Former S. Korean dictator’s grandson to apologise to families of Gwangju Uprising victims

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/Asia News Network): Chun Woo-won (pic) is slated to meet with the bereaved families of those killed in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising on Friday (March 31), as South Koreans keenly follow the man’s self-proclaimed quest to atone for the legacy of his late grandfather, a military dictator widely blamed for the massacre.

According to officials of the May 18 Memorial Foundation, the 27-year-old will hold a press conference where he will officially apologise on behalf of his late grandfather, former president Chun Doo-hwan, for his role in the killings.

The foundation’s staff have accompanied Chun since his release from police custody on Wednesday. He is being investigated after he publicly admitted to using drugs.

The press conference will mark the first time a member of the Chun family has apologised for the deaths of hundreds during the pro-democracy protests against Chun Doo-hwan’s declaration of martial law on May 17, 1980, after seizing power in a military coup the year before.

He was held responsible for directing the violent suppression of the demonstrations started by university students in the south-western city of Gwangju – in which hundreds, and possibly thousands, were gunned down or clubbed to death.

The general ruled South Korea from 1980 to 1988. He was sentenced to death in 1996 for his role in the Gwangju Massacre, but was later pardoned. He died in Seoul at the age of 90 in November 2021.

The younger Chun, who arrived in Gwangju just after midnight on Thursday told reporters that he had long avoided Gwangju “out of fear and selfishness”.

“I’m so sorry it took me so long to get here,” he added.

After the press conference and meetings with Gwangju citizens, he will stop by the May 18th National Cemetery to pay respect to the victims. Ex-President Chun never apologised for his crimes, even until his death in 2021.

Chun, who has been educated and lives in the United States, burst into the spotlight on March 13 when he publicly condemned his grandfather’s role in the May 18 uprising and criticised his family for benefiting from alleged “black money”. Since then, he has continued to make confessions and accusations of illegal activities by his family members, acquaintances and himself.

The public’s response has been divided.

At Incheon Airport on Tuesday, a battalion of reporters and people wanting to show support for him were waiting for his arrival from the US, in a scene somewhat reminiscent of a Hallyu star returning home from an overseas tour.

His brief interview with reporters, while flanked by police officers, was broadcast live on various YouTube and TV channels. An online fan club supporting Chun has emerged, and some netizens have been expressing sympathy for the suffering of “a young, uncorrupted soul” due to the sins of his predecessors.

But there are also many who express caution against the fandom forming around a self-proclaimed drug user. Chun, while in the US, had even live-streamed his drug use.

Regardless of the split opinion on Chun, groups related to the Gwangju Uprising seem to find good in Chun’s intent to apologise for his late grandfather’s crimes.

“Victims of May 18 hold (Chun’s) courage in the highest regard. I speak for the bereaved family when I welcome you (to Gwangju), and please offer sincere apology to the lost souls of May 18,” said Lee Nam, the head of the Seoul division of the May 18 Memorial Injured – a group of those injured during the uprising.

Jo Jin-tae, the May 18 Memorial Foundation chief who will accompany Chun during the Friday meeting, said in a media interview that he had discussed the matter with the bereaved families, who decided that it was worth hearing him out.

He said family members of the victims had noted that Chun had repeatedly called his grandfather a mass murderer, and it was “not just a one-time thing”.

“In that sense, his testimonies are very significant, and (the families) wish to affirm such sincerity when they talk with him in Gwangju,” he said.

Jo said he and Chun plan to discuss the illicit funds that the former president accumulated during his dictatorial rule of South Korea – money that the Chun family has supposedly stashed away.

Before Chun Doo-hwan died, he was due to pay a fine of 95.6 billion won (S$97.8 million) for his various crimes.

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