The government, in a bid to promote national reconciliation, apologized Friday to the South Korean people for the bloody repression of the 1980 Kwangju uprising, and offered compensation for hundreds of people killed and wounded by troops.
“The government offers its sincere apology, not only to the victims of the turmoil, but also to all residents of Kwangju and the general public,” Culture and Information Minister Chung Han Mo said in a statement.
It was the first official government apology for its handling of the citizens’ uprising, the worst in modern South Korean history.
Chung, the official government spokesman, also said the resistance was “part of the democratization efforts of the students and citizens in Kwangju,” a concession demanded by Kwangju residents.
His description was a sharp departure from the stand taken by the government of former President Chun Doo Hwan, which used the terms “rebellion” and “rioters” to describe what happened in Kwangju.
President Roh Tae Woo, who took office Feb. 25 with promises of reform, pledged during his campaign to change the government’s official account of the violence and offer financial compensation for victims.
Kwangju, 170 miles south of Seoul, is the capital of the home province of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung.
Kim was arrested in a crackdown on opposition leaders May 17, 1980, when the former military-controlled government expanded martial law and moved to suppress political dissent and widespread opposition to the growing power of Chun, then an army general.
The Kwangju uprising erupted the next day. Citizens armed with rifles and machine guns taken from government arsenals drove out security forces and took over provincial government buildings. But the government moved martial-law troops into the southwestern city, and retook it nine days later.
By official count, 193 people were killed and more than 800 injured. Dissident sources put the casualty figure much higher.
“The government truly regrets that nearly 200 civilians and members of the military and police were killed and many more wounded in the turmoil, and that furthermore, many other citizens suffered losses and pain,” Information Minister Chung said Friday.
The Kwangju affair has remained a major political controversy over the past eight years.
Kim Dae Jung, who ran unsuccessfully for president last December, was convicted of masterminding the uprising--which broke out while he was under arrest--and was sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to a 20-year prison term. He was pardoned last year and allowed to participate in politics again.
The government spokesman said that President Roh believes a satisfactory resolution of the Kwangju issue is essential to promoting national reconciliation.
Roh, a former general and schoolmate of Chun, helped Chun gain power in a 1980 takeover.
The government spokesman said the administration will offer financial support and employment to bereaved families and wounded victims. The government also vowed to beautify a cemetery where many of the Kwangju victims are buried.
Civic leaders in Kwangju welcomed the government’s offer of financial aid. But they have insisted that the government investigate the cause of the deaths and punish those responsible.