At the end of November 2020 the lengthy court proceedings stemming from attempts made by the Moon Jae-in administration to imprison yet another former President finally came to an end.
After Chun Doo-hwan took advantage of political instability in the country to usurp power starting in December 1979, students in the city of Gwangju started to protest against the military junta in May 1980. After soldiers opened fire on the crowd, angry locals joint forces with the demonstrators. The uprising lasted until May 27 when early in the morning government troops reentered the city and quickly put an end to the protests. According to official estimates, approximately 200 people were killed, and over 1800 wounded. However, democratic activists have criticized these numbers as being inaccurate.
Chun Doo-hwan ruled South Korea with an iron fist until he stepped down from the presidency at the end of his term in 1988 and Roh Tae-woo became the nation’s democratically appointed leader.
After Chun Doo-hwan, among others, was arrested on charges of conspiracy and insurrection in 1996, the public trial started. Prior to that, a movement to enact retroactive legislation. Initially, Chun Doo-hwan was sentenced to death, but then a higher level court ruled that he be imprisoned for life. In addition, he lost all the privileges as ex-President and had to pay a fine in the amount of ₩220 billion ($197 million).
However, incoming President Kim Dae-jung advised the then ruling President Kim Young-sam to commute Chun Doo-hwan’s sentence (who was officially convicted of Leading an Insurrection, Conspiracy to Commit Insurrection, etc.) in December 1997. It was a magnanimous decision but some South Korean citizens wanted revenge. Hence, quite a few NGOs became focused on doling out an appropriate punishment to the ex-dictator.
Since May 2017, when Moon Jae-in came to power, a number of films and books were released, and plays were staged, which depicted student activists as the heroes and Chun Doo-hwan as the villain who used force to squash the democracy movement in order to stay in power. Naturally, their creators made use of various stories from the times of the uprising, such as the one about helicopter gunship attacks on civilian protesters.
Such a narrative is important for the democracy movement. Firstly, since such an attack shows just how cruel the regime was towards its own people. The second reason is that firing by troops at a crowd seemingly attacking them could be viewed as an inappropriate use of force for defense purposes, whilst attacking demonstrators from the air is inhumane and is supposed to maim and kill. Thirdly, shooting at the demonstrators from a helicopter is meant to result in more dead and wounded. And although all of the victims’ graves have not been found, activists are convinced that with time they will be found and that the leadership at the time covered up all of their tracks.
In the opinion of a number of progressive lawyers, the confirmed shooting could be viewed as a crime against humanity tantamount to a massacre, hence double jeopardy would no longer apply and the ex-President could be put on trials again. The events in Gwangju may not meet the criteria of a crime against humanity as that would require necessary proof that a mass shooting had indeed occurred.
In the memoir published in early 2017, Chun Doo-hwan refuted earlier claims made by late activist priest, Cho Chul-hyun, who had testified to witnessing military firings at citizens from helicopters during the Gwangju pro-democracy revolt in May of 1980. Chun has insisted that Cho lied, calling the late priest “Satan wearing a mask.”
Civic groups and activists representing the victims of the 1980s uprising, accused Chun Doo-hwan of distorting the truth. They said that via his memoir, Chun Doo-hwan had “clearly committed a crime by seriously defaming the honor of not only” Rev. Cho Chul-hyun, “but the families of victims of the May 1980 uprising and the citizens of Gwangju”. After all, as far back as September 2017, the Ministry of National Defense established a Committee to Investigate the Gwangju Uprising, and in 2018, it concluded that from May 21 to 27, 1980, South Korea’s military launched helicopter gunship attacks on civilians, a crime against humanity tantamount to a massacre.
An important piece of “evidence” proving that the crime had indeed been committed is the Jeonil high-rise in front of the former “building of the South Jeolla Provincial Government”. “According to the National Forensic Service (NFS) that investigated the structure from 2016 to 2017”, “the building was left with 245 bullet holes, with 193 found inside the 10th floor. The report “nearly confirmed the bullets were sprayed from a hovering helicopter”. It also found that most of the bullet holes outside the building appeared “to have been left by bullets from government-issued carbine rifles”. Accompanying photographs published in the article also show bullet holes that appear to have been made by rifles rather than helicopter-mounted machine guns.
Despite numerous witness testimonies, no official reports about guns fired from a helicopter have been found so far. According to former pilots, “two AH-1J Cobra aircraft loaded each with 500 rounds of Vulcan ammunition” were deployed to Gwangju but this in itself does not prove that they fired at the protesters.
Mass graves of the victims of the attack have also not been found as yet. On August 4, 2020, the Yonhap News Agency reported that “human remains found at the site of a former prison in Gwangju” appeared to be unrelated to the Democratization Movement of the 1980s. The 262 bodies were “discovered at the former prison’s graveyard, where deceased prisoners with no family ties were buried, triggering speculation” that they could have belonged to victims of the crackdown during the uprising. Based on DNA analysis of remains of 101 bodies, no connection was found between them and the May uprising.
Since Chun Doo-hwan’s indictment in May 2018, he had “twice rejected court summon orders, citing health reasons”, claiming that he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. The report also stated that his previous court appearance had been in March 2019. However, his statements about his frail health seemed less and less true after he was observed to be in good enough shape to attend court proceedings on a number of occasions. In the past, he was spotted having lunch with his former aides or playing golf.
On April 27, 2020, the former 89-year-old president made his first appearance at the Gwangju District Court after 13 months. He was accompanied by “his wife and former first lady Lee Soon-ja”. Every time the former dictator has had to pass through an outraged crowd to enter the courthouse, South Korean media outlets have reported what some civilians, demanding that he admit his guilt, said to the ex-President.
The court proceedings focused on two issues: on whether guns were fired from helicopters and if Chun Doo-hwan knew that they were at the time he had accused Rev. Cho Chul-hyun of lying in his autobiography. The former President has insisted that the late priest lied and also said that to his “knowledge there were no firings from the helicopters”. “There would have been mass casualties if indeed shots were taken from helicopters. I don’t think that our country’s sons, whether they be lieutenant or captain-level pilots, would have taken such actions,” he also told the judge. During the court proceedings, Chun Doo-hwan nodded off during the trial and despite being equipped with a hearing aid, “he claimed to be unable to hear and responded only after hearing an explanation from his wife”.
The investigation proceeded under pressure from top leadership. According to an article published by the Yonhap News Agency on May 17, 2020, Moon Jae-in, during an interview with the Gwangju regional station of MBC, emphasized that “who ordered the opening of fire and where the final legal responsibility for it” was remained unknown. “We have to identify all the victims of the massacre and uncover how the helicopter shooting was done and a massive operation was carried out to conceal and distort the truth,” Moon said, and that means that one cannot doubt the fact of the firing.
During the proceedings, the prosecution “requested the presence of related experts and witnesses to prove that the firing from helicopters” did take place. They included “Kim Dong-hyeon, head of firearms research at the National Forensic Service, who studied bullet marks on the Jeonil Building” and “David Dolinger, a former US Peace Corps member who claimed to have witnessed soldiers open fire on civilians from helicopters”.
In response, on September 21, “two defense witnesses testified” during the court hearing. Lee Jong-ku, a high ranking defense official during the uprising, said he “neither received an order to do such a thing, nor was aware of the military doing it”. Another witness, Choi Hae-phil, who served in the special investigation committee for the May 18 uprising, “said he did not believe military pilots actually followed through with an order to fire at Gwangju citizens and that the bullet marks found on the wall of a building in the city did not seem to have been caused by firing from helicopters”.
During the last arguments at the court on October 5, 2020, which Chun Doo-hwan did not attend citing poor health, the prosecution requested the judge sentence the former President to 1.5 years in prison. “Scoffing at people who remember the pain of history should not be justified as freedom of expression … Giving the defendant a jail term would serve as a stepping stone for our society to gain power to not repeat unjust history,” the prosecution said.
Chun Doo-hwan’s lawyer, on the other hand, told journalists that “he was confident that the former president” would be cleared of the charges based on evidence that had been garnered so far.
According to the article published on 13 October by the Yonhap News Agency, Kim Jung-ho, “the attorney for victims involved in the uprising, claimed the case” was not “simply one of defamation between individuals”. “The key here is the distortion of historical facts, which are in the realm of public interest,” he said. According to interest groups representing victims of the uprising “The court should set history straight by handing down a sentence on Chun, who has been distorting history with his lies.” “This trial is significant in that it is the formal recognition by our judicial branch of the helicopter shooting. The court must show that fabrication will no longer be tolerated,” they also added.
On November 30, 2020, the Gwangju District Court sentenced Chun Doo-hwan to eight months in prison, suspending it for two years after finding him guilty of defaming priest Cho Chul-hyun (de facto is a suspended sentence).
“Given the appraisal by the National Forensic Service, there is reasonable ground to believe that there were shootings from helicopters on May 21, 1980,” the court said. Still, it is reasonable to assume that the ruling resembles the “highly likely” phrasing, which is not used if the burden of proof has been met.
Based on the findings of a fact-finding committee established by the Ministry of National Defense after a five-month investigation and a review of 620,000 pages of documents and interviews with hundreds of former military officers and witnesses, the court ruled that civilians had been shot at from helicopters on May 21 and 27. In addition, according to the report “some former pilots testified they fired Vulcan rounds from Cobra attack helicopters toward a vacant lot as warning shots”.
However, aside from their testimony, “the committee failed to obtain helicopter operation logs as military units in questions did not keep them or claimed they no longer had them as more than 30 years” had passed. Still an important question remained unanswered: who gave the order to open fire.
In addition, the court “said the biggest responsibility for the brutal crackdown fell on Chun, adding that he should sincerely apologize for the suffering and pain he caused”.
The former 87-year-old dictator almost missed his sentencing, and actually received loud vocal support from ultra-conservative groups when he left his house that morning. Chun Doo-hwan “showed no signs of remorse” when he exited his home and even “snapped at a reporter who asked him if he denied having ordered the military to open fire on civilian protesters”.
So what could we say in conclusion? The court case ended in semi-success because the suspended sentence does not satisfy numerous left-wing activists and residents of Gwangju who lost their loved ones.
It would have been difficult not to find the ex-dictator guilty after the statements made by Moon Jae-in but no hard evidence that the protesters were fired on from helicopters was found. And since the accusations levelled against the ex-President were vague in nature (i.e. they concerned shooting from helicopters without even specifying the types of guns used), simply the fact that weapons were used helped the court find the former President guilty.
In the author’s opinion, the investigation actually revealed that people were shot at from government-issued carbine rifles and that machine guns were simply used as a warning to the crowds. Hence, Moon Jae-in’s administration may have to look for more evidence that genocide actually happened.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.