President Roh Tae Woo asked South Koreans today to forgive his authoritarian predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan, who three days earlier made an emotional public apology for his abuses while in power.
In an attempt to gain control over a volatile political situation, in which Roh has come under criticism because of direct ties between his administration and Chun’s regime, Roh announced a package of democratic concessions and said he will soon reshuffle his government.
Roh said in his videotaped statement, broadcast on nationwide television this morning, that he will issue an amnesty for all political prisoners and release them by the end of the year.
He also will establish a compensation program for victims of the 1980 Kwangju uprising, in which nearly 200 citizens were killed by army troops, and of a brutal re-education camp where an estimated 50 inmates died. Civil servants and journalists purged by Chun will also receive compensation and “their honor will be restored,” Roh said.
Opposition parties say as many as 600 prisoners of conscience remain in detention after several previous amnesties issued since Roh replaced Chun in February.
In appealing for what has been widely described as a “political pardon” for the former president, Roh asked the nation, “Although he has shown deep repentance over the wrongs he committed, can we single out the former president to throw stones at him?”
Roh did not directly address the question of whether Chun would be forced to comply with a controversial subpoena seeking his testimony before the Assembly panel, which is also probing the Kwangju incident.
But he made it clear that he opposes an investigation into the shadowy political fund that the strongman accumulated. Roh, as Chun’s protege and chosen successor, is widely believed to be the major beneficiary of Chun’s well-financed political machine.
During his public apology Wednesday, Chun offered to surrender millions in wealth he acquired as president. The largest component was a $20-million political fund he took with him into retirement, when he became the first leader in South Korea’s 40-year history to step down voluntarily after a democratic election.
Roh’s statement today came as opinion polls suggested that public indignation had softened in the wake of Chun’s apology, but street protesters continued to call for his arrest and punishment. On Friday, Buddhist monks joined student radicals in a violent clash with police, demanding that Chun and his wife leave the temple sanctuary in the mountains east of Seoul, where they took up temporary residence after Wednesday’s televised appeal for forgiveness.
A band of student activists stormed and occupied a ruling party training facility this morning before they were routed by police. Dissidents planned major demonstrations nationwide this afternoon.
The political opposition does not support the call for prosecution of Chun, whose family has been the target of a widening criminal investigation of influence-peddling during his presidency.
But the two major opposition parties have called for appointment by the Assembly of a special prosecutor to lead a fact-finding inquiry of Chun’s financial irregularities. Testimony before an Assembly committee looking into corruption during the former general’s regime indicated that Chun’s subordinates extorted donations from business leaders.
The opposition expressed initial dissatisfaction after Roh’s announcement, pressing their demand for full disclosure of how Chun allegedly used political funds to divide and undermine the opposition parties.
Top opposition leader Kim Dae Jung’s Party for Peace and Democracy released a statement assailing Roh’s remarks for failing to address several unresolved democratic tasks, such as revising the laws governing the powerful intelligence community, labor rights, local autonomy and peaceful assembly.
The Reunification Democratic Party of Kim Young Sam blasted Roh for “betraying the people” by trying to barter democratic concessions for unofficial clemency for Chun.
“Democratization is not something you take out of your pocket and give to the people as a present,” the party’s statement said. “It should be an absolute right of the people.”
Roh proposed enacting a law that would clean up the use of political funds and ban “quasi-taxes,” or forced donations. And he said he will establish a unit within the prosecutor’s office to “continue to investigate irregularities and wrongdoings of the past administration.” But it is unclear how far such an investigation might be allowed to go.
Roh urged his countrymen to put the past behind them and forsake “political retaliation” to concentrate on building stability in South Korea’s new democracy.
“I believe the time has come to wind up the process of liquidating the negative legacies of the past era that have inflicted pain on all of us,” Roh said. “We cannot afford to let the whole society indefinitely wallow in the tribulations and confusion of the problems of the past.”
Roh, as president, has powers under the constitution to grant a legal pardon to criminal suspects. But he made no suggestion that he was now considering such a legal measure, apparently to avoid irritating the raw emotions that surround the accusations against Chun.
“To bring a new era of democracy into bloom, a generous spirit of democracy is needed,” Roh said.
A “bold overhaul” of the government and the ruling Democratic Justice Party, which Chun founded, is also in the works, Roh said.
Roh was not specific about the pending shake-up. Several of his Cabinet ministers and the core of the party leadership are carry-overs from the Chun regime.