The South Korean defense ministry launches a probe into the 1980 military crackdown on a pro-democracy movement in Gwangju. (Yonhap)
Victims of the bloody crackdown on a 1980 democracy uprising voiced frustrations Tuesday, as their efforts to bring former President Chun Doo-hwan to justice came to a sudden halt with his death earlier in the day.
Chun, an Army general-turned strongman, died at his home in western Seoul at age 90 after suffering from chronic illnesses, leaving behind a dark legacy of seizing power in a 1979 military coup and ruthlessly cracking down on the civil uprising in the southwestern city of Gwangju the following year.
Despite fact-finding attempts in the past, however, it remains unclear who ordered the opening of fire on civilian protesters in Gwangju, and Chun has denied his role despite widespread belief he was responsible.
Holding an emergency press conference following the news of Chun's death, civic groups, including the May 18 Memorial Foundation and victims' groups, stressed Chun's death won't erase the truth behind the brutal Gwangju crackdown on May 18, 1980.
"Chun had consistently defended himself as unaccountable for the incident with lame excuses, continuing to evade responsibility," an activist representing the groups said.
"Far from opting for remorse or apology, he led a disgusting life, making lies and distortions about the people and the judiciary, as well as insulting and defaming the spirits of the crackdown's victims," the activist noted.
The groups also voiced frustration over Chun's sudden death, which came in the midst of a libel case against the former president, who was accused of defaming a late Catholic priest who testified to having witnessed Chun's troops shooting from helicopters at demonstrators.
A year earlier, a district court sentenced Chun to eight months in prison, suspended for two years, in the first ruling of the case. But the court is expected to drop the case in the absence of the accused.
"Truth cannot be covered up by death," activists said, adding, "We will set history right by bringing justice to those responsible for the 'May massacre' and exposing every detail of Chun's criminal acts."
In a separate interview with Yonhap News Agency, Cho Jin-tae, an official representing the May 18 Memorial Foundation, said Chun gave up his chance to be forgiven while alive.
"Chun, while he was alive, had chances to win forgiveness for his crimes, but he kicked them away," Cho said, adding the former president will be left to be "tried before the judge of history."
Cho Kyu-yeon, the head of a civic group advocating victims of the crackdown and their families, echoed such views.
"I am dumbfounded that Chun, who was practically responsible for the crackdown, left without a word of apology." (Yonhap)