WASHINGTON — WHEN South Korea decided recently not to indict two former presidents implicated in a 1979 military coup, it set off an intense national debate.
The two ex-generals, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, should be indicted to ``establish a national spirit by correcting the wrongdoings of the past,'' demanded an opposition leader at a massive rally last week.
But President Kim Young Sam, elected under a reborn democracy in 1992, said indictments would jeopardize ``national unity.''
Such emotional debates are echoing around the world as many nations, shedding authoritarian or communist rule for democracy during the collapse of the cold war, are being forced to deal with their previous oppressors.
But in squaring accounts with their past, these nations often find it difficult to choose between vengeance and reconciliation, between justice and mercy. Some choose to do nothing at all.
``The big dilemma,'' says Jamal Benomar of the Geneva-based United Nations Center for Human Rights, ``is how to strike a balance between the ethical and legal obligations of the government; between the demands of victims for justice and the need to further the democratization process and achieve reconciliation. This is the issue that is being debated.''
``There's no panacea for resolving this problem,'' Mr. Benomar adds. ``There's no model.''
The dilemma for nations coming to terms with the past is not new. The French parliament agonized for three years before deciding to send King Louis XVI to the guillotine in 1793. In the United States, the White House and Congress engaged in a protracted debate over how to deal with the defeated Confederacy after the Civil War.
But today, international law requires governments to investigate human rights violations, to bring violators to justice, and to compensate victims. As a practical matter, governments must struggle with the past without compromising the future.
Settling accounts with regimes that have trampled on individual liberties and engaged in extralegal detention, torture, and executions can have a cathartic effect on society, providing a symbolic break with the legacy of authoritarian rule.
In practice, accounts are rarely settled in any comprehensive manner except in countries where old regimes have been swept away by military conquest or violent revolution. In Ethiopia, for example, after President Mengistu Haile-Mariam was defeated in a civil war in 1991, the new government dismantled his Army and arrested thousands of officers. In most countries, where democratic regimes have taken power under more tenuous circumstances, the latitude for retribution is more limited.
In the African nations of Benin and Niger, for example, new governments granted immunity to former rulers to minimize threats to the democratic transition. Democratic leaders in Chile allowed the country's ousted despot, Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, to retain control of the Army even as they established a ``truth commission'' to investigate past human rights abuses by General Pinochet's secret service.
The constraints on radical social reconstruction are most graphically illustrated in the nations of the former Soviet bloc, most of which are now run by members of previous Communist regimes.
An ``unmistakable moral line'' separates Communist Party members from party leaders who were responsible for decades of repression and brutality, notes George Weigel, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. But as a practical matter, ``if you have a very fragile democracy and lots of economic problems, it adds a considerable burden to undertake the kind of government-sanctioned social reconstruction'' that would be required to bring former leaders to justice, says Mr. Weigel.
The cases of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and former Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki illustrate a pervasive phenomenon: that transitions out of communism were led by people who had roots in the Communist past and who have thus had little disposition to launch witch-hunts against former colleagues.
``The problem was that the dissidents who came to power after the fall of the Communists were mostly people who had had some ties with the party in the past,'' says Anne Applebaum, deputy editor of the London Spectator.
And not only personalities but ideas have lingered on - a reluctance to privatize economies, for example - blurring the fault line between the Communist and post-Communist eras.
The continuity of ideas has been paralleled in the absence of historical memory.
Unlike Germans who were brought face-to-face with Hitler's misdeeds after World War II, many citizens of former Communist nations have little awareness of the magnitude of the repression imposed on them and therefore little desire for retribution.
Successor regimes in the formerly Communist countries, meanwhile, were under pressure to play down ``decommunization'' programs because of fears that instability could lead to a reemergence of the kind of ultranationalist, right-wing parties that came to power in the 1930s.
The exception to the rule was East Germany, where the files of the secret police - the Stasi - were opened to public inspection, leading to dismissal and humiliation of hundreds of collaborators. More typical was former Czechoslovakia, where a 1991 law merely barred former party officials above a certain rank from holding high office for five years.
In Roman Catholic Poland and elsewhere, an avoidance of retribution has been nourished by religious beliefs that stress the morality of accommodation. Among blacks in South Africa, ``ubuntu,'' a cultural disposition toward forgiveness and compassion, has spared the nation from bloodletting following four decades of racial segregation enforced - often brutally - by a white regime.
In the end, managing the transition out of authoritarian rule requires the most difficult of trade-offs: between preserving political stability for democracy and protecting human rights.
``Elected leaders must sometimes make a hard choice between the survival of the democratization process and the principles on which they based their campaign for a return to democratic rule,'' Jamal Benomar says.
* Next week's Global Report: How Chile and other nations also dealt with ex-dictators.