South Korea's long years of military rule ended just four years ago, and now the seal of justice has been put on that repressive era. Two former generals who between them held the presidency for a dozen years have been convicted in Seoul of crimes including mutiny, treason and corruption.
Chun Doo Hwan, who ruled until 1988 after seizing power following the 1979 assassination of the autocratic general Park Chung Hee, was sentenced to death. It was Chun who gave the orders in 1980 that led to the infamous Kwangju massacre, in which at least 200 civilians died at the hands of the army. Chun's successor, Roh Tae Woo, was sentenced to prison for 22 1/2 years.
Both sentences are likely to be eased by President Kim Young Sam, to the distress of many of those who suffered because of the abuses of human and civil rights ordered by the two former leaders. Whatever the ultimate fate of Chun and Roh, the significance of their trial and conviction will continue to loom large. Finally, retribution has come to those who arrogantly and at enormous personal profit denied 40 million South Koreans freedom of political choice and expression.
Justice may yet falter, however, in dealing with leading businessmen who were simultaneously convicted of what the court called "collusive links" with the military regimes. Those links involved huge cash bribes in exchange for lucrative economic favors. Among the business leaders convicted are the heads of the Samsung and Daewoo conglomerates and the giant Dong-Ah construction company. But many expect those sentenced to prison to be quickly pardoned, out of concern that jailing them could rattle the Korean economy.
The convictions of Chun and Roh deservedly boost confidence in the integrity of South Korea's justice system. Any overly generous leniency shown to their rich co-defendants would undercut that achievement.