SEOUL • South Korea's new President, Mr Moon Jae In, vowed yesterday to reopen a probe into a 1980 massacre of pro-democracy activists that remains a traumatic landmark in the fight to end decades of military rule.
The President wiped away a tear at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the crackdown in Gwangju, which left more than 165 people dead and over 70 missing and cemented then General Chun Doo Hwan's grip on the country.
"The new government will make greater efforts... to find out who was responsible for issuing the order to open fire on protesters," Mr Moon said in comments broadcast live on television.
His promise to restart investigations came after former president Chun denied responsibility for the events in a memoir published last month, saying he was made a scapegoat after democracy was restored, in a bid to draw a line under the bloodbath.
Former army general Chun seized power in a coup after military strongman Park Chung Hee, the father of Mr Moon's ousted predecessor Park Geun Hye, was assassinated in 1979. Protests then broke out in the southern city of Gwangju following the coup.
Mr Chun's martial law troops bludgeoned, stabbed and later shot at protesters during the 10-day long turmoil between May 18 and 27.
Mr Chun was arrested in 1995 after democracy was restored and sentenced to death for his role in the coup and its fallout. But the death sentence was commuted to life and after serving two years in prison, he was pardoned.
As a student, South Korea's new President was arrested for leading a protest against the authoritarian rule of Mr Chun and Mr Park Chung Hee. Many of the military strongmen's supporters had sought to paint the uprising as a communist-inspired rebellion.
"The Moon government stemmed from the Gwangju pro-democracy uprising," the President said. More than 10,000 people attended the commemoration ceremony, the largest ever at the annual event held at the Gwangju cemetery where victims of the clashes are buried. An official death toll has never been disclosed.
The crowd also sang an iconic song of protest which was banned during the Chun regime. March For The Beloved has been a call to arms in protest movements since the early 1980s, and an anthem for the country's struggle for democracy.
Since taking office on May 10, Mr Moon has made a number of moves to reaffirm his liberal convictions and reverse the conservative legacy of his predecessor.
He has picked former student activist Im Jong Seok, once accused of being a pro-North Korea sympathiser, as his chief of staff.
President Moon also ordered the project of drafting a state-issued history textbook be scrapped immediately. It was a signature initiative of Park Geun Hye, who said a standard textbook was needed to correct the bias in how history is taught at schools.
Critics have said the project was an attempt to whitewash the oppressive rule of military dictators, including that of Park's father.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS