SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — The grandson of former South Korean military dictator Chun Doo-hwan apologised Friday for a massacre committed in the 1980s, a move hailed by victims and analysts as symbolic and significant.
Chun Woo-won, 27, became the first member of his family to visit the Gwangju cemetery and say sorry for the 1980 crackdown on a democracy uprising, which killed at least about 200 people, according to official estimates.
New York-based Chun has attracted widespread media coverage in South Korea for accusing his relatives of corruption in his Youtube and Instagram live streams.
During one social media broadcast, he claimed to have taken illegal narcotics and was arrested when he landed in Seoul Tuesday but released the next day.
On Friday, Chun was seen in televised footage consoling massacre victims’ relatives.
“I give my sincere apologies. I am sorry,” he said in South Korea’s Gwangju, looking visibly emotional.
“As a family member, I acknowledge that my grandfather Chun Doo-hwan was a sinner and slaughterer who committed such a great crime,” he said at a separate event.
“The citizens of Gwangju, who overcame fear in the midst of military dictatorship and stood against it with courage are heroes and truly the light and salt of our country.”
Shortly after Chun Doo-hwan seized power in a 1979 military coup, his troops used deadly force to quell protests in Gwangju.
While he was convicted of treason over the incident in 1996, his sentence was commuted by a presidential pardon, and he never admitted involvement in, or apologised for, the killings.
‘Significant and symbolic’
At the time of the massacre, Chun Doo-hwan’s military regime claimed the protests were a rebellion led by supporters of then-opposition leader Kim Dae-jung and “agitators” sympathetic to North Korea.
As recently as 2019, some extreme-right lawmakers claimed the rebellion was backed by Pyongyang.
But now “there is a consensus that the whole thing was a horrible crime by an illegitimate military government,” Vladimir Tikhonov, professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, told AFP.
“Now this consensus is being joined even by a part of the perpetrator’s own family. This is significant, and symbolic.”
Many family members welcomed the younger Chun’s visit, with some giving him a hug.
“Thank you for coming,” one told him.
“Be brave,” said another.
“Chun Doo-hwan died without ever apologising, so someone in his family should have done it in a proper manner a long time ago,” Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University told AFP.
“His grandson’s apology today showed that historical tragedies always deserve justice no matter how much time has passed.”