Friday, October 2, 2015

You will never know until you get there.

Hi, everyone. My name is Seung Joon, and I’m a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science. This summer, I visited South Korea to collect data for my doctoral dissertation with the financial support of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies. Overall, I was fortunate to collect an extraordinary number of primary and secondary materials from diverse sources including archives, research institutes, individual scholars, and public and private libraries. However, the situation I encountered in South Korea was quite different from the one I had envisioned in my initial plan. The information that I relied on when I was planning the fieldwork at GW turned out to be outdated, and I needed to revise my data-collection plan constantly as I learned more about the current situation in the field. In this and the following blog posts, I will discuss this gap between the home institution and the field, and I will attempt to suggest several pieces of advice to address this problem.

My doctoral research focuses empirically on civilian massacre cases that were perpetrated during the Korean War. More than 500 events of civilian massacre were perpetrated by the South and North Korean governments and sometimes by local militias during the Korean War. Some civilians were killed because of their ideologies; others were targeted based on false accusations; and still others were randomly selected victims. Most of them were killed without trials. In South Korea, families of victims formed associations and appealed to the government that they were unreasonably victimized after President Syngman Rhee resigned. The Fourth National Assembly of South Korea investigated massacres during the war, but the activities of associations of victims’ families were branded as “commies’ family” and repressed by the South Korean government after the May 16 coup and Park Chung-hee’s rise to power. After that, families of the victims had to remain silent until the June 29 Declaration, when the authoritarian Fifth Republic of Korea agreed to demands for democratization by South Korean citizens. 

As South Korea became democratized, families of victims started to speak up. Despite continuing government surveillance, they reorganized associations and advanced their causes by excavating the remains of victims, holding annual memorial services, conducting interviews with victims who had survived and their families, collecting physical evidence, and circulating petitions. Human rights NGOs and advocacy groups used their networks to support such efforts. Liberal scholars such as Dong-chun Kim also responded to the victims’ causes by publishing books and articles on past human rights violations. Journalists made a critical contribution by spreading information about the cause to the general public. A documentary series by MBC, Now We Discuss, covered numerous sensitive issues including the Jeju Uprising, the Bodo League Massacre, the Geochang massacre, and the No Gun Ri Incident. Thanks to the efforts of diverse groups, the South Korean government launched multiple government commissions that investigated past human rights violations. 

Indeed, the 2000s saw a renaissance of investigations into past human rights violations. In 2000, the Pan-National Committee for Truth Concerning Civilian Massacres Before and After the Korean War (hereafter, the Pan-National Committee) was established as an umbrella organization that includes most of the associations of families of victims. Experienced human rights activists joined the committee as members and advisors, and academics provided a scholarly foundation. A group of scholars organized the Korean Genocide Research Association, which discussed various aspects of human rights violations from Korean and foreign cases in its regular workshops and in its biannual academic journal, the Korean Journal of Genocide Studies. Multiple books about South Korea’s dark history have been published annually. In addition, the government has put considerable effort into investigating past atrocities. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Korea (the TRC), which was the most extensive organization among similar government commissions, had more than 200 resident staff members and a large annual budget. These were what I remembered about the truth-finding efforts in South Korea. I joined the political science doctoral program at GW in 2010 and did not have a chance to get an update on the situation in Korea. 

When I was planning fieldwork at GW, I naturally assumed a brighter situation in Korea based on what I remembered. Even though the TRC investigation had completed its work in 2010, I believed that there would be continuing efforts in regard to past atrocities since the South Korean society must have learned a lot about unresolved issues of human rights violation during the 2000s. I hoped that there would be numerous families of victims as well as journalists, scholars, and human rights advocacy groups that still worked on under-investigated cases of violence, and that I would be able to obtain a vast amount of information about newly discovered cases from them. 

Of course, I did not only assume this. I talked to several prominent scholars of civilian massacres and the Korean War by email or by phone to schedule appointments. Most of them displayed a deep interest in my project and acknowledged the significance of this research. Several even offered to help me with my data collection. Everything sounded all right; nothing seemed amiss. Thus, there seemed to be no reason to alter my optimistic expectations concerning my fieldwork in South Korea. With much hope, I flew to Korea on May 11.

Seung Joon Paik
Ph.D. Political Science 2015
Sigur Center 2015 Field Research Fellow
Seoul, South Korea

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