine guns were used to fire from helicopters during the Gwangju Democratization Movement on May 18 [1980]. This is an act of the president propagating patent falsehoods,” he wrote.

But in 2018, a five-month investigation by a Ministry of National Defense (MND) special commission on the events of May 1980 led to the publication of findings concluding that “there was firing from helicopters by martial law forces during the May 1980 Democratization Movement.” A court ruling in 2020 also concluded that the “helicopters may be recognized as having fired [on the public],” citing 2017 investigation findings by the National Forensic Service.

Kim also made reference to claims of involvement by the North Korean military in the events of May 1980, which he said was a “possibility.”

“Questions about the possibility that North Korea was involved in the Gwangju incident would be punishable as ‘distortions of history’ or ‘defamation of those involved,’” he wrote, indirectly criticizing the punishment of those raising allegations of North Korean military involvement.

But in a report published on Feb. 17 about its investigation activities during the second half of 2021, the May 18 Democratization Movement Truth Commission noted that an independent National Intelligence Service (NIS) investigation carried out between 2006 and 2015 found claims of North Korean military involvement in the movement to be groundless and false.

In a text message to the Hankyoreh on Monday, Kim wrote, “My understanding is that the question of whether there was helicopter gunfire has not been fully brought to light and is still under investigation.”

“I think it is inappropriate to adopt acknowledgment of helicopter gunfire as a standard for evaluation or regard [someone who does not acknowledge it] as a target for criticism,” he added.

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not handling the May 18 incident, so this is not an issue for me to assess related issues or make further comments,” he also said.

Groups focusing on issues related to the events of May 1980 in Gwangju demanded an apology from Kim and the withdrawal of his appointment.

The May 18 Memorial Injured and three other May 1980-related groups issued a statement Monday in which they said, “In appointing someone who distorts the truth of May 1980 as head of a national committee for ‘truth’ and ‘reconciliation,’ the president is forsaking the possibility of national unity through the May 1980 spirit.”

“We urge Mr. Kim to sincerely apologize, and for the sake of establishing historical truth, we ask for the withdrawal of the appointment of a figure who distorts the truth of May 1980,” they also said.

Kim’s biased historical attitudes have also drawn expressions of concern from within the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“While it’s too early to make conclusions, Mr. Kim’s biases are a concern, and it’s unclear how the chairperson will proceed with the discussions on the historical matters that have been raised,” a commission official said.

Following his appointment by Yoon last Friday, Kim began his official duties on Monday. At his inauguration ceremony, he said he would “fulfill my mission of exhaustively investigating matters in a way that achieves reconciliation in the Republic of Korea by reexamining the shadows left behind on the Republic of Korea’s history of success and by setting right wrongful acts of injustice.”

He also said he would “approach my investigation duties diligently to ensure that there is no unjust victimization left uninvestigated and no distortion of the truth.”

Kim’s term lasts for two years through Dec. 9, 2024.

By Ko Byung-chan, staff reporter; Jang Ye-ji, staff reporter; Kwak Jin-san, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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