SEOUL--Mass graves of citizens executed for supposedly collaborating with North Korea during the Korean War seem destined to hold their secrets for a while longer.
The current administration headed by President Lee Myung-bak shows no eagerness to reopen old wounds and put this dark chapter in the country's history to rest by excavating the numerous sites.
It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of South Koreans were executed during the 1950-1953 Korean War. The country's military, police and right-wingers suspected them of having collaborated with North Korea.
Roh Moo-hyun, Lee's "progressive" predecessor, took the opposite view and pushed to bring this issue--long neglected by autocratic and military governments--into the open.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up under Roh, identified 40 candidate locations in the search for remains.
After Lee took over, however, the excavation team was disbanded. It had only excavated 10 sites.
Researchers uncovered rifle bullets used by the military and police, along with more than 4,000 items, such as hair clasps, school uniform buttons and eyeglasses.
Park Seon-ju, a professor of archaeology and art history at Chungbuk National University, led the excavation team between 2007 and 2009.
The remains of 1,617 victims are preserved in plastic cases. They include skulls with bullet holes and bones with bullets lodged in them. Women and children were among the victims.
"The remains show that citizens were slaughtered indiscriminately," Park said.
In 1995, the remains of 153 residents shot by the police during the Korean War were recovered from a deep pit near the top of a hill in Goyang, northwest of Seoul.
Lee Byeong-sun, 78, says his father, a community chief who served as chairman of a North Korean people's committee when his community was occupied by Pyongyang, never returned after he was dragged away by the authorities.
"My father was given the post because he knew the community well," Lee said. "I think he took the post because he couldn't refuse if he wanted to survive."
Park Seong-rye, 73, lost her parents and elder brother. She managed to survive as a housemaid, while her younger brother and sister ended up in an orphanage.
"I could not go to school or learn how to write," Park said.
Many residents in Goyang had known for years where the remains of their relatives lay. But there was nothing they could do as long as governments led by former military officers were in power.
The bereaved family members were able to pool their funds and recover remains only after Kim Young-sam, a civilian, became president in 1993.
The executions carried out by the police were finally recognized as a "clear act of crime" under the Roh administration.
A draft ordinance for a memorial project for the victims passed the assembly of Gyeonggi province, to which the city of Goyang belongs, in May.
But the governor, who is affiliated with Lee's ruling Saenuri Party, rejected the ordinance, saying the central government should be responsible for such an undertaking.
Kim Dong-chun, a professor of sociology at Sungkonghoe University, who was a standing commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is critical of the Lee administration's refusal to confront the past.
"Conservative forces still call the victims communists," Kim said. "It is difficult to pursue the responsibility of the military and police for wrongdoing under a conservative administration."
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