South Korean President Roh Tae Woo has dodged a big political bullet - for now. The nationally televised apology and departure into internal exile of his predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan, significantly eases a crisis for the government. Without Mr. Chun's public repentance for corruption and abuse of power during his rule, the Roh administration would have been forced to take legal action.
The act of contrition may have been enough to calm the highly charged public atmosphere of recent weeks, marked by the mounting demand to place the unpopular former Army general on trial. But Chun's statement was too little and too late to end the political pressures on the government.
The major opposition parties, in initial response to the Wednesday morning address, have insisted the government take action to clarify the charges against the Chun government.
The Party for Peace and Democracy (PPD), the largest opposition group, called for investigation of Chun's wealth, for the appointment of a special prosecutor, and for Chun to testify before National Assembly committees now investigating the Chun era.
``Most of the Korean people will not be satisfied with his apology,'' PPD leader Kim Dae Jung stated in Seoul. ``I cannot believe the figure of money he disclosed.''
``Chun's declaration seems rather late,'' a spokesman for the more moderate New Democratic Republican Party, led by former Premier Kim Jong Pil, said from Seoul. His party, he said, will ask the government to ``take action in order to prove the truth of what Chun said.''
The three major opposition parties voted earlier this week to subpoena Chun, against the ruling party's wishes, to testify before the committee looking into the 1980 Army suppression of the revolt in Kwangju where at least 200 persons are believed to have died. Chun had refused to respond to an earlier request to testify. If he refuses the summons, the government will have to prosecute him.
During his nearly half-hour speech, Chun issued a blanket apology, saying he was ``ready to take whatever punishment our people want to hand out to me.'' He took responsibility for the acts of his administration including human rights abuses and the Kwangju ``tragedy.'' He also owned up to the influence peddling of his relatives, many of whom have already been indicted or sentenced on corruption charges.
The former President said he would hand over all his personal property to the government, including an estate in Seoul, a resort condominium, and $3.3 million in savings. He promised to return about $20 million in political funds collected for post-retirement use.
While the television cameras showed Chun's neighbors weeping as he and his wife drove off to an undisclosed rural retreat, opposition members said they were unmoved by the sentiment. ``Just saying sorry is not enough,'' said opposition Assemblyman Chung Jey Moon, whose Reunification Democratic Party is still calling for legal charges to be filed.
The opposition parties are now looking for President Roh himself to make a statement on these issues, something he has avoided up till now. He has clearly stated his view that the matter be handled without legal punishment. The government has argued that would set a dangerous precedent of prosecuting a former president for his decisions in office.
Political observers in Seoul expect the President will act soon to try to ease such pressures. A declaration announcing new political reforms and a Cabinet shake-up are in the works, both intended to draw a sharper line between Roh's and Chun's governments. On Wednesday the leadership of the ruling Democratic Justice Party handed in their resignations. (Many holdovers from Chun's administration remain in positions of power in the government and the ruling party apparatus).
The most difficult issue will be that of a legal pardon or amnesty for Chun and his wife. At an earlier point, a pardon was widely considered the quid pro quo for Chun's retreat from public life. But Chun's effort to delay his penitence may have made an outright pardon a politically touchy move at this point.
The Chun issue placed Roh in a personally, as well as politically, uncomfortable position. The two men were military academy classmates and allies in a 1980 takeover by a military group following the assassination of dictator Park Chung Hee. Roh served in numerous Cabinet posts during Chun's presidency and was his annointed successor.
When millions of Koreans took to the streets last summer to protest the handover of power, Roh responded with his historic acceptance of demands for democratic reforms, including direct presidential elections. Since then, the low-key leader has been trying to put more distance between himself and his authoritarian ally.
The broader historical import of the Chun issue, for all Koreans, is its impact on transfers of power. During the modern era, the norm has been violent overthrows of Korean rulers. Though Chun's strongman rule is widely vilified, he gets credit at least for leaving office peacefully. How his fate is handled, some Koreans worry, may have great impact on the willingness of future leaders to follow that precedent.