South Korea apologises for rapes by 1980 martial law troops

South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo reading a statement in Seoul, apologising for sexual assaults by troops during their crackdown on 1980 democratisation movement in the city of Gwangju, on Nov 7, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's Defence Ministry on Wednesday (Nov 7) broke decades of silence to apologise for martial law troops raping women, including teenagers, when they crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 1980.

Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo issued a public apology for the inflicting of "unspeakable, deep scars and pain" on "innocent women" who were raped and subjected to "sex torture" by soldiers cracking down on protests against a military coup by General Chun Doo-hwan.

Demonstrators in the southern city of Gwangju and passers-by were beaten to death, tortured, bayonetted and disembowelled, or riddled with bullets.

Conservatives in the South continue to condemn the uprising as a communist-inspired rebellion.

According to official figures, more than 200 people were left dead or missing, while activists say the toll may have been three times as much.

Gen Chun's troops were believed to have also carried out widespread sexual assaults against women, but the issue has long been swept under the carpet as traumatised victims remained reluctant to come forward.

The mood changed following the election of liberal current President Moon Jae-in, who made uncovering the truth about Gwangju a campaign issue, and when one of the victims was emboldened by South Korea's growing #MeToo movement.

Protester Kim Sun-ok told a television interviewer in May that she had been raped by an interrogator in 1980, prompting the authorities to launch an investigation that confirmed 17 cases.

"The investigation has confirmed rapes, sexual assaults and sex tortures were committed by martial law troops," the Defence Minister said in a statement.

Victims included teenagers and young women, including "young students and a pregnant woman who were not even taking part in the protests", he told a press conference.

"On behalf of the government and military, I bow deeply and offer my words of apology for the unspeakable, deep scars and pain inflicted on innocent victims," Mr Jeong said.

But Ms Kim rejected the apology.

"I didn't listen to it because of my traumatic experience," she told AFP. "But unless those responsible are brought to justice and duly punished, a million apologies would be meaningless."

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