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'Trial of Century' Sets History Right, Helps Cement South Korea's Young Democracy

By Michael BakerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 27, 1996



SEOUL

In one day of judicial drama draped in historic meaning for an entire nation, about two-dozen military officers and businessmen who led South Korea in the 1980s and early '90s were handed sentences yesterday.

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The "trial of the century," as it was called here, was a final round of justice for South Koreans seeking to bury a legacy of military rule, political violence, and massive political corruption.

But while the sentencing of former Presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo and a raft of ex-generals and business leaders is expected to help cement democracy here, the political fallout for President Kim Young Sam - the first elected civilian leader in over three decades - may be heavy. If an appeals court reduces the sentences or if Mr. Kim grants amnesty to his predecessors, either event could influence elections in 1997.

"This case, this sentence, is giving meaning and hope to our Korean people that justice is at last done" and "we can start fresh by putting this era behind us," says Kim Sang Hee, senior prosecutor.

Many South Koreans hope the convictions and sentences can prevent such things from happening again by showing that even presidents can be tried and sentenced.

Culminating months of investigations and trials, the two ex-presidents were found guilty on charges of mutiny, treason, and corruption.

Mr. Chun, who ruled from 1980 to 1988 after taking power in a 1979 coup, was given the death penalty, in part for his role in a massacre during a 1980 protest in the city of Kwangju in which 240 people were killed. Mr. Roh was given 22-1/2 years for his role in the coup and massacre. The court did not invoke the requested life sentence because of Roh's "diplomatic achievements while president." Roh ushered in democratic elections in 1987 after violent street protests.

Eleven other codefendants in the 1980 coup were given sentences between seven and 10 years. Leaders of Samsung, Daewoo, Dong-Ah, and other major business groups were given up to 2-1/2 years for buying government favors, while presidential aides got up to seven years for corruption.

If the businessmen actually spend time in jail, it may be damaging for their businesses in the short term, but "it's good for the country, and I have no tears for them," says Kim Jong Sok, an economist at Hongik University here.

Although observers say deregulation and openness will be more significant in eliminating graft, the verdict sends a strong message. "The general impression was that because these were busy people ... that they would get suspended sentences," he says.

Colonels who were in charge of military forces that conducted a massacre in Kwangju finally came out and talked about it during the trial, which "may [bring] a long-term rapprochement between Kwangju and the rest of Korea," says Kim Byung-kook, a political scientist at Korea University in Seoul. "The trial may not have brought new revelations of the incident," but it is significant because "the opposition story of Kwangju became the official story of Korea. And that's a big change, which always needs to be emphasized."

But after months of seeing the disgraced ex-presidents led to court in prison clothes, many, particularly those from Kwangju, still aren't satisfied.

Although Koreans have a great deference to elders, parents, and teachers, "presidents are another story," says Kim Cha-woong, an editor at the Dong-A Ilbo. Since independence in 1945, each president has either been too dictatorial or ineffective, he says.

Originally, the coup and massacre were to be left for history to judge. In the spring of 1995, public prosecutors waived their right to try the former presidents, saying that a successful coup couldn't be prosecuted.

But in the fall, rumors of Roh's slush funds emerged. Later, a businessman, worried about paying taxes on some of Roh's money hidden in the businessman's account spilled the beans. A new law requires the "real" names be on bank accounts.

The investigation snowballed, implicating a who's who of South Korean business. Perhaps to deflect attention from his 1992 presidential campaign funding, which might have received contributions from Roh, President Kim reversed the prosecution's decision to "correct history."

Throughout the trial, Chun maintained he came to power accidentally because he was at the center of power during a tumultuous time, while the prosecution said the 1979 coup was premeditated.

It remains to be seen whether the sentences will be carried out. Some observers say President Kim could issue pardons, fearing revenge from friends of Chun and Roh. But "it's not a question of how strong Chun and Roh's allies are," says Kim, the political scientist at Korea University. A pardon would enrage the public. In the end, "[President] Kim has transformed the whole cause of the trial into a way to rectify history," he says.

Sentences may also be moderated in appeal courts. Nobody thinks that the sentences will be fully carried out, particularly Chun's. "It is excessive to kill those dead bodies [in Kwangju] with [Chun's] physical death," says Moon Chung-in, a political science professor at Yonsei University.

"I really hate him," says Man Hyung-hur, a professor who watched an emotionless Chun as he was led through the throngs of journalists and lights of TV cameras outside the courthouse. "But I like him because he is strong."