Former South Korean president behind brutal crackdown on protests denies libel

Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan (left) leaving his house in Seoul, South Korea on March 11, 2019.
Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan (left) leaving his house in Seoul, South Korea on March 11, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan denied libel charges against him, appearing before a Gwangju court on Monday (March 11) in a libel trial over his 2017 memoir, 22 years after he was pardoned from a life sentence for his role in the crackdown on the May 18 Democratic Uprising.

Chun, 88, who came to power in a military coup in 1979 following the assassination of president Park Chung-hee, stands accused of defaming late activist priest Cho Chul-hyun. 

Mr Cho said he witnessed the military shooting at civilians from helicopters during the bloody crackdown in Gwangju in May 1980, which Chun flatly denied. In his memoir published in early 2017, Chun referred to Mr Cho as “Satan wearing a mask” and a “liar”.

Mr Cho Young-dae, a Catholic priest and the deceased’s nephew, filed a complaint against Chun, who was indicted in May last year. 

Wearing a dark suit and yellow tie, Chun attended the hearing that began at 2.30pm at the Gwangju District Court, some 330km from Seoul. His wife and former first lady Lee Soon-ja accompanied him. 

Asked whether he denies firing at pro-democracy protestors, Chun shot back: “What do you think you are doing?”

Asked whether he was willing to apologise to the people of Gwangju, he did not respond. 

 
 

It is the first time the former army general has set foot in Gwangju since he ordered troops to suppress people there protesting against the military dictatorship in May 1980. It is also his first court appearance in 22 years since he was tried for sedition and bribery in 1997. 

As he arrived at the court, demonstrators affiliated with organisations supporting victims of the May 18 Uprising shouted: “Arrest Chun Doo-hwan” and “Chun Doo-hwan, apologise!” 

“Chun committed enormous sins in Gwangju, he should apologise to Gwangju citizens and ask for forgiveness. I hope today is the beginning of finding truth about the May 18 Uprising,” Mr Cho Young-dae told reporters in front of the courthouse. 

The main point of contention in the court is whether there was firing at civilians from military helicopters during the crackdown and whether Chun intended to defame the priest in his memoir. If convicted, he could face up to two years in prison or 5 million won (S$5,995) in fines.

Chun is reported to have denied any wrongdoings during the hourlong hearing, saying he wrote the memoir based on state records and the firing from the helicopters has not yet been proven to be true.  

Prosecutors, on the other hand, argued that the shooting from the helicopters is backed by solid evidence such as investigations and court records as well as witness testimonies. 

The Gwangju District Court issued a subpoena for Chun after he repeatedly refused to attend the court hearing. He cited Alzheimer’s disease and influenza for his absence, with his lawyer saying he had no intention of avoiding the proceedings.  

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea and minor opposition parties in unison called for stern punishment for the former president, while the main opposition Liberty Korea Party said “suspicions surrounding the May 18 Uprising could be cleared” through a fair trial. 

The next hearing is scheduled for April 8. 

On May 18, 1980, the brutal crackdown of student-led demonstrations against the military dictatorship left an estimated 600 civilians dead in what has also been called the “Gwangju Massacre”.

Chun ruled the country until 1988 after seizing power in a 1979 coup. He was sentenced to death for sedition and bribery in 1996, which was reduced to life imprisonment by a high court. He was released from custody in 1997 on a presidential pardon.