Ex-president could face death penalty in

Click to follow
The Independent Online


Roh Tae Woo, the disgraced former president of South Korea, has chosen an intriguing book for his bedtime reading. Every night, before the lights go out in the Seoul Detention House, where he is being held pending imminent bribery charges, Mr Roh reads a few pages of the memoirs of Margaret Thatcher.

Broadly, there are parallels between the two former leaders: both presided over periods of boom in their country's economies, only to be stabbed in the back, as they saw it, by younger men whose careers they had nurtured. But if Mr Roh is looking for consolation, he will find little in The Downing Street Years.

While Baroness Thatcher promoted free-market monetarism and the small businessman, Mr Roh enriched Korea's giant corporations with a vigorous programme of state intervention and protectionism. While she was ousted by her own party, Mr Roh handed his presidency to a trusted successor in 1993. And if Lady Thatcher had the consolation of a peerage and a bag of lucrative directorships, Mr Roh has no such perks to look forward to.

After owning up in October to a huge personal slush-fund worth $650m (pounds 420m), he stands a good chance of receiving a life sentence for corruption. Now, as the scandal widens, he faces an even grimmer possibility: death by hanging, on charges of treason and mass murder.

Amid mounting public hysteria, the government of President Kim Young Sam furnished details this week of a new law which will allow Mr Roh and his predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan, to be prosecuted for the 1979 coup which brought them to power. Prosecutors have summoned Mr Chun for questioning today.

The coup, and the infamous Kwangju massacre, in which hundreds of pro- democracy demonstrators were killed by paratroopers, occurred just outside the 15-year statute of limitations. Officials told journalists in Seoul that the constitution will be amended to overcome this obstacle.

A special law will then be drafted allowing for the prosecution of the coup leaders and their eventual execution.

Constitutional amendments must be approved by a national referendum but in the current atmosphere of hatred against Mr Roh there is little doubt that it would gain overwhelming public approval.

All week there have been daily demonstrations, some of them violent, calling for the prosecution of the two men. In Kwangju itself, 800 students fought riot police on Wednesday, and demanded an independent inquiry into both the slush-fund scandal and the massacre. Opposition parties accuse President Kim of hypocrisy in his pursuit of Mr Roh, who founded the ruling Democratic Liberal Party. "There is no change in the nature of Kim, who took power by joining hands with the slaughterers," Kwangju students shouted.

The crisis has provoked a more than usually tense atmosphere on the border with Communist North Korea. Yesterday, Mr Kim urged extra vigilance, saying that there had been worrying signs of North Korean activity. "They are also building up fighter planes and bombers near the demilitarised zone [between the two countries]," a spokesman quoted Mr Kim as saying. "We must firmly cope with any aggressive attempts by the North Koreans," he said. "Our political and social atmosphere could be read as a sign of a weakened security posture on our part."

Twenty-nine political activists campaigning for unity between the two countries have been arrested under the draconian national security law.