63rd ceremony for the Mungyeong massacre on Dec. 1949
Last January, a court complaint was delivered to the home of Chae Hong-rak, 73, in Mungyeong, North Gyeongsang Province. It ordered Chae and other surviving family members of victims in the 1949 Mungyeong massacre to return their “unjust enrichment.” Specifically, they were asked to pay punitive interest on the difference after a large reduction in their original compensation by Supreme Court ruling. Chae was stunned.
“They kill my family members for no reason and wait 63 years to pay compensation, and now they’re telling me to cough it up again,” he said. “Not only that, but they also want penalty interest on the compensation. It’s unbelievable.”
Chae is one of the survivors of the massacre on Dec. 1949, when soldiers with the South Korean Army indiscriminately slaughtered residents of Seokdal, a small community in Mungyeong’s Seokbong village. He lost nine family members in total, including both parents. The state attempted to cover up the incident, claiming it was perpetrated by armed communist guerillas. Chae went to work uncovering the truth. At one point, he served two months in prison under the Park Chung-hee administration for “anti-state activities.” It was in 2007 that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined the massacre to have been an illegal act by the state.
The trial proved a scarring process for Chae. Between July 2008 and Sept. 2015, his suit demanding damages from the state was batted back and forth eleven times among Seoul Central District Court, Seoul High Court, and the Supreme Court. There was a brief ray of hope: while the first and second courts had ruled that no compensation could be given because the five-year statute of limitations had passed, the Supreme Court ruled on Sept. 8, 2011 - before the inauguration of Yang Sung-tae as Chief Justice - that the state had to provide damages. Three years later, the Court ruled that the original payout of 300 million won (US$252,400) each to the victims was too large and ordered it reduced. At the time, it provided no clear standards for doing so, saying only that it was a larger amount that for other cases involving past episodes.
Chae’s initially compensation payment was 1.825 billion won (US$1.54 million). Last September, the court issued a final ruling allowing payment of only 460 million won (US$387,000). Chae subsequently had to go in search of money for the difference. In addition to bank loans, he even resorted to private lenders.
“I was determined to do whatever it took to give back the money I received so my parents’ memory wouldn’t be insulted,” he said. “But the state also charged penalty interest and demanded that I pay another 200 million won (US$168,300) more. Does it make any sense to take me to court for the interest when I’ve agreed to pay back the [difference in] damages?”
Chae isn’t the only victim of a historical crime who has been twice victimized by a Supreme Court ruling. Park Dong-woon, 71, and family members filed suit against the state over his 16 years in prison after a 1982 Supreme Court life sentence on false espionage charges. In Sept. 2015, they lost the case. The reason was the court’s sudden decision - two years and seven months after the suit was first filed - to reduce the statute of limitations for damages from three years to “within six months of the criminal compensation decision date.” Park and family ended up with nothing.
“A lot of people are suffering right now over the courts’ refusal to properly recognize the state’s responsibility to compensate for historical incidents,” said Jeong Min-yeong, an attorney with the Duksu Law Office.
By Seo Young-ji, staff reporter
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