South Korea's Trial

South Korea has become such an economic powerhouse - a key player in today's global capitalism - that it's easy to forget it is still a relative newcomer among free and open societies.

But South Korean democracy is quickly maturing. The latest proof: the conviction and sentencing of two former presidents and military-coup leaders. Both these men, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, present a mixed record of public life.

Mr. Chun, who came to power in 1980, did much to rev up the South Korean economic machine. But he had an iron fist and was considered by many to be primarily responsible for the 1980 Kwangju massacre, which left at least 240 student protesters dead.

Mr. Roh, a close ally of Chun's, was responsible for moving South Korea toward free electoral politics in the late 1980s. But he was also responsible for a huge political slush fund solicited from prominent businessmen. That plunge into corruption permanently stained Roh's reputation among many Koreans.

Chun now faces a death sentence for his role in the '79 coup and in Kwangju. President Kim Young Sam has the option of granting clemency, however, and Korean democracy may well be better off spared the spectacle of executing a former head of state. Roh faces a lighter sentence - 22-1/2 years in prison. A number of businessmen were also given short prison terms for buying favors from Roh's government.

The most important message from all this is that the practices employed by Chun, Roh, and their accomplices - repression, coups, and bribes - are no longer acceptable in South Korea.

Many countries are struggling to purge themselves of historical wrongs in order to get on with democratic development. No two countries will do it exactly the same way. South Korea's "trial of the century" was that nation's way. May the lessons endure.

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