December 21, 1997 in Nation/World

South Korea’s Kim To Pardon Two Despots Who Tried To Kill Him New President Is Eager For Reconciliation

Andrew Pollack New York Times

In a move aimed at uniting the country politically to better face its economic woes, President-elect Kim Dae Jung agreed Saturday to the pardon of two former military dictators who had tried to kill him.

The gesture at reconciliation, coming only two days after the longtime dissident’s election, indicates that Kim is unlikely to use the state security apparatus he inherits to retaliate against those who persecuted him and that he is willing to put the bitter past behind him.

The two former dictators, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, were imprisoned for engaging in a military coup, a massacre and corruption.

Their pardons were granted Saturday afternoon by President Kim Young Sam, whose government had put the two men, both former generals, in jail in the first place.

The announcement came immediately after the president had lunch with the president-elect, who is already moving to assume moral leadership of South Korea, though he will not assume formal power until Feb. 25.

A spokesman for Kim Young Sam said that Kim Dae Jung had agreed to the president’s suggestion for the pardon. But Kim Dae Jung’s aides insisted that the suggestion had come from the president-elect.

In any case, the two Kims, who fought for democracy together but then turned into bitter rivals as they battled for power, agreed that with the opposition party assuming the presidency for the first time, and with the country facing grave economic woes, a grand gesture of reconciliation was in order.

Shin Woo Jae, a spokesman for Kim Young Sam, said the pardons were granted “to promote national reconciliation and rally the nation’s energies to overcome the economic difficulties at this juncture when the nation conducted the cleanest and fairest presidential election in its history.”

Kim Dae Jung did not issue a statement.

In August 1996, Chun was sentenced to death and and Roh to 22-1/2 years in prison for their role in the 1979 military coup that brought Chun to power, for the suppression of a pro-democracy uprising in Kwangju in 1980 in which more than 200 demonstrators were killed and for accepting hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from businessmen.

The sentences were reduced by an appeals court to life in prison for Chun and 17 years for Roh. Chun ruled from the coup in 1979 until 1988, while Roh, his chosen successor, was president from 1988-93.

Chun and Roh are to be freed from prison on Monday, after Cabinet approval of the pardons. Kim also pardoned 23 other former government officials, mainly aides to the former rulers. But Chun and Roh will still have to pay fines for the corruption amounting to millions of dollars.

The pardon provoked mixed feelings in the nation.

“It is disappointing that the first thing the president-elect did was to ask the pardon for the people who destroyed the Constitution, tortured the people and murdered the people,” said Lee Shin Bom, a member of the National Assembly from Kim Young Sam’s Grand National Party.

Lee, who as a student activist during Chun’s reign was tortured, imprisoned and exiled with Kim Dae Jung, said a pardon might be appropriate some day. But not when the nation is facing an economic crisis caused by collusive ties between powerful businessmen and politicians, as exemplified by the two past presidents.

“Why should you pardon that at this time?” he said. He said the action cast doubt on Kim Dae Jung’s stated commitment to end the corrupt ties between conglomerates and politicians.

But an association of the families of the victims of the massacre in Kwangju said Saturday that it supported the pardons.

“Through our movement we have prosecuted and punished those involved,” said Huh Yun Shik, an official of the group. “We have restored our honor.” He said that the two former presidents would be forgiven if they visit the cemetery where the Kwangju victims are buried and shed tears.

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