Send to

[Korean History] Sentenced to death and prison but ultimately walking free

Trials of former Presidents Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo in 1996-1997 were courtroom sagas that left bitter aftertaste  


Aug. 23, 2023 - 14:51 By Lee Sun-young

When a dictatorship falls, retribution and reparations often ensue.

In South Korea, this was also the case. But for many, it ultimately failed to provide a sense of closure to an era of repression and bloody crackdowns on opponents.

From 1996 to 1997, former Presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who were military generals and close friends, were tried for their roles in a 1979 coup.

Chun seized power through the coup, and masterminded a massacre of protesters in the city of Gwangju in 1980, through which Chun tightened his grip on power.

Chun officially assumed the presidency the following year and stayed in office until he was succeeded in 1988 by Roh, who was elected in the first direct presidential election after dictatorial rule.

In April of 1997, the Supreme Court confirmed the lower court’s ruling that sentenced Chun to life imprisonment and Roh to 17 years and 6 months.

Before the year turned, however, the duo -- who never admitted their wrongdoings during the trials -- walked out of prison as free men. They remained out of prison until their deaths in 2021, at age 90 (Chun) and 88 (Roh).

“Chun Doo-hwan didn’t just live freely. He lived very affluently. Where is justice?” asked Chung A-eun, author of the book “The Last 33 Years of Chun Doo-hwan” released earlier this year.

Trials of the century

In the first few years after the Chun-Roh era ended and the civilian administration led by Kim Young-sam arrived, any attempts to hold previous leaders accountable were met with challenges.

State prosecutors who had served the two presidents stuck to a stance that was later encapsulated in this famous quote among the prosecution itself: “A successful coup cannot be punished.”

What they didn't realize was that the tide had already turned.

A whirlwind of events followed, which included political tussles over the enactment of special laws forcing the prosecution to look into the duo. Bombshell revelations on purported presidential slush funds and a number of individual lawsuits led to the launch of a full-scale investigation in late 1995 into the two former presidents.

Articles from that point onward, including those published in The Korea Herald, were dominated by headlines on the two leaders' fall from grace.

Roh became the first former president to be summoned as a criminal suspect by the prosecution on Nov. 1, 1995. About two weeks later, he added another title to his record -- the first former president to be placed under arrest.

Soon, it was Chun's turn to face the music. Unlike Roh -- who didn’t openly display his dissatisfaction with the unfolding events -- Chun vehemently refused to cooperate with the investigation.

When prosecutors moved to subpoena him, he retreated to his hometown in Hapcheon, South Gyeongsang Province, only to be arrested there the next day, on Dec. 3, 1995.

While in custody, he even staged a hunger strike, which led to his hospitalization for more than two months.

The Feb. 27, 1996 edition of The Korea Herald carries a top story and a photo regarding former President Chun Doo-hwan‘s trial. (The Korea Herald DB)

In its Feb. 27, 1996 edition, The Herald carried a photo of Chun adorned in light blue prison garb on the front page, with an article titled “Chun denies graft charges, admits ‘political donations.’”

The article, which covered the first public hearing of Chun’s trial over bribery and corruption charges held on the previous day, writes, “He flatly denied there were any favors given, repeating the money he received were donations the businessmen voluntarily offered.”

Among the businessmen were Lee Kun-hee, the late Samsung chairman and Kim Woo-choong, the late founder of the now-defunct Daewoo Group, who were also indicted along with a dozen other corporate tycoons.

Court hearings on Chun’s more grave charges of insurrection and massacre commenced in March, setting the stage for several months of gripping courtroom drama, whose climax came on Aug. 26, when the lower court sentenced him to death.

To Roh, the Seoul District Court handed down a jail sentence of 22 years and six months.

Chun’s crimes laid out by the court were leading an insurrection; involvement in the insurrection plot; holding a significant role in the insurrection; executing an unauthorized withdrawal; leaving a defense position in a martial law area; causing the death of a superior through assault; attempting the murder of a superior; and causing the death of a sentry through assault -- all under the Military Criminal Act.

Additionally, he was also found guilty of violating the Criminal Act's insurrection clauses as an insurrection leader; conspirator in an insurrection plot; for holding a pivotal role in the insurrection; for committing homicide with the intent of insurrection; and for bribery. The first part of the charges was for his role in the military coup and the latter were for his role in the Gwangju killings.

Former presidents and lifelong friends, Roh Tae-woo (left) and Chun Doo-hwan, stand side by side during a court hearing at the Seoul District Court in this undated file photo. (The Korea Herald DB)

Pardoned ‘for national unity’

As the year 1997 approached, politics intensified ahead of the presidential election that year. The Chun-Roh trials saw a second court decision that reduced their sentences to life imprisonment for Chun and 17 years and 6 months in prison for Roh.

By April, the Supreme Court’s verdict had not yet been delivered, but talks of granting special pardons to the two jailed former leaders had already surfaced. All three major candidates for the presidential race had made it a part of their pledges.

However, this was not without controversy.

Public opinions were divided on the issue, with more people against the proposed amnesty.

In one poll, 73.8 percent of respondents expressed their opposition to the idea of granting unconditional pardons to Chun and Roh, while another indicated that 63.3 percent were against amnesty for them.

A different survey which asked citizens whether or not they anticipated the pardon of the two within the year -- regardless of their personal views on the matter -- the answers were almost evenly divided, with slightly more people expecting the two to be released.

A citizen quoted on local TV broadcaster MBC’s Dec. 19, 1997 report captured a prevailing sentiment at that time that the fate of Chun and Roh had become more of a political issue, rather than a matter of justice.

“I think there were not many people who had actually believed Chun would be executed, when the first court ruling came out,” the citizen said on TV.

On Dec. 22, 1997, Chun and Roh were pardoned by President Kim Young-sam upon the suggestion of incoming President-elect Kim Dae-jung. It was “for the sake of national unity,” they said.

Along with jail time, the court had ordered Chun to pay over 200 billion won -- worth around $292 million now -- in restitution, and Roh some 262 billion won in restitution. While Roh fulfilled his payments, Chun had only paid about half of that amount before the pardon. Chun refused to pay the rest until his death.

He didn‘t offer an apology or publicly exhibit any signs of self-reflection, either. Quite to the contrary, in his memoir, he claimed again that North Korea incited the Gwangju Uprising and that he was not responsible for the causalities resulting from the military’s response to the civilian protests.

Descendants’ part

Chun and Roh passed away in 2021, less than a month apart.

However, the possibility of reconciliation remains alive through Chun’s grandson and Roh’s son.

A young man named Chun Woo-won suddenly burst into the media spotlight in March this year, when he began discussing various allegations surrounding his family on social media, calling the deceased former president his grandfather and “a mass murderer.”

Chun Woo-won, the grandson of former President Chun Doo-hwan, was arrested on suspicion of illegal drug use upon arriving at the Incheon International Airport on March 28. He was released from police custody the following day and visited Gwangju on March 30 as part of his self-imposed quest to apologize for his grandfather's crimes. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

He offered an apology on behalf of his grandfather to victims of the Gwangju massacre in front of a throng of reporters who covered his highly publicized visit to the city.

The junior Roh's journey of remorse began much earlier while his father was alive – albeit sick in bed.

Roh Jae-heon made his first visit to Gwangju in August 2019, and has since continued with consistent acts of apology.

“(Chun Woo-won‘s) apology falls within the realm of emotions, not the realm of law and systems. But surely, it is a seed for change that has been planted,” said author Chung.

Korean History