[Exclusive] Truth commission to seek additional murder charges for figures behind 1980 Gwangju massacre

Posted on : 2024-05-20 17:13 KST Modified on : 2024-05-20 17:13 KST
The commission’s plenary committee is slated to consider motions to formally accuse key military figures of murder for the purpose of insurrection, suggesting that evidence of new crimes has been found
This photograph, by American journalist Norman Knute Thorpe, shows the dead bodies of Moon Jae-hak and Ahn Jong-pil inside the former South Jeolla Provincial Office after the martial law forces completed their operation to subdue citizens’ militia members who were occupying the building on May 27, 1980. (Kim Yong-hee/The Hankyoreh)
This photograph, by American journalist Norman Knute Thorpe, shows the dead bodies of Moon Jae-hak and Ahn Jong-pil inside the former South Jeolla Provincial Office after the martial law forces completed their operation to subdue citizens’ militia members who were occupying the building on May 27, 1980. (Kim Yong-hee/The Hankyoreh)

The May 18 Democratization Movement Truth Commission is reportedly set to consider motions to seek charges against two military figures instrumental in the ruthless crackdown on Gwangju’s pro-democracy protesters in 1980 for murder for the purpose of insurrection. The commission will be considering the proposal alongside one that calls for charging 10 others with the murder of civilians during the protests. 

According to multiple sources with knowledge about the commission, the body’s plenary committee was set to review proposals on Monday to formally accuse Chung Ho-yong (then the commander of special operations) and Choi Se-chang (commander of the 3rd Special Forces Brigade) of homicide for purposes of insurrection and to charge Choi Woong (commander of the 11th Special Forces Brigade) and nine others for the murder of civilians. The plenary committee operates on the principle of unanimous consensus, but if a consensus cannot be reached, numerous committee members think that the committee could put the issue to a vote if need be. 

The move to seek charges against Chung and Choi for homicide for purposes of insurrection indicates that investigators have uncovered additional crimes connected to the convictions of Chun Doo-hwan, Hwang Young-shi and Chung Ho-yong and two others on the same charges in December 1997, a decision made by the Supreme Court. 

The conviction against Chun is for the former president’s connection to the murder of 18 protesters, including Yoon Sang-won, during the early hours of May 27, 1980, when martial law forces were attempting to reestablish control over Gwangju. The truth commission’s investigations have revealed an additional seven deaths that occurred on the same day, thus enabling charges against the defendants for additional crimes. 

However, the statute of limitations has expired for Chun, who has since died, and the three other suspects, including Chung. The additional revelations allow for charges against Chung, who was ruled guilty in 1997, and Choi Se-chang, who evaded charges for his central role in both the military coup of Dec. 12, 1979, and the suppression of Gwangju.

On May 23, 1980, Chae Su-gil and Yang Min-seok were summarily executed in Junam Village, in Gwangu’s Jiwon neighborhood. Pictured is a memorial monument for the two civilians. (Jung Dae-ha/The Hankyoreh)
On May 23, 1980, Chae Su-gil and Yang Min-seok were summarily executed in Junam Village, in Gwangu’s Jiwon neighborhood. Pictured is a memorial monument for the two civilians. (Jung Dae-ha/The Hankyoreh)

The truth commission maintains that even if a defendant has already been punished for a crime, the revelation of additional crimes related to homicide for purposes of insurrection permits the defendant to be indicted and punished again. 

“We commissioned Kim Jae-yoon, professor of law at Konkuk University, in November 2020 to review human rights legislation as it related to the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement,” said a truth commission insider. 

“According to Kim, a defendant can be charged with homicide for purposes of insurrection multiple times if an investigation reveals additional victims, thereby nullifying the principle of double jeopardy,” the insider added. 

It also looks as if the expiration of the statute of limitations is not going to be an issue. On Dec. 21, 1995, the National Assembly passed a special act that permits prosecution against crimes that “disrupt constitutional order.” This act exempts crimes like treason, homicide for purposes of insurrection, and mass slaughter from statutes of limitations. 

The accused parties have protested the move. Speaking to the Hankyoreh over the phone on Sunday, Chung Yong-ho called the commission’s proposal “pure nonsense.” 

“Come back with something that makes sense,” he said before hanging up. 

Chung, who arrived in Gwangju as the military’s commander for special operations, was convicted by the Supreme Court in 1997 for participating in an insurrection and for homicide for purposes of insurrection. He was sentenced to 10 years, but he was pardoned in 1998 by President Kim Dae-jung. 

In a statement he submitted to the truth commission in 2020, Chung claimed, “I was convicted and punished [for homicide for purposes of insurrection], but I never conspired with General Chun Doo-hwan, and the special operators in Gwangju were transferred to another regiment, so I never had any internal operational control over them. I was only convicted because of my title of ‘special operations commander.’ This is absurd.”

Chung had previously served as Army chief of staff, the minister of internal affairs, and the defense minister under Chun Doo-hwan.

In a phone interview with the Hankyoreh, Choi Se-chang said, “I have no reason to [explain] myself, and I have no comments to offer you.” He then hung up immediately. 

Choi was convicted by the Supreme Court in 1997 for distributing live rounds and ordering troops of the 3rd Special Forces Brigade to use them in the suppression of Gwangju protesters. He was also convicted of murdering his commanding officer and of participating in the 1979 coup that gave Chun power. 

Choi was sentenced to five years, but was pardoned the following August. The May 18 truth commission stated, “Choi was never indicted for homicide for purposes of insurrection, but he served a major role in the violent suppression of protesters on May 27, 1980, and is thereby eligible to be reconvicted of that crime.”

Ryu Si-yeol, who worked as a deputy supervisor at the charcoal briquette factory in Gwangju’s Songam industrial complex at the time of the uprising, points to a vacant lot next to what’s now a driver’s education academy, and speaks about suspected massacres of civilians. (Jung Dae-ha/The Hankyoreh)
Ryu Si-yeol, who worked as a deputy supervisor at the charcoal briquette factory in Gwangju’s Songam industrial complex at the time of the uprising, points to a vacant lot next to what’s now a driver’s education academy, and speaks about suspected massacres of civilians. (Jung Dae-ha/The Hankyoreh)

After the massacre in Gwangju, Choi went on to serve as the commandant of the Capital Garrison Command, the Army chief of staff, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was discharged in 1989 and served as the defense minister under the Roh Tae-woo administration.  

The commission’s accusations against former 11th Special Forces Brigade (Airborne) commander Choi Woong and nine other military figures — which it decided to present before the plenary session along with its accusations against Chung and Choi — concern massacres of civilians that took place in the village of Junam (in the Jiwon neighborhood of Gwangju) and the neighborhood of Songam on May 23 and 24, 1980.

Choi and five other local corps leaders and soldiers are the focus of accusations over their alleged summary executions of two survivors of a May 23 shooting involving a minibus in Junam. Choi was also one of five military figures who were the subject of accusations over the alleged summary killing of three civilians a day later in Songam.

The commission planned to present these items for review when the plenary committee convened on Monday. The commission’s plenary committee consists of nine members, including three permanent members and three non-permanent members each nominated by the Democratic Party and People Power Party.

But based on the PPP-nominated committee members’ actions to date, commission insiders predicted a strong likelihood they would oppose the measures’ passage.

A key figure on the commission said, “If an agreement can’t be reached in the plenary committee, [the measures] can be passed by way of a vote after obtaining consent for voting on the matter’s adoption.”

“The quorum for approval is five members, which is over half the registered members,” they added.

Commenting on the accusations, commission participant and Chonnam National University professor Min Byoung-ro, who serves as director of the university’s May 18 Institute, explained, “The Special Act on Investigating the Truth of the May 18 Democratization Movement (Article 44) states, ‘Where matters investigated by the Commission are ascertained as facts and a crime is suspected, the Commission shall file an accusation with the Prosecutor General.’”
By Jung Dae-ha, Gwangju correspondent; Kim Yong-hee, Gwangju correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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