Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, who died on Tuesday, leaves a court in Gwangju, South Korea, on November 30, 2020. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – In his latest legal ensnarement, a former South Korean president responsible for a massacre in which hundreds were killed appears to have escaped justice again.

In a nation where ex-leaders routinely face dire fates after serving their term in office, Chun Doo-hwan, 89, South Korea’s most notorious living ex-president, was on Monday given an eight-month prison sentence.

However, it was suspended was for two years, suggesting the 89-year-old will never see the inside of a cell.

Curiously, the judicial ruling was not for ordering the violent suppression of pro-democracy protesters by commandos that left the streets of a southeastern city littered with corpses. Rather, it was for defaming a dead priest.  

Luck of the devil

In May 1980, Chun – then engaged in taking over presidential power via a creeping coup d’etat – ordered crack airborne rangers to quell pro-democracy demonstrators in the southwestern city of Gwangju.

The brutality of the “black berets” riot control tactics infuriated citizens. Rebels seized weapons from civil armories and factories and battle exploded on the streets of Gwangju. The airborne units withdrew.

For a week, the city was run by a citizen’s committee, before the airborne rangers massively reinforced stormed Gwangju and crushed the uprising’s hard core.

To this day, the “Gwangju Uprising” is the blackest stain on the history of South Korea since mass civilian killings before and during the 1950-53 Korean War.

After South Korea democratized in 1987, and civilian rule was fully established, Chun would be sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996. But his sentence and that of his crony – another ex-general and former President Roh Tae-woo – was overturned via presidential pardon in 1997.

The president who granted the pardon was Kim Young-sam, a long-term opposition leader who had eventually won power after merging his party with the party of Chun and Roh.

But the pardon received additional moral weight when it was agreed to by the then-incoming President Kim Dae-jung, a  Christian and long-term opposition leader who hailed from the southwest and who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize.

The pardon was issued on the grounds of national unity.

Simmering anger

But in Korean society, anger against past injustices is difficult to bury. Witness the passions aimed at Japan for its colonial rule of the peninsula that ended in 1945.

ln recent years, anger against Chun among an increasingly liberal public has continued to simmer, particularly given that the former president, who lives in a walled-off home in a well-to-do neighborhood of western Seoul, is widely perceived as unrepentant.

A soldier beats a man during pro-democracy protests in the southern city of Gwangju in 1980. Photo: AFP

Though he suffers from Alzheimer’s disease – a claim that has been contested by some Korean media – Chun appears to be in good physical health and reportedly still plays golf. On Monday morning, he was photographed shouting at protesters outside his home, though he nodded off in the Gwangju courtroom.

Despite fact-finding commissions, books, novels and even hit films, questions continue to hover over what happened in Gwangju. Many believe the official death toll of around 200 killed is too low, and it is not clear who delivered the deadly commands on the ground.

With his responsibility for the massacre having been revoked by presidential pardon, Chun’s latest legal imbroglio was related to one of these controversies.

Defaming the dead

It has been widely alleged that troops opened fire into the besieged city from helicopters. One of the people making that claim was an activist priest, the late Cho Pius, who testified to seeing the incident.

Chun, who contests the allegation, in his 2017 memoirs called Cho “a shameless liar” – resulting in a lawsuit from the deceased’s family in May 2018. That suit was ruled upon on Monday after hearings in preceding months.

“Given the appraisal by the National Forensic Service, there is reasonable ground to believe that there were shootings from helicopters on May 21, 1980,” the court ruled.

The 1980 Gwanju Uprising. Image: Wikipedia

Bullet scars in masonry in the city are, indeed, suggestive of plunging fire from helicopters. The court also said Chun should apologize for the incidents of May 1980.

In Korea, a suspended sentence is usually not applied unless the sentenced party repeats his/her crime. This suggests that Chun will likely end his days in the comfort of his home.  

If that is the case, he will fare far better than most of his predecessors.

Presidential perils

South Korea’s first president, Rhee Syngman, fled the country into exile in 1960 after police shot protesting students. Park Chung-hee, who took power by coup after  Rhee, was assassinated in 1979.

Chun followed Park into the presidential Blue House. His successor, Roh Tae-woo, is believed to be in poor health and no longer appears in public.

The two Kims who succeeded Roh both passed away peacefully but their successor, Roh Moo-hyun, took his own life in 2009 while his family was ensnared in a post-presidential corruption investigation.

Korea’s last two ex-presidents are in jail for far less lethal crimes than Chun’s. Since 2017, Park Geun-hye has been serving a compound sentence of 33 years for corruption and power abuse. And since his appeal was overturned in October, Lee Myung-bak is doing 17 years for corruption.

Meanwhile, the legal issue of defaming a dead person may raise eyebrows in jurisdictions beyond Korea – particularly when it comes to those whose work includes writing about past persons, such as reporters and historians.

“In the US, you must be a living person to sue for defamation,” an American lawyer practicing in Korea told Asia Times. “Korea does not really value freedom of speech the way we do in the United States so what this says to journalists and historians is, ‘Watch your step.’”

Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan (C) arrives for his trial on defamation charges in Gwangju. Photo: AFP

However, a former research lawyer at the Constitutional Court made clear that judges do take into consideration the issue of intent.

“In Korea, if somebody speaks ill of the dead, it constitutes a libel,” Judge Hwang Ju-myeong, the founder of Seoul-based law firm HMP, told Asia Times.

“But real intention is very important: If you do not have an intention to falsify the facts, it is OK,” Hwang said. “It depends on if you have bad faith.”

It is not clear whether Chun or prosecutors  – who had sought an 18-month sentence – will appeal his sentence.