Washington International Law Journal


James M. West


On August 26, 1996, two former presidents of the Republic of Korea, Chun Doo-Hwan and Roh Tae-Woo, were convicted of insurrection, treason, and corruption. The charges arose out of their December 1979 coup and the ruthlessly violent suppression of a democratic protest in the city of Kwangju in May 1980. This article recounts the origins and analyzes the progress of this dramatic criminal trial, which has attracted worldwide attention. The current South Korean head of state, President Kim Young-Sam, has depicted the conviction of his predecessors as a historic juncture opening a new era of constitutionalism for Korea. Despite the popularity of the prosecutions in Korea, however, critics see the cases as motivated by revenge or political opportunism and have questioned whether the trials actually will serve to establish a Rule of Law under which Korea's dynamic political economy can purge itself of chronic corruption and authoritarian abuses of power. Other issues examined include continuing impacts of the Kwangju tragedy upon U.S.-Korean relations as well as possible implications of the criminal prosecutions for Korean reunification and for future transitions to democracy in other nations.

First Page