The South Korean government has turned to the most painful chapter in the country's history, the army mutiny of 1979 and the bloody repression of a pro-democracy movement that rose four months later in the city of Kwangju. Former Presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo were indicted Thursday on charges of seizing power in the takeover. Both were already in jail on corruption charges. The regime of President Kim Young Sam is moving rapidly to shake off the militaristic past and move toward democracy. No one has been safe from the prosecutors' avenging eyes.
Just the word Kwangju is sufficient to inflame a debate anywhere on the peninsula. Now two of the dominant generals will be called to the bar of justice to answer charges concerning the events that preceded the repression in that port city.
The so-called Kwangju incident took place May 18-27, 1980. Times correspondent David Holley, who visited the city earlier this month, relates stories that still resonate from traumatic impact. "The nightmare haunts me even today," said a man whose leg was shattered by an army bullet during the protests against military rule. "The paratroopers sent to Kwangju were not like soldiers. They were mad dogs."
At least 240 people were killed in the crackdown on the pro-democracy forces. Some say more than 1,000 died.
The number is not important now. Moving on is. This will be a hard period for South Korea. But Kwangju is a past that must be cleansed with justice.