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Two former Korean presidents freed by pardon then criticize economy

December 22, 1997

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ Two former military strongmen, serving long prison terms for treason and corruption, were freed today in a presidential pardon and promptly expressed worries about South Korea’s economic problems.

The amnesty was initiated by the man their martial law government sentenced to death 17 years ago: President-elect Kim Dae-jung.

Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who ruled South Korea from 1980 to 1992, walked separately out of prisons outside Seoul. They both apologized, then spoke about the nation’s economic shortcomings.

``I don’t understand how so quickly our economy became worse,″ Chun told reporters.

Later, at a university near the homes of the two ex-presidents in western Seoul, 300 students clashed with riot police, shouting ``no freedom to Chun and Roh!″

Police, holding plastic shields interlocked in front of them and occasionally firing tear gas, blocked students from marching into the streets. There were no immediate reports of injuries or arrests.

The amnesty was recommended by the president-elect during a meeting Saturday with President Kim Young-sam. Both agreed that the gesture would help reconcile a country torn by the recent elections and enable it to focus on repairing its shattered economy.

Also today, KiM revised his pro-labor stance and said layoffs by companies facing bankruptcy may be necessary. The statement removed a key worry among foreign investors that the new government may be soft on labor demands.

Korean stock prices have lost almost half their value so far this year, while the currency, the won, has fallen more than 80 percent. Architects of a $57 billion international bailout package for South Korea insist layoffs are essential for economic recovery.

The pardon, meanwhile, is an effort by Kim Dae-jung to allay a divided electorate that gave him just 40 percent of the vote in Thursday’s election. He received only a few votes in the home provinces of the two former strongmen.

Chun and Roh, then army generals, seized power in a 1979 coup and arrested then-opposition leader Kim Dae-jung, accusing him of fomenting a civil uprising in the southern city of Kwangju that resulted in the deaths of 200 people during a military crackdown.

Kim was subsequently sentenced to death by a military tribunal. After Washington intervened, the death sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment and then a 20-year term. He was freed two years later and was allowed to go to the United States for medical treatment.

Chun and Roh, hometown and military buddies, ruled South Korea for 13 years until Roh was replaced in 1993 by Kim Young-sam, the nation’s first civilian leader in 32 years.

The tables were turned against the two ex-strongmen in 1995 when they were accused of pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from businessmen while in office.

The two were initially arrested on corruption charges. Mutiny and treason charges were added for the 1979 coup and the crackdown in the ``Kwangju Massacre″ the following year.

A Seoul district court sentenced Chun to death and Roh to 22 1/2 years in prison. The sentences were later reduced by the Supreme Court to life imprisonment for Chun and 17 years for Roh.

The amnesty also restored the civil rights of the two ex-presidents but did not relieve them of hefty fines. Chun and Roh were fined $270 million and $350 million, respectively, roughly the same amount they got in bribes.

Also freed today were 12 ex-army generals who helped Chun and Roh in the coup and later served as Cabinet ministers, government legislators and army chiefs of staff under their governments.

``The pardon would help heal psychological scars inflicted by hotly contested elections,″ said Paik Seung-ki, a political science professor at Kyongwon University.

But some were more critical.

``It’s nothing but a political compromise,″ said Kim Kyong-nam, a Christina pastor who heads the Human Rights Committee of the National Council of Churches.

The government must free ``hundreds of prisoners of conscience″ sent to prison for fighting for greater labor and human rights, he said.

Today’s amnesty represents the ultimate in forgiveness by Kim Dae-jung, whose four-decade political career was marked by jailings, exile and assassination attempts by former military dictators.

Kim wears a hearing aid in his left ear which he says was damaged when he was tortured by government agents in 1980.

But during his campaign, Kim repeatedly promised not to seek political revenge.

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