Koreans clamour for justice in the trial of two presidents

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The Independent Online


Seoul is freezing this week, and the touts had been queuing for three nights. They knew what the tickets were worth, and they weren't prepared to bargain: 1m won (about pounds 900).

For this sum, a little less than the average worker's monthly wage, you could buy a small square of blue paper, and a few hours in chamber 417 of the Seoul District Court. But more than one hundred people had camped out with the touts, and every other seat was taken. South Koreans have been waiting 16 years for the Kwangju trial and, every Monday for the rest of the month, it is going to be the greatest show in town.

Yesterday, at half past nine, to an angry roar from a few hundred demonstrators, three large buses arrived. Inside the gates, beyond the range of the egg- throwers, 16 elderly men stepped out, accompanied by dozens of lawyers and guards.

The prison track suits were anonymous but the faces were instantly recognisable. First into court were prisoner number 3124 and prisoner number 1042, better known as Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, formerly the most powerful, the most feared, and now the most hated men in South Korea.

The two former presidents have appeared in court before, but never under such compelling circumstances: side by side in the same dock, and on the gravest of criminal charges - mutiny and treason. Everyone expects them to be convicted, although it is unlikely a capital sentence will be applied.

The pace of recent events has been amazing. Five months ago, Chun and Roh were unpopular, but seemingly unassailable, one more unpleasant aspect of the country's turbulent past.

Chun, a former general who seized power in 1979, was notorious for having ordered the bloody suppression of a civilian uprising in the south-western city of Kwangju five months later.

His successor, Roh, was also implicated in the massacre. But Roh had the distinction of introducing democracy to South Korea, having defeated a divided opposition in the first presidential elections in 1988. Five years later, he gave way to the present President, Kim Young Sam, a hero of the democracy movement who had joined forces with the party of the two generals.

Mr Kim's collusion with the perpetrators of Kwangju appeared to be their greatest insurance policy. Despite repeated calls for their indictment, he repeated his belief that they must be left "to the judgement of history". Then, in October last year, state prosecutors announced an investigation into claims that Roh had amassed a staggering political slush fund - $355bn (pounds 232bn) worth of bribes in exchange for government contracts awarded during his presidency. The prosecutors arrested Roh and, within a few weeks, Chun. Both were charged with bribery, and then the 1979 coup and the Kwangju massacre.

The President speaks of "righting the wrongs of history"; the chief prosecutors yesterday expressed the hope that "this historic trial will help prevent such unfortunate incidents from being repeated", and few Koreans would dissent from these noble aims.

Incidentally, President Kim is doing himself a power of political good. This week sees the beginning of an election campaign in which his New Korea Party had been expected to lose its parliamentary majority. Having snatched the opposition's main complaint against him out of their hands, Kim is looking, if not safe, then stronger. He has also placed a decisive distance between himself and the slush funds which, according to his opponents, had directly benefited the President himself. Cursed by natural and man- made disasters, overshadowed by the constant threat from the Stalinist regime in the North, South Korea is never a predictable place and Mr Kim's crusade has caused quiet consternation among the conservative establishment, particularly in the military. But it has also tapped a vein of powerful emotion among ordinary Koreans, which may yet be difficult to control.

"We've waited for 16 years, and our suffering has never stopped," said the mother of a student killed at Kwangju. "We've come here to rip them to pieces. We've come to take Chun, and if each of us takes just a piece of his body, not even a bone will be left over."