TOKYO — WITH the arrest of Chun Doo Hwan, a general who made himself president, South Koreans are turning against the military leaders who led the country for most of the past three decades.
The country is experiencing one of those moments in a nation's evolution when the previously unimaginable suddenly becomes a live television report. In South Korea's case, two former military rulers have been taken into detention and one of them has admitted to operating a secret slush fund worth at least $643 million.
The government is vowing to eradicate corruption and punish the two leaders for a 1980 massacre of protesters, the country's most painful episode in recent decades.
For years, South Korea has been torn between outrage over the brutalities of military rule and recognition that autocracy also orchestrated tremendous economic growth. This weekend, it seems, the balance tipped in favor of those who refuse to accept prosperity as compensation for injustice.
South Korea's reckoning is not the product of some sudden moral awakening. Key players such as President Kim Young Sam have much to gain by vilifying the militarists.
Nonetheless, in imprisoning Mr. Chun and former President Roh Tae Woo, the country's most recent military-backed ruler, Mr. Kim has initiated a process that many say will forever change the the country's political life.
"Of course Kim Young Sam is using this issue for political purposes, there's no doubt," says Lhee Ho-Jeh, a political scientist at Seoul's Korea University. "But Chun and Roh made a coup d'etat and brought down a legal government.... So we have to send them to jail for that crime."
In 1979 Chun and Roh were top military officers who took power in a coup that eventually brought Chun to power as president. Shortly after the coup, in May 1980, the military crushed a popular uprising in the southern city of Kwangju, killing - by official count - some 200 people. Activists and those who massacre survivors say the actual death toll reached into the thousands.
During Chun's rule and Roh's subsequent presidency, Kwangju became shorthand for the excesses of the country's military: human rights abuses, the curtailment of civil liberties, and arbitrary decisionmaking. Protesters have frequently demanded their punishment.
Kim's 1992 election was supposed to herald the end of 30 years of military control over politics, which began in early 1960 with the rule of Park Chung Hee. But Kim had joined forces with Roh in order to win the presidency, a bond that up to now prevented any thorough accounting of the military's transgressions, Mr. Lhee says.
Then, this October, the existence of Roh's massive slush fund was made public by a disgruntled supporter of the former president. That led to a vast investigation of the illicit and long-suspected links between political power and big business in South Korea. Prosecutors took Roh into custody over the affair Nov. 16 and have questioned dozens of South Korea's top business leaders.
Kim unexpectedly broadened the scrutiny of Roh last week by calling for a law that would allow the government to prosecute him and Chun for the Kwangju massacre.
Chun initially refused to answer official summons and defiantly left Seoul on Saturday for his hometown. Prosecutors responded by arresting him early Sunday morning and driving him back to a prison in the capital.
Meanwhile, at a Seoul rally yesterday, opposition leader Kim Dae-jung told a crowd of 30,000 that he could prove that President Kim had accepted money from Roh's slush fund. In the most serious and detailed allegations yet against Kim, he alleged that the president had accepted $390 million. There was no immediate reaction from the president.
Kim's popularity has been dropping this year, and his party fared badly in local elections this June, prompting many observers to accuse the president of political opportunism. "Now if he doesn't prosecute them," Lhee says of Kim, "he is in danger."
Yi Dae-hoon, chief coordinator of People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, argues that these past few weeks represent a historical turning point, because the prosecution of the military rulers will draw an indelible line dividing conservatives and reformers in South Korean politics.
Mr. Yi and many other activists are calling for a special prosecutor to handle the case and a "truth commission" to chronicle the abuses of former regimes.