Korea’s most notorious ex-president – who grabbed power via a coup, deployed special forces to bloodily suppress pro-democracy protesters and then escaped a death sentence – found himself in a court hearing on Monday facing an unusual charge.

Despite his 88 years, Chun Doo-hwan appeared defiant. Surrounded by bodyguards, the bald, stocky Vietnam veteran and former general shouldered through a scrum of reporters outside the courthouse in Gwangju, a city where he is roundly despised.

There, his first words – according to the Hankyoreh newspaper – were: “What the hell is this?”

A massacre was ignited in Gwangju in 1980 under Chun’s orders. But on Monday he was not facing charges of mass killing, but of libeling a dead priest.

President, killer – defamer?

Chun took power in a creeping coup d’etat in 1980, then sent in “black beret” airborne rangers to suppress protests against his rule in Gwangju. Citizens in that southwestern city, known for a  feisty history of anti-government protest, continued to demonstrate against Chun even after demonstrators elsewhere had been overawed by security forces.

Rangers waded in using aggressive riot-control tactics. Protesters responded in kind.  When troops escalated with gunfire, the city rose and the black berets retreated. Days later, major army units surrounded and stormed the city. The uprising was crushed.

At least 200 civilians were killed, although persistent rumor has it that the death toll was higher. Conversely, some right-wingers allege – despite considerable evidence against – that North Korean fifth columnists were operating behind the scenes. Moreover, questions over how far Washington supported Chun in 1980 haunted the bilateral alliance for decades.

Today, most South Koreans see the “Gwangju Uprising” as a forerunner of massive “People Power” protests that compelled Chun to relinquish power in 1987, enabling full democracy in South Korea. Still, the 1980 massacre and its date – May 18 – continue to traumatize South Korea’s political conscience. Chun’ s Monday visit to Gwangju was reportedly his first since 1987, the year of the country’s first free elections.

Monday’s court hearing was prompted by content in Chun’s 2017 memoirs.

Civic group The May 18 Memorial Foundation went to court, demanding 33 redactions. These were made, and Chun’s book reissued. The foundation again went to court, listing an additional 40 problematic passages, resulting in the book being banned nationwide. Only second-hand copies are available today.

However, it was the family of an activist lay priest, Cho Chol-hyun, who filed the suit heard on Monday. In his memoir, Chun called the late Cho a liar and “Satan in a mask” for claiming that troops in helicopters had fired upon Gwangju.

In response, Cho’s nephew filed a suit against Chun for defamation. Defaming the dead is a crime in South Korea, meaning Chun could – if found guilty – face two years’ imprisonment and a US$4,400 fine.

In court, an unrepentant Chun said his refutation of Cho’s testimony was based on historical records. Monday’s hearing was not the ex-president’s first acquaintance with a courtroom.

Chun exited the presidency in 1987. In 1996, he was sentenced to death for events that took place prior to and during his years in power, from 1980 to 1987. He escaped the noose via a 1997 pardon from President Kim Young-sam, who led South Korea between 1993 and 1998, on the advice of incoming President Kim Dae-jung, who sought to foster national unity.

Although Kim Dae-jung was Gwangju’s most famous son, Chun attended Kim’s 1998 presidential inauguration in apparently amicable circumstances.

Belated vengeance?

With one conservative ex-president, Park Geun-hye, serving a 33-year jail sentence for corruption and power abuse, and a second, Lee Myung-bak, on bail but still facing a 15-year sentence for corruption, inevitable suspicions of “political revenge” are hovering and the banning of Chun’s memoir and have raised questions over freedom of speech.

“I think, in a way, this is revenge against Chun for the Gwangju episode: A lot of people down there hate him and feel he is responsible for the killing,” said Don Kirk, one of a handful of Western journalists who reported from the uprising. Regarding the book banning, Kirk added: “Whether it is fair or not, it sounds like an infringement of his freedom of speech.”

Still, Kirk said that animus against Chun is understandable, and there has been a minimal backlash against the banning of the memoir.

“It is a little bit like Germany having laws against Holocaust denial,” said Cho Hee-kyung, a professor of law at Hongik University in Seoul. “I am not saying we should have a law against Gwangju incident denial – but you can look at in that spirit.”

Many question whether Chun has atoned. Most recently, though twice summoned to court, he failed to attend, citing ill health – then media reported he was playing golf.  The May 18 Foundation urged him to apologize to Gwangju on Monday – in vain.

“I think a lot of people are upset that justice was not really done, even at the time Kim Young-sam pardoned him,” said Cho. “There was strong sentiment that he had not paid for his sins … I think the general sentiment is that this person is not taking one iota of responsibility for all his atrocities.”

Still, others contend that justice has long been done.

“They did bring him to trial [in 1996] and they have memorialized the [uprising] – there is a great memorial in Gwangju – so, to a certain extent, justice was done,” said Kirk. “But to another extent, justice is never done. You cannot bring back people who were killed.”

After his Monday hearing, Chun was bundled into a car to return to Seoul. In recent years, Chun has lived quietly in a walled house in central Seoul. Though he claims poverty, there are widespread rumors of hidden billions amassed during his years in power, and allegations that his family is prosperous.

Ironically, Chun’s residence lies within walking distance of Seoul’s Yonsei University, where the 1987 demonstrations that overturned his rule originated.

The next hearing in the defamation case is set for April 8 in Gwangju.