Shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Kim Man-sik, a military police sergeant, received an urgent message from the South Korean army's Counterintelligence Corps: Go to local police stations, take custody of scores of Communist suspects held there and execute them.
Kim complied. What he did and saw in those days is etched permanently in his mind.
"They were all tied together with military communications wire. So when we opened fire, they all pulled at each other to try to escape," said Kim, now 81. "The wire cut into their wrists. Blood was splattered all over their white clothes."
ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
That Kim's story has emerged after half a century is a testament to South Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled after the South African group set up in the 1990s to expose crimes and injustices committed during the apartheid era.
Unlike in South Africa, where the truth commission started work soon after the collapse of the apartheid government, South Korea's commission was not created for decades. During most of that time, the country was ruled by anti-Communist authoritarian governments that wanted to keep buried the history of violence against people who had been accused of being Communists.
It was not until after President Roh Moo-hyun was elected that the country created the commission in 2005, starting a nationwide investigation to uncover the history of atrocities by both sides.
Handicapped by a budget considered too small for such a vast task, the commission's work has been slow. Beyond that, it can neither force people to testify nor offer immunity for testimony, so few veterans have been willing to come forward.
Some victims have stayed away as well, unwilling to open old wounds between neighbors caught up in the ideological struggle decades ago. Still, the commission has made progress in confirming long-suppressed stories of mass executions and in recovering the remains of victims.
South Korean troops executed tens of thousands of unarmed civilians and prisoners as they retreated before the North Korean invaders during the war, according to historians. The victims were often accused of being Communist sympathizers or collaborators.
The commission's investigators have discovered the remains of hundreds of people -- including women and children -- who were killed without trial. They have also identified 1,222 probable instances of mass killings during the war.
The cases include 215 episodes in which survivors say US warplanes and ground troops killed unarmed civilians.
On Saturday, Lieutenant Colonel Almarah Belk, a Pentagon spokeswoman in Washington, said she did not "have any information on investigations into new findings as it relates to deaths of Koreans during the Korean War by US military action."
In 2001, when the Pentagon completed an inquiry into the killing of civilians by US troops in the South Korean hamlet of No Gun Ri in 1950, then US president Bill Clinton said he was "profoundly sorry" for the deaths.
South Korean investigators in July began digging at four of 160 sites believed to have been used for mass burials, places that were off-limits under the country's authoritarian rulers. They have unearthed the remains of 400 people. Skeletons were found stacked on one another, with bullet holes in the skulls and hands still tied by rusting steel wire.
The remains confirmed witness accounts that the police often made victims crouch at the edge of a trench, their hands tied behind their backs, before shooting them in the head and pushing them in, said Park Sun-joo, who leads the excavation team.
"The fact that these bones have remained abandoned so long and so close to where we live means that our society is still at its barbarian stage," said Kim Dong-choon, a commission member.
At one burial site, in Cheongwon, in central South Korea, 110 bodies have been found.
"I think they killed up to 7,000 people there," said Park Jong-gil, one of the commission's witnesses who said he saw the killings at Cheongwon as a teenager. "Every day for seven or eight days, I saw four trucks in the morning and three trucks in the afternoon coming loaded with people."
In one of its strongest rulings so far, the commission ruled in July that killings in the village of Hampyong, in the country's southwest, were "a crime against humanity."
Chung Nam-sook, 80, one of the witnesses who spoke to commission investigators, said in a later interview that in December 1950, soldiers of South Korea's 11th Army Division stormed the village to hunt Communist guerrillas but instead attacked innocent villagers gathered in a field.
"They told us to light our cigarettes," said Chung, who lived there. "Then they began shooting their rifles and machine guns. After a while, an officer called out, `Any of you who are still alive can stand up and go home now.' Those who did were shot again."
Chung, who was shot seven times, survived by pretending to be dead under the heap of bodies.
The commission's work showed that the war was particularly calamitous for civilians because the rival armies swept up and down the peninsula, with each side trying to determine who was on whose side. Communist troops also executed large numbers of right-wing prisoners, anti-Communist suspects and prisoners of war.
In one 1950 atrocity, according to evidence presented to the commission, South Korean police officers intent on ferreting out Communists disguised themselves as a North Korean unit before entering villages around Naju, near Hampyong. When people welcomed them with Communist flags, they killed 97, the commission said.
As their town changed hands between the rival armies, historians said, villagers who had lost family members were quick to settle scores. More than 50 years later, families still hold grudges.
Despite the successes in uncovering mass killings, some victims and their relatives say they feel cheated because the commission was not granted the right to prosecute those who committed atrocities. Its mandate is to uncover the truth for the record, recommend corrections to textbooks and other records and aid reconciliation through compensation or memorial services for the victims.
Ja Yong-soo's father was among 218 victims of what the commission finally ruled last month to have been "unlawful killings" by Korean marines in 1950.
After being repeatedly ignored by previous governments, Ja and other victims' relatives were rewarded last month when the commission finally ruled the killings unlawful. But any move to enact a special law to prosecute these atrocities is likely to set off protests by Korean conservatives (the law would be needed because the statute of limitations has run out). Right-wing politicians and veterans' groups have attacked the commission's work as "absurd" or "politically motivated," while liberal groups have held rallies demanding punishment.
"Many of those human butchers and their children are now rich and powerful," said Ja, 65.
"What am I going to say when I die and meet my father in the heaven and he asks, `My son, what have you done to restore my honor?'" an emotional Ja said.
Kim, the former soldier, admitted that he was in charge of executing 170 people at Hoengsong and Wonju around June 28, 1950.
He said some of those killed, the "Class A" group of active Communists, were "enemies" who had attacked police stations.
"But those categorized as Class B and C were innocent peasants who were lured by the Communists' promise to give them free land," he said.
"Till today, I feel guilty for killing them. I bow my head in contrition," he said.
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