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Whistleblower to overnight celebrity: Nation fixated on ex-dictator’s grandson

Chun Woo-won’s self-proclaimed quest to atone for his late grandfather’s crimes draws both praise and skepticism

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : March 30, 2023 - 15:32

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Chun Woo-won is slated to meet with the bereaved families of those killed in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising on Friday morning, as South Koreans keenly follow the man’s self-proclaimed quest to atone for the legacy of his late grandfather, a military dictator widely blamed for the massacre.

According to officials of the May 18 Memorial Foundation, the 27-year-old will hold a press conference in which he will officially apologize on behalf of his grandfather, ex-President Chun Doo-hwan, for his role in the killings. The foundation’s staff have accompanied Chun since his release from police custody on Wednesday. He is being investigated after he publicly admitted to using drugs.

The press conference will mark the first time a member of the Chun family has apologized for the deaths of hundreds during the May 18 Uprising.

“I’ve always avoided this place (Gwangju) out of fear and selfishness, and I thank all of you for welcoming me with the hearts of an angel,” he told the reporters and those related to the Gwangju Uprising after arriving at Gwangju just after midnight on Thursday. “I’m so sorry it took me so long to get here.”

Chun Woo-won arrives at a hotel in the southwestern city of Gwangju, where he plans to apologize to the victims of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. (Yonhap) Chun Woo-won arrives at a hotel in the southwestern city of Gwangju, where he plans to apologize to the victims of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. (Yonhap)

 

 

After the press conference and meetings with Gwangju citizens, he will stop by the May 18th National Cemetery to pay respect to the victims. Ex-President Chun never apologized for his crimes, even until his death in 2021.

Chun, who has been educated and lives in the US, burst into spotlight on March 13 when he publicly condemned his grandfather's role in the May 18 Uprising and criticized his family for benefiting from alleged "black money." Since then, he has continued to make confessions and accusations of illegal activities by his family members, acquaintances, and himself, keeping himself in the public eye.

The public’s response has been divided.

At Incheon Airport on Tuesday, a battalion of reporters and ordinary civilians wanting to show support for him were waiting for his arrival from the US, in a scene somewhat reminiscent of a Hallyu star returning home from an overseas tour.

His brief Q&A with reporters, flanked by police officers, was broadcast live on various YouTube and TV channels. An online fan club supporting Chun has emerged and several members of the online community have been expressing sympathy for the suffering of “a young, uncorrupted soul” due to the sins of his predecessors.

But there are also many who express caution against the fandom forming around a self-proclaimed drug user. Chun, while in the US, had even live-streamed his drug use.

Regardless of the split opinion on Chun, groups related to the Gwangju Uprising seem to find good in Chun’s intent to apologize for his late grandfather’s crimes.

“Victims of May 18 hold (Chun’s) courage in the highest regard. I speak for the bereaved family when I welcome you (to Gwangju), and please offer sincere apology to the lost souls of May 18,” said Lee Nam, the head of the Seoul division of the May 18 Memorial Injured -- a group of those injured during the uprising.

Jo Jin-tae, the May 18 Memorial Foundation chief who will accompany Chun during the Friday meeting, said in a media interview that he had discussed the matter with the bereaved families who decided that it was worth hearing him out.

“(The bereaved families) saw that the testimonies and claims by (Chun Woo-won) that include calling Chun Doo-hwan a mass murderer has been persistent, not just a one-time thing. In that sense, his testimonies are very significant, and (the families) wish to affirm such sincerity when they talk with him in Gwangju,” he said.

Jo also mentioned that he and Chun plan to discuss the illicit funds that the former president Chun accumulated during his dictatorial rule of South Korea, money that the Chun family have supposedly stashed away.

Before he died, military dictator Chun Doo-hwan was due to pay a fine of 95.6 billion won ($73.4 million) for his various crimes.