Skeletons in South Korea's closet Show trials: A whole era of military rule is charged with murder, mutiny and corruption.

January 02, 1996

PRESIDENT KIM YOUNG SAM of South Korea has consolidated enough legitimacy to put on trial an entire era of military rule, spanning the years from 1979 to 1993. The effort tears at South Korea's fabric of prosperity and confidence, yet confirms it as well.

Last July, prosecutors refused to press charges against the former presidents Chun Doo Hwan (1981-8) and Roh Tae Woo (1988-93), citing the need for national unity as North Korea remains a mystery and menace. But in late November, President Kim instructed the ruling Liberal Democratic parliamentarians to enact a law making the two presidents liable for crimes dating to 1979, and prosecutors named new investigators.

Now the two former generals face trials for alleged colossal corruption in their presidential dealings with South Korea's greatest corporate firms -- firms whose CEOs will also be in the dock. Both face trial for the 1979 putsch that murdered dictator ++ Park Chung Hee and, a year later led to the massacre of hundreds of democracy demonstrators in Kwangju, the crime that continues to haunt the Korean psyche. These historic events complement the extortion and laundering of hundreds millions of dollars in bribes with which Generals Roh and General Chun are charged.

General Chun is seriously ill from a hunger strike. Putting the shoe on the other foot, turning powerless opponents into avenging angels, is a dangerous business. Societies that emerge from dictatorship face awful choices between reconciliation and justice. What is necessary for one might not be right for another.

South Korea is one of the world's great economic powers and success stories. The foundation for this achievement was built under the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee. That success demanded the democracy that now prevails. President Kim, with not a little vengeance, is going after the dictators of the interim period, when the economic momentum went forward and he was suppressed. It is a risky and courageous course.

Now it is necessary for investigations to lead where they will. The prize sought is legitimacy in the eyes of the ruled. If that is attained, South Korea will emerge even stronger and more dependable.

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