The political scandal engulfing South Korea escalated yesterday when President Kim Young Sam ordered a law aimed at punishing his two military predecessors for a notorious massacre. A spokesman for Mr Kim's Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) said new legislation would allow the government to prosecute former presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, believed to have ordered the killing of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1980, a year after gaining power in a military coup.
"I will make the special legislation an opportunity to demonstrate to the people that justice, truth and the law exist in this land," Mr Kim was quoted as saying by the DLP's secretary-general Kang Sam Jae.
The announcement is an about-turn for Mr Kim, whose own government has come under intense pressure since the uncovering of a separate political bribery scandal a month ago. Mr Roh, a former political ally of Mr Kim and founder of the DLP, has admitted amassing a huge political slush fund, alleged by prosecutors to have been extracted in the form of bribes from many of South Korea's biggest corporations.
A similar confession was made seven years ago by Mr Roh's own mentor, Mr Chun, who succeeded in living down the scandal by spending two years of self-imposed exile in a Buddhist monastery.
But Mr Roh's grovelling on national television early this month only intensified public anger. A week ago he was jailed, pending charges of receiving bribes from 24 companies, including the massive Hyundai, Samsung and Daewoo conglomerates. Prosecutors told Korean reporters yesterday that the heads of the suspected companies would be charged soon, although they will not be placed in detention, "out of consideration for the effects it would have on the economy".
Corruption has long been assumed to be endemic but never before has it been exposed in such detail, or been pinned down to so many prominent names.
Mr Kim, the first elected president in almost four decades, came to power two years ago on a platform of anti-corruption legislation that has claimed more than a thousand businessmen and politicians, including members of his family. But the growing suspicion voiced by opposition leaders is that the President himself benefited from Mr Roh's $650m (pounds 430m) fund.
To make a clean break with its discredited founder, the DLP announced last week it will change its name before parliamentary elections next April.
The same desire to reassert his clean image in advance of any nasty revelations Mr Roh's trial brings must lie behind the decision to re-examine the Kwangju affair.
In May 1980, student demonstrators took to the streets in the south- western city after Mr Chun and Mr Roh seized power from the generals. Over 10 days, between 200 and 2,000 protesters were killed by troops acting on Mr Chun's orders.Reuse content