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Gwangju massacre probe makes strides

But new investigation of key allegations is not finished yet
Oct 24,2017
The Chun Doo Hwan administration launched a fact-finding mission into the Gwangju Democratization Movement of May 1980, but used it to whitewash the military’s brutal repression of anti-government protesters, a special investigation committee of the Ministry of National Defense said Monday.

Lee Geon-lee, chairman of the committee, held a press conference at the ministry headquarters and announced the interim conclusions of its special investigation into the massacre by Chun’s junta during the Gwangju uprising between May 18 and 27, 1980. While the official death toll was 193, hundreds more were believed to be killed and injured by armed soldiers during the protest.

The Defense Ministry launched a special probe on Sept. 11, 2017, following President Moon Jae-in’s order to investigate unanswered questions about the incident 37 years later. Allegations that soldiers were ordered to fire at protesters from a helicopter and that fighter jets armed with bombs were ready to support the crackdown were the main targets of the special probe.

Lee said Monday no conclusion on those points has been made yet.

Instead, Lee discussed other findings of the probe, in particular the Chun regime’s attempts to distort historical facts about the uprising.

According to the investigation, a cabinet minister meeting was held on June 5, 1985. Chang Sae-dong, then head of the Agency for National Security Planning, predecessor of the National Intelligence Service, initiated the meeting.

In 1985, the Chun administration was under intensifying public pressure to lay bare what happened in Gwangju in 1980. From May 23 to 26, 1985, 73 university students occupied the U.S. Cultural Center in Seoul, demanding the American government’s apology for its alleged complicity. The defense minister was supposed to address the National Assembly on June 5, 1985, and the cabinet meeting was called on to respond to the growing demands to know the truth about the uprising and the government’s oppression.

As a result of the meeting, a truth commission led by the Agency for National Security Planning was formed. Ministries of interior, justice, defense and culture participated as well as Army headquarters, the Defense Security Command and police, Lee said. The ruling Democratic Justice Party and the Blue House as well as the Agency for National Security Planning were also its members.

“The truth commission’s code name was ‘80 commission,’” said Lee. “They tried their best to stop the existence of the commission being made public.”

He said the 80 commission’s documents were top secret. Within the Army, no documents about the commission could be transferred unless a general approved.

According to Lee, the special investigation team discovered documents showing that the 80 commission manipulated military records on the Gwangju democratization movement. Statements taken in 1981 from the soldiers who participated in the operation to suppress the protesters said they were ordered to shoot at demonstrators from a kneeling position at 1:30 p.m. on May 21, 1980 in front of Gwangju City Hall. But military authorities, before publishing the statements in 1988, ordered the unfavorable parts to be deleted. Some were actually removed, Lee said.

The Defense Security Command under the administration of Roh Tae-woo, who succeeded Chun in 1988, operated a team to downplay the brutality of the Chun regime in suppressing the demonstrators in Gwangju in order to influence public sentiment during the National Assembly hearings. “But our discovery of the 80 commission in 1985 showed that the government attempts to distort the facts began three years earlier,” Lee said.

“Right now, key military data is either missing or distorted,” Lee said. “Military officials also made false testimony. We are fighting a war against fake information.”

Lee said further investigation is necessary to lay bare the specific activities of the 80 commission and the existence of the Gwangju White Paper it supposedly published. “We will ask the National Intelligence Service to find out if the White Paper exists in its archive or not,” Lee said.

Lee, however, refused to answer whether the probe answered the allegations of a helicopter firing at demonstrators and fighter jets being ready to support the crackdown.

According to Lee, his team questioned 19 eye-witnesses of the alleged helicopter shooting. Another 29, including pilots and mechanics, were questioned about the allegation that fighter jets were readied to participate in the crackdown.

New records offered by the U.S. Embassy and Japanese Embassy as well as the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, U.S. 7th Air Force, Defense Security Command and National Intelligence Service were reviewed for the fact-finding mission. New witnesses were also questioned.

Lee said his team needs an extension on the mandate of the special probe, which ends on Nov. 31.

Meanwhile, the May 18 Memorial Foundation said Monday it will start an excavation next week at the former site of Gwangju Prison.

The foundation said the excavation will begin next Monday based on new witness statements. The former site of Gwangju Prison has been suspected as a secret burial ground based on military records and an earlier fact-finding mission by the Defense Ministry. Troops including the 3rd Airborne Special Forces Brigade were stationed at the Gwangju Prison during the massacre. The military said in 1980 that 27 civilians died at the prison, but only remains of 11 bodies were recovered.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]