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The Chun Doo Hwan Problem

The major public event in South Korea this week has been the televised National Assembly hearings into the purported crimes and follies of the recently ended Chun Doo Hwan era. While a top former aide has been grilled by a legislative committee, Chun himself, who retired from the presidency last February in Korea’s only peaceful transfer of power, has stayed holed up in what is described as his $1.4-million bunker-like residence in Seoul. He’s there, protected by an army of riot police, because in recent days thousands of radicals have taken to the streets demanding that Chun be made to pay, with nothing less than his life, for the abuses that occured during his nearly eight years of authoritarian rule.

That’s a considerably more extreme position than the one embraced by the main opposition parties and, certainly, by the ruling party of President Roh Tae Woo, Chun’s longtime friend, colleague in the military and elected successor. But if leading politicians for now agree that Chun shouldn’t be executed out of hand, that’s about all that they can agree on as to his future. What to do about Chun Doo Hwan has become a major political and moral problem in South Korea.

At first glance the problem might seem easily enough resolved: Like anyone else, Chun should be held to account for whatever crimes can be proved against him. But to do that might risk much, including a reaction from the powerful and perhaps not guiltless friends whom Chun still has in the military. Chun no doubt has much to answer for. The question is whether pursuing retribution would strengthen the rule of law in South Korea or whether it could instead jeopardize its nascent democracy.

Through a ruling Democratic Justice Party source Chun has denied any wrongdoing, but at the same time has said that he is prepared to surrender most of his assets--an estimated $5.7 million worth, which isn’t bad for a general-politician--in exchange for being left alone. The ruling party apparently thinks that he should do more, including publicly repenting his misdeeds and moving to the countryside. That might be a workable compromise, but whether events will let it occur is another matter. As more is revealed about the abuses of the Chun era, the public clamor for prosecution and punishment could grow. A lot of Koreans had hoped that a political leader for once could be replaced without having to face jail or exile. That hope may yet be disappointed.

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