What They Said is a regular series on the quotes Korea is talking about.
Another year has gone by! We’ve all grown a little older and wiser, right?
Well, no. Some people never change.
One such person is Lee Soon-ja, wife of the notorious former President Chun Doo-hwan. On the first day of 2019, she gave an exclusive interview to News Town, one of the two major far-right online newspapers (New Daily being the other). Its YouTube channel, News Town TV, posted the video of the interview, and soon it made the headlines.
Well, before we get into what she said, here’s a brief recap of the last 40 years of Korean politics.
1979 is remembered for the assassination of President Park Chung-hee (the father of President Park Geun-hye), and the installation of Prime Minister Choi Kyu-ha as Acting President.
Chun Doo-hwan, then a general in the Korean army, initiated a coup and became the de facto leader of the nation by the end of the same year. To name a few of his accomplishments while president, he: abolished all political parties, forming his own to rule the country as a one-party state; massacred over 600 civilians by ordering an armed crackdown on a pro-democracy demonstration in May 1980 (known as the Gwangju Democratization Movement); won the election with a tally 99.99 percent in favor of his presidency; tortured and killed Korean youths who protested his dictatorship; censored media; received billions of won in bribes; and ordered the death penalty for opposing lawmakers, including a future president, Kim Dae-jung.
That’s not to say nothing good happened during his presidency. His term saw the establishment of internet networks in Korea, the installation of undersea fiber optics cables, the introduction of the concept of the right to pursue happiness, the hosting of international sporting events, and the biggest economic leap of recent Korean history.
But alas for Chun, the corruption scandals and killings that earned him the nickname “Butcher” remain ingrained in people’s minds. In 1995, after avoiding arrest warrants by running away, he was finally caught and brought to court for his wrongdoings and sentenced to death in 1996. This sentence was commuted by President Kim Young-sam under the advice of the then president-elect, Kim Dae-jung. During his final sentencing in 1997, Chun made a well-known comment “I only have 290,000 won to my name”.
Fast-forward to 2017. Chun published a three-volume memoir in which he romanticized his dictatorship, denied knowing what happened during the massacre in Gwangju, and flat out lied about many of the controversial things he did. Some Koreans petitioned to have the book removed from stores. Because of the content, Chun was indicted by the Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office for defaming the people who were involved in the Gwangju Democratization Movement. His trial in Gwangju had been set for January 7, 2019, but he failed to appear in court (claiming he had the flu) and the trial has been rescheduled to March 11.
And hours after the first sun of 2019 came up, an amazingly sympathetic interviewer on News Town TV interviewed Chun’s wife, Lee Soon-ja.
How great it would be if he were healthy now, so he could plan everything and go down [to Gwangju] to boldly say everything he needs to… I resent the heavens. Why are the heavens giving him this kind of ordeal, why are the heavens giving him memory problems so that he doesn’t remember what happened moments ago and forgets what I’ve told him recently. I feel very sorry for him. And asking someone in his condition to come down to Gwangju to talk about what happened in the 1980s and to testify seems like a comedy show to me. When I think about him, a person who doesn’t remember anything that happened just moments ago, having to testify, I wonder if he’d be able to talk in detail about things that are close to the tangible truth. As his family, we’re heartbroken.
— Lee Soon-ja. January 1, 2019.
It was rather ironic for Lee Soon-ja to bring up freedom of expression given her husband’s incessant censorship of the media while he was president—joking about baldness was prohibited (because Chun was bald) and characters named Soon-ja were not allowed to be humorous or from humble backgrounds. Writers were tortured for writing novels or poems that criticized the administration. Lee complained about people taking issue with the accuracy of Chun’s memoir. However, the book was found to have distorted historical truth by the Supreme Court, and according to JTBC’s Fact Check, freedom of expression is a limited concept under the Korean Constitution. Article 21 of the Constitution on the freedom of speech states: “Neither speech nor the press shall violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics. Should speech or the press violate the honor or rights of other persons, claims may be made for the damage resulting therefrom.”
Lee went on to portray both Chun and herself as victims:
For 40 years since [Chun] retired from office, we’ve suffered all we could suffer, and our reputation has been as tarnished as it could be, and even if miraculously people want to treat us nicely, we’re at the very last stage [of life] in which we can’t receive nice treatment for more than a few years.
— Lee Soon-ja. January 1, 2019.
Then she listed all of Chun’s “achievements”, each of which was blatantly false or, at best, controversial:
He tripled the national income during his term, and people say that Korea is the only country that has achieved consecutive economic growth rates of 12 percent… The most important thing is that he was the first president to establish a one-term system, and thanks to him Korean presidents can’t even think about staying in office for longer than five years. Who’s the father of democracy? I believe that my husband is. What is Korea’s democracy? Isn’t it about people having the right to change something if they want to? People said direct election was democratic, so he gave them a direct election system. And instead of stepping down from office immediately after the June Struggle, he stayed for half a year longer and met all the demands for democratization they wanted.
— Lee Soon-ja. January 1, 2019.
There are so many errors and lies in this quote that it’s hard to unpack.
First, he didn’t triple the national income during his term. He doubled it, from USD 1,686 in 1980 to USD 3,467 in 1987. And Korea’s economic growth rate during the eight years of his presidency was an average of 8.6%, not 12.
And it wasn’t Chun’s idea to institute a single-term presidency. Korean people had suffered under the long-term rules of Syngman Rhee (12 years) and Park Chung-hee (18 years) and it was they who demanded the single-term.
And as for the June Struggle, the events of which were dramatized in the recent film 1987, it was those protests that pushed the Chun administration into compromise instead of oppression. And it was the man who replaced him, Roh Tae-woo, who had suggested that Chun accept the people’s demands… so, perhaps things would have still changed for the better if Chun had stepped down earlier.
As was expected, the ruling political party and three opposition parties expressed their outrage at Lee’s interview.
Labeling Lee’s assertion that her husband was the father of Korea’s democracy as absurd and ludicrous, Seol Hoon, a member of the Democratic Party’s supreme council, remarked on January 2:
If they still had the slightest bit of conscience, I don’t think they would be capable of making such a statement or behaving this way. If they do still have the least bit of conscience, they should prostrate themselves in front of history and wait for the people’s judgment. I hope that they don’t remain as monsters who make a habit of making these statements. Personally, I was tortured nearly to death and spent days and days in agony in prison in 1980 when Kim Dae-jung was arrested and sentenced to death on charges of sedition and conspiracy. Thinking that my narrow mindset was to blame, I tried to forgive them. I decided to forgive them. But now that I think about it, I realize that forgiveness was a terribly wrong thing to give them. I should not have forgiven them. Many Koreans will now think that forgiving them was wrong. We should not have forgiven them.
— Seol Hoon. January 2, 2019.
During the morning briefing session, Justice Party spokesperson Jeong Ho-jin also made a statement regarding Lee’s interview:
Chun Doo-hwan’s wife Lee Soon-ja hailed her husband as the father of democracy. People can convince themselves of anything, but this is close to an illness. Chun is a killer who turned Gwangju into a living hell. He was found guilty and was sentenced to life in prison in 1997. The reason he is free today is not because he was not guilty. It was because he was pardoned by chance. Yet Chun has never shown a shred of remorse. Instead, Chun and his wife published a memoir and absurdly claim that they, too, were wrongful victims of the Gwangju Democratization Movement.
Lee said that her husband cannot appear at court for the Gwangju Democratization Movement-related trial due to Alzheimer’s disease. That only makes us wonder how a man suffering from Alzheimer’s was able to write a memoir. Was the person who went to play golf not Chun but his avatar then? If Chun resorts to cheap tricks and does not appear at court as a means to obstruct the normal progress of the trial, he is damaging constitutionalism. The real father of democratization would laugh in his face… Even after over 40 years, Chun and his wife still maintain their same old attitude toward democracy and the Korean people. They are no more than the same people who illegally declared martial law and used the army to massacre countless people in order to gain power. Their shamelessness is beyond belief. If Chun wishes to maintain even the slightest bit of dignity as a former president, he should kneel and ask for forgiveness of the heroic souls of Gwangju and faithfully attend the trial. If he is unwilling to do so, he and his wife should at least shut their mouths and stop making more ludicrous statements.
— Roh Young-gwan. January 2, 2019.
The Party for Democracy and Peace’s spokesperson Kim Jung-hyun also commented on the interview on January 2, saying that its ridiculousness was “worthy of worldwide coverage”. Remarking that it has now become ever more important to determine the true course of events, he also asked for the Liberty Korea Party’s cooperation in the creation of a commission for investigating the truth despite the enactment of the Special Act on the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement, which was passed in February 2018 and implemented in September.
The Liberty Korea Party is the only party yet to comment on Lee Soon-ja’s interview.