South Korean soldiers and police executed nearly 5,000 citizens during the early months of the 1950-53 Korean War, fearing they could collaborate with invading North Korean troops, a government commission said Thursday.
The victims were members of the National Guidance League, or "Bodo" League, that the then-staunchly anti-communist government created to "re-educate" recanting leftists and others suspected of communist leanings.
Historians say officials met membership quotas by pressuring peasants into signing up with promises of rice rations or other benefits, with more than 300,000 people on the league's rolls.
The Associated Press reported on such civilian massacres in a series of stories last year, but the commission's findings mark the first specific number of confirmed deaths
On Thursday, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said it has confirmed that South Korean troops and police rounded up and executed at least 4,934 league members between June and September of 1950, as North Korean invaders pushed down the peninsula.
"The government of then-President Syngman Rhee was in a state of panic at the start of the war and deeply worried that Bodo League members could sympathize with North Korea and become a threat to the government," the commission said in a statement.
Since 2005, the commission has investigated civilian executions and other past human rights violations.
The commission said it believes the executions were perpetrated based on "decisions and orders" from the "highest level" of the government, since troops, police and other state agencies were mobilized in a swift and organized manner for the killings.
The mass executions represent one of the darkest chapters of the Korean War, but were largely hidden from history for decades under a series of military-backed authoritarian governments after the war. South Korea became fully democratic in the late 1980s.
The commission recommended that the government offer an official apology, come up with legal and other measures to prevent a repeat of the slaughter, and enact legislation to compensate the victims.