Day of reckoning near after 15 years

Kwangju massacre: Chief culprits behind slaughter of up to 2,000 students may soon be brought to justice
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Kwangju, South Korea

"When the Special Warfare Command shot the students," said Mr Choi, the taxi driver, "a lot of them didn't die straight off.

"Over there, by the City Hall, was a line of big army trucks, and when the demo had been broken up, the soldiers got out and started going through the bodies. The first guy took the head, the second guy took the feet, and they slung them in the back of the trucks. When the bodies started moving they took a rifle and - smack! smack! smack! - hit them on the head with a butt. They stopped moving after that."

Until nine days ago, when a former South Korean president called Chun Doo Hwan was arrested, the name of Kwangju was little known outside Korea; Mr Choi's story explains one of the reasons why. Before driving his cab, he was a policeman, and he found himself on duty in the city, a regional capital in the far south-west of Korea, on 18 May 1980.

The date has become infamous. The year before, 16 years ago today, the then General Chun seized power in a military coup. Six months later, he suspended the National Assembly. On 17 May, he declared martial law and immediately started arresting political opponents. All over the country, there were protests and demonstrations, and nowhere was outrage greater than in Kwangju.

Rioting is virtually part of the university curriculum in South Korea, and the students who took to the streets knew what to expect: untidy baton charges from the police, a few cases of concussion and broken arms. Instead, and for reasons which are still unknown, they got the Special Warfare Command - crack troops, trained to repel a Communist invasion. As a local policeman, Mr Choi was no sentimentalist when it came to unruly students. But even he could not believe what he saw.

"The special army hadn't eaten since they came down from the north," he said, and they were crazy by the time they arrived in Kwangju. They were given a drink, and then they were set loose - to kill the people, just crush them like flies."

A group of students raided an arsenal and started firing back. There were tanks, machine guns, and charges not with truncheons, but with bayonets. The killings continued, on and off, for 10 days. The official civilian death count was 193; but 288 families were later compensated by the government, and unofficial estimates put the toll of dead and missing as high as 2,000.

Among Kwangju people, and the left-wing opposition to the generals, the events were as devastating and talismanic as those of Prague in 1968 or Peking in 1989. But elsewhere, even in South Korea itself, the massacre was, for years, little more than a rumour. Partly this was because of fear: many parents, it is said, took their dying children out of hospital, and buried them secretly, for fear of the reprisals that would be visited upon the families.

But it was also because so many of the key witnesses, those groggy students Mr Choi saw being lifted into the vans, were never heard from again. On a hillside outside Kwangju is a cemetery where 130 of the victims are commemorated. Only 13 of the bodies buried there are identified, including two students who burned themselves to death years later in protest at the Kwangju cover-up.

If everything goes to plan, Mr Chun will be charged with the Kwangju murders some time in the next 10 days. He was arrested for questioning a week and a half ago, just before another ex-president, Roh Tae Woo, also believed to have colluded in the massacre, was charged with a massive bribery scandal.

A special law, personally commissioned by President Kim Young Sam, is expected to be passed to allow their prosecution; the Kwangju trial is to take place next year and with massive public support for the prosecution, there is little doubt about its outcome. But in Kwangju itself, the atmosphere is less than jubilant. "For 15 years we have waited for justice," said a local journalist. "Now the politicians seem to think they can sort it out overnight."

Kwangju today looks an unlikely symbol of Korean martyrdom - a featureless, untidy city of 1.3m people. But it epitomises the greatest problem facing the country: regionalism. Divided from the Communist North by the Cold War, South Korea's provinces are beset by crippling internal rivalries that out-strip all other ideological differences.

Three of the last four presidents have come from the rival Kwongsang region, and it was to there, for years, that the lion's share of Korea's growing wealth was directed. "Even 200 years ago in the Yicho Empire, Kwangju was Siberia - this was where troublemakers from the capital were exiled," said Noh Dong Kyu, a hotelier who was beaten up during the 18 May incident. "We're proud to be known as Kwangju people. Even though we've been suppressed, we've survived each and every time."

But despite being the fourth biggest city, Kwangju ranks bottom in economic terms. Ironically, the man most to blame for the city's economic isolation also is its greatest source of pride - the leading opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung. In various political incarnations, Mr Kim has enjoyed local support as high as 90 per cent. But as a dissident and bane of successive presidents, he has sealed the city's reputation as an ungrateful trouble-maker. Recently, Kwangju has enjoyed a sudden upsurge of investment - motorways, a new port and airport - a transparent bid by the other Mr Kim, the President, to make political inroads.

To the cynical eye, this is also the impulse behind the Kwangju inquiry. To Kim Dae Jung, the failure of the government to investigate the massacre was worth countless votes. Even Kim Young Sam, a fellow liberal who sprang to power after teaming up with his former military enemies, declared the subject dead and buried after his election. Suddenly, though, he has grabbed the political football and run with it. The President's insistence that only the most senior leaders will be prosecuted for the coup and massacre, has confirmed the suspicion of expedience.

"Just five or six convictions will not solve anything," said Mr Noh. "The evil men we have always known, but their orders were carried out by hundreds who are still hidden. They will be left there, behind the scenes, still in power, like a cancer eating away from the inside."