Ex-president sentenced to death

Generals and top businessmen convicted of bribes and treason, writes Richard Lloyd Parry in Tokyo
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The Independent Online
The former president of South Korea, Chun Doo Hwan, was sentenced to death by a court in Seoul yesterday for his part in the 1979 military coup. His successor, Roh Tae Woo, 13 former generals, and nine of the country's leading businessmen also received prison terms of up to 22 years at the climax of the most dramatic trial in modern Korean history.

Both former leaders faced multiple charges for their role in three separate scandals. Their troubles began at the end of last year when first Roh and later Chun were indicted for accepting bribes totalling hundreds of millions of pounds during their periods in office from 1980 to 1993. They were subsequently charged with plotting the coup of December 1979 which brought Chun to power, and with the massacre of student pro-democracy demonstrators in the city of Kwangju in May 1980.

Both men were convicted of mutiny, treason and corruption, although Chun was acquitted of murder because it could not be proved that he gave the direct order to shoot the Kwangju demonstrators. Roh was sentenced to twenty-two-and-a-half years, less than the life sentence sought by the prosecution. Thirteen of their former generals were given sentences of 4 to 10 years; and several former government officials and nine businessmen, including the chairmen of the Samsung and Daewoo groups, received lesser jail terms for their part in the bribery scandals.

In the scale of the evidence, and the rank of the defendants, the five- and-a-half month case was record-breaking; the biggest criminal case in South Korean history. There were 34 separate sessions, the judge's verdict was 200 pages long, and a truck had to be used to transport the 160,000 pages of evidence from the prosecutor's office to the Seoul District Court.

Ten full generals, one lieutenant-general, two major generals and three brigadier generals were among the defendants. The symbolic drama of seeing such men in handcuffs and prison overalls was intense. Tickets to the small public gallery changed hands for as much as 1 million won (pounds 800) each on the black market.

But from the beginning it was clear that the trial had as much to do with domestic politics as with past events. The decision to bring the former presidents to justice was taken by President Kim Young Sam, Roh's successor and protege, who is Korea's first civilian leader for 32 years. He spoke of it as a crusade, "to show the people that justice, truth and the law are vividly alive in this land". But, until a few weeks before, he insisted there should be no witch hunt, and said the perpetrators of Kwangju should be left "to the judgement of history".

It turned out to be an inspired U-turn. In spite of insinuations from the opposition, Kim fought off suggestions that hehad benefited from Roh's slush fund, and pulled off a narrow majority for his New Korea Party in April's parliamentary elections.

Although the spirit behind the convictions is undoubtedly just, President Kim has had to cut a few legal corners to achieve them. A special Bill was passed allowing the agents of the coup and the massacre to be prosecuted. The lawyers of Chun and Roh seized on this legislation to mount a fierce defence. Both men denounced the trial as "a political circus" and, although the South Korean judiciary is officially independent, there was never any doubt that they would be convicted.

Even if the sentences are upheld on appeal, no one believes that they will be carried out in full. President Kim, no doubt, will find it useful to pardon or parole his predecessors before his term expires in early 1998. He may even consider it prudent - to execute former presidents who failed to live up to their office would set a drastic, alarming precedent.