The Retirement of Dictators: Chun Doo-hwan in Court

Jed Lea-Henry
7 min readMar 22, 2019


If the passing of time is reason enough to forgive someone, then what about age itself? If not forgiveness, then how about a considered disregard? A decision to leave behind what cannot be changed — to simply get on with things.

Chun Doo-hwan is old (88), and as he walked into court this past week, shuttled along by his wife, it was — for anyone looking in on the scene from a position of neutrality (difficult in this case) — an alarming spectacle. There was a very real sense of physical danger to things. A frail, disorientated old man surrounded by — what is too common a display outside South Korean courts — an overly excited crowd of pawing media, pushing aggressively past visibly desperate, and overmatched, police officers.

This slight expression of concern would be too much for most people. Chun is also a former dictator and military leader, who ruled through coup d’état, and the last man at the scene of the crime — still fighting against the coming wave of South Korean democracy. In a country that struggles with the legacies of its former leaders, Chun rarely has this problem. He is the monster of Gwangju, a dictator without an upside, and germane to his current day in court, almost entirely unrepentant for his crimes — I don’t think it is a stretch to say — against the Korean people as a whole.

On trial again, Chun is now accused of ‘defaming the dead’, an odd charge in itself; also one with ‘criminal’ ramifications in South Korea. The deceased victim, a priest, Cho Bi-oh, claimed to have seen helicopter gunships fire upon protesters during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. In 2017, Chun published his memoirs, and responded by calling the priest a “shameless liar unworthy of the ecclesiastical title” and a “masked Satan”.

The charge itself hinges around technical details concerning the helicopter. There is enough in the historical record now to show that such firing upon civilians (from helicopters) did occur. But Chun doesn’t have to fight this. He merely has to show that such an incident did not likely happen at 2 p.m. on May 21, 1980 (the time Cho Bi-oh claimed to have witnessed it). Beyond this, Chun can, and according to his lawyers will, assert the defence (quite reasonably) that his “memoir was based on his own memory” and so there was no ‘intent’ to defame Cho.

But all this has very little to do with Cho Bi-oh. Adding to the theatre of the day, large crowds camped outside the courtroom, and sang old protest songs of the 1980’s. Returning to Gwangju (under subpoena) for the first time since the uprising, for many of the people waiting this was a chance to finally confront Chun, and express 39 years of built up anger and grief. For them this was about the commemoration of a massacre.

When interviewed they seemed to all return to a single theme: Chun Doo-hwan has never apologised for ordering the military crackdown. Instead he has always maintained that he acted in defence of the republic, against a “revolt caused by North Korean military intervention”. It is here that the real problem with Gwangju can be found. In recent years, the declassification and release of American documents has helped shed a little light on events, but it is still a clouded moment in history.

The North Korean question is often entertained as a slur against the memory of those fighting Chun’s authoritarian rule. But there is also the testimony from North Koreans defectors to consider. Some of whom have claimed that there were indeed Northern agents on the ground in Gwangju. What we know for sure, is that during this period Pyongyang had managed to embed thousands of spies inside South Korean society. It is unreasonable to believe that at least some of them did not head to Gwangju to help stoke things along, and ferment unrest, once the word got out. The impact they had was almost certainly next-to-zero, but to deny their likely presence altogether is unhelpful, and conspiratorial in its own right.

It couldn’t have helped ease Chun’s belief that three years later he narrowly escaped an assassination by North Korean agents whilst on a state visit to Rangoon, Burma (17 people were killed, including Korean cabinet ministers). Not the sort of thing that encourages someone to become a little more nuanced and open-minded.

On the stand, again Chun showed no remorse; but maybe a little dementia. Significant neurodegeneration from Alzheimer’s disease was one of the reasons Chun’s legal team tried to have him excused from appearing in person at the trial; and recent sightings of Chun golfing don’t disprove his poor health, as so much of the media have tried to claim. Almost as soon as the hearing was underway, the judge carefully informed Chun of his right to refuse testimony. Chun replied, “I don’t understand what you mean.”

By any reasonable measure, those outside the courtroom will never receive satisfaction. But their ire does feel a little narrow. For his eight years of authoritarian rule, Chun was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996; the specific charges being ‘mutiny’ and ‘corruption’. An appeals court commuted this to ‘life in prison’, and then President Kim Young-sam (acting on the advice of President-elect, Kim Dae-jung), pardoned both Chun and his successor Roh Tae-woo, under the guise of ‘political reconciliation’.

South Korean prison sentences just aren’t what they seem. Political leaders and the heads of the large Chaebol (family owned conglomerates) have a revolving door relationship with the justice system. They are regularly convicted, given exorbitantly large prison terms, and are then released on appeal, or pardon, after only a couple of years when the heat has died off. Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung, is already free and back in charge of the company, despite being sentenced to serve five years in 2017; and in recent weeks thousands of conservative protestors have been demonstrating for the early release of his partner in corruption, former-President Park Geun-hye, sentenced to 24 years.

It is a strange targeting of anger to condemn Chun Doo-hwan, but not the men — nor the system — that excused him from his punishment.

If convicted of defaming the dead, Chun will face two years in prison, or a maximum fine of five million Korean Won (approximately US$5000). Based on the track record of such courts, and Chun’s age/health, it is unlikely to be the former. If the latter, then it can simply be added to the near-200 billion Korean Won he still owes from earlier court decisions (money he clearly doesn’t have, and will never earn).

Symbolic prosecutions are not entirely without value, but they do rely on the process being the punishment — an institutional sickness in itself, and a contemptuous attachment to the principle of judicial fair treatment. The only satisfaction being gained here, is that of inconveniencing Chun’s retirement. Soon the case will pass, the moment will wash-by, and left behind will be the Gwangju crowds; still hoping for an apology that will never come, as a replacement for the grief they can’t be free of.

The crimes of Gwangju will never feel normal, and apologies rarely fill the moral void that people imagine they will. What if Chun Doo-hwan, at his next court appearance, offered a full-throated repentance? Apologised, sobbed and grovelled approvingly in front of those watching. Would the Korean public suddenly forgive the man for whom so many of their historical scars are blamed? Chun will always be hated, and perhaps that is appropriate, but it should be so for what he did, not for his continued presence in society.

The victims of Gwangju, and Korea at large, are much like the technical victim in this particular case. From beyond the grave, Cho Bi-oh can hardly feel wronged, and as a priest, I wonder how comfortable he would be as a proxy for so much externalised pain and loathing. Forcing history back into the light cannot change it.

Behaving like the old soldier he is, Chun is firmly dug into the conviction that as he ordered the troops into Gwangju, he was fighting an existential enemy. If feels like nothing will change his mind on this, and coercion is not the answer. If you insist on people expressing contrition, then you are simply asking to be lied to. It may be abhorrent, and insulting to those personally affected, but in a free and open society Chun is entitled to question the history of Gwangju, regardless of how established a fact it is.

Korean libel laws are notorious for missing the point. They focus on offence and not truth. Truth only becomes so, as Karl Popper showed, through defending itself against criticism; intellectually, not legally. Through the court system, the media eye, and draconian laws, there is a risk of making Chun look like a victim (beyond this, what are the chances of him getting a fair trial in a city like Gwangju?). It is surely a mistake to campaign against authoritarianism, with the tools of authoritarianism. Either way, so much for Kim Dae-jung’s ‘political reconciliation’.